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Trade Paperback
240 pages
Oct 2006
Salt Works

An Opened Grave: Sherlock Holmes Investigates His Ultimate Case

by L. Frank James

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Dear Devoted Reader:

It is with a cautious yet resolute hand that I pick up my pen in order to relate to you this most remarkable episode in the extraordinary life of the world’s most famous consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Knowing full well that the scope and magnitude of the following account is likely to arouse skepticism in the mind of the reader, I can only call upon the indisputable eyewitness by stating quite simply that I was there. I saw and actually participated in the unfolding of the entire adventure. Admittedly, the idea of engaging in a face-to-face meeting with Jesus of Nazareth is a concept that, even now, is difficult to completely accept.

Due to the seemingly unbelievable nature of the following investigation, I lean heavily upon the reputation of the writer, myself, as being honest and forthright regarding the retelling of many such strange cases in the life of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I run the risk of repeating myself when I say, without doubt, that this adventure is unique. May history and time be my greatest judges.

Allowing for the fact that some period of time has passed since the events of this plot have taken place, they can now be written down. I assure those interested in such things that a certain amount of objectivity has replaced the initial passion related to the chain of events about to be recounted. Although, to date, this is the most important chapter in the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, it is probably not the last due to the ongoing and renewed life which was affected by the events of this study, this study in truth, if you will.

Upon occasion, my companion has reprimanded me for recounting his adventures with more than purely scientific intent. He has often prohibited me from documenting his efforts because of, as he refers to it, my tendency to sensationalize them. Looking through my notebook, I can easily find a dozen intriguing cases that justify the time and effort it would take to commit them to paper. There is the unique case of the Howard Stage, where Mr. Holmes’ acting ability earned him the praise of the entire West End artistic community. Artificial intelligence was advanced with the incident of the Mechanical Man. The notable adventure of the Missing Topper made him the object of conversation around every breakfast table on the continent. However, all of these impressive triumphs pale by comparison to the incident I am about to unfold. Because of the unusual nature of the subject of investigation and the impact it enjoyed upon my cohort and me, Mr. Sherlock Holmes heartily encouraged its communication.

I lay this adventure at the feet of the devoted followers of the great detective and request only that opinions be withheld until the last word is read and the final intention is understood. Avoiding the notoriety of exaggeration, I seek only the solace of truth and reason, something that my leading man has always insisted upon. With these reservations issued, may it please the reader to accept the offering of this strange yet wonderful mystery.


Dr. J. H. Watson

Chapter 1

An Early-Morning Vigil

Upon arriving at the appointed place I received, instead of clarity, more mystery.

—Dr. J. H. Watson

It was the autumn of 1908 that found me busy in the Great City with my medical practice. The cesspool of mankind, known as London, had grown in size and stature as well as human need. Being a doctor, I was continually occupied with individual suffering.

On a daily basis, my office was filled with patients claiming to have every conceivable disorder known to man, both real and imagined. For a medical practice, I am not sure which is worse: a hypochondriac who pays his bills or an authentically ill person who does not. One might speculate that the pace of urban life, the rapid changes of industrialization, and the advent of psychology in the new twentieth century had impacted both body and soul to the degradation of all the citizens of the vast metropolis. But I will defer to the social critics to make that determination. At any rate, the idea of leaving behind my medical practice was well worth a daydream. Indeed, I was envious of my former partner in adventure, Sherlock Holmes, who was now retired. I remember thinking to myself that there must be something beyond this humdrum work-a-day existence.

Not having had, for some time, any word from my distinguished former roommate and friend, the world’s foremost consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I fancied him quietly and contentedly at leisure pursuing his bee-keeping activities in the Sussex Downs country. Knowing him to be a showman by nature yet deprived of the audience attendant to the solution of a front-page murder, it was hard for me to imagine him satisfied with this type of rural lifestyle over a long period of time. He possessed a need for an odd mixture of intellectual as well as physical activity. However, I presumed him to be contentedly resigned to a secluded and retired existence looking after his apiaries and perhaps writing an essay or two about some unusual investigative subject matter. I readily envisioned Sherlock Holmes happily scraping away on his violin until all hours of the morning, no doubt, plumbing the depths of a Mozart sonata or some such thing. I assumed, at any rate, that he was gladly occupying himself with the pastimes of his new life. Unfortunately, such was not the case.

It was a particularly damp October day in London. The gray fog had pushed its way into every chink and hole in the armor of the city to the extent that visibility beyond one’s own hand, stretched out in front, was a challenge worthy of the greatest practitioner of the deductive arts. Busy at my daily tasks, I was interrupted by the arrival of a cryptic telegram from my former landlady, Mrs. Hudson, requesting my immediate presence at my old lodgings, 221b Baker Street. No explanation was given.

It was past the hour of eight o’clock when at last the lamps were extinguished, the door was locked behind me and a sigh of relief escaped my lips. I hailed a hansom cab and sat back with my eyes closed, trying to imagine what possible situation could have caused this most recent communication from the accommodating, yet always concerned, Mrs. Hudson. Upon arriving at the appointed place, I received, instead of clarity, more mystery.

The Landlady seemed pleased to see me, yet was preoccupied and jittery; with what, I could not say. I ascribed her nervousness to the anxiety of old age. She always appeared to tolerate her tenants rather than to enjoy them.

“...And the rooms have not been occupied since?” I asked.

“I should say not,” she replied, “they remain as yourself and Mr. Holmes left them, that very night...some years ago.”

“Why have you not rented them?”

“I’d got no one seems to take a liking to the place, for some unbeknownst reason...maybe it’s the smell of chemicals, Mr. Holmes and his experiments...and the like, what makes people disinterested,” she said, not quite believing her own explanation.

Mrs. Hudson led the way up a darkened staircase. With a pleasingly familiar seventeen treads, we arrived at the top of a well-acquainted landing. She handed me the lamp while unlocking the door. Once unbolted, the heavy door slowly swung open of its own accord, as it was always wont to do, into a vast dark place which appeared to have grown considerably in size. I thought at the time this was due to the reduction of its contents.

She was indeed correct. The rooms seemed to be exactly as they were when we left. I stood for a moment at the threshold, with the lamp projecting dancing images onto the scant covered furniture and bare walls. Instantly a flood of memories, pouring through my mind, evoked emotions that must have been easy to read on my countenance.

I noticed Mrs. Hudson off to one side, staring at me with a tolerant expectation. That caused me to turn to her. We shared a visual connection that did not last long but was wordlessly heavy. She said nothing, but after a moment, with trepidation, she turned away and entered the room as I followed.

“It could be too...” she said, after a silence, glancing at me and then back again into the spaciousness of the room, “that people sense the mood of the rooms and what was left behind...if you take my meaning.”

“I am afraid I do not,” I said, pausing before I spoke again, “I do, however, recognize the smell a faint mixture of formaldehyde and hydrochloric acid. But that might be merely rooted in my memory.” I trailed off.

“That’s not my meaning, Dr.’s something, what I’ve thought about and can’t quite pinch.” She waited. “Can you feel it, Doctor?”

I took a silent moment to absorb the full impact of her words and the substance of the room we were in. Still, I could sense nothing. Holmes often accused me of not having much of an imagination. But, slowly as I stood there in anticipation of the next move, there was a growing awareness of a perceptible ‘something.’ What it was continued to escape me.

“I’ve come up here many a’ time in the past years only to find the feeling that this flat of rooms have...,” she hesitated, “never been empty.”

It was at that instant that the vague notion I had felt crystallized into a specific realization. That was indeed the feeling. Mrs. Hudson had articulated it with piercing simplicity. A shuddering chill went down my spine. There was an unmistakable feeling that the room was not vacant. Not only this, but the idea that it had been recently used crossed my mind. What could possibly be the origin of this strange impression? I could not say. In fact, at the time, I briskly dismissed the feeling, putting it down to familiarity, personal history, and a ‘nostalgia’ surrounding the room and its erstwhile inhabitants.

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed, taking the lamp and walking through the rooms resolutely.

As the obscured areas of the premises became lit one by one with the dull amber light of the single flame, the feeling of occupation dwindled. Checking the various nooks, the windows, the fireplace, and the closets, I found them all to be secure and empty. Except for some random, vaguely familiar covered furniture that left a ghostly impression as shadows flickered and stretched according to the moving flame I held in my hand, I could find nothing. Because of my denial regarding this whole notion and my scientific bent, I was immediately inclined to write the impression off to the mental make-up of an old woman. There is often a vague line between reality and fantasy that age sometimes evokes.

“You are imagining this thing, Mrs. Hudson.”

“I am, am I?” she shot back. “‘Afore you speak, don’t be so quick to put it down to the wild dreamings of an old woman, Doctor. I ‘ear noises up here, I tells you...mostly in the middle of the night.”

“Noises? What kinds of noises?”

“The kind ‘o noises, what is unearthly, Doctor...,” she paused for a full rest, “Moanings and mumblings that are not of this world. Strange muffled talking and creakings, the likes of which I never heard afore...and yet somehow familiar.”

There was a silence. I found I was shivering.

“Poppycock,” I stated.

“It’s been going on more regular lately. Almost every night,” she insisted. “One day last week, on Wednesday morning it was, I unlocked the door only to find the window, there, opened a bit and a distinct smell of tobacco smoke a lingering in the air, I did, Doctor.” She stopped in her narrative to test my response.

“Is anything missing?”

“Not a bit of it. Everything’s the same as you left it, long ago, and what of it, just some old furniture and an empty set of rooms.”

“Did you alert the authorities?” I wanted to know.

“They thought I were a daft old lady, Dr. Watson...lost me senses, they says, wild fantasies they says. Humph!” she snorted. “But I knows what I ‘ear and I knows what I knows!”

“Why did you contact me?”

“You’re the good Doctor,” she said assuredly. “They’ll believe you.”

As she nodded her head, the reason for her summons became clear. “What do you want me to do?” I asked, secretly knowing the answer.

“Why, Doctor, I want you to spend the night here to see and ‘ear for yourself the terrible comings and goings of the place.”

The idea of holding vigil for a night in my former set of rooms initially held very little fascination for me. There was, upon reflection, something compelling about the assignment that drew me. What it was, I could not say. There must be some logical explanation to the odd occurrences described by my former landlady. I tried to apply the methods used to such a successful conclusion on so many occasions by my friend and teacher. What would Holmes deduce from the given facts? No immediate theory came to mind that would explain all of the circumstances. Could it be an old client or maybe an adversary of the famous Mr. Holmes risking all to jimmy the window high above Baker Street in the middle of the night, perhaps looking for something or someone? I suppose it was possible to climb up the outside drainpipe or drop down from the roof to effect an entrance into the room, but why? Could it be an admiring devoted follower looking for the thrill of being at the place where so many adventures had unfolded? It can only be assumed that my experiences with my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, had made me intensely interested in crime and certain intrigues, of which this was obviously one. I knew, of course, what he would have done. If he were in an active mood and adequately motivated, he would eagerly take up the course of action suggested by Mrs. Hudson. He would have requested my presence, naturally, along with my service revolver in accompanying his late night, perhaps early morning, vigil. I knew what had to be done.

Being otherwise engaged that night, it was arranged with Mrs. Hudson that I should be an overnight guest upon the following evening at the notable 221b Baker Street. I was preoccupied the entire day with the upcoming night’s anticipated watch. Little of what I could imagine would explain the unusual happenings at my appointed location. “Not enough data,” as my distinguished friend would say. I finally resigned myself to the position that I could find out what was going on only by direct empirical observation. That said, I prepared myself for what I presumed to be an intriguing overnight stay.

Again, I closed up my surgical office with a constrained but expectant enthusiasm. Checking, more than once, for the presence of my service revolver in the right pocket of my dark gray Ulster, I partook of a somber and thoughtful evening meal at a local establishment often patronized by my companion and myself in the days of our collaborations.

The people of London had not seen the sun for several days. In the twilight of the windless eventide, the brown fog seemed to hang upon the city and its inhabitants, not unlike a heavy eiderdown blanket hugging the contours of an occupied bed, making movement laborious and thought filled with effort. The dank mist made everything appear otherworldly and oddly out of joint. There is something about fog that makes one feel out of touch and separated from the reality of the surroundings. Things that are familiar and clear in the light of day become strange and spectral in the gloom of the dense stuff. I have often thought of what it would be like to grope about without the advantage of sight. How different life would be.

The fog seemed to make the blackness of the night even blacker. Any vestige of day vanished as time plodded ahead. The gaslights placed at even intervals along the various roads of the great city were almost ineffective. Although most of the streetlights had been converted to electric bulbs, there were still some pockets within the metropolis where gas lamps were to be found. This was welcome progress in keeping with a new age. I wondered how the lamplighters could even find their way to do their illuminating duty. Perhaps the dullness of the evening or the business of the upcoming watch made my thoughts dreary. I did not enjoy the prospect of spending the night in my former lodgings. It would be cold and lonely. But I also knew full well that the assignment at hand was an essential piece to solving the mysterious puzzle.

Upon my arrival, Mrs. Hudson and I shared a pot of Earl Grey and a long conversation. For some reason, the subject of the upper room and the reason for my being there were never mentioned. I went upstairs by myself and settled into the largest of the suite of subject rooms with the words of the Landlady still reverberating in my ears. “May God be with you tonight, Doctor.” The thought that my maker was somehow overseeing my visit afforded me little comfort. I made the observation to myself that I would rather have the indomitable presence of my cohort, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Upon orienting an upholstered chair toward the window that I suspected to be the entrance portal of the intruder, I settled into the room, extracting my pistol from my pocket and resting it upon my lap. I noticed that the chair in which I sat was the very one most usually reserved and occupied by my companion. The arms were rough and cut from various experiments or unconscious fiddling with sharp objects in which my friend would often engage. It exuded the acrid odor of tobacco and chemicals. Morbidly, I reflected on Holmes’ intermittent bouts with morphine and cocaine.

At this point let me divulge to the reader, in the form of a brief note, the meaning of the previous sentence. Mr. Sherlock Holmes’ brain was of such a constitution that it required almost constant stimulation. When crime was afoot and the trail was still warm, he was unexcelled in his energy and initiative. The man would leave no stone unturned, regardless of the hour, to solve the mystery; the more chilling the felony, the better. However, when there was nothing of interest to pique his appetite for such things, he would languish about for days in a somewhat desultory fashion steeped in inactivity. It was during these times that the temptation to use opiates or cocaine was greatest. I would see him laying on the settee, crumpled up in an artificially stimulated state waiting for the next adventure. Although I usually said nothing, this feckless behavior was most alarming. I attempted, more than once, to dissuade him from his participation in such activities; it was of little use. The drugs, he felt, were essential to keep his brain alive and help the time pass.

Mrs. Hudson had closed the door behind me without locking it. She had promised herself and me to keep a sharp ear out for any disturbances during the blackness of the night. After a few moments of welcome quiet, I could hear, in the distance, the tolling of the formidable timepiece known as the heartbeat of the great metropolis. Big Ben sounded out, after its usual hourly signal, twelve evenly round gongs, indicating, of course, the midnight hour. Beyond that, it rested for a short time in its appointed duty of regulating the pulse of the city.

Sitting there, my thoughts wandered to many intriguing nights, at various locations, of similar surveillance I had spent with my companion. Mrs. Hudson had, thankfully, provided for me a small carafe of coffee, which I placed on the floor in front of my feet, making it accessible and helpful on my watch. Also placed beside the chair was an oil lamp and matches should the need arise. There was nothing left to do but to wait in the darkness.

Time, of course, moves so much more slowly under these circumstances. The seconds dragged into minutes. My thoughts ranged from shoes and ships and sealing wax to cabbages and kings and everything in between. Each sound magnified the importance of the moment and seemed to make something out of nothing. But still, time waged on. I thought of A Study in Scarlet and the first time I met my friend, the first time we entered the residence in which I currently found myself waiting. Silence. The one o’clock gong, more random imaginings. The two o’clock gong, still nothing. The mist of the outside world seemed to mingle with a certain fog that slowly overcame my attentiveness.

I thought at one point, with surprising vividness, about my next-door neighbor’s cat scratching incessantly at my window, as it is wont to do when desiring attention. The scratching became an irritation as I realized I had been dreaming. Suddenly I snapped awake to the scratching noise at the window directly in front of me.

I sat bolt upright, inadvertently kicking over the carafe of coffee and spilling what was left inside the container onto the wood floor in front of me. Chiding myself for the blunder, I simultaneously reached for my revolver as the scratching sound persisted. Now, being fully awake, I noticed the faint image of a figure outside the apartment apparently trying to pry open the window while dangling down on some sort of tether. The source of the drab light that illuminated this eerie scene escaped me. Frozen in time while watching this picture unfold, I fought to steady my nerves against the increased heartbeat rate within. Slowly but deftly, the intruder forced opened the window and raised the sash to make his entrance into the room. The thought bolted through my mind, at this late juncture, that I should have at least attempted to contact my friend to seek his counsel before launching into this desperate confrontation. I regretfully determined it was too late for that now.

I felt a push of cold damp air. Deliberately, and I remember thinking to myself, rather clumsily, the figure struggled through the window and into the room. Barely being able to discern his shape, I guessed he was working to untie the rope that was about his waist. I groped for and found the matches and oil lamp at my side. Awkwardly, I attempted to strike one of the matches. My hands were shaking. Again I haltingly tried to light the lamp, striking match after match, as I could hear the intruder scuffling and mumbling to himself in a lumbering voice I found strangely familiar. While he wrestled with the rope, he conveyed the impression that he was not aware of my presence in the room. This was to my advantage, I thought, as I finally lit the lamp, transferring it to my left hand while occupying my right with the pistol. I stood up.

Dazzled by the brightness and huddled forward to spy more clearly, I saw the figure of a man who had finally solved the knotted rope. My foot nudged the overturned coffee carafe in front of me and pushed it aside, clearing the path. By this time, he had made the effort to lower the window sash as much as the thickness of rope would allow, leaving the tail end of the hemp laying inside on the floor carelessly. I made an obvious sound, clearing my throat, to attract his attention. This noise, coupled with the preceding explosion of light, jarred him stiffly upright and turned him slowly toward me. Even though the lamp shed but a single flame of yellow light, compared to the previous blackness, it appeared to flood the room. The man turned around to face me. Leading with his sharp chin, his visage, although awkwardly distorted with something I could not define, became perfectly distinct. I was astounded to discover that it was my old friend and former roommate, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.