Dr. John Watson
The Strand Magazine
George Newnes Ltd.
3 to 13 Southampton Street
Strand, London, England
Dear Dr. Watson,
“Better late than never” is one of those supposed truisms that’s not always all that true. If you make chicken soup for a sick friend but forget to give it to him, let’s say, you’d be ill-advised to serve it to him when he’s up and about a month later -- unless you’re trying to get him sick all over again.
Nevertheless, my brother Gustav and I feel compelled to extend our sympathies to you regarding the loss of your friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Though Mr. Holmes passed more than two years ago, we only learned of it recently, so in addition to sympathies we extend apologies if this missive merely serves to reopen an old wound. Sprinkling on salt is the last thing we’d want to do. Rather, we think (or at least hope) that we can offer some small measure of balm.
I’m sure you’ve heard again and again that Mr. Holmes isn’t really dead. Your remarkable accounts of his cases have graced him with an immortality of sorts, and so long as he’s remembered, he’s not truly gone. I can testify to the truthfulness of that -- and take it a step further.
Mr. Holmes has attained more than fame. For some of us, he’s become a way of life.
Not that Gustav and I could claim to be “consulting detectives” like your friend. Being cow-hands in the American West, the only thing we’re ever consulted on is which steer to rope and brand next. But my brother’s determined to change that. And with the help of your stories, he just might succeed.
A stray copy of The Strand first introduced us to you and Mr. Holmes last year. Immediately, Gustav set about studying on the story inside (“The Red-Headed League”) the way the college boys at Harvard and Yale study on...well, whatever it is they study. My formal education lasted a mere six years, you understand, while Gustav measures his schooling not in years but months. To this day, I have to do all his reading for him. But unlettered though he is, my brother’s far from unbrained, and he soon memorized “The Red-Headed League” and every other Holmes tale we could get a rope on.
Gustav’s always been a gloomy sort of fellow -- it’s why he’s known as “Old Red” in drovering circles. He may yet have the fiery-red hair of a young man, but he’s prone to the black moods of a bitter, gray-bearded codger. He’s still his old dark-tempered self most of the time, but that changes when he gets to talking about your stories. They light him up like a rusty old lantern that’s been dusted off and fresh-filled with oil.
Old Red’s even begun detecting, in an amateur enthusiast kind of way, and he’s actually proved to be quite good at it -- though I’m not always enthused about the danger his snooping can put us in. All the same, when Gustav set off in search of actual employment as a detective last month, I was riding right alongside him, bouncing from town to town across Montana and Wyoming. Some folks might ask why I’d be so willing to tag along on another fellow’s crusade, but I reckon you’re the last man on earth I’d have to explain that to.
Sadly, the first dozen or so detectives we encountered welcomed us not with open arms but with open contempt. The symbol of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency might be the great all-seeing eye, yet it may as well be the great butt-kicking boot as far as we’re concerned. When we weren’t laughed out of town, we were simply ignored. Yet Gustav’s determination never wavered.
“Well, that about does it for Montana,” he said as we walked out of the Pink office in Missoula.
“Idaho?” I sighed. I closed the door behind me, but I could still hear the Pinkerton men guffawing inside.
Old Red nodded. “Idaho.”
I turned for a last look in at the Pinks, intending to do what they’d just done to us. Namely, spit in their eye -- in this case, the eye painted on their office window above the words “WE NEVER SLEEP.” I saw one of the men inside headed toward us, though, so I thought it best to swallow my pride (and my phlegm) until we heard what he had to say. I poked Gustav with an elbow, and he turned around just as the detective opened the door and leaned outside.
“Hold on! I got a tip for you.”
He was a portly man with the round, leering face of a little boy tormenting ants, and I was tempted to offer him a tip of my own -- watch his mouth or he’d get it smacked.
“Oh?” I said instead.
The man nodded. “You two might not be fit to be Pinkertons, but I bet you’d make a fine couple of Bloebaums.”
“A fine couple of what now?” Old Red asked, obviously unsure to what degree he should be insulted.
The chubby Pink grinned. “You wanna be detectives?” He jerked his big, ham-like head to the left. “Follow your nose.”
Then he ducked inside and got back to laughing with his friends.
“You ever hear of a ‘blow bomb’?” my brother asked me.
“Nope. But I can tell you this much: It ain’t a compliment.” I started toward the post where our horses were hitched. “Sorry, fellers -- no rest for the weary. It’s on to Idaho for the lot of us.”
“Not yet, it ain’t.”
Before I’d even turned around, Gustav was clomping away up the clattering planks of the sidewalk.
“And just where are you goin’?”
“Takin’ the man’s tip,” he said without looking back.
“That weren’t no tip -- it was a kick in the teeth!”
Old Red kept going. I muttered a curse and set after him.
It didn’t take many strides to reach Gustav’s side: I’m “Big Red” to my brother’s “Old Red,” and you don’t earn a handle like mine with stumpy legs. But even little Tom Thumb himself would’ve caught up quick enough, for Gustav suddenly made the sort of stop you come to when walking into a brick wall.
He was staring at something ahead and to the left of us -- another office window, I saw when I followed his line of sight. There was a large, pinkish triangle painted on the glass.
“Oh, you gotta be kiddin’,” I said when I realized what it was.
The big blob was a nose. There were words printed both above and beneath it, and I read them aloud for Old Red’s benefit.
THE BLOEBAUM NATIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY
WE SNIFF OUT THE TRUTH
This being June of 1893, of course, I didn’t consider the agency’s date of establishment much of an endorsement. I also thought its slogan and symbol, in a word, stunk.
None of that slowed Old Red down, though. He marched straight into that office. I followed, because...well, I reckon fellows like you and me just kind of get in the habit, don’t we?
There wasn’t much to the Bloebaum National Detective Agency’s Missoula office. Three filing cabinets -- battered. Two wicker chairs for clients -- shabby. One desk -- cluttered.
And one man -- surprised.
“Yes?” the man said, jerking his gaze up from a newspaper spread across the desk. He was fortyish, well dressed and good looking, but his suit and his features alike had a washed-out quality, like a pretty picture that’s starting to fade. “What do you want?”
There was an edge of fear in the man’s voice.
My brother may be the deducifier -- and the elder of the two of us to boot. But I’m the talker. So Old Red took off his weather-beaten Boss of the Plains and nodded at me.
“Good afternoon, sir,” I said, sweeping my own hat off my head. “My name’s Otto Amlingmeyer, and this is my brother Gustav. We’d just like a moment of your time to discuss any employment opportunities the Bloebaum Agency might have for....”
There was no point in continuing -- not with the man laughing the way he was. It wasn’t the scornful hooting we’d been hearing from the Pinks, though. It was a laugh of relief.
Old Red and I were dressed rough, for the trail. We looked like what we were -- drifters, grubline riders, saddle bums.
Or gunmen, maybe. Hired toughs.
It wouldn’t rise to the level of “deduction” as Mr. Holmes would define it, but I could make a pretty decent guess just then. When we’d walked in, the man assumed we were there to stomp the stuffing out of him.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, choking off his chuckles. “It’s just that....” He shrugged, his manner quickly turning cold and dismissive. “There’s no work for you here.”
I put my hat back on. We’d just doubled our daily quota of rejection, and I was eager to find someone who’d actually be pleased to see us -- the nearest bartender, for instance. But before I could head for the door, Gustav moved in the opposite direction, stepping closer to the man’s desk, hat still in hand.
“Doesn’t look like there’s much work for you either, Mr. Bloebaum.”
The man scowled at him a moment, then looked down at his newspaper. “That’s none of your business.”
“It could be.”
Bloebaum (for obviously my brother had him pegged correctly) slowly brought his gaze back up again. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it must be hard for a man in your position -- trying to compete with a big outfit like the Pinkertons all by your lonesome. Folks see a half-empty office, one feller sittin’ around readin’ the paper, they think penny ante, second rate...and they just walk up the street to the Pinks. But it don’t have to be like that.”
Gustav’s usually not one for blowing smoke, but he can be a regular chimneystack when he’s detecting -- or trying to land a job detecting, apparently.
Bloebaum smirked at him sourly. “So what I really need to do is pay a couple cowboys to run around in here pretending to be my busy staff?”
Old Red shook his head. “I ain’t talkin’ about pretendin’.”
The detective sighed, his smile turning wistful. “Look, I know times are hard. I’m sure you two really need the work, but I can’t -- ”
“I ain’t talkin’ about workin’ for pay, neither.”
Bloebaum blinked at him. “You’re not?”
“Yeah,” I blurted out. “You’re not?”
“No. I ain’t,” Gustav said firmly. “We got us a little nest egg -- ”
“Hummingbird size, maybe,” I cut in.
“ -- so we can put in a little stretch for free to show you what we can do,” my brother plowed on. “We might look like your ordinary, everyday out-of-work waddies, but believe you me -- we know a thing or two about deducifyin’. All we need is a chance to prove it.”
Bloebaum furrowed his brow. “‘Deducifying’?”
“Just think it over. We’ll be around.”
Gustav put on his hat and headed for the door.
“Thanks for consultin’ me, Brother,” I said under my breath as I followed him. “I do so appreciate the faith you put in my good judgment and -- ”
Old Red peeked over at me, lips twisting into his smug little “Ain’t I smart?” smile. He turned to face Bloebaum again.
“Prove you mean it,” the detective said.
Bloebaum held out his hands toward the rickety-looking wicker chairs.
“A test,” he said.
We sat. We listened.
We began our careers as burglars.
Not that Bloebaum described his “test” as burgling. It was “procuring a document that could compromise a client’s good standing in the community.” Pilfering an illicit love letter, in other words.
“The lady in question knows the gentleman in question wants the letter back,” Bloebaum explained. “The lady in question is powerful -- and vindictive. If the recovery of the letter is ever linked to me, she could strike back. It would be easy for someone like the lady in question to have someone like me squashed like a bug.”
“Perhaps through the husband in question?” Old Red said.
Bloebaum nodded. “There is a husband, yes. An important man. Which is why the gentleman in question is so anxious to get the letter back. If the husband should stumble across it...disaster.”
“What about the thieves in question?” I asked. “Us. How exactly are we gonna steal something when we don’t even know who we’re supposed to be stealin’ it from?”
“I’ll tell you how to find the lady in question’s home,” Bloebaum said. “You’ll be able to recover the letter from there Sunday morning, when the lady and her husband will be at church -- as will I and the gentleman in question.”
“Givin’ yourselves perfect...whataya call ’em? Allabees.”
“Alibis. Yes. Very good.” Bloebaum offered my brother an insinuating smile. “You do have the mind of a detective, don’t you?”
“Too bad he’s completely lost it,” I wanted to say. But I held my tongue until Gustav and I were reviewing the day’s events over nickel beer at a dive saloon.
“You wanna play Sherlock Holmes? Fine. I’m behind you,” I said. “But playin’ sneak thief’s another thing entirely.”
Old Red was hunched over our little table like he might just lay down his head on it and take a nap. “I know. But it’s just this once. To prove we got the cojones for the work.”
I took a pull on my beer, then prodded him with the mug. “How do you know it’ll be just the once? You ever think about what detectives really do day to day? I know it’s the puzzle-bustin’ that appeals to you -- the Holmesifyin’. But that can’t be all there is to the job. There ain’t no coin in it. For all we know, snatchin’ mash notes back from womenfolk is a workin’ detective’s bread and butter.”
Gustav straightened up and glared at me. “Not for Sherlock Holmes it wasn’t.”
I shrugged then -- and I apologize to you now, sir, for what I said next.
“You sure ’bout that, Brother? We’ve read what? Eight of Doc Watson’s stories? For all we know, ol’ Holmes was creepin’ into ladies’ boudoirs all the time to pilfer some -- ”
“Holmes didn’t ‘creep’ and he didn’t ‘pilfer,’” Old Red snapped. “He was a gentleman.”
I nodded solemnly, knowing I’d gone too far.
“Sure. Alright. But what about Bloebaum? What about the Pinkertons?” I shrugged again. “Hell, what about us?”
Gustav scooped up his beer and downed a big gulp.
“We’re doin’ what we gotta do,” he growled, slamming the mug back on the table and wiping foam from his mustache. “Mr. Holmes would understand.”
You’d know best if that was true, I reckon. Me, I kept my big mouth shut, except to guzzle a couple more beers. And I kept on letting the matter lie through most of the next day. We passed the time cleaning the trail dust from our gear, treating ourselves to shaves and hot baths and taking a fine-tooth comb to a story in the latest issue of Harper’s Weekly -- “The Reigate Puzzle” by one John Watson.
“Well, you were right,” I said after reading it out for the first time.
Old Red had been stretched out on our creaky little flophouse bed, staring at the ceiling as he listened to your tale. He turned toward me looking both aggravated and befuddled, like a man who’s been awakened from a nightmare by a kick to the head.
“Right about what?”
“Ol’ Holmes got up to a few tricks there alright, but in the end he rooted out the truth without a single creep or a solitary pilfer,” I said. “Yup. I guess that is how a gentleman goes about his detectivin’.”
“Yeah,” Gustav said peevishly. “But did you notice what cracked the mystery open for him in the end?”
I glanced back down at one of the illustrations in the magazine -- a reproduction of a torn note from which Holmes claimed he could make twenty-something separate deductions (though he only ladled out a handful in the story).
“I’d say that little slip of paper was the nub of the matter.”
“Not just the paper -- the writin’ on it,” Old Red corrected me. “Holmes, he knew what kind of men he was dealin’ with just from the way that note was scribbled out.”
My brother didn’t sound awestruck, as he so often does when speaking of Mr. Holmes’s abilities. He sounded miserable. And it wasn’t hard to deducify why.
Seeing and thinking -- those things Gustav can do as well as anyone (with the exception of Mr. Holmes, of course). But how could he make head or tail from someone’s handwriting when he can’t even read “A is for apple” printed plain as day in a grade school primer?
“Maybe bein’ gentlemen is a luxury some of us don’t have,” Gustav grumbled.
“Well, just you don’t forget -- even Holmes couldn’t do everything by hisself,” I said. “Why do you think he always wanted Watson taggin’ along?”
Old Red made a neutral sort of noise -- a growly “Hmmm.” Then he rolled onto his back again, his eyes pointed straight up. “Let’s hear that story again, huh? And slow down when you get to the part about ‘the art of detection’....”
I obliged him by reading out “The Reigate Puzzle” again -- and by dropping the question of what a proper detective would or wouldn’t do. It was Old Red himself who brought the subject up again.
It was Sunday morning, and he was waking me with a shake.
“Time to go. Decent folks are in church by now.”
I opened one eye. My brother was leaning over me, already fully dressed.
“So where are the indecent folks goin’?” I asked him.
“Any chance I could talk ’em out of it?”
I sighed. “Didn’t think so.”
I reached for my britches.
Once I was decent (or dressed, anyway), we followed Bloebaum’s directions to the outskirts of Missoula, where we found the residence of The Lady In Question and her husband. The In Questions lived in a neighborhood that rode the razor’s edge between well-to-do and flat-out stinking rich. The homes weren’t quite “mansions,” yet they surpassed anything as unassuming as a simple “house.” Fortunately, there was no one around to wonder what undesirables like ourselves were doing there -- the neighborhood was deserted. We passed no one in the streets, and even the dogs, cats and squirrels seemed to have headed off to church.
Still, Gustav and I did our best to move with casual calm as we approached Casa In Question, affecting the unhurried amble of familiar workmen paying a call to inquire about new yardwork or a box of mislaid tools. Naturally, we’d left our holsters, spurs and Stetsons back at the boarding house, as true tradesmen wouldn’t visit a respectable home dressed for a roundup. And naturally, we walked around to the servants’ entrance and knocked politely on the door.
Less natural was what we did when no one answered: We retrieved the spare key hidden in a window flower box and we let ourselves in.
“Hello?” I called out as I closed the door behind us. “Anyone home?”
From somewhere deep in the bowels of the house there came a “Yip!” and the tappy-scratchy sound of paws scrambling across floorboards.
“Prince Buster sounds pretty perky today,” I said.
Old Red took a few uncertain steps deeper into the house. “Let’s hope not too perky.”
“Prince Buster” was the Dog In Question. We knew about him for the same reason we knew about the key. The Lady In Question’s maid wouldn’t stoop to thieving, Bloebaum had told us, but somehow selling information to thieves didn’t violate her scruples. She’d given the detective the lay of the land, and he’d turned around and laid it on us. We could only assume the maid was praying for forgiveness at that very moment, for she too would be attending services that morning.
Which left it to Prince Buster to defend hearth and home alone. He wouldn’t be much defense, we’d been assured, as he was a Great Dane of great, great age.
“According to the maid, he’s nearly deaf -- probably won’t even wake up when you come in,” Bloebaum had said. “But if he does, don’t worry. He’s friendly enough with most people, apparently. He’s more likely to lick your face than go for your throat.”
Nevertheless, my brother and I weren’t taking any chances with the prince: In my pocket was a bag of pemmican, which I took out and dumped on the kitchen floor. Hopefully, Buster would prefer dried beef to fresh cowboy.
Old Red and I braced ourselves as the sound of claws on wood came closer. From the high pitch of the clack-clicks, it sounded like Prince Buster had just had his nails sharpened to needlepoints.
“I swear to God, Gustav,” I said, my fingers hovering over the empty spot on my hip where my holster would usually be hanging, “if that dog kills us, I’ll never forgive you.”
The clack-clicks drew ever nearer. My brother and I clustered together by the back door, ready to turn tail and run at the first growl.
When at last the dog appeared, he didn’t just growl -- he raced forward and lunged at Old Red, practically foaming at the mouth. He sank his teeth into my brother and began thrashing wildly.
I looked down and laughed.
“Well, I’ll be,” I said. “When Great Danes get old, they shrink.”
The dog doing his best to tear my brother limb from limb -- and not getting anywhere near succeeding -- was all of eight inches tall. He was also a Chihuahua. His head was turned sideways, the better to clamp down on Old Red’s boot with his little jaws. One big, black eye stared up at us, full of spite.
“Looks like you bit off more than you can chew, little feller,” I said to him.
“Grrrrrorrow,” the dog replied.
Gustav lifted up his leg and tried to shake him loose. The Chihuahua wriggled and writhed like a fish on a line, but he wouldn’t let go.
“Give him a whiff of pemmican,” I suggested.
Old Red hobbled over to the bits of jerked meat, the dog dragging along behind him, fighting his every step.
“Go on,” my brother said. “Get you some beef, you little bastard.”
But the Chihuahua still preferred the taste of boot leather to pemmican, and he wouldn’t let go. Perhaps I could’ve loosened him with a kick or two, but my brother and I share a soft-heartedness when it comes to all animals other than cows, sheep, chickens and bankers. We’d no sooner kick a dog than we’d brand a baby.
“Look, you can still walk, even with that furry spur at your heel,” I pointed out. “Let’s just move this along, huh? I wanna get outta here.”
Gustav hung his head as if saying a silent prayer for strength.
“Grrrrorrowrrowrrow,” the dog said.
Old Red sighed.
He headed for the hallway.
It was a fine, fancy house decorated with fine, fancy things, but I didn’t pause to admire any of the fine fanciness. I was mesmerized by that dog. He stayed stuck to my brother’s boot all the way down the hall and up the stairs.
“That is one scrappy mutt,” I said as Gustav limped into the first room at the top of the stairs -- the master bedroom, Bloebaum had told us. “He just doesn’t know when to give up, does he? Kinda reminds me of you like that.”
“Well, hell,” my brother grumbled.
I followed him (and the Chihuahua) into the bedroom.
“What’s the...? Oh.”
Before us was what you’d expect to see in a bedroom: namely, a bed. But we’d been expecting beds, his and hers, with a table in between them. The letter would be in a jewelry box in the top drawer.
With only one bed, of course, there’s no “in between.” And there was no table, either. Not like the one Bloebaum had described.
“Sweet Jesus,” I said. “We’re in the wrong house.”
Old Red shook his head. “The key was where it was supposed to be. The stairs and the bedroom, too.”
He took a few more steps into the room and started to bend down to inspect the floor on his knees, Holmes-style.
“I wouldn’t do that I was you.” I gave the seat of my jeans a pat. “I bet it’s bad enough havin’ that pesky S.O.B. clamped to your boot.”
My brother stared down sourly.
“Grrrrrrrrrrrr,” the dog said.
“Grrrrrrrrrrrr,” Old Red said.
“Look, the table’s not here, so the letter’s not here,” I said. “So why are we still here?”
“Cuz the table was here.” Gustav pointed to the right of the bed, at the carpet covering the floor. The plush fabric had been dimpled here and there with small, circular grooves -- the kind bed legs and a table would make. “Only question is, where is it now?”
He stalked out to the hallway as quick as he could with his little caboose. He checked the next room (a linen closet) and the next (an indoor w.c.) before he muttered the words that told me he’d found what he was looking for.
The missing bed and table were squeezed into what looked like a disused sewing room down the hall. My brother moved to the bedtable, pulled out the top drawer and produced a long, flat box of dark mahogany. The letter was inside, folded in thirds and perched boldly atop The Lady In Question’s glittering gewgaws.
“Looks like we did it,” I said without much enthusiasm. “Bloebaum’s got him a couple apprentice detectives now.”
“Yeah...I suppose,” Old Red mumbled. He picked up the letter gingerly, pinching one corner betwixt thumb and forefinger as if it was something he didn’t wish to sully -- or it was something that might sully him. “The lady sure ain’t shy about her two-timin’, is she?”
“Don’t appear so,” I said. “Every time she went to pretty herself up with her baubles, there was that letter sittin’ there.”
“Yup. Seems like the mister’d be bound to notice it sooner or later....”
My brother’s eyes lost their focus, staring at everything and nothing they way they do when his gaze turns inward. Something didn’t sit right. Something, in fact, jumped up and down very wrong.
Before either of us could say just what, though, our resident ankle biter let loose of Gustav and tore out of the room, barking at full blast.
Old Red grimaced. “That can’t be good.”
And it wasn’t, for the next thing we heard was the jangling clatter of a key in a lock followed by the squeak of an opening door.
“...don’t mind missing that idiot minister blathering away,” a man’s voice rumbled down in the foyer. “And we left before the offertory, thank God. But couldn’t you even wait till we were standing for a hymn or something? To just jump up and -- ”
A woman said something in reply, but she spoke too softly for us to hear her clearly over the Chihuahua’s frantic yapping.
“Fine. Run off to your little hidey hole, then,” the man snarled. “Stay there all day, if you wish. You’ll be sparing me a...Christ, Tubby! Would you please shut up!”
Tubby -- the dog, presumably -- went right on barking.
“A Chihuahua. A Chihuahua!” The man spat out an oath so foul I could practically smell it. “We finally get a chance to own a good, red-blooded American dog, but oh no! You had to have a Chihuahua! I swear, I don’t know which is going to drive me crazy first, Cassandra -- you or that little pop-eyed freak! Maybe that’s what you want! It would explain so much! You’re trying to drive me mad, aren’t you?”
“Why should I waste my time, Orville?” Cassandra snapped back, the sound of her quick footsteps echoing up the stairway. “You’ve already done an admirable job of it yourself.”
“Why, you miserable bitch!”
I’m sure there was more -- and worse. Thankfully, my brother and I were no longer around to hear it. Instead, we were dropping one by one from the window in the w.c.
We had to hope neither Orville nor Cassandra heard the call of nature before we could make our escape, for of course there was no way to close the window behind us. We had to hope, too, that they didn’t hear the thuds, oofs and mumbled curses occasioned by our long drops into the rose bushes lining the back of the house.
“You know what I wish right now?” I whispered hoarsely as I peeled a long, thorn-covered stem from my posterior. “I wish we were goddamn gentlemen.”
“We best get to runnin’,” Old Red groaned, pushing himself off the freshly decapitated garden cherub that had broken his fall (though not, by some miracle, his ankles). “The lady might’ve worn some of her trinkets to church...and ol’ Orville, he might be hungry.”
The letter was in my brother’s pocket.
The pemmican was still spread across the kitchen floor.
Our horses were stabled a half-mile away.
Three hours later, we were sauntering -- moseying into Bloebaum’s office at the appointed hour laboring to look as relaxed as a couple of swells out for a Sunday stroll in the park. Bloebaum was still in his church duds, hair slicked back, mustache freshly waxed. He goggled at us nervously as we came in but managed to wait until the door was closed to spit out his “So?”
Gustav brought out the letter and gave it a waggle.
Bloebaum sighed and smiled simultaneously. “I was worried. The lady in question and the gentleman in question attend the same church. Apparently, she was so upset when she saw him this morning, she left the service early.”
“Not early enough to catch us,” I said.
“Excellent.” Bloebaum held out his hand. “And now, if you please....”
Old Red shook his head.
“We don’t please,” I said. “Not without a guarantee, anyway.”
Bloebaum’s smile wilted. “A guarantee?”
I nodded. “In writin’. A month’s trial employment for both of us...at two dollars a day.”
“That wasn’t our agreement,” Bloebaum said coldly.
My brother slipped the letter back into his pocket.
“Well, once we gave it some thought, our old agreement didn’t seem so agreeable anymore,” I said. “Your client’ll be payin’ you when it was us who stuck our necks out. So we figure we’ve earned us a better deal. Course, if we don’t get it...well, there won’t be much to keep us around Missoula. We’ll just slip that letter back under the lady’s door and ride off to -- ”
The detective’s eyes were so ablaze Gustav could’ve used them to light his pipe. All the same, he smiled, his grin bitter yet admiring -- a bow to a worthy opponent.
“You two are a lot sharper than you look. Alright. Why not put you on the payroll?”
He leaned forward and got to scribbling on a scrap of paper on his desk, reading his words aloud as he wrote.
“I agree to pay Arthur and August Amblingmayer...” (Neither Gustav nor I bothered correcting him.) “...two dollars a day each for a term of employment of not less than thirty days. Signed, William J. Bloebaum.”
He completed his signature with a flourish and thrust the note out toward me. I stepped up to take it, then moved back a few paces to stand with my brother.
“Now,” Bloebaum said. “The letter.”
Old Red handed it over -- to me. I snapped the paper open with a flick of the wrist and held it up next to Bloebaum’s “guarantee.”
“What are you doing? Give me that at once!” Bloebaum thundered. “You have no right to read it! It belongs to my client!”
I looked over at my brother and nodded.
“Who just happens to be you,” Old Red said to Bloebaum. “You’re ‘the gentleman in question.’”
“Except you ain’t much of a gent,” I threw in. “Are you, ‘Billy Boy’?”
Bloebaum didn’t answer -- not with words, anyway. He just sank into his chair, going so limp it looked like he was about to drape himself over it like a sheet.
“It struck me as mighty peculiar, the maid not mentionin’ that the lady’d got herself a new dog...and had moved out of the master bedroom to boot,” Gustav said. “It seemed like whoever was passin’ along the skinny on the lady’s house hadn’t actually been there in weeks. But why the lie about a tattlin’ maid -- unless it was you who’d been in that house? You who’d be carryin’ on with the lady?”
Bloebaum had looked up, his eyes wide, when Old Red mentioned the lady’s room switch. But as my brother went on, the detective hunched over and put his head in his hands.
“Course, I couldn’t be sure, so we took us a look at that letter ’fore we came over here. You didn’t sign your name to it, but I assume the lady’s husband could piece together who ‘Your Darling Billy Boy’ was if he was to see it. Me, I needed some other kinda proof. I don’t know much about handwritin’...hell, I can’t even do it. But fortunately -- ”
“The l’s in ‘Billy’ and ‘dollars’ and ‘William’ is what really gave you away,” I told Bloebaum. “Even when you’re writin’ cursive, you make your double-l’s with just two straight lines.”
Gustav gave me an approving nod. “Good eye, Brother.”
“Why, thank you, Brother.”
Bloebaum finally looked up at us again. “Cassandra...the lady. You say she’s in her own bedroom now?”
“Yup,” Old Red said. “I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with that letter, though. Maybe the husband noticed it, maybe not. I reckon she gave him every chance to see it, though.”
“Oh, yes. That she did,” Bloebaum mumbled miserably. “It’s one of the ways they torture each other -- leaving around little hints of their indiscretions. She showed me where she was keeping my letter. She thought it was funny. I didn’t. If it ever came out that I’d betrayed a client -- ”
“Whoa,” I broke in. “Client?”
“Oh, Mr. Bloebaum,” Old Red said, shaking his head with doleful reproach. “The husband hired you?”
Bloebaum nodded reluctantly, shame-faced, like a schoolgirl caught passing notes. “He’s preparing a case for divorce. He needs solid proof that Cassandra’s committed adultery. He hired me to get it. It was the first decent job to come my way since I left the Pinkertons.”
“‘Left’?” Gustav said, cocking an eyebrow.
Bloebaum cleared his throat. “Was asked to leave,” he muttered.
“Well, I reckon you got the proof the husband wanted,” I said. “You just picked a hell of a way to go about it.”
Bloebaum shrugged lethargically, as if he could barely muster the energy to lift his shoulders. “I couldn’t help it. Following a woman, watching her...it can bewitch a man. Eventually, I approached her, told her what her husband was up to. She....” He cleared his throat and shifted his gaze downward, to an empty spot atop his desk. “She made me a counter-offer. I broke it off last month, when I finally realized what a fool I’d been. But it’s been eating me alive ever since. That letter -- it could destroy me. I couldn’t work up the nerve to get it back myself, though. Prince Buster hated me. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of Cassandra’s other beaux finally poisoned the big....”
A piece of paper fluttered through the air and settled onto the desk before Bloebaum.
“Take it,” Old Red said. “Makes my hands feel dirty just holdin’ the thing.”
Bloebaum snatched up the letter, clutching it tight in trembling hands. He gazed at my brother in wonderment a moment...before ripping the paper into a hundred pieces. When he was done, he sighed contentedly, then looked back over at us.
“Thank you. Truly. But...I’m sorry. I really can’t afford to hire you. Not with -- ”
Gustav barked out a scoffing laugh.
“Mister, if you think we’d still wanna work for the likes of you, you’re as dumb as you are dishonest,” I said.
As we headed for the door, I did to Bloebaum’s “guarantee” what he’d done to his love letter.
“Well,” I said once we were outside again, “what now?”
“You know what now.”
I crooked a thumb back at Bloebaum’s office. “That don’t give you second thoughts about detectivin’ for a livin’?”
Old Red scowled at me like I’d just asked if he had second thoughts as to the sky being blue or the grass green. “Bloebaum there might’ve been a disappointment, but our Holmesifyin’ -- that came through again, didn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” I said, surprised to hear my brother mention our Holmesifying. He usually speaks of Holmes as something that belongs to him alone. “We did get things untangled...eventually....”
Old Red nodded firmly. “There you go then.”
And that was that. His faith remained unshaken.
Or maybe I shouldn’t call it “faith,” since that’s something you’re supposed to hold to in lieu of proof. And we’ve seen proof aplenty, because we’ve put Holmes’s methods to the test time and time again, and they haven’t failed yet.
We still haven’t found jobs as detectives -- or run across anyone who could hold a candle to Holmes. But that doesn’t mean your friend’s flame has flickered out. You helped it burn all the brighter when he was alive, I have no doubt, and you’re keeping it ablaze today with your stories. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say the torch has been passed to my brother and me, but I will say this: We’ve seen the light.
For that, we both thank you.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
June 21, 1893