New Year’s Eve of 1888 brought to London a sense of anticipation, calm, and beauty combined. Anticipation existed in that the city was hopeful the year 1889 would bring new advances in our rapidly changing world, and that I was eager for new cases to occupy the indefatigable mind of my friend. Secondly, an eerie calm paradoxically layered over the rooftops, stretching from our lodgings at 221B Baker Street to the vestibule of St. James and to the spires of Westminster. Looking out our window, I cracked it a smidgen to inhale the cold night air, its constant companions the fog and chimney smoke of thousands of grates spreading over the horizon and the quietness that pervaded the city at the late hour. This view constituted my last point of the evening; it was a beautiful night.
Holmes and I had hosted a small party of guests for the occasion in our chambers. The idea was a combination of Mrs. Hudson’s and mine. My roommate, at first, was against the idea, saying he needed rest upon the completion of his most recent case; one that involved the stolen emeralds of the Duke of York’s wife and the apprehension of the kleptomaniacal son of a member of the House of Lords.
“Surely, Holmes, you can do with a little celebration after your recent accomplishment,” I said, attempting to staunch his misgivings. “After all, it is the new year, and Mrs. Hudson’s daughter and her new husband will be visiting.”
Here, Holmes shot a glance at me from his armchair near the mantelpiece. The fire cast a gleam in his eye, which he hid well, for it was gone in a split second. But I caught it in that flash. Holmes had been a bit unpleasant to our poor landlady in the weeks leading up to the Duke of York’s case. It was his habit to be pouty and rude to both myself and even more so to Mrs. Hudson when there was no work or puzzle to occupy his brilliant, investigatory brain, or when there was difficulty in the solving of one.
During this period of doldrums, Holmes had been restless in his study of the native tribesmen of the Southern Americas as well as New Guinea. He even went so far to, on more than one occasion, emulate the same dress as these indigenous peoples, and had terrified the tolerant woman more than once. One particular instance occurred after I had gone to bed as Holmes started up his violin playing (I was used to his antics and learned to sleep through his spasmodic rehearsing). Well, it had turned out Holmes had played far past his usual late hour, only to incite the wrath of Mrs. Hudson. Imagine our landlady’s surprise as she trounced up the stairs at three in the morning and upon flinging open our anteroom door, witnessed her pale half-naked tenant dressed as an Amazonian huntsman playing the violin, using a dart blowgun as the bow. Needless to say, if the scream hadn’t already woken me up, it would have been the shouting match that ensued.
In my blurry state, I managed to calm down lessor and renter, saying that it would be a miracle already if Lestrade hadn’t been dispatched with his constables to our residence. Both parties, to my great relief, went to bed. But it occurred to me that Holmes had acted rather rudely towards Mrs. Hudson, and I never did witness an apology.
I believe this had inhabited the peripheries of Holmes’s thoughts for he replied in a conciliatory tone to my New Year’s plans. “Perhaps you are right, Watson,” he said, steepling his fingers, elbows on the arms of his chair. “I fear I have rather taxed Mrs. Hudson recently and owe it to her to remedy my misbehavior.”
“So you are for our little celebration, Holmes?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“As much as social gatherings vex me, I think it wise to throw a small soiree in our quarters.”
“Very good, Holmes. Mrs. Hudson and I would be delighted.”
And so here we were on the second floor in our meeting room enjoying companionship and cheer for the new year. I had invited friends of mine, a Dr. Michael Huddleston and his wife Lucy, a charming woman who knew much of London’s goings on. Michael’s practice was adjacent to mine on Harley Street and the two of us got on well with our common occupations and shared views on many a matter, both political and social. Also in attendance were Daniel Ives and his new wife, Mrs. Hudson’s kind and enthusiastic daughter, Amelia. Both had made their way to London from Devonshire, and Mrs. Hudson was beaming, blissfully content to see her daughter happily married to such an agreeable young man in the textile trade. Holmes, I could tell, had been more sociable than usual to our landlady, and I gathered that his acquiescence and demeanor had mended the rift between them.
The seven of us made a fine party, and all were in good disposition. Mrs. Hudson had brought up cakes and pastries, some of which were made by Amelia in the kitchen downstairs. Lucy made an exquisite fish pie, of which I had more than my normal portion. And even Holmes had provided punch and chocolates. After our piecemeal dishes were served, we sat around in discussion, keeping our eye to the hour. The clock on the mantle neared midnight, and I stifled a yawn and could tell that others were fighting off somnolency. The evening meal and many helpings of punch were taking effect. If it wasn’t for the intriguing conversation between my two friends, I fear I would have dozed.
“It is amazing, still, you must admit Mr. Holmes,” Michael stated. “This new telephone system improves with each passing day. In fact, I wonder if you yourself owned such a contraption could you be able to wish the Queen herself at the tolling of the hour a “happy new year” and could you hear her reply.”
“The technology is getting there, Dr. Huddleston,” Holmes said, “but I fear even if I was to get through to her majesty, she would not hear me, for surely the fireworks over the Thames at the Royal New Years Jubilee would drown out my frail voice.”
The room chuckled, and my heart warmed at seeing such a happy young couple along with the mirth of their matriarch. My small revelry was interrupted by a cry from Lucy, who grabbed her husband’s arm and shook it from the settee. “Look, Michael,” she said. “Look, everyone. The hour approaches!” She pointed at the clock, and sure enough, we were within thirty seconds of January 1st.
At ten seconds till, we counted down the time, and I noticed Holmes roll his eyes as he saw me look his way. Yet even he mimed the tradition, if not for Mrs. Hudson’s sake. Midnight struck, toasts were made, the two groups of lovers kissed, and Michael and I broke out into song. Upon finishing our jolly Auld Lang Song, there was a knock on our apartment door.
“Who could that be at this hour?” I said. I approached the door, cracking it to find a darkly-clad man bundled in his greatcoat and holding an envelope. Holmes had walked up beside me, and I opened the door wider. “A happy new year to you,” I said by rote. “Can I help you?”
“Yes sir,” he said. “I’ve a letter for a Mr. Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. John H. Watson. Might that be you, gentlemen?”
“Indeed,” I said, taking the letter, eyeing Holmes dubiously.
Holmes looked past me. “Don’t open it, Watson. I want this man to know that I already know exactly the contents of this letter.”
“You do?” I asked, nonplussed.
“Furthermore,” Holmes continued, “the real intent of this letter is to distract you and I.”
As soon as Holmes said this, the man at the door reached into his coat pocket.
“You can try to conjure imaginative bullets, sir,” Holmes said with his palms upward in a gesture of futility, “but I fear they will not serve your role as the Ripper’s agent.”
The assailant levelled up his pulled pistol, hesitant. I instinctively froze as Holmes held up a hand for me to do so.
“What are you getting at?” the assailant said.
There were noises of gasps and questioning from our guests, who by this time took notice of our ill-intentioned visitor.
“There is no need to fret,” Holmes said loudly, in a commandingly calm tenor.
“Oh, but there is,” said the assailant with a grim smile, “Say goodnight.”
“You fool,” Holmes glared at him, “I had your firearm replaced this very afternoon.”
The assailant fired. Click, click, click. There was no gunshot. I was utterly baffled as I flinched at each sound.
The man immediately about-faced, running down our stairs. I made to chase, but Holmes grabbed my arm. “No need, Watson. You hear that scuffle below? That’ll be Lestrade and his constables apprehending our offender on our porchway.”
“What do you mean, Holmes? What is this all about?”
My questioning was reinforced by the urgings of our guests who stood pale faced despite the glow of the waning flames in our fireplace.
“Please, all of you relax,” Holmes said. “I can assure you all is well. See there below, Lestrade is just now escorting our would-be assassin via locked carriage to one of the Yard’s gaols.”
He spun around and motioned us to all sit in our previous seats. I was quite irritated with him but also so confused I blankly walked behind the couch. My nerves were so rattled, I opted to stand behind the sofa.
“You may know,” Holmes began, “that the Yard’s struggles to discover the killer behind the Ripper murders has led them to enlist my help. I had been investigating the case long before they asked me, but once my official role became known in certain spheres, I knew the killer would try and address it. This so-called Ripper, despite his utter barbarism, is a cunning individual, someone who does, must, not want to be caught. As such, I knew he would make a move to take me out.”
“But Holmes,” I said, “the letter that you are holding is addressed to both of us.”
“Quite right, Watson. Our killer hired this agent to kill only me. He wanted you to bear witness to my demise, close up, in the hope you would write about your experience, or at the very least be reluctant to involve yourself in further investigations.”
“How did you know this man was not the Ripper himself?” I said.
“Our foe does not work that way. This is far too exposed. He works only in the shadows and will continue to spread the wings of his darkness therein.”
“Will he strike again?” Mrs. Hudson asked, shakily.
“He may try,” Holmes said, “but I have on my side a few allies that would make him think twice. You see, when I first discovered our assailant was following me about the city, I enlisted my young minions. You may call them dirty boys and mischievous girls, street urchins, but to me they are my irregulars—loyal soldiers who can slip into most places undetected, uncover secrets, and execute strategies. Once they discovered where this agent lived, it was easy to have young Mickey slip in here and there, discover the exact model of pistol, and replace it with one that held blanks.”
“Another ally is my brother Mycroft. As you know, he is quite up there in his work in matters of government. He provides the occasional spy her majesty can spare, and I am quite certain their skills supersede those of our talented yet lacking Lestrade.”
Here, Holmes paused, looking at the letter in his hand, then continued. “This letter has nothing written on it, unlike the cryptic notes our foe leaves around his slayings, which I hope to end once and for all in this new year.”
“Here, here,” Michael said, raising his glass. Our guests and myself also voiced agreement, but I could tell there was a troubled split-second movement in Holmes’s face as he said it. Was that a flash of doubt? Hesitancy in solving the case of the century? As with most of Holmes’s mystic persona, I could not fathom the reason.
“Now, if you are all agreeable,” Holmes said grabbing an empty glass, “let us have a nightcap to settle our nerves and end the night in an accustomed manner of cheer without fear. Lestrade has been generous in leaving two constables as sentries on our nook of the street. So drink up.”
As punch was served and conversations resumed, Holmes spoke to me quietly. “I am rather glad you threw this gathering, Watson. Please know, I agreed to it in the full knowledge that no harm would come to any of you.”
“As you say, Holmes, I know your methods, though they still leave me in the dark. May I ask a candid question?”
“Certainly, my friend.”
“Could it be that your eccentric behavior of late toward Mrs. Hudson has to do with the difficulty in this case, which has dragged longer than most? You made quick work of unmasking the emerald thief—did you take that to distract yourself from the Ripper?”
“Here, you see through me, Watson.” Holmes smiled. “Though the emerald case was more of a distraction for the Ripper than for myself. He knows I will not stop until he stops, yet I wanted to see what he would do. You may be perplexed by my studies of the Amazonian or New Guinea hunters. But I ask you, how do you catch an evasive prey?”
“You learn from the best hunters,” I ventured.
“Precisely. So what appeared to you as me not working, was actually me working.”
“Ah,” I said, sipping the last of my punch.
“I really must keep myself in check, Watson. This case, as you see, brings me to bleak moods, and I do not like mistreating you or Mrs. Hudson.”
“We all act out when under great stress, Holmes.”
“Indeed, Watson. And for one of the first times in my life, I must learn to cope. I hope my year’s resolutions bring progress, for I fear with this new foe, I have met my match.”
Nolan has been published in Foliate Oak, Aphelion, Points in Case, The Copperfield Review, and others. He’s worked with editors from TOR/Forge; Random House; Folio Literary; and Dijkstra Agency. Under a pen name, he self-published an Epic Fantasy novel, full of kingdoms and conflicts. An avid reader, he has recently been devouring fiction set in the 18th and 19th centuries.