The Enigma of the Mysterious Shop
As the hansom cab rolled over the pavement Holmes was questioning the ragged boy who sat across from him. “Now you say that this morning there was a full store where the chemist’s shop was before it burned down?”
“Yessir,” the lad said solemnly. “Never seen nothin’ like it in me life, guvnor. Toby was there last night, watchin’ t’see as nobody started siftin’ through the ashes, like, an’ he admits as him may’ve drifted off not long afore dawn. Wakes up, and there’s this other shop there where the chemist’s wasn’t no more. Full’ve odd bits, don’t ye know—strange instruments an’ odd clothes an’ the like. Him’s right spooked!
Holmes and Watson exchanged looks. It took a good deal to spook any of Holmes’s Irregulars, and particularly Toby Boggs, who was considered by the rest of the boys as particularly unflappable.
They had to pause at a crossing to allow a particularly fine carriage to turn onto Greater Portland Street, and the cabby managed to cut across just ahead of a heavy goods wagon, leaving that carter shaking his fist and bawling imprecations in their wake. But at last they arrived at their destination, and Holmes was leaping out of the cab before the cabby had the chance to pull to a complete halt. The boy scrambled out in the great detective’s wake, leaving Watson to alight as he could, throwing the cabby a handful of coins and directing him to wait for them.
The chemist’s shop had been a thriving business until the early hours of yesterday’s morning when it had inexplicably burst into flame. Swift work by the Fire Brigade and thick stone walls had saved the adjoining structures, but the interior of the chemist’s shop was reduced to rubble, its front windows shattered by the heat, and parts of the upper stonework fallen in. The store’s owner had retained Holmes late yesterday afternoon to determine whether the shop had burned as a result of his apprentice’s carelessness or if it were arson, which had led Holmes to employ some of the lads who served as his extra eyes and ears to keep watch over it until daybreak.
There were a number of the Bleeker Street Irregulars standing in front of the former chemist’s shop, staring warily at the edifice that had taken its place and shifting uneasily from foot to foot. There were enough shops of this sort in other parts of town—the East End, for instance; but hereabouts shops tended to be solid places with clean stonework and smooth paint on doors and window frames, signs artistically and elegantly lettered, brass work polished and impressive. The wavy glass of this shop’s windows couldn’t have been properly cleaned and polished in anything less than a decade or two; and the uniform coat that hung on a headless clothes dummy inside the main show window was faded, its metal buttons tarnished, its colors unsuited to any of the empire’s armed forces, much less to its constabulary. As for the construction of unnamed metals and multiple glass lenses that stood next to it—what it was supposed to be or do was anyone’s guess.
Toby Boggs’s face was a study in perplexity. “Ain’t never seen nothin’ t’match this,” he muttered to the two men who’d just arrived.
Holmes’s eyes were alight with interest as he began examining the stonework of the store’s front. “Fascinating, Watson,” he commented. “Nothing from anywhere in England I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’d say it would have to have been imported from the Basque area on the Continent.”
Suddenly the door opened, and two very small individuals tumbled out onto the pavement, the taller, slighter one giving a despairing look about himself. Neither stood higher than Dr. Watson’s chest, and they were quaintly if shabbily dressed, although even Watson could recognize that the fabric the taller one wore was finely woven and had most likely been expensive when it was new.
The shorter, heavier individual was looking about with unbelieving eyes. “Now, this is a shock, and no mistake, Mr. Frodo,” he said to his companion. “How in Middle Earth do you think as we ended up here in the middle of what seems a city of Men?”
“I don’t know, Sam,” the taller one answered, slumping back against the door. “We can’t have lost our way that badly! We were just there in Ithilien when we came across this shop….”
“And you would insist on going inside,” muttered the broader one.
“We had to have directions,” insisted the taller one. “After all, we wouldn’t have lost our guide if it hadn’t been for you!”
“Some guide that villain was!” objected his companion. “Why we wasn’t murdered in our sleep weeks ago----”
“I told you—he’d not have done anything to us, not as long as the Ring held his promise.”
“And how much longer would that of held him, tell me that?” demanded the shorter one. “Stinker and Slinker was gettin’ close t’agreein’ that we needed gettin’ rid of, you know.”
“Maybe, Sam Gamgee, but you didn’t have to tell that guard of Captain Faramir’s to shoot!”
“I wasn’t goin’ t’skip my sleep keepin’ an eye on him no more, I tell you, Master. That Gollum was that close to throttlin’ us both in our bedrolls! We’re well rid of him, I tell you!”
“And then you had to go and burn up the written directions Captain Faramir gave me----”
“We had t’get a fire started, and all of the moss thereabouts was damp, Mr. Frodo, sir. What was I t’do? And why you didn’t read them directions and commit them t’memory when he give them to you is beyond me!”
The one called Frodo threw up his hands in exasperation. “You think it’s so easy remembering directions, you try wearing this cursed thing about your neck and see how well your memory works! It’s all I can do to sort out your constant grumbling from Its taunts and threats at times!”
They were glaring daggers at one another. At last the broader one shifted the apparently heavy pack he carried upon his shoulders as he stared about the area. “Well,” he said, “what are we goin’ t’do now? Wherever we is, it ain’t Ithilien no more, and nowhere near them Mountains of Shadow from what I can tell. And I wish that that Captain Faramir could of told us more bout this mysterious pass what Gollum was plannin’ on takin’ us through.”
“As do I,” agreed Frodo. He looked behind him at the shop’s door with a grimace of distaste upon his emaciated features. “If only we knew how we ended up here,” he muttered.
“Well, we don’t,” the other said flatly, eyeing Holmes, Watson, and the boys suspiciously. “And these don’t look as if they have any more idea of the way into Mordor than we do,” he added. “Not, of course, as we’re anywheres near Mordor now, apparently.”
Frodo turned to face the one called Sam. “We’ll have to go back in there,” he said, indicating the door through which they’d emerged onto the street.
Now it was Sam’s turn to eye the door with unease. “But we wouldn’t be here if’n we hadn’t gone in to ask directions,” he pointed out.
“Just because you can’t follow directions when you hear them,” Frodo muttered. Sam glared at him, and Frodo added more loudly, “And because you’re too proud to admit you need them.”
“And you see a shop like that,” Sam fired back, jerking his thumb at the door, “there in the middle of nowhere, out in the center of the woods, and you just go in, as if it was the most natural thing in the world t’find such a place in the wilderness, like! And then you wonder just why we end up half a world or better away in the midst of some Men’s city of some sort, with no walls of Mordor in sight, just a bunch of stupid-lookin’ big-job lads and Men. You stubborn Baggins, you!”
“Not half so stubborn as you, you hard-headed Gamgee, you! Are you coming or not? I never intended to have you dragging on behind me, you know. You didn’t have to throw yourself into the lake the way you did, necessitating me having to turn back to save your foolish self from drowning, you know!”
“And if you wasn’t too proud t’admit as you can’t do ever’thing on your own!”
“Are you coming or not?” demanded Frodo again.
Again Sam looked uncertainly as the shabby shop front. “And what if we ends up somewhere even further from Mordor?” he asked.
Frodo gave a quick examination of the faces surrounding them and turned back to his fellow. “Well, it can’t be worse than this,” he insisted. He straightened his thin shoulders and shook himself. “I’m going back in,” he said with decision. “I have a job to do, after all.”
“And you think as I didn’t mean it when I said as I have a job t’do, too, sir?” Sam asked. “You just lead the way, and I’ll follow, like I always do,” he said, his bitterness plain to hear.
Half under his breath Frodo said, “And is that a promise or a threat?” He took the door handle and jerked it open. Deep inside a strange-sounding bell rang. “Well, come on if you’re coming, Sam.” With that he disappeared back inside the shop.
Sam grabbed the door before it could swing shut again before he could follow. “As if I hadn’t been a-followin’ you across half the world or better,” he said between gritted teeth. “Why I ever chose t’come with you I’ll never understand, Frodo Baggins. I swear as Ted Sandyman was right about you bein’ as cracked as your old uncle. Second Mad Baggins in a row, you are!” And he followed the other strange being back into the shop, pulling the door shut after him with a slam, that strange-sounding bell tinkling once more.
Even Holmes’s eyes were wide with surprise as he looked to share a glance with John Watson. Watson cleared his throat. “I’ve never seen the like of them before,” he said.
The boys who comprised the Irregulars looked from one man to the other and back, as uncertain as were the detective and his companion. “What were them?” demanded Toby Boggs of Holmes.
“I don’t know,” the detective began, turning toward the shop’s door----
----Except that it was now gone again, and only the ruins of the chemist’s shop remained, that and one small, bare footprint amidst the ash and splintered glass.
The Enigma of the Mysterious Shop