The Unannounced Visitor
There are times when the forces of nature are so fierce they demand we seek immediate shelter and warmth. Such was the midwinter’s night that found us ensconced in our rooms at 221b Baker Street. Outside, the wind howled in powerful gusts and the rain pelted our window so intensely it produced a sound reminiscent of fingers tapping on glass. My father and I sat around a cheery fire and tried to distract ourselves from the inclement weather by reviewing an old case of Sherlock Holmes’s, which interestingly enough took place on a similar, dreadful night in London some twenty years ago.
“Holmes believed the wind and rain gave the criminal every advantage,” my father remarked.
“It certainly made the investigator’s task far more difficult,” said I.
“Indeed it would, but in ways one might not anticipate.”
“‘Beyond the obvious,’ Holmes had replied when I asked him the very same question. Then he said no more.” My father pondered the enigmatic answer briefly before glancing over to my wife. “Would you care to decipher that rather cryptic response, Joanna?”
She was standing by the window and staring out intently at the thoroughfare below, for something had caught and held her attention.
“What is it you see?” my father asked.
“Cover,” Joanna replied.
“From what, pray tell?”
“From every crime you wish to mention,” Joanna said, turning to us. “Which is also the answer to your first question. The obvious reason my father believed such weather favored the perpetrator is straightforward. It removes or distorts virtually every clue and track left behind. Give it a moment’s thought and you can readily list the ways foul weather can throw the detective off.”
“A strong wind and rain would certainly wash away any bloodstains or signs of a struggle,” I proposed.
“But there would be other, less obvious advantages as well,” Joanna went on. “The storm, along with its lightning and thunder, would drown out cries for help or screams of terror. And a heavy mist and rain would blind any eyewitnesses. You must also keep in mind that a lengthy gale, such as the one we are facing, would delay the arrival of Scotland Yard and give the criminals abundant time to escape and conceal their tracks.”
I involuntarily raised my hand as a new thought came to mind. “Thus far, our discussion has been focused on crimes that occurred outdoors. Would not the dreadful weather be of less hindrance when the evil act is committed indoors?”
“The advantages, although somewhat diminished, would still hold for the criminal,” said Joanna. “A clumsy investigator, along with a throng of constables, might well track mud and water onto the crime scene, and in the process muck up or eliminate any number of clues. Moreover, the thick walls of an enclosure would further dampen cries for help or screams of terror, which clearly work to the perpetrator’s benefit.”
“And Scotland Yard’s response would remain less than prompt,” my father noted.
“All of which explain why foul-weather crimes for the most part go unsolved,” Joanna concluded.
Her attention was suddenly drawn back to the window. She moved in so close her nose seemed to be touching the glass pane. “I say! It seems we have a visitor coming our way.”
My father and I hurried over and peered down at the hansom that had stopped at our doorstep. A hatless man, small and thin in figure, dashed toward the entrance of 221b Baker Street.
“Who would dare go out in this ungodly weather?” I asked.
“Someone with a most urgent need,” Joanna replied.
“Which obviously cannot—” My voice was rendered inaudible by a loud crack of lightning, followed by a clap of thunder and an even heavier downpour of rain. Baker Street became little more than a blur through our window.
Moments later there was a soft rap on our door and our landlady, Miss Hudson, looked in. “Dr. Watson,” she said to my father, “a Dr. Verner is downstairs and wishes to see you on a most pressing matter.”
“Please show him up.”
As the door closed, Joanna asked, “Do you know this Dr. Verner?”
“I do indeed,” my father replied. “He bought my practice in Kensington just prior to my retirement.”
“Have you remained in contact with him?”
“I happen upon him now and then at medical conferences I still manage to attend,” said my father. “As a matter of fact, I chatted with him only last month at a symposium on malaria, at which time he informed me how well the practice was progressing. He also mentioned how superbly his son was performing at Eton, which of course is the same school your Johnny attends.”
“Are they friends?”
“I asked, but Verner was unsure.”
Joanna waved away that point of the conversation. “It is highly unlikely that he is here to talk of Eton or his son.”
My father nodded. “Obviously it must concern a most serious medical dilemma.”
“Do you believe he is here to consult on a former patient of yours?” I inquired.
“That would be most unusual, particularly at this time of night and in this weather, unless the patient was in great distress. If that was the case, such a patient would best be served in a hospital, like St. Bart’s, where Verner has admitting privileges.”
“Perhaps he wishes you to join him there,” Joanna suggested.
My father pointed to the telephone. “That would not require an out-of-the-way journey to Baker Street. Bear in mind that when a patient is in dire straits, the smallest amount of time can be of the greatest consequence.”
We heard a second rap on our door and Miss Hudson showed in the thin, rain-drenched visitor. Dr. Alexander Verner was even smaller than he appeared at a distance, with a height barely reaching five feet. His face had fine, gentle features, but there was distress in his eyes.
Copyright © 2019 by Leonard Goldberg