The carriage had barely made it to London and Sherlock was plastered to the window trying to judge precisely when forward progress would be faster by foot than through traffic. His brother, ever indulgent no matter what Sherlock said, had instructed the driver to make directly for the morgue nearest Bow Street. It was in the lower floor of a new hospital, St. Bartholemew’s. Lord Sherrinford had not, of course, ever set foot in such a squalid earthy location, but it was a waste of breath to scold Sherlock about it.
The streets of London were full this time of day: full of people, full of life, full of smells and soot and heart-wrenching horror. Nothing, nowhere, could ever be better. Sherlock loved this city, this giant madhouse with over a million minds tearing it this way and that. It was amazing, exciting, thrilling; he knew every inch of its thin, twisty streets, even the narrow alleys and courtyards, the sewers with child sized rats eking out a rancid existence. If the cab or carriage weren’t so necessary for the long distances, Sherlock would never close himself away from his city so. He wanted to feel the dirt and cobbles beneath his feet; less than three days away and he was ready to crawl out of his skin in gladness for being home.
Traffic slowed to a crawl about six blocks from the hospital. Sherlock jumped out of the carriage – only his incredible fleetness and luck preventing a flattened foot or muddy splash to his boots. Lord Sherrinford immediately rapped on the small driver’s window.
“He has made his escape. Turn towards the London house at the earliest opportunity.”
Sherlock dashed through the myriad people as if they stood still; in truth, his world merely moved faster than most by comparison. He took the familiar entrance that led directly to the morgue, dodging the fresh and not-so-fresh deliveries.
“Oi! You can’t come in here!”
“I was invited. Who the hell are you?” Sherlock peered down his nose at the sniveling little man, who, in fact, was nearly as tall as him and thicker through the neck. Sherlock saw him only by the size of his brain – insignificant! – and by his loathing for the detective.
“You know very well who I am.” The man, more than thrice met, wrinkled up his pointy little face in a sneer.
“Nonsense. I’d never forget meeting a rat-faced, mealy-mouthed little worm such as yourself. Unless it was purposely.” Sherlock sniffed. “Now that I consider it, the instance of intentional amnesia is quite likely. Now get out of my way.”
“Anderson, step aside and let Mr. Holmes through.” Lestrade’s voice cut through their sniping. “Holmes, I rather expected you at Bow Street first.”
“The hands are here.”
“I’m not overly concerned about the hands.”
“But the hands tell the story! Five hands could mean as many as five victims! We must catalog the details of each and compare them to reports of missing persons.”
“Holmes, I did not call on you about the hands. They could be missing from cadavers already in morgues around the city; they could be some dumb prank by this year’s medical class, stolen from the labs at university; they could have been harvested like any other body part by cadaver men digging up graves. And while all those are repugnant, the immediate origins of the hands do not concern me.”
“Then why on earth did your dispatch mention five disembodied hands?” Sherlock threw up his very-much-embodied hands in exasperation.
Lestrade thrust a much-folded square of paper towards him.
“Because the letter addressed to you mentions them.”
Sherlock snatched up the note, reading it five times before taking note of the details in the handwriting, type of paper, flow of ink, scratch of nib. All this he catalogued in silence. Finally Lestrade interrupted.
“What does it mean, Holmes?”
Sherlock tucked the note inside his coat. Lestrade knew he wouldn’t turn it back over the second he handed it to him. He sighed at the lost cause.
“Not enough data. What data do we have? The note and the hands. I must see the hands.”
“Anderson, fetch him the hands.” The morgue attendant grumbled, but carried over two jars.
“What have you done to them?” Sherlock was aghast. “All the evidence is ruined! You incompetent clod!”
The five hands had been stuffed in two large jars of alcohol and had slightly bloated. At least they hadn’t been disposed of by fire or by burial in the lime-lined pits that were dug and filled almost constantly in a city as large as London.
“I wasn’t going to let them sit there and putrefy a sennight, was I?”
“Lestrade, you found these a week ago and didn’t notify me immediately? I was still in London then!”
“Only four days. And we began by contacting anyone who might have legitimately had body parts lying around to lose. We have not been idle, Holmes. There was no reason to call you in until the note.”
“What was that?”
Sherlock cleared this throat and began again. “You knew precisely where I would be. Mycroft informed you we’d be away, didn’t he and told you not to interfere with his plans?”
“Lord Sherrinford does occasionally keep me updated.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. “Mycroft, damn him!” Sherlock continued to grumble, roughly dumping out one of the jars across the autopsy table. The liquid flooded across the slab and splashed onto the floor on the other side. Anderson gave a disgruntled yell as he was splashed.
“Oh, do shut up, Anderson. The smell hardly makes a dent in the miasma of death and decay that defines you.”
Sherlock pushed his face close to the first two hands, pulling back again and studied them from different angles. He prodded at the fingers with one gloved hand, (which was a constant source of employment to his haberdasher).
“Anderson, your face is putting me off. Twenty steps, that direction.” Sherlock pointed to the nearest wall.
“It’s only ten paces to the wall,” Anderson replied smugly.
“”Then use the door and continue on the other side.”
Lestrade put up a hand to keep Anderson from slapping Sherlock with the wet rag he was using to clean up the preserving alcohol from the slab and floor. The morgue attendant threw the rag in a bucket and skulked from the room.
“Sherlock, I appreciate that you are so concerned with these hands.” And Sherlock might normally have interrupted Lestrade at this point, but he was engrossed and barely listening. He could insult Anderson on pure instinct and a moment later be surprised he said anything at all. “But the real reason I called you here was not because of the hands, but because of the letter addressed to you at Bow Street.”
“How can you not see, Lestrade, how intricately the hands are tied into the note? If we can determine the origins of the hands, we can find a pattern or a location or a suspect. With just the letter, we have nearly nothing.”
Sherlock and Lestrade stared at each other, both strong-willed and sharp. Only Lestrade knew, however, exactly when to leave off and let the other have his way.
“Fine, Sherlock, do what you want. Stop by Bow Street in the morning and I’ll bring you to see where the bag was found and you can interview the merchant if you want.”
“Yes, yes, fine.” Lestrade could see that Sherlock was lost. Maybe he was right, that if they found out where the hands came from, they’d find the connection that would lead them to… to whom? Some sick bastard playing games with body parts. Lestrade wasn’t even sure what he’d say to the magistrate when they found the person responsible. Improper disposal of a corpse? Or maybe it was murder? Nothing for it but to let Sherlock have a go, he supposed.
But that letter. That letter gave him chills. It rang with the voice of a madman in Lestrade’s mind.
Sherlock spent the rest of the evening at the morgue, tirelessly cataloguing the hands; he’d gotten enough sleep in the dull countryside to last him a week. There was so much information to be gathered
by just a person’s hand! Beyond their simple measurements, there were: imperfections and peculiarities; calluses; nail-length and neatness. He plucked tiny hairs from fingers and the backs of the hands to examine the colour and texture of each. He made copious notes complete with detailed sketches, labeling each mark and including the length and direction of the lines in each palm. He concluded each bundle of notes with the likeliness of age and occupation for each hand.
His conclusions: five victims, as none of the hands were a matched pair; three male, two female; they had all labored for a living, though it would have been quite startling if they had not. A missing noble or person of wealth would have been all the more noticeable than the droves of lower and working class. He prepared a list of careers: chef, marine, seamstress, prostitute and dock worker, though he felt a wave of irritation for Anderson. The alcohol may have preserved the flesh, but vital evidence washed away. He could not smell them, for instance, for the alcohol was pungent and cleansing. He could not even properly place residue at the bottom of the jars to a profile, for several hands had been shoved into one jar.
Incompetents. It was no wonder guilty men walked free and the innocent were hanged.
When the sun finally rose again over the city, Sherlock examined each hand again by daylight in case the lamplight had obscured some color or detail.
Anderson opened the door in the morning for the overnight deliveries piled on the coroner’s wagon pulled up outside. Sherlock’s continued presence in his morgue perturbed him, though, of course, he had locked him in when he left the night before. Sherlock hadn’t noticed, but if he had, the bolt plate on the heavy door would have posed little trouble to the reputed lock-pick.
“I don’t suppose you’ll vacate so I can get some work done in peace today?”
Sherlock stood and waved at the open jars and clutter of hands.
“Do find separate jars for each this time, Anderson.”
With that, he left for Bow Street to inquire about the results of Lestrade’s investigation so far.
“All of the university labs have been accounted for; however, while nothing was reported missing, it isn’t like they keep the best records. Some anatomy labs don’t want to know where the cadavers come from and, once used, don’t particularly make sure they’ve been given a proper burial.”
“All the more reason to check into missing persons, Lestrade.”
“What do you think about that cryptic letter, eh? Any idea who sent it?”
“Well, I can narrow it down from several million speakers of English – and in conjunction with literacy rates and the mention of the hands, I can narrow it down even more. However, more investigation into the identity of the sender is required.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“This is hardly the business of Bow Street, Lestrade. There is no crime in sending a letter. You hardly believe in a crime where a bagful of hands is discovered in an alley by a merchant man. Thus I will continue the investigation into the letter myself.”
“I will not hear it, Lestrade. It was addressed to me, after all.”
“And why is that, do you think?” Lestrade countered irritably.
But Sherlock didn’t hear him, much as he said he wouldn’t.
“How long will it take to sort through the reports for missing persons fitting these descriptions?” Sherlock handed over a single sheet with only the most relevant facts written in the most looping scrawl. He had tucked the rest of his notes quite awkwardly into the pocket of his greatcoat where they swelled and bunched up and ruined the line.
“Descriptions? None of our reports will have descriptions of hands.”
“No, Lestrade,” Sherlock said in the most exasperated voice, as if explaining things to Lestrade were the most tiresome duty he’d ever been assigned. “But they will have occupation, approximate weight, hair color, and burns, scars, notable defects. I have listed what I can deduce about those things, and none of the hands have notable defects, so you can remove files that do have them. You need only go back a month or two.”
“A month or two? For all the city? That will take days, Sherlock, weeks even.”
“And you have more important things to do?” Sherlock’s eyes glittered quite dangerously when he thought he might not get his way.
“You know, Mr. Holmes, that I only tolerate your demands because you have a keen nose for the queer and bizarre. You sniff out the truth like a hound. But I warn you not to push me too far. I don’t care that your brother does have the ear of the Regent. The Regent is far too above to notice an ant like me.”
“Really, Lestrade. Hounds and ants and my nose for goodness sake? You are awfully imaginative for a common thief-taker.”