Killing Sherlock

Jill Hand

“I’m terribly sorry, old man, but I’m afraid that I must kill you.”

That was Arthur Doyle addressing Sherlock Holmes — Artie, as I liked to call him with a flirty little wink, just to see him blush.

Sherlock steepled his long fingers under his chin and gave Doyle a chilly grey look that would have done credit to a basilisk.

“Get your revolver, John. Doyle has threatened my life,” he drawled to John Watson, the fourth person in the room. Watson lounged in the basket chair in the room overlooking the street of the flat they shared. It was not located at 221b Baker Street. The address was one I won’t disclose, except to say that it was in London, neither posh Mayfair nor gritty Bermondsey, but somewhere in-between.

John made as if he were about to stand, causing Doyle to look like a panicked walrus. It was mainly the bushy mustache that did it, but there was an undefinable something about Doyle that reminded one of a walrus. Give him tusks and flippers and set him down on the Arctic ice and the walruses might accept him as one of their own.

“No! I didn’t mean that I was actually going to kill him. Good heavens! I meant that I intend to kill the other Sherlock.”

“Your alter ego,” I told Holmes. I tentatively bit into one of the scones that Mrs. Hudson had brought upstairs upon Doyle’s arrival. Mrs. Hudson’s scones were terrible, but I was hungry so I nibbled on one anyway, wondering if she made them out of plaster of Paris as a joke, or if they were intended for decorative purposes only.

“Indeed, Miss Adler,” Doyle said, nodding gratefully to me. “What I meant to say was that I find it necessary to kill the fictional Sherlock Holmes.”

He smiled at me and I smiled back, crossing my legs as I did so. His mouth dropped open at the sight of my bare ankle and six inches of calf.

“Oops!” I said, tugging down the hem of my long, navy blue serge skirt. “I forgot to put on stockings. I forgot to put on drawers, too.”

Watson burst out laughing at that. Sherlock gave a chilly smile as Doyle gasped and turned red. Ladies weren’t supposed to cross their legs, let alone flash bare skin. They certainly weren’t supposed to mention their undergarments (or lack of undergarments) in mixed company.

But what did Doyle expect? Look what he did to me in A Scandal in Bohemia. He made me an adventuress, a seductress. I was “the woman,” the one who beat Sherlock, using her brains as well as her feminine wiles. Since he made me a shady lady in his story I enjoy shocking him.

In reality I’m a research scientist. I was occupied with gathering data on London’s air and water pollution, of which there was a great deal at the time the conversation about killing Sherlock took place. I’ve never even met the King of Bohemia, let along had my picture taken with him. I was never an opera singer, either. My singing isn’t any better than Mrs. Hudson’s baking.

The only true detail in that story in which I play such a prominent role was my place of birth: New Jersey. Paterson, to be precise. The year of my birth wasn’t somewhere around 1855, as is assumed by devotees of the fifty-six short stories and four novels that Doyle wrote about the adventures of the great detective — it was 2234.

You see, John and Sherlock and I are time travelers, as are quite a few people in the twenty-third century, most of them researchers of one kind or another who like poking around in the past. You can imagine how surprised Doyle was when we told him.

“Remarkable. Time travel! It’s like something out of the writings of Monsieur Jules Verne,” he said. He gazed at us in fascination. “I should like to write about you. Not the kind of thing Verne does, but a different kind of tale.”

And so he did, mixing fact with fiction, a little fact to a great deal of fiction. The man had quite an imagination. He claimed to have inherited his talent for spinning tales from his mother, who used to tell him stories when he was a boy in Edinburgh.

John Watson really is a medical doctor, like his fictional namesake. He came to late nineteenth-century London in order to study diseases that no longer exist in the modern world but were rampant back then, nasty things like rhinoviruses that used to cause something called the common cold. I can’t imagine how people were able to put up with all the sneezing and coughing and sore throats, but somehow they did. People who lived long ago must have been made of stern stuff; either that or they just gave up and died young.

There were even nastier diseases than colds floating around back in 1893, the year in which the conversation about killing Sherlock took place, things like smallpox and cholera. John found them absolutely fascinating. He practically danced with excitement when he discovered a case of leprosy in Limehouse, that’s how much he enjoys his work.

Sherlock, of course, was there because John was there. The two of them are inseparable. Theirs is one of the happiest marriages that I know of. You can imagine how Doyle reacted when he found out the nature of their relationship.

“But you seem like such hearty, wholesome fellows,” he sputtered, shocked to his very core. “At least you do,” he told John. “Sherlock is just…”

He paused, at a loss at how to describe him.

“Extraordinary?” Sherlock suggested, adjusting the lapels of his mouse-colored dressing gown.

Artie nodded numbly. “Men getting married to each other. My word! The future must be terribly strange.”

He shook his head regretfully. “My readers will never have that. It would be absolutely scandalous. I might be brought up on criminal charges if I wrote something like that. I shall have to make you devoted friends instead.”

“We are devoted friends, aren’t we, dear?” said Sherlock, drawing John close and giving him a lingering kiss.

I thought Arthur’s eyes were going to pop out of his head. He was chummy with Oscar Wilde, so he wasn’t a homophobe, but the sight of two men kissing wasn’t something he was used to.

Arthur and Sherlock met one day in the summer of 1887 on Blackfriars Bridge. Doyle was gazing morosely out at the river, mopping his forehead with a cotton handkerchief. Lightweight men’s suits had yet to come into fashion in England and he was sweating in his heavy wool trousers, wool vest, and suitcoat. He may have been wistfully thinking of his trip to the Arctic Circle aboard a whaling vessel seven years previously, longing for a bit of that frigid air. Sherlock walked up to him and did that thing he does, the thing he can’t resist doing.

“I see, sir, that you’ve met an old acquaintance, one who’s down on his luck, and had a drink with him. I further deduce that your old acquaintance is a sea-faring man.”

Doyle made his astonished walrus face.

“Good lord! However did you know that?”

“It was simple,” Sherlock smugly replied. He explained that Doyle’s boots had traces of tar on them and there were strands of hemp fiber clinging to the sleeve of his jacket, indicating that he’d been to the docks. There was a piece of pasteboard sticking out of his pocket with a picture of a three-masted schooner and the words HOPE & ANCHOR printed on it, obviously the name of a public house, one frequented by sailors.

He didn’t mention that he could smell the alcohol fumes on Doyle’s breath from five feet away. Sherlock has a nose like a bloodhound.

“You are correct. I ran into an old friend from my days as a ship’s surgeon and stood him to a drink. But however did you know he was down on his luck?”

“By your pocket watch,” Sherlock said.

“I’m not wearing one.”

“But you are accustomed to wearing one,” Sherlock told him, smiling. He absolutely loves playing this game. “There is a circular impression on the watch pocket of your vest, but the watch and chain are absent. You were patting the pocket when I walked up, and looking down at the gold ring you wear on your left hand: a wedding band. You were obviously thinking about how your wife would react to finding out that you’d given your watch and chain to an old acquaintance, one who was too proud to accept money from you but who would take a watch and chain as a gift in memory of old times. How did I do?”

“One-hundred percent correct,” breathed the astonished Doyle. “Who are you, sir?”

Holmes extended his hand. “My name is Sherlock Holmes.”

And that’s how they met. Sherlock brought Arthur home to meet John and me. It wasn’t long before he was writing about us, or rather a fictional version of us.

In our time, the world of the twenty-third century, Sherlock is a consultant who works with businesses, suggesting ways for them to increase their productivity. Sometimes he’s called upon to find out who’s been stealing from them. That last part intrigued Doyle.

“So you solve crimes? You’re a detective?”

“I’m a consultant.”

“But you’re called in to solve crimes. You find the guilty parties and then you hand them over to the police. That makes you a type of detective, a consulting detective.”

“As you will,” Sherlock replied negligently. I might add that he was not smoking a pipe when this conversation took place in the flat that was not in Baker Street. Unlike the fictional Sherlock, he knew tobacco was bad for you, a point on which Doyle disagreed.

“A good pipeful of tobacco does no harm at all. It stimulates the thought processes and strengthens the lungs. I know hordes of men who would sooner go without their dinners than go without their tobacco.”

“That’s because it’s addictive,” put in John. “So is cocaine.”

Doyle agreed that cocaine was not good for one when taken in excess, but on the subject of tobacco he refused to budge. He could be very stubborn, although sometimes we were able to get him to change his mind.

For instance, it was initially his idea to make his great detective’s sidekick Chinese, or as he put it, “a Chinaman, with a long queue and yellow silk robes and a funny way of talking.”

We convinced him to make him an ex-soldier instead, a medical man, like himself and Watson.

“I shall call him John Watson, and make him the narrator of the stories,” he declared. “I’ll make him less clever than Sherlock.”

He gave Watson a sidelong look at that, possibly still bothered by the fact that a doctor from the future had told him tobacco was addictive and harmful to one’s health. Doyle smoked a pipe and cigars.

The four of us collaborated on the Sherlock Holmes stories, with Doyle having the deciding vote on their final form. The stories caused a tremendous sensation. Readers loved the brilliant, eccentric crime-solver who played the violin and jabbed himself with a syringe full of cocaine when he got bored. They couldn’t wait for a new issue of The Strand magazine to come out with another Holmes story.

My own contributions were small ones, aside from my name. I suggested that Holmes keep his tobacco in a Turkish slipper, and that he pin his bills to the mantelpiece with a jack knife. I also gave Doyle the idea of having his detective shoot the Queen’s initials, VR, into the wall of his flat. I accomplished this by shooting the heads off a pair of Staffordshire china dogs while in a state of exasperation.

Doyle was puzzled by the fact that I went about collecting air and water samples. “But it’s good English air!” he protested one afternoon, when an evil, greyish-yellow miasma swirled outside the window, making it impossible for anyone on the streets to see more than three feet in any direction. London’s air pollution problem would eventually result in the Great Smog of December 1952 that killed as many as 12,000 people. Clean air laws were enacted after that, but in Artie’s time, pea soup fogs, or London particulars, as they were called, were accepted matter-of-factly as just another meteorological phenomenon, like rain or snow.

The nature of my work not only baffled him, it concerned him that I went about the streets by myself while collecting my samples. What if I were approached by a ruffian?

“I have these,” I told him, taking a set of brass knuckles and a lead truncheon with a braided leather handle out of my pockets and placing them on the table where the tea things were with small but decisive thumps. “I have this, too,” I added, drawing a tiny, silver-plated revolver from my reticule. The gun was the kind called a “cyclist’s friend.” They were popular with bicyclists, who carried them as protection against savage dogs and tramps.

Doyle chuckled indulgently. “Oh, now really, Miss Adler. That little gun is no more than a toy. It couldn’t do any real damage. It’s not as if you even know how to…”

I took aim at one of a pair of china dogs on the mantelpiece about twelve feet in front of where I stood and blew its head off. I shot its companion’s head off too, to prove that my first shot wasn’t just lucky.

“Here! Who’s shooting?” That was Mrs. Hudson, who’d hurried up the stairs at the sound of gunshots. “My dogs!” she wailed when she saw the decapitated canines. I told her I was sorry and offered to replace them.

“You can’t shoot guns in this house,” she said, stamping a foot clad in a high-button boot. “I won’t have it.”

I apologized again. She took up the tea tray with a sniff and departed.

Doyle was looking at me dazedly. “Remarkable,” he said. “Utterly remarkable.”

We were able to talk him out of some of his more outlandish plots for Sherlock Holmes stories. For instance, he wanted Holmes to lose his memory and arrange for a gang of criminals to steal the crown jewels, believing himself to be his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Most of his tales were excellent, but he admitted when The Blue Carbuncle came out in the January 1892 issue of The Strand that he was running out of ideas.

“They wanted something with a Christmas theme, and I thought of having a Christmas goose swallow a valuable gem, but it’s not my best work,” he told us glumly as we sat around the table drinking tea and dispiritedly poking at plates of Mrs. Hudson’s horrible plum pudding. “I’ve had my fill of Holmes. I feel about him as I did about pâté de foie gras after I ate too much of it. I can’t stand the stuff now. The name of it gives me a sickly feeling.”

Mrs. Hudson entered the room at that point, catching John in the act of tipping the contents of his plate out the window. “I slaved over that pudding,” she told him with narrowed eyes. “I thought I’d give you a nice treat, but I see that I needn’t have bothered.”

“I like your pudding, Mrs. Hudson,” I told her.

“Don’t tell lies, Irene,” Sherlock said. He swallowed a forkful of pudding and gave Mrs. Hudson an adoring look. “Delicious! I appreciate your cooking, even if Watson and Miss Adler don’t.”

She harrumphed and turned to Doyle, her hands on her hips. “What’s this about you tiring of Sherlock Holmes? He’s wonderful! You can’t be thinking of giving him up.”

“Dear lady…” Doyle began, but she cut him off. “I don’t just like the stories because the housekeeper has my name (not that I am the housekeeper. I’m their landlady, a fact that they always seem to forget when they want somebody to make their tea.) I like them because they’re good. If you stop writing about Sherlock Holmes the public will be furious.”

She was right, but that came later.

Doyle was into Spiritualism. He’d asked us many times if the people of the future embraced it, and whether proof of life after death had been discovered by our time. We refused to comment. We wouldn’t tell him any details about the world of the future, no matter how much he begged us.

“At least tell me whether the future is better or worse than the world of today.”

“In some ways it’s better, in some ways it’s worse,” John replied, evasively but truthfully.

“Well, I think it will be better,” Doyle declared. “I believe the people of the future will be Spiritualists. They will have the comfort of knowing that their departed loved ones live on, in the happy Summerland beyond the veil.”

Despite his mother’s objections to him killing off the great detective (Mary Doyle, like Mrs. Hudson and thousands of others, was a rabid fan of the Holmes stories), Artie decided there’d be a final Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective met his end. After that, he planned to devote himself to writing about Spiritualism. He began mulling over ways in which to dispose of Holmes. So far he’d come up with having him blown up by a bomb, run over by a Benz Patent Motorwagen driven by Moriarty, or being eaten by a tiger.

None of those sounded good to me. Doyle eagerly leaped on my suggestion that he have Holmes engage in a battle to the death with his archenemy in which they both would die.

“What a capital idea, Miss Adler! That way, I shan’t be pestered by people who want me to write about Moriarty’s nefarious activities after Holmes has gone to his final reward, and beg me to create some other champion to match wits with him. I shall have to think of a means of killing them both off, two for the price of one, you might say.”

Our visit to the past concluded, John, Sherlock and I wrapped up our work and returned to our time, the world of the twenty-third century. It took considerable adjustment after we’d been gone for nearly six years. While I didn’t miss the smells and the appalling poverty that I’d witnessed in parts of the East End, I missed the sound of horses’ hooves and carriage wheels in the streets, and the leisurely pace of life back then.

Weeks went by. I was working on a paper about the research I’d done on air pollution in late nineteenth-century London one morning when Sherlock dropped by for a visit. He’s not in the habit of visiting without John and I wondered why he’d come. Strange to relate, he seemed nervous. Sherlock was never nervous. I wondered what was going on.

“I have something for you,” he said, after he’d seated himself and declined an offer of a cup of tea. He shifted around in the chair, crossing and uncrossing his long legs before withdrawing a sealed envelope from an inner pocket of his jacket and passing it to me. Miss Irene Adler was written on the front in a neat handwriting that I recognized as Doyle’s.

“I didn’t open it,” Sherlock assured me. “The contents, I believe, are highly personal. Doyle asked me to pass it on to you after we’d returned to our time. I suspect he was too shy to give it to you himself.” He gave one of his thin smiles and sat back in his chair, waiting for me to read what was inside.

I opened the envelope and withdrew a single sheet of heavy linen paper. My dear Miss Adler, it began. You have gone far away to a place where I cannot follow. If you will pardon a touch of melodrama, by the time you read this I will be dust. I devoutly hope that I shall have entered into the happy land beyond the veil that awaits all of those who have lived honourable lives and who have done their duty to the best of their ability. I look forward to meeting you again in the land where there is no time. It is with the greatest admiration and devotion that I say that to me, you will always be “the woman.” Yours, Arthur. P.S. It may amuse you to know that I had my great detective meet his end by going over a waterfall. It was your description of the Great Falls in your native Paterson that gave me the idea. I remember you speaking of them, just as I remember everything you ever said to me, my very dear Miss Adler.

Sherlock watched as I finished reading and folded the letter back into the envelope. “He loved you,” he said gently. He passed me a handkerchief and I blotted my tears.

“You knew?” He nodded his head.

I hadn’t known. I’d thought of him simply as Artie, gentlemanly, a little stodgy, someone at whom I’d liked to poke fun. Certainly no one in whom one would suspect the fires of unrequited passion burned. I asked Sherlock how he knew when I hadn’t.

“I notice everything,” he said. “I’m Sherlock Holmes; it’s what I do.” He waited for me to blow my nose before continuing. “Unrequited love can be painful, but in Arthur’s case, the love he felt for you brought him great joy. He knew you didn’t love him, but he was happy when you teased him and called him Artie and made him blush. He was quite a singular gentleman. Did you know that he wrote a book declaring his belief in fairies?”

“No? Really?” The thought made me smile.

“Indeed,” Sherlock replied. “He brought my alter ego back, too, just as I suspected he would.” He gave a cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smile. “I inspired him, you know, not that Joseph Bell fellow. It was me, Sherlock Holmes.”

JILL HAND lives in East Brunswick, Her science fiction/fantasy novella, The Blue Horse, was released Oct. 31, 2015 by Kellan Publishing. Her work has appeared recently in Bewildering Stories; Cease, Cows; Jersey Devil Press; New Realm and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Fiction, among others