Mom kept pestering me to write a Sherlock Holmes short story about the Baker Street Irregulars. I gifted this to her for Christmas this year.
Snow pummels the high street, dampening the back of my tattered trousers, the hole in my left boot sticking to wet cobblestones. I slip on uneven ground, catch myself, and bolt for Baker Street. I round the corner—and barrel straight into a hunched old traveler. “See here,” he snaps, “you can’t just knock people about!”
“Let go of me, Mister, I got business!” I wriggle to free myself from scrawny fingers, nails blackened from coal-work.
“Business?” he crows, teeth half missing, fierce brows drawn over a bulbous nose, “what business you got ‘round here? Ain’t nothing this lot wants with a scruffy urchin boy! Get off with you!” He shoves me in the direction I came, knobby knees knocking together, a burlap sack of coal at his feet.
Offended, I say, “I got more right’s ‘round here than you!” and aim a kick at his shins, darting for the door. The shiny placard reads 221B. I can smell Mrs. Hudson’s Christmas cooking from the street, the emptiness of my stomach gnawing my insides. “If’n ya don’t clear off, mister, I’ll set Mister Holmes’ dog on ya!”
“Oh, you will, will you?” Scraggly brows raise over dark eyes. “Has a mean dog, has he, this Mister Holmes?”
I straighten a threadbare jacket over an equally thin waistcoat. “Yeah, a right big hound, and he won’t be likin’ yer stoppin’ me, neither!”
“Important man, Mister Holmes?” he presses, fingering coal.
My jaw drops, horrified this here fool ain’t never heard of the greatest detective there is. I spy out the wharfs for him, and he pays me a shilling now and again, and I’ve just spent all afternoon on the watch for a seaman with a shaved head and busted knee like he said. “Ain’t you know nothin’?” I ask. “Where you from, anyway?”
“Here an’ there,” he says. “Best be off to him then, hadn’t ya?”
White flakes fill the alley, crunching underfoot. I make it five steps further before a tingle of suspicion creeps up my spine, slowing my steps. I turn a suspicious eye as he slings the gunny sack over his back. “Here now, you’re not foolin’ with me, are you, Mister Holmes?”
The raspy voice thins into a weedy one, familiar eyes twinkling beneath the misshapen disguise. “Wiggins, I told you to look sharpish! What lies! You know very well the dog isn’t mine, and his nose is more important than his teeth. Now, come along, keep up, I haven’t got much time. Did you find our villain?”
I fall into step with him, the limp vanished, stride long, trying to make out the lines of his angular nose underneath the makeup. “Yes, sir, and he went to wharf six, just as you said, and bought a boat for this evening, at half past six, and that’s when I came to fetch you!” He breaks into a run, my arms pumping to keep up with him. “Have you got a pistol, sir? Hadn’t you better fetch Doctor Watson?”
Holmes peers around a filthy corner across the wharf, distant dogs barking, delicious scents wafting from opening and closing doors, tattered beggars huddled in corners, my own meager berth not far, an empty place in the crypts. I keep a candle there, and a blanket I hide among the bones so’s no one steals it, and a tin with old buttons and string. I ain’t got nothin’ else.
“Watson’s shut up safe and warm at home with his wife, where he ought to be,” he says, sadly. Though he’d never admit it, he misses Doctor Watson, married nine months now.
“There he is,” Holmes says under his breath, “with Lady Hubert’s diamond too, or my name isn’t…” He glances at me, a twinkle in his eye, thin lips twitching. “Steer clear of him, hear me, Wiggins? I haven’t got time for nonsense. He’s slit two throats already. Run to the high street and signal Inspector Lestrade. He’s in a hansom cab parked under the street lamp. Tell him I have the fiend in sight, and to send two policemen down the other side. Then, go to Baker Street and stay there. I’ll have a shilling for you.”
I nod and do as he says, the beady-eyed inspector hastening down the lane. Snow falls thicker as I turn toward Baker Street, hesitating. Mister Holmes ought not to be alone. I turn back as the seaman barrels out the alley mouth, crashing into me. Holmes shouts, “Don’t let him escape!” in the distance. I kick the fiend in the shins, causing him to smack me upside the head so hard my vision blurs. Rough hands shove me off the dock. I plunge into freezing water, losing my cap, choking as I surface. Footsteps pound cobblestones, policeman shouting as I go under. Lights flicker overhead, the cold eating my bones. I expect to drown, ain’t never been much good at swimmin’.
Then a strong hand grasps the scruff of my collar, hauling me up, Holmes dragging me onto the dock. “Wiggins, you fool!” Concern darkens a gray gaze, the faint hue of streetlights hollowing out thin cheeks, slapping me on the back so’s I cough up the Thames. I can hardly believe he went after me, over his fiend. “Swallow that, you’ll be in poor shape,” he says.
I lay there coughing on a frozen wharf as boots approach, Lestrade saying, “We got him.”
“You’ll find it sewn into the hat lining,” Holmes says, dragging me afoot. “Fetch me that cab.”
I drip water on its leather seat, shivering so hard my teeth rattle, despite his grubby coat about my shoulders, fingers cramping. Baker Street’s lights shine out into the snowfall, Mrs. Hudson greeting us at the door. I’m not warm until stripped, wrapped in a blanket, and seated at the fireside, my eyes flickering across Holmes’ rooms, a horrendous mess of newspapers, clippings, files, discarded shoes, chemical experiments, wigs, match-boxes, and pipes. He emerges from the side room, free of disguise, back to his usual flinty-eyed self. He’s so tall, I fear I’ll never be able to look him in the eye, removing tobacco from the Persian slipper on the hearth. We sit together in silence, clouds of smoke rising from the pipe, long fingers resting on either side, eyes half shut, the fire flickering, roasted goose wafting from the kitchen.
“How’d you know, Mister Holmes,” I ask, “that it’d be in his hat lining?”
He looks at me through slits. “We chased him into a side street. He might have got away, if he’d not stopped to retrieve his hat. Why, when you can buy a proper hat for a few pennies on any street corner, would you risk being caught, if not that the most precious thing in the world to you lies within it?”
Mrs. Hudson brings up dinner. I feel my clothes on the grate, sad to find them dry. I dress behind a screen, reluctantly emerging. I head for the door.
“Where are you off to, Wiggins?” Holmes barks. Seated at the small table, he kicks Watson’s chair out several inches with his foot. I stare at him, amazed, as he slices open the goose. I slip into the chair, mouth watering as he puts meat and fruit on my plate. I eat, trying not to stare at him, often looking at his deerstalker cap on the wingchair. They drew a picture of him in it for The Strand. I couldn’t afford a copy, but found a torn one in the gutter. The picture is folded in my box. Someday, when I have more than a few shillings in my pocket, and a warm bed to go home to, I’ll buy a deerstalker like Mister Holmes’.
After, stuffed with pie and a bit of wine, I think of my cold crypt and sigh. “Best be off,” I say, “a’fore the priest locks the church gate.”
Holmes feels about in his dressing gown and says, “I haven’t a shilling. You’ll have to wait until morning. The settee is warm enough, but you’ll have to stoke the fire. Can’t be helped. Bank won’t open until after breakfast.”
I stare at the settee as if invited to sleep on a jewel-encrusted throne. Holmes shoves back his chair, moving to the window. Snow swirls behind him, silhouetted in candlelight. After a time, he says, “It seems the right night for it,” and takes out his violin. A divine look comes over the sharply-defined face, eyes softened, his soul elsewhere as long, thin fingers draw forth glorious, haunting music, a Christmas hymn. I don’t know the words, but it puts a lump in my throat. Once finished, he puts it away in its golden case and shuts the bedroom door behind him.
He sends me away after breakfast with a shilling and something else he says he ain’t got no use for. Heart as full as my belly, money jangling in my pocket, I pause to admire his deerstalker’s reflection in a shop window. It doesn’t fit, not yet, but it will someday.
I’m blessed to know Mister Holmes.