Chapter 2 - Lift Up Mine Eyes To The Hills by A.J. Hall
“Sorry, but I can’t accept anything but the ID on my list,” the assistant in the hire-car office repeated. “Security precaution, innit? I mean, look at it from the company’s point of view. Suppose you was an undercover terrorist. What would happen then, eh?”
“I imagine I’d be reclassifying rental car agencies as legitimate military targets just about now, actually.”
In the past, John’s combination of bland tone and lethal glare had caused senior Taliban leaders to back off. It had no visible effect now. He tried a different tack. “Look, so far I’ve produced my driving licence – both bits – and my passport -“
“Visaed for Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazhakstan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan within the last two years,” the assistant confirmed, with the air of a man playing the ace of trumps.
John gritted his teeth. “While on active military service, yes. Also, a selection of credit and debit cards –”
“In two different names.”
“The others are my flatmate’s. They get mixed up. Perfectly normal. Electricity bill for the same address as my driving licence –”
“But addressed to a Mrs Hudson. Look, you aren’t helping yourself here, mate, you know.”
Abruptly, John lost it. He pulled out his mobile phone, and began texting. While his fingers worked, he looked across the high desk top separating him from the assistant.
“I’m going across the road for a coffee. I’ll be back in ten minutes. By that time, I expect you’ll have found all your difficulties resolved and to have the car I pre-booked waiting for me. Got that? Good.”
About twenty minutes later he was pulling up beside the inn. A familiar black-coated figure lay supine on a wooden bench near the shore, a tortoiseshell cat curled up on his chest. John parked the car and walked over to join him. Sherlock, with the air of a man lifting the weight of planets, raised his head about six inches from the bench to watch him as he approached.
“So, what kept you?” he drawled, as soon as John was in earshot.
“I got stuck behind a very slow idiot.”
“Perhaps you should call Lestrade. See if you’ve found a match for anyone on his Missing Idiots Register.”
“Ah. Lestrade. Um.”
Sherlock eyed him up and down in a way which was no less disconcerting for the fact that it mirrored the way the tortoiseshell cat was also giving him the eye.
“So, how did you persuade the Inspector to intervene in your hiring-car-from-idiot crisis?”
“Told him I’d left you, lethally bored, within a thirty mile radius of a leaky nuclear power station and I wouldn’t be answerable for the consequences if he didn’t manage to get me out of that agency – with car – in ten minutes.” He looked at the cat. “At least you appear to have found some company in the interval.”
Sherlock tickled the cat’s ears. “It was being menaced by some stripey sort of duck things. It concluded that since I was considerably bigger than the duck things it should seek protection on my chest. I didn’t object.”
“Stripey sort of duck things?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Birds which apparently acquired their plumage in the same place you get your jumpers. They went off over there, somewhere.”
He gestured, languidly, across the breakwater. A mixed group of eider and shelduck were paddling across the tranquil water. After a short pause John turned back to Sherlock, who had apparently moved not a muscle in the interim.
“Lunch,” Sherlock echoed with a faintly questioning air, like a tourist asked to participate in an unfamiliar local festival. After a few seconds he nodded, swung his feet to the ground and stood up. The cat sprang away, looking affronted.
“The sign’s all wrong, you know,” he added, just as they were about to pass in through the inn’s front door.
“The sign.” He gestured upwards. “The Ape and Artisan.”
John nodded. “That’s what the new people call it. It was something different when Mum and Dad brought us here, when we were kids. We used to stay at a cottage up the lane at the back.”
“Well, the painter got the wrong animal. I’m surprised no-one’s mentioned it.”
John squinted up at the sign. Under the looming mass of the Coniston fells a man was striving to build a wall, but the creature in question had stolen his plumb-line and was exiting rapidly, stage left, frustrating his efforts.
“The tail, John. ” Sherlock’s voice sounded exaggeratedly patient. “The very prominent, plumy white tail of a colobus monkey. Monkey, note, not ape.”
“So you do identify primates? Just not ducks?”
“I’ve never had a case where the murder was committed by a highly trained duck.”
“First time for everything,” John muttered.
Sherlock paused, and then, with a fleeting, fragmented grin which made John catch his breath, nodded.
“After lunch, John, you can find me a bookshop. If you manage that, I undertake to buy a bird identification book.”
Actually, John went one better and found them a book town.
Scenery, it appeared, wasn’t really Sherlock’s thing.
He had sat silent and unresponsive in the passenger seat while they passed through Greenodd, Backbarrow, Haverthwaite, their grey slate buildings sleeping in April sunshine; as they twisted away from the main road at Newby Bridge to trace the east shore of glittering Windermere under a canopy of dancing green leaves; cut through the winding lanes near Crosthwaite, white with damson blossom; crossed the M6 near Kendal, looking down on an unmoving snake of Easter caravans, trapped by road works at Tebay and an accident over Shap summit, and descended into Sedbergh at last by a narrow road lined with daffodils and patrolled by vigilant, maternal sheep, their lambs never more than a few feet away.
Once the car had been parked and he felt pavements and cobbles beneath his feet, Sherlock revived. Even his silence had a different quality. There were little huffs of amusement and sidelong comments at treasures happened upon in the convoluted labyrinths of backrooms and unexpected cellars stuffed with books or out in the street, sifting through stacks of dusty paperbacks on tables.
They had worked their way down one side of the main street and halfway up the other when John spotted something in the next bookshop window that it was impossible to ignore.
The next thing he knew he was tapping in his PIN, muttering over and over, “But it’s the complete set! In the editions we had, and everything!” in what he only realised was a slightly bonkers manner when he spotted Sherlock’s expression.
“Children’s books? What on earth for, John?”
John looked at him, bewildered. “Because I want them. Harry got our family set because she’s older, and then she went and let Clara have them in the divorce. And after she’d landed me in A&E when she insisted they were hers first time round, too.”
Even this impeccably logical explanation failed to satisfy his flatmate. Suspicion took hold. “Do I take it you’ve never actually read Swallows & Amazons?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Lots of hearty outdoors messing about in boats in a ghastly atmosphere of pre-War upper-middle-class English jollity? Why on earth would I bother?”
“All I can say is, if that’s what you think they are, you’re being a prejudiced, narrow-minded pillock. And it explains a lot about you.”
He gulped. Not entirely consistent with the calm, supportive atmosphere he’d been trying to promote for the last week.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
Sherlock, far from looking offended, had the air of alert interest he usually saved for intriguingly dismembered corpses.
“You associate those stories with this place. Not Sedbergh; the Lakes in general. With your childhood, before your parents’ marriage broke up. After their divorce, you stopped holidaying here. This is the first time you’ve been back.”
John didn’t bother confirming Sherlock was right in every particular. He concentrated on the main point.
“None of that has got anything to do with why Arthur Ransome’s worth reading. I’ve got the books; we’re on holiday. You could try reading one before telling me why they aren’t worth it.”
Sherlock hesitated, as if considering it. Then, abruptly, he swooped on a book which lay on the pile nearest the till, scrutinising the cover.
“Francis Thompson. Recognise the portrait. Never knew he wrote poems as well.”
John sensed they were about to go into one of those Sherlock conversations in which nothing – and especially not any assumptions about a shared knowledge base – should be taken for granted.
“As well as what?” he enquired cautiously.
Sherlock frowned. “Well, he is one of the rank outsider candidates. Most serious Ripperologists raise him simply to dismiss him.”
“Ripperologists? People are bonkers enough to think Francis Thompson was Jack the Ripper?” An appalled thought crossed his mind; insane, of course, but then this was Sherlock he was talking to. “Do you – um – that is – have you?”
“Solved the Ripper murders? Flattering you think me capable of it, but hardly feasible at this remove. Though none of the alleged solutions focus on the essential point.”
“Scotland Yard, John. Scotland Yard. It’s 1888. They’ve had a specialist detective unit for less than twenty years – they’re in the midst of moving their premises from Whitehall to the Victoria Embankment – they’re no doubt enmired in their characteristic incompetence, petty bureaucracy and internal backbiting – and suddenly they’re in the full glare of the press, right at the heart of the most sensational investigation the world has ever known.”
His pupils narrowed to cat-like slits, as if striving to glimpse scenes from a hundred and twenty-three years ago.
“Even given all that, there’s something odd going on with Scotland Yard. Files and photographs go missing, that’s normal incompetence, but inscriptions washed off walls overnight? That betrays intent, but intent to do what? Shield some member of Victoria’s court? Too crude; doesn’t have the right smell. They’d never have let it go anywhere near Scotland Yard if that had been the case.”
John assumed “They” meant whoever had occupied Mycroft Holmes’s Whitehall desk back in 1888.
“So, most likely, the Ripper murders simply arrive, by a ghastly coincidence, just as something much more complicated and interesting is actually coming to the boil.”
On the far side of the counter John could see the bookshop proprietor mouthing “More complicated and interesting?” at him. He shrugged, helplessly.
“But what? That’s the question.” Sherlock bit at his lower lip in frustration. “And every scrap of research wastes its time on useless speculation about the deaths of a handful of disembowelled tarts and the dreary sex life of the Duke of Clarence.”
John didn’t have to look at the bookseller to decode his expression. He grabbed the Collected Poems of Francis Thompson and thrust it towards the till, together with his debit card. “I’ll take this, too. Now, Sherlock, can we possibly go and get a cup of tea?”
They were outside the shop before Sherlock turned to him.
“So? What this time?”
John looked at him. “You know perfectly well what. Don’t try to pretend you didn’t notice the entire shelf-full of Ripper books just beside the front door.”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. “John, you surpass yourself. Fortunately, as I’ve just established, he sees Prince Eddie as the key candidate. Those ones never actually kill anyone; far too easily distracted. On the other hand, I’d never discount a suspect if I spotted one of the Maybrick or Sickert Ripper books on their shelves.”
“Tea,” John said firmly, steering him across the street. The tea-shop breathed out aromas of raisins and spices. It was, predictably, crowded. Sherlock baulked on the threshold, as if sensory overload had become, suddenly, too much. A waitress headed over, gesturing at the table from which an elderly man had just risen.
“Won’t keep you a second,” she said. “I’ll just clear it for you.”
Sherlock seemed on the point of bolting. “I’m not sure we –”
“Yes, we do, thanks,” John said. His push in the small of Sherlock’s back, intended only as gentle encouragement, must have caught his flatmate off-balance. He stumbled forward, right into the path of the elderly man. Sherlock avoided the collision only by a reflexive, eel-like twist of his hips, his coat swirling round him.
The elderly man paled; he shook, visibly.
“Excuse me,” he muttered, and pushed his way roughly past them into the street.
Without any further demur, Sherlock stalked through to the table, sat down, and allowed John to order a pot of Earl Grey and an assortment of cakes and biscuits.
John sent up a silent prayer of relief to any passing divine being who might be prepared to claim responsibility.
“Someone dead, a contemporary or near contemporary, once very close to him. Possibly a former lover; less probable given he’s been married to the same woman for at least twenty-five years. Someone about whose fate he at one time felt profoundly guilty. Not consciously thought of him in years. Until now,” Sherlock announced abruptly, mid-cup.
“Um, ah? That is, who, why, what?”
Sherlock glared at him. “Must you persist in being an idiot?”
“If you were better read, you could call me a galoot. Who’s dead?”
“Whoever I reminded the man in the doorway of.” He contemplated a piece of Grasmere gingerbread as if trying to break its alibi, then nibbled it. “Doubt he killed him, though.”
“Something in the quality of his reaction to you?”
“That, obviously. But he’s also made three approaches to the café door while we’ve been sitting here and turned back each time. I doubt if I reminded him of his murder victim he’d be trying to screw up his courage to ask me who I am.”
An absurdly glorious suspicion bubbled to the surface of John’s mind. He took a large bite of Cumberland rum nicky, in the vague hope it might partially conceal (or at least explain) his Cheshire cat grin. Sherlock narrowed his eyes.
“Is there something you’d like to share with me?”
“Well – it did occur to me that perhaps he’d simply recognised you and was afraid you’d fingered him as the brains behind the Weatherfield frozen food lorry hijacking.” John reached out across the table to the teapot and topped up his cup.
“You – knew who he was?”
“Probably.” He let his grin get wider. “Mrs Hudson would have known for sure, of course. As would – oh, about another seven million inhabitants of the UK. At a conservative estimate.”
Sherlock stared at him for a moment. “Phone,” he demanded, extending his hand.
While his flatmate discovered by actual experiment that they didn’t have a signal, John busied himself by wolfing the remaining rum nicky, obtaining the bill and paying. He was standing by the door, dressed for the outside, by the time Sherlock accepted defeat.
“So, this is one of those crap TV things?”
“Don’t let Mrs Hudson hear you call it that. Insult herCorrie, you die.”
Which comment, clearly, left Sherlock baffled; a state of affairs so unusual (not to mention gratifying) that John volunteered to fetch the car. When he returned, Sherlock was not where he had left him. That was standard operating practice. However, it seemed implausible this time his flatmate had managed to get himself kidnapped and manacled to the wall of a flooding cellar. Not in Sedbergh, not from a standing start.
He tapped out an impatient tattoo on the horn, an artistic arrangement of the Morse letters O, S, F, and H. Somewhat to his surprise, it worked; Sherlock emerged from the Bull seconds later and slid into the passenger seat.
“If you’d said you wanted a pint instead –” John began, pulling away from the kerb.
“Apply logic. I was trying to find the man from the tea-shop. Age, overall appearance and apparent profession suggest scotch would be his first thought after a bad shock. I’ve tried the Dalesman and the Bull but I could hardly crawl through every pub in Sedbergh in fifteen minutes.”
“My sister could probably have managed it.”
Sherlock tensed. “There. Pull over.”
They pulled up outside the Red Lion just as the elderly man was emerging. Sherlock wound down his window.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but would you be able to direct us to Penrith?”
The man looked, for a moment, positively goldfish-like. “I – ah –”
Sherlock’s smile mutated into something almost indecently beguiling. “We’re trying to avoid the M6; looks like there’s been an accident or something. We hoped you might have local knowledge of the back ways round.”
“A685 to Kirkby Stephen; A66 through Appleby to Penrith.” The words seemed to pour out automatically; his eyes were fixed on Sherlock’s face.
“Thank you.” He wound the window up.
“So,” John said, accelerating up the street, “why’ve you acquired this sudden desire to see Penrith?”
“I haven’t. I just wanted to find out how he’d react to the mention of the place. And now we’ve found that out, suppose we get back to Ulverston. Or anywhere else where there’s a reliable signal.”