A tendril of smoke gracefully swirled up from his cigarette into the low-lying, jaundiced fog. Jermyn Street was cast in such a gloom as to be worthy of a scene from Dickens – or Dante. Yet despite the noxious atmosphere – and the gelid air misting up my breath – I could still divine, like a lighthouse in the fiercest storm, the twinkle in my companion’s eye. Oh that incomparable, incorrigible, twinkle that had acted as a Siren song – seducing me and nearly dashing me upon the rocks of prison – these recent months.
‘We have had stranger jobs, more dangerous jobs and most decidedly more profitable jobs, my dear Bunny, but I warrant that there have been none so local,’ Raffles wistfully expressed whilst extracting his trusty skeleton key from the inside pocket of his navy blue woollen blazer.
I briefly considered the proximity of our first ‘job’ together on that fateful night in Bond Street on the Ides of March, but then nodded in agreement. We were but a few minutes from the Albany, where Raffles resided (when he was not visiting country estates, scoring runs during the day at cricket and scoring loot at night as a gentleman thief – or rather I should say the gentleman thief).
‘The ice may not even have melted in your gin and tonic, Bunny, by the time we return,’ Raffles buoyantly added.
The clip-clop of horses and the thrum of a carriage’s wheels approached and then rescinded. A party of late-night revellers, either heading to or from a club, could also be heard in the background. With his skeleton key, lifted from a porter at Browns Hotel, Raffles unlocked the back door to Hatchard’s of Piccadilly.
‘If knowledge is the key to everything, Bunny, then this pick-lock runs it a close second,’ Raffles remarked, holding up the skeleton key, which glinted – along with his aspect – in what little light the street offered.
I tightened my sweaty grip around the handle of the black carpet bag which carried the tools of his trade (or rather our trade). I then gulped and forced myself through the door, which Raffles courteously held open for me. Fear slithered up and down my spine like an eel. I thought of a thousand things that could go wrong. Even after all this time Raffles had to be confident and courageous enough for the both of us, which thankfully he was.
We soon came through to the back of the shop. I lit our lamp with a match, still trying in vain to do so noiselessly, as Raffles could. Tables and shelves of books warmly glowed before us, the gold and silver leaf upon the spines shimmering in the amber haze.
‘There are riches here, Bunny, worth more than those housed in Aladdin’s cave,’ my companion whispered in awe, his eyes feasting upon piled-up volumes of classic titles by Walter Scott, Edgar Allen Poe and Balzac. Raffles was as well-read as he was well-dressed. One was much more likely to find him reading an edition of Byron or Pope than pouring over the society pages or cricket scores, even.
A presentiment came over me, however, as my gaze found itself inexplicably drawn to a solitary copy of Crime and Punishment squatting upon a table – and I cursed the day that I ever set foot across the threshold of 221b Baker Street.
My heart froze – and then beat like the clappers – as I held the card in my hand.
‘Mr. Sherlock Holmes requests the company of Mr. Harry Manders at 221b Baker St. at the earliest opportunity.’
There was an authority in the bold script that transformed the request into a command. The message had been delivered by a wiry, sandy-haired street urchin. No doubt he was a member of Holmes’ renowned gang of
Baker Street Irregulars. The imp barely disguised his amusement at my perplexed – or just plain terrified – reaction. My face turned as white as the card I was holding and I almost had to ask the youth to lift my jaw up from the depths to which it had dropped. I rubbed my eyes and read the note again, hoping that the burgundy and late night at the baccarat tables were playing tricks upon my mind. A part of me even fleetingly fancied that Raffles might be playing a prank. But this wasn’t his style. Also, I knew him to be away. He had been invited to play a game of cricket in Truro. ‘Normally, I wouldn’t play in a match that is so late in the year – but the wish to bowl out the son of our host and then take out his daughter has persuaded me,’ Raffles explained. ‘Suffice to say I will not need your assistance for this excursion my friend. The only thing I wish to steal this week is a young woman’s heart – and perhaps her virtue,’ he stated playfully, and with a Mephistophelian gleam to his expression.
The ruddy-faced urchin continued to look amused – and expectant.
‘Mr. Holmes doesn’t like to be kept waitin’ for a reply, mister,’ the boy eventually piped out, his Cockney accent reminding me of the one Raffles sometimes employed to conceal his true background and breeding.
I was here going to assert that it was presumptuous of Mr. Holmes to think that anyone or everyone should drop what they were doing for the day to attend upon him. Nevertheless, I was somehow compelled – or condemned – to reply that I would be able to meet Mr. Holmes’ request and arrive at Baker Street around noon.
The messenger nodded and thanked me – and then scampered away before I could question him further as to the import of my imminent appointment. I returned to my study and finished off composing an important piece of correspondence, my hand trembling as I signed my name. I tried to commence the writing of an article – to no avail. I was far too distracted by the morning’s events (and by wondering how the events of the afternoon might unfold). My mind was ablaze with curiosity, but more so worry. Was the game afoot – or was the game up – for Raffles and me?