"You can't shelter here forever; you asked for my help."
"That's my curtain call tonight! My solo! You Philistine! You... urgggh..."
"Always leave them laughing, Walter."
All good theatres are haunted. Some, by ghosts.
"Surprise me, Holmes. London is awash."
"Yet the ship is still afloat. Do be mindful of that rope, Watson."
Watson had, however, already given an exploratory tug to the rope end that dangled, a deceiving invitation to campanology, in front of his face. Like every other -- and there were many -- coiled, hanging, or draped, it was Indian hemp, still smelling faintly of the whale oil used to soften the flax fibres. One and a quarter inches thick, the twist of it was a marine double braid, which suggested that one of her majesty's frigates was short on sheets and one of her pursers a little too plump in the pocket. Half of London's theatres must have been equipped from the leaking warehouses of the Admiralty: 'Of all the curst plagues that e'er Fate did decree, To vex, plague, and punish poor sailors at sea, There's none to compare with the purser... '
The rope rattled, hemp against canvas. A shudder worked down forty vertical feet and whipped the waxed-cord tail end from Watson's grasp. He stared at his empty hands, the white light of the incandescent electric bulbs demarking the crown of his second-best bowler (black felt, steamed to shape: the tilt of the brim was all St James but the grosgrain ribbon decidedly provincial) the line of his cheekbones (unexpectedly boyish) the jut of his nose, and his moustache. (Freshly trimmed. Watson: surprisingly vain. Unsurprisingly precise.)
"What have you done?" asked Holmes.
When Watson looked up, his face was all half-moons of shadow and light, the cut of his mouth, the shape of his chin, the smooth line of his inner eyelid. He'd shaved in a hurry, a result of the urgent hammer of Holmes's fist on his bedroom door, although had irritatingly failed to forgo breakfast, in his opinion the most civilised meal of the day. His upbringing, no doubt. Perceive Mr and Mrs Watson and all the little Watsons, their fingernails scrubbed and the back of their necks still stinging with soap, gathered around the breakfast table for morning prayers while the toast chilled and the bacon congealed. How very affecting. How very annoying, when the clarion call of the newspaper headline had been flung over the good Doctor's very plate.
"When you suggested a cultural excursion in pursuit of a case," the adult Watson said, cross-purposed and disingenuous, "This was not quite what I had in mind."
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Holmes in the velvet half-dark, he was still looking up into the darkness of the fly loft above the stage, where shadowed canvases the size of house frontages had begun to creak and sway. Ropes grumbled and chafed. A chain rattled. The electricity failed briefly, flickering shadows over the wicker hampers and stacked chairs of the Savoy Theatre's backstage storage; a ship's forecastle loomed, half-size, surrounded by a stack of billowing balsa wood waves; a painted gatehouse towered, a throne sat four-square and gilded, with a battered crown on its mouse-eaten cushion; three mermaid's tails swayed gently under the weak backstage lights. A three-sided pavilion tilted against a Chinese screen, a sack of papier-mâché frogs tumbled onto a discarded score, and an osier casket spilled ringletted, powdered wigs with neatly beribboned queues. Seen by the intermittent gleam of failing electric lamps, the metal grids and sandbags of the loft were no more than suggestions of mass, the stage was bare, stained floorboards, the orchestra pit a morass of tumbled chairs and half-unfolded music stands. The auditorium was nothing more than a glimmer of gold leaf and crimson velvet. The air, heated, smelled of dust disturbed and stale sweat, whale oil and greasepaint.
Overhead, a rope snapped, loud as a gunshot. Another.
"Watson," said Holmes, squinting, "When the porter said don't touch anything, he may have meant exactly that."
"Or your rats have knives," said Watson.
Inevitable as a guillotine's drop, rattling, shuddering, gathering pace as it fell, a painted canvas flat the size of a tea clipper's foresail crashed downwards. Watson leapt for the dubious shelter of a painted wardrobe. Holmes, for a wicker basket containing twenty-four uniforms of the Dragoon guard with improbably lavish trimmings of gold braid and lover's knots.
In a stereoscopic flicker, the electricity failed. The theatre dropped into darkness. Timbers smashed against planking. Canvas shredded. The floorboards of the stage groaned ominously: dust, choking, billowed from every unswept nook and cranny. The tail end of a loosened chain jangled as it fell.
The silence, afterwards, was stunning.
Again. Watson stifled a sneeze, and cursed. Holmes sucked in a breath through his teeth, and sighed. Struck a match, the flame steady between his cupped fingers. He said, "Watson." And then, dry, "Well done, old boy."
Within the small circle of light, there was nothing which was not disorder. Holmes's own jacket sleeve was ripped. There was dust on his face, his eyelashes, caked into the ringlets of the wig which was tilted crookedly over his own pate. He looked like nothing so much as an arthritic lion coated in gypsum powder.
"If you would be so kind," said Watson, stiffly, "There is a candle in my pocket. I would be grateful for your assistance in disentangling me from this... device... "
"You know perfectly well it's a crinoline," said Holmes. "We attended Iolanthe three times. It would have been four, were you not otherwise engaged."
"I was dining with a lady," said Watson.
"Indeed," said Holmes.
"Spare me your disapproval," said Watson, and heaved ineffectually at seventeen layers of tulle and whalebone. "It was a fine opera, we agreed. Would you mind... thank you."
"Most fetching," Holmes said, critical, delving single-handed. "Do breathe in. Really, if the tightness of your waistcoat is to be trusted-"
"My trouser pockets," said Watson, and squeaked.
"How unmanly of you," Holmes remarked, withdrawing, and set the guttering end of his match to the wick. A moment's work affixed the candle, puddled in melted wax, to a downed back bracing, revealing Watson half-in, half-out of both crinoline and patience. "Do relax, Watson. I'll have you undressed in a jiffy."
"You say that to all the ladies," Watson grumbled.
"Not all," said Holmes, and his grin was remarkably toothy. "Now. Stand still."
Extraction occurred, at the expense of Watson's left-hand waistcoat pocket, ripped by a whalebone strut, his hat, caught in folds of tulle and accidentally disemboweled by Holmes's boot, and his dignity. "Enlightening as this particular expedition has been," he said, attempting to push the crown of his bowler back into place, "Might I draw your attention to that grand and longstanding writ of English law, Habeas Corpus? You have drawn me here on false pretenses. There is no body. There is no body at the morgue; no claim of foul play, from eye witnesses; Lestrade informs us, no enquiry. Ergo, there is no case. Holmes, there were coddled eggs and mushrooms on the breakfast table, which I did not have the chance to more than sample before you dragged me off on this wild goose chase. Shall we repair elsewhere?"
"Your eyesight fails you," Holmes said. "There might be no body now, but there certainly was one. You did observe the pattern of bloodstains on the stage, the hand prints, the traces of blood here and here on the scenery-- ha!"
The lights had flickered into life. Electricity illuminated the shattered, shredded canvas flat, the tangle of felled ropes and chains, and the slim figure of a man standing, centre stage, in a spreading circle of blood.
"Good Lord!" cried Watson.
"The generator is outside," murmured Holmes. "Sir!" he said. "Are you aware there has been a murder on that very spot?"
"Nonsense." The word was crisp and definite, the accent English, educated to the point where any trace of individuality in tone had been expunged. The face was narrow, ascetic: the nose was prominent, the eyes sharp. There was a trace of greasepaint in the fold of one eyelid, a peculiarity of stance that threw face and hands into the best light and allowed for an audience, a neatness to the dress which belied the blood staining the soles of well-polished boots.
"You may have missed the headline in the Gazette," Holmes said dryly. "Actor's Tragic Death at Mikado? I believe you to be standing precisely on the spot where the gentleman expired."
"Your companion is not mistaken," the man said. "There was no crime. While I do not dispute the appearance of murder, it was an accident of perception, no more. These things happen behind the curtain. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, is it not? And Dr Watson? A pleasure," he said. "My name is Adams. Maynard Adams. We have not met," he said, "But I believe we may have encountered each other previously under different circumstances."
"You are a player," said Watson.
Adams inclined his head. "An actor. Indeed so," he said. "And who better to tell you the truth of what happened here?"
"You were present at last night's performance? Where?" Holmes's voice was sharp, irritated.
"On stage," Adams said. He smiled. It was a small smile, guarded, a little mischievous. "With an axe in my hands."
"Oh," said Watson.
The smile broadened. Adams warbled, "Taken from the county jail, By a set of curious chances... " He had a pleasant baritone, with the promise of strength under the lightness of his phrasing.
"Ah," said Watson, and then, "A personage of noble rank and title, A dignified and potent officer, Whose functions are particularly vital!"
"Indeed so," Adams said. "A pleasure to meet another aficionado, Doctor. I was indeed playing Ko-Ko yesterday evening. A stand-in, of course, but I flatter myself well-received."
"You disclaim your title," said Holmes.
"A little specious, would you not think," said Adams, "To call myself the Lord High Executioner in these circumstances? I am no fool, Mr Holmes. I am well aware why you are here. Nevertheless, the newspapers are mistaken."
"So," said Holmes. "To what would you ascribe the incidence of a dozen witnesses observing such an event? The bloodstains on which you are standing? The bloody hand prints on the floorboards? The trail - see here, Watson - of a body of slightly below average height and weight, being dragged senseless from the stage? Mass illusion? Mesmerism? Foolishness, perchance?"
"I would take no such sideline into the occult," said Adams. "Merely suggest that, as it was into my arms that our Nanki Poo collapsed, I might be more aware of the facts than your good selves. I assure you," he said, and the smile was back, curling at the corner of his mouth, "My good colleague was felled by a stroke - temporarily - and most tenderly transported. You are aware of the effects of stage blood?"
He bent down. For a man of middle years, he was surprisingly limber: he pressed the palm of one hand against the bloodstain, and raised it up. Blood, undeniably liquid, ran from his wrist to drip onto the floorboards. "False," he said. "A concoction of my own. Contained within the sleeves of my kimono. Fitting, do you not think, for the part?"
"But there is no death," said Watson, "In the Mikado."
"Ah," Adams said, his teeth gleaming. "But there might be. A play within a play, so to speak."
"Then what of the body?" Holmes asked.
Adams shrugged. "The esteemed Walter Graham," he said, "Was removed from the theatre and sent to... St Giles. Discreetly, with haste. Theatre folk are superstitious, and Walter of a retiring nature."
"And should I investigate," Watson said, "I would of course find the records of his admittance."
For a moment, Adams was very still. Then he said, "Of course."
"But you are not responsible," said Holmes, "Should this colleague have exited the hackney prematurely? Or perhaps refused to be admitted? Or is in any other way untraceable?"
"No," Adams said. "I am not."
"I do not believe you," said Holmes.
Adams shrugged. It was supple, accustomed: his body was lean, but his shoulders broad. He said, "That's your choice." His voice was just as steady as it had been for the rest of their conversation.
"Nor do I believe," said Holmes, "that any mishap short of death would keep Mr Graham from his final bows."
"But you did not murder him," said Watson.
"I swear upon my snickersnee," said Adams.
"He fell insensate into your arms," said Holmes.
"Unexpectedly."Adams coughed. "Yes," he said.
"And co-incidentally," said Holmes, "You were carrying on your person a pig's bladder of fake blood, which, on bursting, created false evidence of murder."
"Yes," said Adams. He coughed again. His eyes were suspiciously bright. "Most foul," he added, "And desperate." Then he said, "Of all things, it is a pleasure to discern in person that your reputation, Mr. Holmes, is not misplaced." The bow he gave was surprisingly elegant, an eighteenth century courtesy, hand to the heart.
"More mummery. Graham was known to you," Holmes stated.
Head bent, Adams's face was a mask of light and shadow. His eyelashes flicked up.
"The event anticipated. You were equipped. I suspect he was a threat to you? Or, no, a friend, pursued by... debtors? A more mortal enemy? If death had indeed been your objective, I suspect - no, I know - death would have occurred. You carry a knife in your sleeve and another at your back - Watson, no need to prepare, I doubt it is us against whom he defends, although your presence here, sir, suggests a degree of security... So, an appearance of death most public, the murder of a career, and what? Our absent friend is fled, not to St Giles, but the Antipodes? The Americas? New South Wales? A pre-booked cabin, a passenger with muffled face, boarding at night?"
"That ship has sailed," Adams said quietly.
"What significance, then... " Holmes paused. "Why here? What reason would you have to stage your performance here, upon this stage? Surely a quiet disposal would have better fitted your disposition? Or was the very nature of the exposure essential to his disappearance?"
"Within this hollow crown?" Adams asked. "You know wherein you stand. On what you stand."
"A stage?" said Watson.
"The Savoy Theatre," said Holmes. "Built on the site of the Savoy Palace, opened in 1881, the first theatre in London to be lit by electric light. Owned by D'Oyly Carte. Am I close? No?" His eyes were narrowed. "Before the theatre, the hospital. Before the hospital, the palace. The Chapel, not original, still stands. Ha!" Holmes exclaimed. "Three chapels. And if I am not mistaken, under our feet... "
"The second," Adams said. "The French Chapel. Used, of course, by those Huguenots fortunate enough to escape the continent, until the closure of the hospital in 1702, the site abused by loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets. So states Stow. Never deconsecrated," said Adams. "It remains Holy Ground."
"You are a man of the church?" essayed Watson.
"No," Adam said. "Not in any way you would recognise. But your conclusion is sound. Death would be an impossibility, here. I would beg you to remember the point, Mr Holmes, should you ever be in a position where... death becomes rather more intangible than previously assumed. As in this case," he said. "Gentlemen. My curiosity has been more than assuaged. I will take your leave, with thanks."
"Mine, sir, is not," said Holmes.
"What crime is proved?" Adams said. He was smiling again. "Nothing. Every actor requires a stage. Every mastermind an audience: every chronicler a subject: every death a body. Every lover requires to be loved, every enemy an object, every friend their like... one day I shall say, yes, Sherlock Holmes, I met him once," Adams said. "Pray it may be once. Yet, remember," he said, "When you have need."
"How very drama-" Watson began to grumble.
The curtain came down, hiding their view of the stage. The lights went out. Holmes and Watson, struggling in the darkness to find both matches and candle, dallied too long: their companion was gone. Dust-covered and battered, they emerged onto the Strand alone and empty handed. A circuit of the building revealed no trace of Maynard Adams: the stage door keeper, knocked up once again from the next booth, disclaimed all knowledge of any other than themselves entering the building, the Stage Manager, disturbed intemperate from his bed, could not recall to where the body was removed: the original Ko-Ko, uncovered in a Covent Garden Tavern, was incapable of recall. There was no passenger list for the Charles, a barque of dubious build, departed from Greenwich Docks for Boston in the early hours of the morning.
Thwarted, they retired to Baker Street, where Watson at last encountered his long-delayed repast and Holmes his pipe. Although Watson never wrote up the case, Holmes did not forget: many years later, struggling, battered and soaking wet, from a fall that should have killed him he remembered, and dismissed the memory of, a stranger's voice. Death. An accident of perception, no more.
survival was planned.