Santa in need of a drink
Jack glanced at her as if he had forgotten that she was even there before opening his notebook and directing his attention towards the stage. Agatha, feeling a little chastened, sat back in her seat and resolved not to speak again until the talk was at an end.
Over the next hour, Sir Arthur talked a little of his childhood and the interest he had developed in writing. He gave an account of the day when the detective, Sherlock Holmes, had first appeared in his imagination, before reading the short story, The Man With The Twisted Lip, in its entirety. Finally, having apparently run out of things to say, he smiled and opened his arms wide.
“Perhaps now,” he suggested, “interested members of the audience might like to ask questions. And may I preface this part of the evening by saying that I do not know where I get my ideas, I write between the hours of eight and two every day and, yes, I do hope to write some more adventures for Mr Holmes in the future. Having said all that, I open the floor to you.”
Agatha smiled. How frustrating it must be, she decided, for a writer to have to answer the same questions to audience after audience, all the time acting as if this was the first time. And true to form, each one seemed derivative and unoriginal, designed for the enquirer to hear his own voice carry through the room for a minute or two. The writer, for his part, took it all in his stride, answering elegantly and with some wit, charming his audience, encouraging his sales.
Finally, however, he glanced at his watch before looking out with a satisfied expression. “Well, if there’s nothing more,” he said, “I should like to thank you all for coming and – ”
“Please,” said Jack, standing up quickly. “One more question, Sir Arthur, if you don’t mind.”
The writer looked down and raised an eyebrow. Agatha felt herself blush as every eye turned in their direction and a burst of laughter filled the hall. “Mr Claus,” said Sir Arthur. “Do you wish to know whether or not I’ve been a good boy all year?”
“No,” said Jack, smiling. “I wondered whether you thought that so ingenious a murder could be committed that even the great Sherlock Holmes would find it impossible to solve.”
There was a buzz in the room; the audience liked this question.
“An interesting point,” conceded Sir Arthur. “It reminds me of the great paradox I heard often as a child. Can God do anything, asks the gentleman. Why, yes, of course, replies his companion. God is magnificent. If that is the case, says the gentleman, can God create a rock that is so heavy that he is unable to lift it?”
The audience murmured to themselves, uncertain whether or not this was a blasphemy. Was Sir Arthur comparing himself to God?
“But to your point, Santa,” he continued, clearing his throat. “Could there be so ingenious a murder that Holmes would find it beyond his capabilities? My answer to you is yes. My detective is a man of supreme ability but the criminal mind can be equally ingenious, and we do not know what degree of evil exists under the sun. There are murderers walking free on the streets of our cities today. I do not mean guilty men who have been tried and found innocent of their crimes. I refer to those who have committed their heinous acts and never been discovered. Why, one need only think of the infamous murders in Whitechapel to see that not all crimes can be solved. Or the case of Lady Merton, whose poisoning has so fascinated the popular press in recent months. Scotland Yard appears to be no nearer their man, do they? So yes, my answer to you is yes. Murderers, clever ones, get away with their crimes quite regularly, I suspect.”
Jack made some further notes in his book and the audience applauded the writer loudly as he left the stage.
“Wonderful, wasn’t he?” said Jack as the crowd began to depart.
“Marvellous,” agreed Agatha. “Inspirational, even. And lucky you, getting to speak to him! I would have been too frightened to dare ask a question.”
“You must tell me, Miss Miller,” he replied. “Those things you gleaned about my character earlier. You were like a female Holmes, if such a thing was possible. How did you do it?”
“I said you work as a clerk at a firm of solicitors,” said Agatha. “Was I right?”
“I’m a clerk, yes, but not at a legal firm.”
“Ah, well that was just a guess. But you have a noticeable indentation on the side of your right index finger where I imagine you hold a pen throughout the day, and there are ink blotches, quite apparent, on the cuff beneath your red jacket.”
“Very clever,” said Jack, smiling. “And I have indeed just returned from France. How did you know?”
“Your aftershave,” replied Agatha. “My late father favoured the same variety. We lived in France for a year as children and he grew fond of it there. He could only purchase it from a store just off the Champs Elysées in Paris, and he had it sent across to him every 12 months. He wore it till the day he died. I was a little overwhelmed when I first smelled it on you.”
“They say that smell is the most attuned of all the senses,” remarked Jack.
“And do you live in Highgate?”
“No, you got that wrong. But the early morning walks was spot-on. How did you know?”
“There are tiny blades of grass dried to the welts of your shoes. I assumed you walked fields while the dew was still fresh. I took a chance on Highgate Hill.”
“Very good. But the wrong part of London, I’m afraid. Shall we stand up?”
They rose and joined the crowd, slowly moving down the aisle towards the exit. Agatha looked ahead towards the doors. It would be another minute or two before they reached them. What would happen, she wondered, when they were on the street again? Would he invite her for a cup of tea perhaps?