I've found myself writing quite a few darker stories recently so I decided to do something a little lighter for this week's prompt. With the combination of my short story group using "Whodunit" as their weekly challenge theme and me having recently read "The Blue Carbunkle" to my son as a bedtime story, I felt inspired. Though I don't normally write fanfic, I thought this story would be fun and I can rarely resist the temptation of trying to mimic another author's writing style.
Anyway, I hope everyone enjoys it. I would love some feedback. And I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season!
"The Dirty Letter"
by James J Meadows III
It was a typical cool spring day in London, during the year of 1884, when the rounds of my practice drew me past Baker Street and the quarters I once shared with my illustrious colleague Sherlock Holmes. Finding myself with an hour or so before my next appointment, I decided to drop in upon my friend and catch up on recent events. My appearance found Holmes bent low above his desk, intent upon the study of a small parcel of folded parchment. He looked up as I entered, his face flushed with delight.
“Ah, Watson,” he cried. “Come in! Come in!”
“I perceive, I am interrupting,” I said. “Perhaps I should return at a later time. You are no doubt employed upon a case at present.”
Holmes gave a laugh then gestured toward my customary armchair beside the fireplace.
“Not at all,” he said. “Please stay. I always enjoy having my chronicler partake of my cases, though I doubt my current case will be much for your records.”
I took my seat beside the fire, basking in its glow. The long morning spent traversing through the crisp spring air, though refreshing, was far from ideal for a man of my constitution. I found myself quite grateful for a momentary escape from its icy chill. I turned back to Holmes and leaned my cane upon the table beside me.
“So, you are employed upon a case, then?” I asked.
“Not employed upon one at present,” he answered. “I have merely the prospect of one, promised by the words of this note, whose associated case may or may not prove to be of interest to me. In the meantime, however, I am dedicated to the much more instructive challenge of deducing what can be learned about the author of this note and solving those mysteries within our power to answer concerning the writer’s identity.”
He held up the parchment with his typical flourish before tossing it to me in a laissez-faire manner.
“Tell me, Watson,” he said. “What do you make of it?”
I caught the parcel in my hands. It turned out to be an envelope, composed of fairly inexpensive paper and labeled with a stamp showing a small white rose. A folded note lay stuffed inside the envelope, which I now extracted with appropriate care, lest an inadvertent slip cause me to damage or distort some trace of evidence otherwise useful in unraveling this mystery. The note was composed of similarly cheap paper, badly smeared with foul-smelling dirt, and written in a messy scrawl. Upon its surface, I read the words:
Dr. Mr. Holmes,
I need your help on an emportint problem. I will arrive at your house at 11 o clock.
I looked back at Holmes. He had now lit his pipe and sat smiling across from me with the familiar mischievous expression that often marked his more playful moods.
“Well, Watson, you know my methods,” he said. “What do you make of it?”
Lifting the note close to my eyes, I scrutinized the document, attempting to use the tactics I had more than once seen employed by my companion. For several minutes I stared at its messy surface looking for the slightest clue on its page. At length, I lowered it and handed the note back to him.
“I can make out very little, I’m afraid,” I answered. “The writing is untidy and unsteady, perhaps from the hand of someone intoxicated with too much drink. That might also explain the misspellings and the bizarre odor which seems to hang over the page.”
“Ah,” Holmes said smiling, “You have made some very interesting observations. I am afraid, however, that you have missed the items of particular importance and, in so doing, have drawn some erroneous conclusions.”
“What do you read then,” I asked reproachfully.
“I have only taken a precursory glance at it, so far,” Holmes answered. “Yet, from my abbreviated study, I suspect we shall find the author to be a rather careless, left-handed child,” Holmes answered. “One who is from the area of Yorkshire, lives on a farm, and spends a great deal of time outside tending animals.”
“Surely you jest, Holmes,” I exclaimed, “How can you come up with all that from just this simple letter.”
“Come, my dear, Watson,” Holmes replied, with the air of a man long-suffering. “Even after I have told you the conclusions can you still not see the simplicity of the inferences? Once I explain it to you, I am sure you will, no doubt, see them and say the entire supposition was plain as day. Then I will find myself relegated to the role of just another circus-style charlatan!”
My companion often went on such rants when forced to reveal the source of his conclusions. I waited patiently for him to finish, knowing his somewhat theatrical manner would be unable to resist the temptation of displaying his art.
“The most important clue is the stamp,” Holmes said, at last, indicating the image of a white flower stamped upon the envelope. “These generally show a symbol important to the region where they are printed. The white rose is the emblem of the county of Yorkshire. There are few major cities in Yorkshire, as the country is relatively unspoiled, and the majority of its citizens live on farms. The possibility of our mysterious author living on such a stead is advanced by the regular smears of dirt. Further, the dirt possesses a strange smell, indicative of the mud and grime associated with animal pens and stables. This suggests our author raises animals, furthering the suggestion of a farm. Finally, someone who works outside with animals is most likely male.”
“Well, that is simple enough,” I agreed. “What about the left-handedness and carelessness?”
“The dirt,” he responded, gesturing toward the letter. “The dirt is on top of the ink. This means their hand hit the ink after it finished writing the words. Such smears are a clear sign of left-handedness since the side of a left-hander's palm passes over their writing while the right-hander’s palm moves across the page before the writing. Carelessness is indicated by the fact that he drags his hand across the page as he writes, leaving these dirty smears, rather than making the effort to lift his hand up to avoid contacting the ink. It is further emphasized by his forgetting to add the apostrophe in the word, ‘o’clock’.”
“But a man could make those same mistakes,” I responded. “Why must the author be a child?”
“Because the writing is not rushed and yet the scrawl is untidy,” Holmes answered. “You will notice how hard he presses on the paper. Pressing that hard on the paper requires a great deal of effort and involves writing very slowly. Someone writing in a hurry would not take so long and press so hard. Only a child, trying to steady his hand as he works on making the unfamiliar letters, would press so hard and still produce such shaky writing.”
“Could he not simply be a drunkard, making an effort to steady a shaky hand,” I asked.
“That would be a reasonable suggestion, except that even while intoxicated, a drunkard, who is stable enough to write a coherent letter, will know how to spell the word, ‘important’. The word is quite a common one used in correspondence. It is much more likely the author is a child, who, lacking more advanced education, simply guessed at the spelling of a word he hadn’t previously written.”
“You have an answer for everything,” I replied. “What do you suppose he wants?”
“That, I believe, we will find out shortly,” Holmes answered, “For, unless I am greatly mistaken, that is his ring upon the bell.”
As he spoke, the doorbell rang. I heard Ms. Hudson’s steps as she crossed the room to open the door. No sooner did the door below issue its opening creak than a cry of dismay arose from the lips of our landlady. The visitor’s footsteps raced past her without the slightest hesitation or invitation to enter. This sound was soon followed by the noise of light feet scurrying up the stairs. Upon the following instant, we found the door to the chamber flung open and a little boy rushing inside.
He wore the poor clothing of a farmer and carried a long crooked staff in his hands.
“Mister Holmes,” the boy cried desperately. “You must help me. My name is Bo Peep. I’ve lost my sheep and I don’t know where to find them!”