People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists. Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars. Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
-Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
“MRS. HUDSON!” Sherlock Holmes, the world’s only consulting detective, was darting about the sitting room of his flat at 221B Baker Street in London, throwing papers and books and pillows and anything else he could get his hands on in a desperate search. “ MRS. HUD-SON !”
The woman in question came scurrying into the parlour, clutching her chest as though in danger of having a heart attack. This was, of course, not a real threat as her heart was in remarkably good condition for a woman of her age.
“Sherlock! What is the matter with you? You gave me such a fright I nearly dropped the vase I was holding.”
“I can’t find my cigarettes!” Sherlock bellowed, his hands flailing as he stepped callously across his armchair to better reach a high bookshelf.
“Well, that’s hardly my problem, is it?” Mrs. Hudson exclaimed. “Do mind the furniture, Sherlock - you’re not meant to climb on the built-ins!”
“It is your problem if you’re the one who took them. You’ve been in here cleaning, I can tell, don’t lie to me!” Sherlock rounded on her, his sharp blue eyes boring directly into her, and pointed an accusatory finger in her direction.
“I haven’t taken your cigarettes, dear, I know you like your dust exactly where it is.” Her tone was lighter, sarcastic, even.
“I just told you not to lie to me!”
“And I don’t have to do what you tell me!” Mrs. Hudson replied smartly. With that, she turned on her heel and sauntered back down the stairs with her nose in the air. She called over her shoulder, “I’m not your housekeeper!”
“If you were, you’d be fired !” he yelled crossly. He had already checked the slipper on the mantle, but he looked again desperately, hoping against hope that he had made a mistake for once. He hadn’t.
“Dear, dear, brother mine,” came the single most annoying voice in Sherlock’s expansive memory. “Getting a little desperate, are we?”
Heaving an impressive sigh, Sherlock whipped around and stared his brother full in the face. “Mycroft. Either give me one of yours or leave.”
“I quit, little brother. Weeks ago.” The fingers of his right hand drummed against the handle of his umbrella and Sherlock smirked.
“You are such a terrible liar, Mycroft, it is truly a wonder that you are still employed.” Sherlock waved a dismissive hand and resumed his search, futile though it may be. “Why are you even here?”
“Your country needs you, Sherlock.”
“Yes, it does.”
“I’m sure it does but that ‘no’ was in answer to your forthcoming question: No, I will not help you. It is boring and you are only here to ‘keep me busy’ on Mummy’s behalf,” Sherlock answered. At that moment, Sherlock’s phone gave a little ding and he practically pounced on it from across the room.
Tower Bridge. It’s a weird one. Will you come? Lestrade ‒ thank the good Lord for Lestrade and his inability to perform his own job.
His face lit up and his hands clapped together ‒ at last, a distraction. “Get out, Mycroft, I have real work to do.”
“It can’t possibly be as important as what I ‒”
“It is to me.” Sherlock swept toward the door, grabbed his Belstaff coat and scarf, and swiftly wrapped himself in his chosen armour. “Especially if it means you will go away.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I will not be gotten rid of so easily,” Mycroft called after his brother, following him down the stairs and out onto the street. “The sooner this trifling ‘ case ’ is solved, the sooner I can get you working on the real issues of the world.”
“I don’t need you to chaperone me, Mycroft. I’m a grown man, I can take care of myself.” Sherlock waved for a cab but, in a cruel show of defiance, none showed.
“Yes, that much is evident by the alarming frequency with which you relapse into your old habits.” Mycroft opened the door of a sleek black town car and gestured for Sherlock to enter. He did not.
“It’s been months since the last one,” Sherlock said defiantly.
“Three months, twenty-one days,” Mycroft clarified. “You know the rules ‒ six months clean and you’re free from my watchful eye.” Sherlock snorted a derisive laugh.
“As I said ‒ a terrible liar.” He got in the car all the same and they started toward the Tower.
It was no challenge to find the crime scene; Scotland Yard had cordoned off a large area on the muddy shoal beneath the South tower. Of course, seeing the commotion, more and more passers-by came to see what was the matter, camera-phones flashing and necks craning all about the scene from the pedestrian path above. It was only eighty-thirty in the morning and already the path was a sea of selfie-sticks and tacky Union Jack souvenir hats.
The scene was the body of a woman in full Victorian dress lying on her side in the rocky mud. That was interesting. She was positioned in rather an unnatural angle, likely having fallen or jumped from the bridge.
“Sherlock, thank God.” Detective Inspector Lestrade poked out from under the crime-scene tape and gestured for Sherlock to come forward. “All these people milling about ‒ we need to get what we can from the scene so we can clean it up.” He was sweating despite the chilly September morning air, clearly nervous about the crowds. “This is your brother, right? What’s he doing here?”
“I am merely keeping an eye on my little brother,” Mycroft answered, an annoyingly-sly smile on his thin lips. “I have a problem which requires his attention and, left to his own devices, he would leave this place and continue ignoring his duty as a British citizen.”
“That is true,” Sherlock said matter-of-factly. He swiftly pulled his magnifier from his pocket and opened it with a snap . He ducked under the tape and set about investigating the body, slipping slightly in the thick sludge as he bent his knees.
Mid-thirties; mousey brown hair beginning to grey around the hairline; four prominent teeth crudely removed several years ago; and a truly offensive odour coming from her clothes and body . The smell wafting into Sherlock’s nostrils was far worse than it should have been given that the woman was only dead for about seven hours. It was the scent of open sewage, body odour, and stagnant water. It nearly made his eyes water, but he pressed on.
Obviously, the most curious element of the scene was the woman’s clothes. She was dressed in the garb of a middle-class Victorian woman, every detail completely authentic. Sherlock examined the stitching - single thread, chain stitch, antique machine in need of repair judging by the skipped stitches. Simple cotton blouse, hoop skirt, black boots worn through at the edges of the soles, threadbare cape and bonnet. Authentic, not reproduction. Interesting, indeed. Her wardrobe was damp where it was soaking in mud, but she had not been pulled from the water. The woman’s hair was mostly dry, her skin was not wrinkled, and there was no telltale swelling from having been submerged in the river. She had come from the street end of the bridge, not far enough out to land in the water.
“Lestrade,” he called out and the inspector was beside him in a flash. “Phone every nearby museum and archive to see if anyone is missing any artifacts.”
“We already did,” he replied, befuddled as ever. “We can’t find anyone who’s missing anything. I’ve got a call in to a re-enactors’ troupe ‒”
“Don’t bother with people who play pretend, these are the real thing.” Sherlock plucked the fabric of her cape aside with two fingers and found the cause of death ‒ a bloody wound in her abdomen from a thin blade which had slipped expertly between her ribs. A pool of blood had dripped onto the ground in front of the woman and there was no sign that anyone had disturbed the blood after the fall. Someone had stabbed this woman and then thrown her over the edge. Why would they do that? A tiny grin flicked over Sherlock’s face and he stared up at the bridge as a cold drizzle began to fall.
“The real thing? How can that ‒ Sherlock!” Lestrade called after him as he darted off toward the stairs leading up to the sidewalk. Leaping over the crime tape, Sherlock flew up the path, his coat flapping behind him. He was practically giddy.
Nosy tourists and onlookers called out to him for details but Sherlock was deaf to their shouts. He was looking for clues. Any clues. He saw no evidence of recent footprints or sign of a weapon to indicate the presence of the killer, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t find something. He always found something. Sherlock dashed up the stone steps and onto the bridge itself. Leaning over the rail, Sherlock quickly determined that from this position, there was not enough height for the body to land so far away in the mud. He spun around, looking for a higher vantage point.
A little sparkle caught his eye ‒ a security camera glinting in the weak sunlight peeking through the light rain. Sherlock dashed around the stone tower to the maintenance door. Locked. Or supposedly. Sherlock whipped out his toolkit and made swift work of the frankly pedestrian mechanism. Up the interior stairs he flew, coming out onto a landing that looked looked over the shore. Perfect angle . Sherlock grabbed the pole of the security camera, clambered up onto the battlements, and revelled in the unencumbered view of the crime scene.
“Sherlock!” Mycroft bellowed from below, his mouth twisted in a furious expression that bore a frightening resemblance to their mother. “Come down from there this instant !”
“Make me!” Sherlock shouted defiantly. Mycroft made a commanding gesture at Lestrade from his mudless perch on the steps and the detective slogged through the muck, clearly intent on fetching Sherlock himself. Sherlock rolled his eyes ‒ as if Mycroft or Lestrade could make him do anything he didn’t want to.
There was a low roll of thunder and a strong gust of wind. Sherlock gripped the pole tighter against the slipping of his Oxford shoes on the rain-slick stone. Perhaps best not to stay up here, after all. He made to hop back down onto the landing when he felt an intense buzzing, akin to static electricity. The sensation took him over, pulsing deep in his bones and sounding deafeningly loud in his ears. Sherlock brought his free hand to his head, trying to dull the thrumming in his skull.
His vision was blurred and there was a bizarre warm feeling running from his lumbar spine through his extremities, not unlike when he was high. Sherlock reached forward with his foot, seeking the edge, and he slipped. Reeling backward, he flailed his arms and dropped into the empty air behind him. Then all was darkness.
The first sensation he recognized was pain. A dull ache throbbed in the back of his head and his fingers gently found the wound ‒ a small abrasion, but enough to have rendered him unconscious for a time. The second sensation was embarrassment. All he needed was for some luddite with a camera phone to post a video of him falling into the mud on YouTube. There was no commotion, though ‒ maybe the crowd was distracted by something else.
“Sir, can you hear me?”
Sherlock opened his eyes and was met with a pair of deep blue irises which were framed by sandy brows furrowed with concern.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m quite fine, thank you,” Sherlock spat, his humiliation getting the better of what few manners he possessed. He made to sit up, but the man above him pressed a warm hand into his chest.
“Don’t move, you could have a serious injury.”
“I’m sure I’m ‒”
“Just stay still. I’m a doctor.” The man gave Sherlock a firm look and he stilled, bringing his hand away from his head to find coagulated blood. The doctor raised a finger in front of Sherlock’s eyes and he diligently followed the digit back and forth with his gaze. “Good. Ocular functions normal. Do you know today’s date?”
Sherlock sighed impatiently. “Twenty-second of September, two-thousand and eighteen.”
“Hmm.” The doctor’s eyes darkened with worry.
“Well, you’ve got the date right, but the year is eighteen-hundred ninety-five.” He gently turned Sherlock’s head between his fingers, the better to see the wound, and Sherlock’s own eyebrows lowered in confusion.
“What did you say?”
“Eighteen-hundred ninety-five,” the doctor repeated. “You could be mildly concussed, but I don’t think the wound is anything to be alarmed over.” He stopped examining Sherlock’s head and held out a gloved hand to help him sit up. It was only then that Sherlock began to take in the details of the man before him.
Five feet, seven inches; one-hundred and fifty pounds; sandy blond hair; blue eyes; full, closely-trimmed beard and moustache. He was clad in a brown tweed three-piece suit complete with a pocket watch and a brown Derby hat. As they stood, Sherlock noticed him grab up a wooden walking stick he had not seen right away. His reflexes were slow ‒ perhaps he was concussed. And twice he had heard the man say that the year was 1895.
“You’re some sort of re-enactor, I suppose?” Sherlock posited.
“Re-enactor of what?” The man appeared genuinely confused, but Sherlock was given to understand that these people could be very committed to their playacting. He rolled his eyes, but flinched when a sharp pain followed the motion of his head. The doctor laid a comforting hand on Sherlock’s bicep before saying, “Let’s get you out of this mud, eh? My name is Doctor John Watson.” He put out a hand and Sherlock took it, giving it a firm shake. Loathe though he was to admit it, the touch gave him a bit of a shudder. Definitely concussed.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mister Holmes, though I wish it were under different circumstances.” Doctor Watson gestured toward the stone stairs and they took off together. “Whatever were you doing in the down here, Mister Holmes?”
“I was searching for the killer,” he answered plainly, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes as he tried to clear his head. Watson’s steps paused and Sherlock stopped as well.
“Yes ‒ the person who killed that woman on the beach.”
“That’s why I’m here!” Watson exclaimed. “I suspect she was killed before being pushed from the bridge ‒ there was a stab wound in her abdomen.”
Sherlock turned to face him fully, impressed. “Yes, there was.”
“Do you work with Scotland Yard?” Watson asked.
“On occasion. And you?”
“On occasion.” They exchanged a smile.
His headache beginning to dissipate, Sherlock glanced upward toward the crime scene. Only there was no crime scene ‒ no tape, no crowd, no ambulance. Only a smattering of men milling about the body in matching blue jackets remained. “Who are those people?”
“Policemen, of course,” answered Watson. “Didn’t you say you worked with them?”
Sherlock did not reply. Instead, he increased his pace until he was several strides ahead of the doctor and nearly upon the scene.
The body was the same. The clothes were the same. The muddy beach was the same. But the few people gathered around to witness the excitement were all very different.
Something was very wrong.