From the Diary of Doctor J. Watson
In what seemed like an instant, but was probably about half an hour, we were free, our bonds cast aside on the dirty floor as we struggled to our feet and brushed ourselves down.
I gazed at the sombre-faced head still sitting on the bench. My desire to touch Lestrade’s likeness had melted like the wax that created it, and I felt only a genuine wish to see the man himself alive and with his be-whiskered bonce unharmed. I turned my attention to the hole in the ceiling. “Give me a leg up, Holmes.”
My bosom companion shook his head. “No, Watson. You give me a leg up – I’m lighter than you.”
I frowned. “Are you inferring I’m fat, Holmes?”
“No, no, no, Watson.” He paused, a sly smile creeping across his rugged features. “A little on the stocky side, perhaps?”
I gritted my teeth and was about to throw him a witty riposte when Hannay butted in:
“Actually, chaps, I’m probably lighter than both of you.” His dark eyes flicked back and forth between us as if we were part of some bizarre underground tennis tournament that had turned sour due to lack of strawberries and cream.
I waited for Holmes to slap the man down with one of his amusing rejoinders. But he didn’t. “Excellent idea, Dickie.” And with that he bade me clasp my hands together with his, forming a cradle of fingers in preparation for Hannay’s foot. Bracing ourselves, we took our companion’s boot in our grip and hoisted him upwards.
“A little higher, chaps,” he muttered, reaching for one of the sturdier joists.
A moment later, Hannay was standing on the floor above. Peering down, he effected a small bow, waggled his fingers in a sort of ‘toodle-oo’ gesture and was gone.
“Come along man!” I shouted to the empty space. “Find a rope, a ladder, a sturdy plant – anything to get us out of here.”
But there was no reply, only Hannay’s retreating footsteps above us.
“Oh for fu – ” I began but Holmes silenced me with a warning look.
“I knew it, Watson. The cad’s double-crossed us.”
I stared at him for a moment. “Holmes, sometimes I despair of you – if you’d suspected such underhandedness, then why the buggering hell didn’t you take some sort of..some sort of…” I struggled for a suitable phrase.
“Evasive action?” quipped Holmes. “And alert him to my superior intelligence?”
“Well, yes. I mean, no. I mean…” I took a deep breath and indulged in a moment of internal reflection, albeit tinged with a degree of resignation. I breathed out slowly, releasing the tension in my shoulders, my torso, my nether regions. “Very well, Holmes. Since I clearly have no idea what’s going on, here, why don’t you share your enormous perspective?”
Holmes picked up one of the chairs from the floor and settled himself onto it. He took out his prized Meerschaum pipe and began to stuff it with shag. “This book of Hannay’s. You’ve seen it eh?”
I felt the tension returning. “Not seen it as such, no.”
“But you believe he has written it? Or has at least made a measure of progress with the manuscript?” He patted down the rough shag with his little finger in a slightly ‘camp’ fashion, and proceeded to light the pipe. I watched as a plume of blue-grey smoke spiralled up through the hole in the ceiling.
“Well…can’t really say for sure.”
Holmes stared into space. “Then you are clearly unaware that the title of his so-called book ‘The 39 Steps’ is also the title of a previously published volume by one Johannes Buchanus? In German, of course, but nevertheless a thrilling read.”
I could barely contain my astonishment. “Sorry Holmes – are you saying you’ve read a book? A piece of fiction? A collection of what you yourself have often termed mindless drivel?”
His features twisted into what I’ve come to recognize as his ‘innocent’ face. (The one he wears when I’ve inadvertently touched on one of his many contradictory habits). “I do occasionally read, Watson.”
I huffed. “Never read anything of mine, expect to criticize, point out its inadequacies, its…”
He held up a hand. “I’ve no wish to upset you Watson. I’m simply pointing out that the book as Hannay relates it has already been written by someone else, and it is in fact that very story you and I, and indeed Hannay himself, are playing out here for the benefit of Professor Moriarty.”
“Except of course, Moriarty has not yet realized it.”
Holmes sighed noisily. “For God’s sake, Watson!” He pointed the stem of his Meerschaum at me in a badgering way. “In actual fact, I was not certain of his treachery until a moment ago, when our former colleague disappeared through that hole – carrying out, as it happens, the events described in Chapter Six. You see, Watson, I don’t believe Hannay has written down one word of this so-called novel. He is in fact a victim of subliminally-acquired literature: having read Buchanus’ book some years ago, he has unconsciously assimilated the text as if it were his own work and in an effort to test its authenticity as a piece of literature, he is, also unconsciously, acting out the whole thing before our eyes.” He shrugged. “You and I are simply playing our parts.”
I stared at him. “Really?”
He nodded. “Afraid so.”
“So what do we do now?”
Holmes gazed up at the ceiling. “Now, Watson? We move onto Chapter Seven. Escape.”
To be continued.