Tuesday, May 22, 2018

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE TWENTY-FIRST FERRELL

    OK, faithful readers, the story behind this story is almost as interesting as the story itself.  Every year the senior class pulls a prank on April Fool's Day.  This year's seniors (now graduates, sniff-sniff!) know that I detest Will Ferrell for his role in producing and acting in the horrible movie LAND OF THE LOST, which took a whimsical, innocent kids show that I grew up with and turned it into a sleazy, gross-out raunch fest.  So they cut out twenty pictures of Will Ferrell and hid them all over my room, and it took me most of a day to find them all.  I left two of them in the places they hid them as a memento of their stunt, and then taped all the others to my whiteboard.
   A month or so later, one of my students in the sophomore class drew a pencil sketch of Will Ferrell that bore a remarkable resemblance to the pictures on the board.  I taped it up next to them and wrote what I thought was a funny caption next to it - "Eyewitness sketch of the man police are calling 'The Twenty-First Ferrell."
   So now it's the last week of school, the seniors have graduated, and I am cleaning up my room in prep for summer.  As I took down the Will Ferrell pics (distributing one to each of my co-workers' classrooms because I'm generous like that!) I looked at that pencil sketch again, and something clicked in my head.  This was the result!  Enjoy a trip back to London in 1888:



                THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE

                   TWENTY-FIRST FERRELL

 

                                                 By

                                     John H. Watson, MD

                                        As recorded by

                                       Lewis B. Smith

 

          During the years that it was my great privilege to assist my good friend Sherlock Holmes in his practice as the world’s first consulting detective, many strange and memorable cases were brought to him by desperate people in search of answers to a variety of dilemmas.  But few were as singular as the one that was brought to our attention one stormy afternoon in the autumn of 1888.  The winds were whipping through the streets of London and rain was falling in sheets. A bitter cold had descended on the city, which had been enjoying a nice string of warm and sunny days up until then.

          I had just finished stoking up the fire and was about to sit down and resume reading the new novel by H. Rider Haggard that I had picked up at my favorite bookstore that morning when the doorbell rang, loudly and insistently, three times in a row.  I put my book down and stood, glancing over at Holmes, who was deeply immersed in the most recent issue of The Lancet, a journal I subscribed to but rarely got to read ahead of him.   If there was any article dealing with traumatic injuries, blood analysis, or other medical advances that he thought he could adapt to his field of deductive reasoning, he always snatched it up first.

          “Hurry up, my dear Watson,” he said.  “It is altogether too beastly a day to keep Inspector Lestrade waiting on our doorstep.”

          “How the devil, Holmes?” I asked despite myself.  My friend’s remarkable ability to adduce information from the most minimal of clues never ceased to amaze me.

          “Simplicity itself, Watson,” he said, taking a puff of his favorite meerschaum pipe.  “The number of people that would seek my services under such beastly conditions is limited to begin with.  I heard the distinct sound of a police wagon coming up the street during the lull in the storm less than a minute ago – a sound that is as different from that of a hansom cab, or a workman’s wagon, as that of a mezzo-soprano is from an Italian baritone.  Finally, I noticed the last time we saw Lestrade that the heel of his right boot was worn so badly the hobnails were showing through, and the tread I just heard on the stair was producing a metallic click on every other step!”

          “We shall see about that,” I said bravely, but when I whipped open the door, Lestrade stood there, dripping wet, his hand frozen in the motion of reaching for the bell again.

          “Couldn’t get to the door any quicker, Doctor?” he said with a sarcastic grin. “Or do you just relish the idea of me standing out here all cold and wet?”

          “I beg your pardon, Inspector,” I said.  “This damp weather plays havoc with my bad leg.”

          “My dear Watson, a white lie is still an abomination against the truth!” Holmes interrupted.  “The fault for the delay is mine, Lestrade, I was indulging in an egotistical demonstration of my deductive ability.  Now, please tell us the exact circumstances of the ghastly murder which have brought you out in this veritable typhoon.”

          Lestrade’s brows narrowed in suspicion.  “I said nothing of a murder!” he said.  “Who has been here?”

          Holmes laughed drily.  “You would hardly brave the elements on such a dreadful day to bring me a case of financial impecunity,” he said.  “It takes bloodshed to bring forth this degree of activity from London’s finest when the rain is falling outside as fast as the mercury!”

          “Well, of course it seems simple when you put it like that,” Lestrade said, “and right you are, murder has been committed, Mister Holmes, a killing most foul!  Louis B. Smythe is no more!”

          “The theater critic?” I said.  “By Jove, I shall miss his scathing reviews in The Times!  The man’s pen was dipped in acid, to be sure, but he had a most clever turn of phrase.”

          “A critic always has enemies,” Holmes observed.  “Surely you have no shortage of suspects, Lestrade?”

          “Every playwright he has ever panned is probably toasting the killer right now, Mister Holmes,” the Inspector replied, “but narrowing the field of suspects may be a true challenge.  In addition, I cannot for the life of me understand how the deed was done!”

          “Oh really,” said Holmes.  “A locked room mystery, is it?”

          “Oh, yes sir,” said Lestrade.  “The man had locked himself in his office, an office to which only he and his editor had the key, and when he did not emerge at the usual time, the printer went and fetched the editor, who unlocked the office and found the body.  They summoned us, and after surveying the scene, I came straight here.  I know your methods are a bit unorthodox, but to be honest, I think we could use your help.”

          “Well, then, I suppose we had best fortify ourselves against the elements, hadn’t we?” Holmes said, placing his pipe on the mantel and drawing his old inverness cape about his shoulders.  I pulled my army greatcoat from the wardrobe and grabbed my broadest-brimmed hat from the rack.  Despite our precautions, all three of us were soaked to the skin in the ten paces it took for us to travel from the doorstep to the waiting police wagon.  By the time we arrived, the wind had finally laid back and the torrential downfall given way to a cold, steady rain.

          The ferocious weather did have the beneficial effects of driving most traffic from London’s crowded streets, so we traversed the distance from Baker Street to the offices of The Times in less than a half hour.  The newspaper was at that time engaged in an epic fight for survival, as its competitors had grown in number and quality throughout the eighties.  In the next decade it would undergo a remarkable renaissance that would see its place as the flagship of British news publications become unshakable, but those days were yet ahead.  The journalists and writers who swarmed around the brownstone office building wore an aura of quiet desperation that day as they went about their duties.

          A uniformed officer of Oriental descent met us on the steps, obviously excited to see the Inspector arriving.  He saluted Lestrade and tipped his cap to Holmes, ignoring me altogether.

          “Good news, sir, we have a witness!” he exclaimed.  “The sketch artist is with him now.”

          Scotland Yard had, on Holmes’ suggestion (although Lestrade took credit for the idea), begun hiring skilled street artists to render portraits of criminal suspects to be carried in the newspapers.  Their skill had already led to the apprehension of a dozen or more felons.

          “Excellent, Patrolman Chung!” said Lestrade.  “Do you wish to interview him first, Mister Holmes, or view the crime scene?”

          “I will let your artist do his duty,” said Holmes, “while I survey the place where the attack occurred and try to deduce what I can.  Have you kept the scene undisturbed?”

          “Well, the literary editor and the printer entered the room before we got here,” said Lestrade.  “I stepped in for a quick look around, as did a physician that had been summoned.  After that I posted a couple of my boys at the door to make sure no one else intruded.”

          “At least the Coldstream Guards were not allowed to march through the crime scene,” Holmes said with a sigh.  “Ah, Inspector, you do make me earn my keep!”

          With that we walked up the stairs to the third floor, where the Literary Department of The Times was located.  A lean, balding man of about forty met us at the head of the stairs, wringing his hands nervously.

          “I told him!” he wailed.  “I told Louis that if he didn’t sweeten his tone that one day someone would make him pay for that poison pen of his!  What a dreadful loss, sirs, absolutely dreadful!”

          “You believe that one of his theatrical targets is responsible for his demise, sir?” asked Holmes.

          “Yes, sir, I do!” said the man.  “Begging your pardon, sir, I am Connor Weeks, the theatrical editor of the Times of London.  Mr. Smythe was our most popular critic.  This loss is a great blow to our publication, at a time we can least afford it.”

          By now we were walking down a long hallway, flanked with small offices on either side.  At the far end, a single police officer stood guard in front of a door that was standing open.  Holmes stopped and studied the deep pile red carpet closely.

          “Mister Weeks,” he said.  “Please tell me about Smythe’s daily routine, in as much detail as possible.  Omit nothing.”

          “Well,” the editor said, “Smythe rose around seven each morning, dressed himself, and ate breakfast before he left his house.”

          “Did he live alone?” Holmes asked.

          “He was widowed and without children,” said Weeks.  “He has a housekeeper who makes his meals and attends to his domestic needs.”

          “I see,” said Holmes.  “Please continue.”

          “He arrived at the office promptly at eight-thirty each day,” the editor continued.  “He would pick up a copy of the theater section and retire to his office with it.  He would lock the door from the inside and not emerge until eleven o’clock.  Then he walked down the street to the Danvers Club, where he took his luncheon until noon.  Then he returned here, locked himself in his office again, and would not emerge until four o-clock sharp, when he would hand his reviews to the printer. He was very particular that his office was sacrosanct, and hated to be disturbed while he was in there.  Smythe watched plays five nights a week and read novels on the weekends; he reviewed three theatrical productions and one book every week, without fail.  He left work each day by five, took his supper at the club, and then went to the theater.  He had few friends and little social activity outside of the theater and the club.  Very few people were ever invited to share his table; he generally ate alone while reading or writing in a small notebook he carried everywhere.”

          “A true creature of habit,” I commented.

          “Indeed,” Holmes said.  “How did he react if his daily routine was interrupted, if I may ask?”

          “Badly,” said Weeks with a wry grin.  “Just yesterday he came storming out, demanding to know who had been in his office.  We told him that no one had, but her refused to believe us, and stomped back inside, grumbling something about how he would make them pay before he slammed the door and locked it.”

          “Could anyone have gotten in?” Holmes asked.

          “I don’t see how,” Weeks replied.  “By his own insistence, he and I had the only keys.  He kept his on his person, and mine was locked in my desk.”

          “Very well,” said Holmes.  “If you gentlemen would be so kind as to wait here, I shall try to tell what this delightfully plush carpet has to say – although its voice has been partly smothered by the vast train of people that have traversed it since the time of the killing.”

          With that he flung himself prone on the floor, producing his magnifying glass from a vest-pocket, and slowly crawled up the hallway, his head sweeping from side to side, occasionally pausing at some point of interest that only he could see.  It must have taken him fifteen minutes to reach the open door and the feet of the police officer who stood guard outside it, watching him with a bemused expression.

          “Few traces remain from this afternoon’s traffic,” Holmes said. “But I am pleased to see that the office contains the same type of carpet as the hallway.  Feel free to step up to the doorway if you will, but kindly refrain from entering the office until I have finished examining the premises.”

          The three of us strode forward.  Lestrade and Weeks hung back, having already beheld the grisly scene, but I leaned forward to take in as much of the room as I could.  It was indeed a disturbing sight.

          Smythe, a stocky gentleman with greying hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, had fallen backwards into his chair; one hand had fallen limp into his lap, the other sprawled behind him.  A curved ivory handle protruded from his chest; the blade so deeply buried in his flesh that none of it was visible.  However, a piece of paper – a newspaper clipping in fact – had been pinned to his chest by the murder weapon.  So much blood had soaked into it that only the top few lines of print were visible.  On the desk before him was a single brown paper envelope; it had fallen open and a pile of oblong cuttings, all appearing to be identical images of a man’s face, had fallen out of it and were scattered across the top of his desk.  Other than those clippings, the desk was neat and orderly – a thick stack of papers on the victim’s left side and a smaller stack on the right.  The wall behind him was all one massive bookshelf, loaded with novels and theatrical digests.  To his right, the wall was covered with framed letters and certificates; on the left was a single chair for visitors – I noted that its back and arms looked dusty, as if it was rarely used – and the wall was blank except for a single photograph of a lovely young woman in an oval frame.

          Holmes was flat on the ground again, studying the carpet in front of the desk with intense fascination.  After a few moments, he crawled to the visitor’s chair, studying it closely through his glass, and finally behind the desk to study the carpet around the victim.  Then he slowly rose to his feet, carefully examining Smythe’s corpse, and finally looking closely at the pictures strewn across the desk, and the envelope that they had been placed in.  He saw a square piece of paper beneath the numerous oval cutouts and carefully lifted it free, turning it over.  I could see that several printed words had been cut and pasted onto it.  Holmes carefully studied the paper, then laid it back with the cutouts.  At last he gave a long sight and nodded to Lestrade.

          “The coroner can come and do his work now,” Holmes said.  “I have learned all that I can from analyzing the scene.”

          “And what have you learned, Mister Holmes?” asked Lestrade.

          “Very little,” said Holmes.  “Other than the simple facts that our killer is over six feet tall, powerfully built, left-handed, subject to fits of rage, has brown hair, and is somehow connected to a man named William Ferrell, I can deduce nothing at all.”

          Lestrade and I looked at one another in astonishment.  No matter how many times we witnessed Holmes’ remarkable gift of deductive reasoning, it never failed to amaze those of us not given his incredible powers of observation.

          “You mean Ferrell the playwright?” asked Weeks.

          “I suppose you will tell us how you arrived at those remarkably specific observations?” asked Lestrade.

          “Very simple, really,” Holmes said.  “The man’s shoes were rather distinctive, and once I eliminated the marks made by Mr. Weeks, yourself, and the officer in the hall, the traces of his foot were easy to distinguish.  The length of his stride is a good gauge of height, but even more so was the reach required to strike the death blow.  Mr. Smythe was standing behind his desk, leaning forward, his fingertips here -” Holmes pointed at some faint smudges on the surface of the desk, near the side where the victim’s body lay.  “The killer stood here, directly in front of the desk, and seized the large decorative letter opener currently buried in Smythe’s chest.  I assume it belonged to the victim?”

          “Yes,” said Mr. Weeks.  “It was a gift from the cast of Scheherazade, in gratitude for the excellent review that Mister Smythe gave their production last year. Shaped like a scimitar, forged of Damascus steel, and as sharp as the real article.  Smythe was quite proud of it.”

          “A fine souvenir of an excellent production,” Holmes said, “but fatal to its recipient.  But, back to the point, the killer was able to stand flat footed and reach across the desk, plunging the blade in to its hilt!  Lestrade, can you reach that far?”

          The Inspector was five feet eight or so, and his arm could not cover the distance unless he stood at tip-toe.  At five feet eleven, I was able to make the reach, but barely.

          “I find it curious that the killer took the time to impale what appears to be one of Smythe’s reviews on the blade before he struck the death blow,” said Holmes.  “It’s as if he wanted to drive his point home, if you will spare me a truly dreadful play on words.  Mr. Weeks - are you familiar with a play entitled The Land of the Lost?”

          “Why yes, Mr. Holmes,” said the editor.  “Smythe reviewed it last week and excoriated it as one of the worst productions he had ever seen.”

          “I would like to see a copy of his review,” Holmes said.  “This one is too soaked in gore to read.” 

The editor nodded and disappeared back down the hallway.  “Now, with your permission, Inspector, I shall take one of these portraits from the desktop.  I have a feeling they may prove useful.  Now, let us go and see what your sketch artist has to say.”

          “One thing, Holmes,” I said.  “There was a note with all the cutout pictures. What did it say?”

          “I almost forgot to mention it, Watson,” he said.  “It is a most odd missive, but it did give us a name to go on.  It is cut and pasted using letters from three different publications – The Sunday Times, Punch, and the Theatrical Digest. The message reads: “Mr. Smythe – there are twenty Ferrells hidden in your office. Do you have the ‘Will’ to find them all?”

          “Someone filled his office with those pictures,” Lestrade said.  “That explains why he was upset that he’d had an intruder.”

          “An astute observation, Inspector,” said Holmes, his tone indicating it was anything but.  “I will be curious to see how the intruder managed to obtain a copy when only two keys exist.  Mr. Smythe’s was still in his pocket, and bore no sign of tampering.”

          “May I see the picture, Mr. Holmes?” Lestrade asked.  I looked over his shoulder at the image – a well-executed pencil sketch of a man in his thirties, with rich dark hair parted to the left, strong brows, and a small dot on his right cheek. The artist had given him an idealistic expression, with the hint of a smile playing across his face.

          “It would be interesting to find out where the killer was able to find so many sketches of his victim,” I said.

          “Oh, that is Ferrell himself!” Connor Weeks exclaimed.  He had met us halfway up the hall, bearing a copy of The Times from the week before.  “He produced and directed the play you asked me about.  Here is the review that Smythe wrote about it.”

          By now we were out of the main hallway and standing amid the crowded central office of the busiest newspaper in the world.  Holmes too the proffered newspaper and studied the article for a moment, then gave a low chuckle.

          “Smythe certainly had a way with words,” he said.  “Listen to this, Watson: The Land of the Lost is arguably the most putrid pile of theatrical excrescence dropped on the boards of London’s most legendary stage since the aging Junius Brutus Booth suffered a malady of the bowels during his final performance of King Lear.  One is forced to wonder if William Ferrell has lost all semblance of talent, or whether he ever had any to begin with. And on he goes for the entire column!”

          “I always enjoyed Smythe’s reviews,” I said, “but this is pure vitriol. I am surprised The Times would print something so scatological!”

          “Some of our more delicate subscribers took issue with his words from time to time, but by Jove!  Most of them ate up his reviews.  He was the most popular featured critic in our Arts and Literature section,” said Weeks.  “My brother Kyle, our senior editor, is at his wit’s end wondering who we will find to replace him.”

          “Who is our witness?” Holmes asked Lestrade.

          “I don’t even have the name yet, but I think Miss Waites should nearly be done with him by now,” said the instructor.

          “Miss Waites?” I asked.  “Your sketch artist is a woman?  You’re not going all suffragist on us, are you now, Gregory?”

          Lestrade guffawed.  “Hardly!” he said.  “Women, being allowed to vote?  Why, what would be next, a female Prime Minister?  But Miss Waites is a very talented artist who has a knack for creating accurate images from a verbal description.  She was in the editorial archives room, I believe.”

          We followed him through the door, and I saw a lovely young woman bent over a carefully executed charcoal portrait.  She had keen, inquisitive eyes, high cheekbones, and fine, classical features.  As a long-time admirer of the fair sex, I could not help but be a bit taken by her.

          Across the table, watching her pencil at work, was a young man with a florid complexion and bright red hair.  I recalled the case of the Red-Headed League and thought that if that storied organization had been real, instead of a scheme concocted by a bank robber; this fellow would have been a fine candidate for membership.

          “Zounds, girl, that is him to a tee!” he exclaimed, studying the portrait.  Then he glanced up and saw us.  “Good day, gentlemen!” he said.  “Inspector, this young woman has a true gift.  She just re-created the man I saw leaving Smythe’s office this afternoon in perfect detail.  Find him, and I’ll wager you will have your killer!”

          Miss Waites held up the picture, and I gave a low whistle of astonishment.  Holmes’ eyes widened for a moment also, but it was Lestrade who gave voice to our thoughts.

          “It’s a dead ringer!” he said.  “Sergeant, we will be needing an arrest warrant immediately.”

          Holmes held up the picture he had carried from Smythe’s office.  There was no mistaking the features.  “It seems,” he said, “that Miss Waites has produced a twenty-first Ferrell!”

          “I don’t understand, Mister Holmes,” the young lady said, standing.  She was tall and slim, and bowed to my companion with courteous deference.

          “There were twenty of these sketches on the victim’s desk,” Holmes said, showing her the portrait he was holding.

          “What name should I put on the warrant, sir?” the sergeant asked.

          “William Ferrell, of course, you simpleton!” snapped Lestrade. “Haven’t you been listening?”  

          He then turned to the red-headed fellow.  “Are you sure that is the person that you saw coming up the corridor this afternoon, Mister - ?”

          “Wittmer, sir,” the man with the scarlet hair said.  “Kyle Wittmer, at your service.  And absolutely I am, sir.  I have a very sharp memory when it comes to faces, and this young lady drew his likeness most precisely from my description.”

          “Well done, Miss Waites,” said Lestrade.  “Now you scamper on home and let the menfolk take over!”

          She shot him a baleful look, but then gathered her pad and pencils and left.  As she stepped out of the room, the sergeant Lestrade had sent to get a warrant returned, an odd expression on his face.

          “Um, about that warrant, sir -” he began.

          “What the devil about it, man?” Lestrade barked.  “I gave you an order.”

          “It won’t be necessary, Inspector,” came a voice from behind him.  “I am here to confess to the crime.”  The author of the voice stepped into the room, and all of us stared at him, speechless.  It was the face of the portraits, standing before us in the flesh.

          “William Ferrell, I presume?” Holmes asked him.

          “Yes, sir, I am.  Might you be the legendary Sherlock Holmes whose exploits are published regularly in The Strand?” the man asked.

          “At your service, sir,” my friend replied.  He then turned to Lestrade and addressed him.  “Inspector, perhaps we could conduct Mr. Ferrell to a quiet locale and take his statement away from all the hurly-burly of The Times – or Scotland Yard, for that matter?  This case is not without points of interest, and I should enjoy a chance to clear up a thing or two with Mr. Ferrell.”

          “I don’t see what there is to clear up,” Lestrade scoffed.  “The man killed Smythe, and now he has confessed.  All the evidence points to him, that’s plain enough!”

          “Oh, kindly indulge me,” said Holmes.  “Mrs. Hudson can lay on a handsome repast for us while we finish closing out the case.”

          By now I recognized the tell-tale twinkle in Holmes’ eye and knew that there was more to the case than we had managed to figure out.  I think Lestrade must have known, too, because he directed Ferrell to join us, and we climbed back in the police wagon and trotted off for Baker Street.  It was late evening by the time we arrived, and the slate-grey wall of clouds was retreating off to the east.  The westering sun graced us with a few crimson rays before settling behind the horizon.

          We climbed the familiar steps to our flat, and in a matter of minutes, all of us were comfortably arranged in chairs before the fireplace, which Holmes had stirred to life by the judicious use of the poker and the addition of several new logs. He had paused at Mrs. Hudson’s door to request supper for four, and we had barely settled in when the doorbell rang.  Holmes answered it to find a short young woman with a winsome smile bearing a platter of steaming dishes.

          “The supper you requested, Mr. Holmes,” she said.

“I beg your pardon, but who are you?” the great detective asked.

“I am Hallibeth Bench, Mrs. Hudson’s niece,” she said. “I’m visiting from Sussex for the winter.”

Holmes grumbled an introduction and showed her to the door.  My friend was innovative and ever-changing in his approach to work, but domestically he was a notorious creature of habit, and changes in routine always upset him.

“Seems odd to be tucking in to dinner when I came to confess to a murder,” Ferrell commented.

“Enjoy the meal while you can,” said Lestrade.  “There will be lots of cold plain fare where you are headed!”

“This weather would inspire an appetite in the most dedicated of ascetics,” I commented.

“But you did well to remind us of the purpose of this meeting.  If you would, Mr. Ferrell, tell us why and how you committed the crime,” Holmes said.  He was holding the two sketches in his hand – the one from the crime scene, the other from Miss Waites’ sketch pad.  He studied them both intensely, and then looked at the playwright’s face.  I wondered what his game was, because for the life of me both images looked identical.

“It was his review,” said Ferrell bitterly.  “His damnable, scathing, brutal review of the most difficult and complex work I have ever undertaken!  Do you know I was overjoyed when I looked up and saw him in the balcony that night?  I was proud of my production sir, very proud.  I knew that he loved the book I adapted the play from, and was hopeful that my theatrical version of Felder’s story would meet his approval.  It did not!”

“So your play was adapted from a book?” Holmes asked.

“Yes,” said Ferrell.  The Land of the Lost, by Kasey Kaleb Felder.  It was published three years ago, and it was Ferrell’s review of the story that brought it to my attention.  It’s a bold and daring tale of intrepid explorers who discover a lost world of prehistoric beasts deep in the Congo Basin, and struggle against overwhelming odds to bring evidence of its existence back to the Royal Society in London.  Ferrell called it “a bold and daring marriage of classic adventure with modern science” and that intrigued me.  So I began writing a script.  Do you have any idea sir, how difficult it is to bring forth something as alien and overwhelming as a dinosaur in a stage production?  It is like producing St. George and the Dragon with six different species of dragons!  During our premiere we had a sellout crowd, and received a standing ovation at the end of the performance.  Oh, sir, you should see the props I constructed, the puppetry required to bring my beasts to the stage.  And then the next day I rushed out to buy a copy of The Times, and found THIS!”

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a clipping of the review that Holmes had read to us earlier, slamming it down on the table in frustration.  Tears were starting out the corners of his eyes, and the anger and hurt were raw on his countenance.

“He ruined me, Mister Holmes!” Ferrell said.  “Our box office has dropped every night since this cursed bit of pure poison ran in The Times.  Apparently he thought I had destroyed the plot of his beloved novel in my adaptation. Listen to this: ‘To call this an adaptation of Felder’s magnificent novel is to call the contents of a chamber pot an adaptation of last night’s supper!  How could any man endure such insult?”

“So you killed him for it,” Holmes commented drily.

“That wasn’t what I came there to do,” said Ferrell.  “I wanted to see if I could talk him into printing a retraction, or at least, to give our production a second chance.  But he stood up and got right in my face, calling me a two-bit hack and worse.  My temper overcame me, and that is when I stabbed him.”

“Oh really,” said Holmes.  “And what, pray tell, did you stab him with?”

Ferrell stared at my friend for a moment, and then spoke hesitantly.

“I don’t rightly recall,” he said.  “I normally carry a penknife, and it’s gone, so I may have used it.  Or I may have grabbed something off his desk – it’s all a blur, sir.”

“Honestly, Mister Holmes, we have a full confession.  I think it is high time I take William Ferrell to Scotland Yard for booking, don’t you?” Lestrade said.

“Oh, please indulge me just a moment longer, my dear Lestrade,” said Holmes.  “Have one of Mrs. Hudson’s raspberry tarts – they are quite exquisite!  Now then, Mister Ferrell, would you mind writing out a short statement detailing what you just told me?”

“I suppose not,” Ferrell said, and Holmes tossed him a fountain pen.  The playwright deftly caught it, and Holmes handed him a blank notebook.  Ferrell dipped the pen, and then started to write.  He paused after a moment, noticing Holmes’ intent stare.

“It’s very noble of you to do this for him,” my friend said, “but how do you think he will fare, on his own, after you are locked away?”

Ferrell’s eyes widened, his face went white, and the pen dropped from his nerveless fingers.

“I – I must confess, Mister Holmes, I have no idea what you are talking about,” he stammered.

“My dear sir, it is time to abandon your pretense,” Holmes said.  “I suspected the moment I laid eyes on you that you did not commit this crime, and before we left The Times offices, I was sure of it.  You just confirmed my deduction in the last two minutes.”

“Confound it, Holmes, this man is our killer!  He just owned up to it – how can you say he is innocent now?” Lestrade burst out.

“I must admit I am totally at sea myself,” I said.

Holmes displayed the picture of Ferrell that he had taken from Smythe’s desk, showing it to our increasingly nervous suspect.

“Do you recognize this image, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s a sketch I had done for the Theatrical Digest last year when they ran an article on my production of Titus Andronicus,” the playwright said.

“And do you consider it a good likeness?” Holmes asked.

“Why yes,” said Ferrell, “as good as any photograph.”

“Now, gentlemen, here is an undisputed sketch of our thespian friend, which I will place next to the witness sketch executed by the redoubtable Miss Waites this morning.  Are the differences not plain?” he asked triumphantly.

“What bloody differences?” Lestrade asked.  “They could have been executed by the same artist, using the same subject!”

“Watson, you are a medical man.  Surely you can see what I am referring to here,” he said.

I studied the two images more closely, shaking my head. 

“Honestly, Holmes, they look like mirror images of each other to me,” I said, and then the realization hit me like a kick from an angry mule.  “By Jove, that’s it!  Mirror images – I see it now!”

Ferrell suddenly buried his face in his hands, and Lestrade leaned forward angrily, trying to see what I had noticed.

“The hair, man – one parts it on the right, the other on the left,” I pointed out.  “The mole on the cheek – it is on the left side in the picture of Ferrell, but on the right side on the witness sketch!”

“Couldn’t that just be an artist’s error, Mister Holmes?” asked Lestrade.

“It might be, but you yourself told me how excellent an artist Miss Waites is,” Holmes replied.  “But – more importantly, Lestrade, did I not tell you that the death blow was struck by a left-handed killer?  Mister Ferrell here is clearly right handed, as demonstrated by his right hand catch of the pen I tossed him, not to mention his using it to write.  Not only that, his confession clearly demonstrates that he was not in Smythe’s office during the fatal altercation.  He claimed to be face to face with the victim, not across a desk from him – and what killer fails to remember the weapon with which he struck the death blow?  So I ask you, William Ferrell, how long have you been sheltering your twin?”

When the playwright spoke, all the passion had been drained from his voice, and he refused to meet our eyes.

“Since he was released from the sanitarium last year,” he said.  “He can’t help himself, Inspector.  He is my twin, my mirror image twin, but his mind is as simple as a ten year old child’s in many ways.  He is clever, especially with mechanical things and handicrafts, but his emotions get out of control very easily.  When we were ten, Joshua lost his temper with a playmate named James Wrinkle and beat the boy so severely that he nearly died.  The boy’s mother was frightfully angry and threatened to sue us unless we committed my brother to a home for the simple-minded.  Several times since then I have tried to have him released, but it seems as if there is always something that sets him off.  People get hurt, and I have to send him away.  It breaks my heart each time, sir!”

Lestrade nodded sagely as the story unfolded.

“I have one question,” he said.  “What exactly is a mirror image twin?”

“The rarest form of identical twin,” I explained.  “The two bodies are exact opposites of one another – the hair on the crown of their head swirls in opposite directions, birthmarks are reversed, and usually they have opposite dominant hands.”

“It was all my fault,” Ferrell continued.  “I came home ranting and raving about Smythe’s awful review, and Joshua told me he would get even, that he would pull a mighty fine prank on Smythe to get even.  I thought nothing of it, for he said such things often.   I had a domestic whom I paid to watch him every day while I was at work, but apparently he has been slipping out the window during her afternoon nap for some time. When I came home that night I found that twenty issues of the Theatrical Digest had been pulled out of my shelves, and my picture cut out of every one of them. I asked Joshua what he had done, and after some interrogation he confessed that he had hidden my pictures all over Smythe’s office.  I’ll admit I chuckled a bit at that, but then I told him that was not a good thing, and that I would probably have to go and apologize on his behalf.”

“How could he get into a locked office?” Lestrade wondered.

“I daresay if you examine Connor Week’s key, you will find traces of wax on it,” said Holmes.  “If your twin is as handy as you say he is, making a mold of the key would only take a matter of moments, then he could go home and make a duplicate easily enough.”

“He has a workshop down in my basement,” said Ferrell.  “I let him fiddle with things and make things all day long while I am at work to keep me amused.  I came home early today and found him dancing around the house, very pleased with himself.  He kept saying ‘The mean man won’t say bad things about you any more, Will!!’  Then I noticed the blood on his sleeve and realized what he must have done.  I came to the Times office as fast as I could, and found the police already there.  I couldn’t abide the thought of Joshua being locked up for the rest of his life, so I made up my mind to take the blame for the crime and spare him if I could.”

“Well, Mister Ferrell, I do sympathize,” said Lestrade. “But simpleton or no, we cannot have your brother roaming the streets if he has a murderous temper.  By law, we cannot hang a madman – but I am afraid he will have to be permanently institutionalized.”

“Perhaps I may be of some service,” Holmes said.  “I know an alienist who has recently opened a sanitarium in the countryside near Kent.  His name is Doctor Levi Baumann, a recent arrival from America.  He uses very progressive techniques to heal broken minds.  Your brother would be well treated there, and given a certain amount of liberty within a safely confined environment.  What do you think, Lestrade?”

“As long as he is not let loose to do further harm to society, I see no reason he cannot be treated for his mental defects,” the policeman said.

“Oh, Mister Holmes, that is more than I dared hope!” exclaimed Ferrell.  “I have been sick with worry about him and could not abide the thought of him facing the hangman.  He will come with me peacefully, I am sure!  Thank you for your understanding and compassion, sir!  Joshua will come with me peacefully, I am sure of it, Inspector.”

“I imagine he will,” said Lestrade, “but I will send along one of my officers, Patrolman Youngblood, in case he should turn violent – and also to confirm to my satisfaction that your brother has in fact been committed to professional care.  Let us be off, good sir, and get your brother the help he needs!”

Ferrell and the inspector turned on their heels and left after making their polite goodbyes, and Holmes watched them go with a bemused eye.  He then took the two pictures and tacked them to the wall side by side.

“I bet, if I asked, I could get the other nineteen images from Smythe’s office and place them all together,” he said.

“Why would you do that?” I replied.

“To see how many visitors would notice that the twenty-first Ferrell is not like the others,” he said, lighting his pipe.

 

 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

AN AFTERNOON OF REPTILE WRANGLING

  Confession time:  I LOVE SNAKES.  Big ones, little ones, local species, exotic species, I think they are all adorable.  I have loved them since I was a small child, as far back as I can remember.  I am not sure exactly how this happened.  My dear mother (who turns 86 TODAY, Happy Birthday Mom! - and please don't read the rest of this blog post because it is going to creep you out big time!) is terrified of snakes.  Not just a little bit, either.  She doesn't like to look at them, be in the same room with them, see them on TV, or look at their pictures in a book.  My Dad tolerated the nonvenomous species, but would kill any copperhead or cottonmouth that wandered into the yard.  If he saw a nonvenomous snake, he would use a stick or broom to make it slither away before Mom saw it.  But he had no interest in studying them, handling them, or otherwise interacting with them.

   And somehow this sweet Texas Baptist couple produced ME.  Even as a child, I loved snakes; I loved watching nature shows about them, reading books about them, looking at them in the zoo or wildlife park, and watching them if I saw one in the wild.  I remember the first snake I ever held; I was around 8 years old and we were at Big Bend National Park at a reptile show, and the park ranger was passing around some small kingsnake or other.  I let it slither from hand to hand, looking into its unblinking eyes and feeling the tickle of its tongue on my skin until finally the woman sitting next to me told me to quit hogging the reptile!

   A year or two after that, Mom and Dad got me a copy of Roger Conant's FIELD GUIDE TO REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS OF EASTERN NORTH AMERICA, which included our half of Texas.  After that it was off to the races!  I captured every non-venomous snake I saw and measured it and recorded the details in a notebook I bought for that purpose.  If I found a copperhead or moccasin on our place, I would kill it and then record its vitals.  I must have captured and recorded over a hundred reptiles and amphibians over a three year period, until my interest in Indian Arrowheads gradually crowded out my budding career as a herpetologist.  But I still caught every snake, lizard, turtle, or frog that I could, even if I no longer logged them in my notebook.

   But there was one thing I could not do as a kid, and that was have a snake as a pet.  I begged, I pleaded, but Mom was inflexible.  Lizards were OK, salamanders fine, even a pet tarantula and a baby caiman at one point (South American alligator), but NO snakes.  No matter how tiny or inoffensive, they were met at the door with a firm refusal.  So I played catch and release throughout my teen years.

   As an adult, I got my first pet snake almost as soon as Patty and I got a place of our own - a fat, friendly ball python named Monty.  He was my girl's constant companion growing up; he was between 3 and 4 feet long and they would run through the house when they were little, with him draped over their shoulders like a scarf!  He lasted until they were around 12 years old, finally dying of old age.  Nowadays I have three pet snakes in my classroom: An albino corn snake named Napoleon, a San Luis Potosi Kingsnake named Osiris, and a gorgeous Brookes' Kingsnake named Onyx.  They are all very tame, and my students love to get them out and play with them.  And of course, I will still get out of the car to help a snake across the road any time I see one, and if it's a rat snake I bring it back to our place and let it go so it can keep the mice and rats away.

   Which leads me to this afternoon's adventure.  I had been home from school for a good bit, had already eaten supper, and was chilling out in front of the computer when Patty came in and said: "Big snake in the yard!"  (Patty is not afraid of snakes at all, although she's not as crazy about them as I am.)  I asked her  to show me, and sure enough, there was a dandy Texas Rat Snake, about 4 - 5 feet long, about ten feet from her car, its head raised up off the ground surveying its path.  I grabbed it by the tail, let it thrash a minute, and then eased my other hand under its body to support its weight. (One thing I learned from the late lamented Steve Irwin is that snakes are much less likely to bite when you pick them up by the tail.)  After he had calmed down a bit, I used my free hand to grasp the snake behind the head and told Patty to take a few pictures.  I was holding the snake towards the camera, posing and hamming it up; the snake's tail, which was free, was twisting around my body trying to find a firm hold - and suddenly it went down the sleeve of my t-shirt!  By the time I realized what was happening, the snake had managed to back 2/3 of his body length down my shirt and around my torso.  OK, it was fine, I wasn't freaking or anything.  But after getting home from school I had changed into a very comfortable pair of old sweatpants.  And I hadn't bothered to tie the drawstrings, so the waistband was really loose.  The snake's wriggling tail was quick to discover another place it could fit through, and suddenly I realized that there was a scaly, slithery reptile tail trying to wrap itself around my buttocks!

   Patty was starting to laugh really hard now, and even though I was still holding the snake by the head, 2/3 of his length was now inside my shirt (or worse!).  Of course, once a snake gets inside your shirt, they are almost impossible to dislodge by pulling on them.  They will wrap their tail around the fabric and pull the shirt off of your back if you yank too hard!  So I swallowed hard and let him go, and immediately he draws his head all the way back into my sleeve, then switches direction and starts crawling out from under the back of my shirt - mercifully, choosing NOT to go down my pants leg!  Patty is really cracking up now, squeaking between laughs: "You have a TAIL!!  and your tail has a head!"  But the last 1/3 of the snake was still inside my waistband, and his head wasn't quite reaching the ground, so he wouldn't let go!  Between cackles my wife advised me: "Flex your knees so he can reach the ground!"

    I did as she said, and once he had a good purchase on the driveway, the last of the recalcitrant reptile crawled free of my rear regions and hit the ground, while poor Patty was holding her sides laughing and commenting: "It looked like you just pooped out a snake!"  (Thanks, dear, that was very helpful!) 

   At any rate, the reptilian crisis wasn't over yet.  I was following the rat snake as he crawled across the yard, just enjoying the smooth and effortless way snakes can move when they are in a hurry - and suddenly he goes under my Nissan XTerra.  No big deal, I walked around to the other side and waited for him to come out - only he DIDN'T!  Looking for a secure place to hide from the strange creature who had terrorized him, the wily serpent had crawled up into my wheel well!  I checked under the car to make sure that he wasn't anywhere near the engine fan, and then started the car and left it running for a bit.  Sure enough, he started to emerge, then saw me and ducked back under the car.  I went after him, but before I could get a good grip he bit me on the hand and slithered upwards into the engine compartment.  I tried lifting the hood and getting to him from that side, and he bit me AGAIN!  Now, let me say, rat snake bites really don't hurt.  Even this nearly five foot long snake has tiny little teeth that can barely break human skin.  But by now the snake was irritated and I was too, so I used my wife's car to run the errand I had been planning and let the snake have all the time he needed to climb down and crawl away.


   I hope he is gone by morning.