“A dash?” I exclaimed. “Call me prosaic, Holmes, but I can’t think how even the most athletic entrepreneur of sadomasochism could manage to remove all this clothes, strap his upper arms to the handlebars and thighs to the rear wheel of a Brompton bicycle, then suspend himself upside down on this makeshift crucifix, one hundred and twenty feet above the River Tamar, by means of a chain fastened to the Calstock viaduct.”
For it was into Cornwall that our train was now heading, the Baker Street Irregulars having quickly established that Rusbridger had not, as we first suspected, been hung by his enemies from a London railway bridge.
“No, no, you’re right, of course,” sighed Holmes. “We must drop that theory into our cabinet of impossibilities....”
“So whatever remains, however, improbable, must be the truth,” I interjected.
“Quite, quite. As you say,” Holmes retorted irritably. “Ah, at last – some countryside.”
We’d left behind the industry and the squat grey housing of St Budeaux and Ernesettle, those grubby outer-garments of Plymouth, and our little train was pulling slowly over Tamerton Lake, towards the Bere Ferrers promontory and the confluence of the Tamar and the Tavy. It was a brooding, overcast afternoon, the journey from Paddington had been tedious, and now a squall swept towards us, furrowing the waters and shaking our carriage.
“The God of Rain rides into the autumn lake,” Holmes murmured. “and this same wind, who caressed the leaves to come, now coaxes them to fall.”
“Strictly speaking, it’s not a lake, it’s an estuary,” I said. “And without wishing to put a damper on your poesy, are the winds of spring and autumn really the same wind?”
“You should know, being a great bag of them,” snorted Holmes. “I was merely regurgitating Chinese wisdom, with which you are perhaps the first to quibble in more than a thousand years.”
“You mystify me, Holmes,” I said, more than a trifle hurt.
We spoke no further as the train rumbled through embankments of bramble and fern, alder and birch, from Bere Ferrers to Bere Alston, and thence, at last, across the great viaduct into the village of Calstock.
The years had not worked smoothly on Lestrade, who was waiting for us by the parapet as we walked back from the station. His limbs were shrunken and spindly, and he had the neck and visage of a tortoise, beneath a pork-pie hat, and above a greasy cravat with a mauve paisley pattern.
“This is your country attire, Lestrade?” Holmes inquired, an eyebrow raised.
“Cryptic coloration, Mr Holmes.”
“Ah, I see. Had no time to sort out my own rustic wardrobe; I came swiftly, just as soon as I got your Facebook message and observed the photograph on Rusbridger’s status page. Where is he now?”
“Recuperating at the cottage of the Reverend Felix Entwistle, the friend with whom he was staying the weekend.”
“What does he say?”
“Nothing, yet. Just sits shivering and shaking his head.”
“How is he?”
“As you’d expect. Shocked. Bruised. Traumatised. Humiliated. Honestly, Mr Holmes, I’m sent here with orders from St James’s to elbow aside the local constabulary and at all costs keep the scandal out of the newspapers, but it’s a devil of a story, and I don’t see how we can.”
“‘We’, Lestrade?” Holmes chuckled and gently pulled the calf glove from his right hand, finger by finger, then rubbed the tweed of the policeman’s overcoat between his forefinger and thumb. “Hmm,” he said. “Harris Tweed. Second-hand. Possibly a Northumbrian lay preacher? No, no – ” he moved his forefinger and laid it across Lestrade’s scrawny lips. “Never mind. Don’t ask. So, it’s not my powers of detection you solicit, old friend, but assistance in stifling the Press? What an irony. But I’m not sure I can help you there at all...”
“Perhaps not an actual suppression, Mr Holmes, but help, maybe, in laying a false trail?” Lestrade had drawn close to Holmes and was all but whispering in his ear. Holmes shrugged, moved smartly away, and paced beside the railway track. Still the rain came down, and came down hard, frustrating his attempts to light his pipe. He leaned over the parapet and whistled. “Not for the vertiginous,” he said softly. And then: “Halloa – is this one of your boys? Perhaps he has something for us?”
A plump young man in a wet and filthy uniform was scrambling along the viaduct, helmet askew. “Sir, sir,” he cried, “we found these in the mud.” And he proffered Lestrade a pair of round, horn-rimmed spectacles.
Lestrade glanced at them and handed them back to the constable. “Rusbridger’s glasses. I recognise them from his public appearances. Put them in an evidence bag, will you, Hodges? And smarten up, lad, smarten up.”
“Wait, let me see,” Holmes said. He took the spectacles, put them on, and squinted around. “They’re reading glasses, Lestrade. Why would our unfortunate friend be wearing reading glasses on his misadventure, eh?”
Lestrade looked baffled. Holmes frowned. “Take me to the exact point where poor Rusbridger was found dangling.”
Once there, some twenty or so yards onto the bridge, Holmes stared first at the ground, where the shingle was much disturbed, then sighed, fell on his knees, put his glove back on, and began rummaging among the stones.
“Ha!” he cried at last, and settled back on his heels, a piece of paper in his hand. He laughed and gave it to me. “Read it aloud for the inspector’s benefit, Watson. And for yours.”
I read, with incredulity: “‘You’ll always have your way, if he likes you in a negligee – keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’. But that’s impossible, Holmes. Impossible.”
“No Watson, manifestly not. This quaint little ditty that appears to be haunting us, and that you condemned, I seem to recall, as ‘fascist’, is certainly not to be despatched into our infamous cabinet of impossibilities.” Holmes’ voice had brightened. The more the plot thickened, the more cheerful he became. “Now, Lestrade, tell me about Father Entwistle,” he continued. “Is he the parish incumbent? Clearly, his vicarage is our destination.”
“No – he has no living. Too young to be retired, so he must have means, though judging from the cottage, not much of them”
“Well, well. We shall soon find out for ourselves. Where have you booked us, Lestrade?”
“Danescombe Valley Hotel, down on the river. Bit old fashioned, but comfortable, if you don’t mind the chill. Food’s good, anyhow.”
“Excellent, let’s make our way there and have our tea. Take it you have no other surprises for us, Lestrade? No other detail, exotic or grotesque, you might have overlooked but now feel able to share?”
“Nothing at all,” grinned Lestrade, “bar the set of car keys that was taped between the cheeks of Mr Rusbridger’s posterior.”
“What?” I cried.
“Ah,” said Holmes, staring dreamily over the parapet and into the distance. “Now two corners of the jigsaw are complete, at least.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]