Miss Covington was not unknown to Holmes as she was a violinist of the first rate in symphony circles. I was impressed by her stature and hawkish nose. She reminded me of a female version of Holmes himself.
"Good heavens, Madam, you must be in need of a sherry. My dear Watson, please oblige."
I was too surprised to comply with Holmes's request for a moment, sensible of the impropriety of a visit by an unaccompanied lady at such an hour. But I pulled myself together and hastened to do as he bid. I watched Holmes subtly scrutinize her as I opened the decanter and poured her a glass of our finest sherry.
"Thank you, Mr. Holmes."
"Given the weather I am most surprised to see anyone out tonight. What could possibly be so pressing?" asked Holmes. He motioned the young lady to take a comfortable chair as he spoke.
"My violin is missing. I believe it's been stolen," she replied, taking her seat.
"Not the fabled Stradivarius!" I cried. The Stradivarius of Miss Covington was noted as being slightly larger than others created by the master, giving it a deeper and darker tone.
"Indeed, forgive me, it is a matter most distressing. I was to play at the Christmas concert at St. James's this evening." Miss Covington extracted a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes, and I saw her glance across the room to Holmes's own violin case.
"Please, Miss Covington," Holmes said, "take my violin for the evening concert. In the meantime my colleague, Dr. Watson, and I will commence with the search for yours. It won't sound quite the same, but I assure you it is a worthy stand-in."
"Mr Holmes," said Miss Covington with a catch in her throat, "thank you for your generous offer, which I will accept. I will play the concert tonight with your violin. But now, let me give you a succinct account of the last time I saw mine."
Holmes, meanwhile, could barely suppress his expression of excitement and gratification as he began to ask our fair visitor for some details. "Start from the beginning, please. And do not leave anything out."
"I have a small flat in Montague Mansions," continued Miss Covington. "I use it while I am in London rehearsing or playing concerts here in the city."
"Does anyone else have a key to your room?" Holmes asked.
"Well, my brother also has a key to my rooms, because I am away at our country seat most of the time," she replied slowly.
Holmes, I noted, did not insult the intelligence of our guest by asking if she'd misplaced the instrument, instead accepting her assertion that she'd left it in her rooms and returned to find it vanished.
"The door to my room was locked and the window was fastened," she assured us. "I did discover this scrap of paper," she added, holding out a torn bit of foolscap.
My eyes quickly shifted to Holmes, whose grey gaze briefly met mine before taking the foolscap. "Hmph," Holmes murmured. He studied every inch of the piece, holding it in front of the light of the fire, and then waving it under his nose.
Miss Covington left our rooms, carrying Holmes's violin, and we hailed a cab towards Montague Mansions.
"She was reluctant to admit that her brother has keys to the rooms, and I would like to know why," said my friend, as we sped to our destination
"Surely you don't think..." I hesitated to say, "...perhaps it isn't her brother."
Miss Covington's rooms were above a pub, the Blue Octopus, and we noticed that a loud and raucous crowd had gathered at the window of the establishment. They were singing, more off-key than not, to the accompaniment of a fiddle.
"These are rather seedy diggings for a violinist of such renown," I noted.
"The plot thickens, as you would say, Watson. That certainly cannot be Miss Covington's violin. It sounds worse than the crowd's singing."
"And surely no thief would be so brazen," I added.
"Let's go upstairs, Watson, and see if her brother is at home. Unless..."
Looking out the window on the upper level, Holmes noticed a shadow being drawn along the street from the base of the lamp-post by a figure gazing upwards at the apartment.
"My, my, Watson, I believe that figure incompetently hiding is none other than Lestrade." We bade him join us, and he agreed with some display of annoyance.
"Now I wonder," Holmes drawled, "what brings the Scotland Yard detective to this address on such a night?"
"I was summoned here, Holmes."
"As I suspected," said my friend.
"The brother did it, Holmes," said Lestrade with his usual blind certainty.
"Why, yes, Lestrade. The brother did it. Now we can all return to our warm rooms. Thank you, Lestrade." My friend snickered as he wryly smiled at the detective's obvious annoyance. "Who summoned you, Lestrade? And what do you make of this?" Holmes showed the detective the scrap of paper our new client had given us.
"You agree, Mr Holmes?" Lestrade asked in wonder. "Despite running up a sizeable bill with a certain Turf Accountant, it was certainly not he."
Holmes bristled at Lestrade's apparent mockery. Suddenly he dropped to his hands and knees and began sniffing under the dirty brocade sofa, dust rising from the tawdry carpet.
"Who left this sofa in the street, do you suppose?"
"All manner of revels go on here at all hours," Lestrade groused.
"And how did they get it inside without kicking up the dust from the sofa?" my friend went on. "Aha!" he exclaimed in a moment, as he carefully pulled something from underneath the oddly placed sofa. It was a packet of the cheapest brand of violin strings. Lestrade peered closer.
As Holmes shuffled around on the floor of the apartment, his voice muffled, I continued to look out of the window, becoming alarmed at the ever-growing crowd outside the Blue Octopus.
"But how does one own a Stradivarius and use such cheap strings?" I ventured to ask.
"Look!" cried Holmes. "Here is a small bottle of black varnish, half empty!" He raised a brow. "I highly doubt the owner of these strings is the owner of a Stradivarius. Why would this be in Miss Covington's sofa?"
I took the small can from his hands. It had a pungent odor.
"Rosin," barked Holmes. Peering around the room, my friend raised his long aquiline nose and identified the rosin as being made from cedar.
A moment later, I discovered the stuff was sticky, and had adhered to my fingertips. I withdrew my handkerchief and wiped to no avail.
"So Rosin is Miss Covington's first name, then?" queried Lestrade. Holmes and I ignored the question.
"The rosin is as poor quality as those violin strings," Holmes said with some authority. "Neither can possibly belong to Miss Covington."
"Could the violin have been taken by a jealous rival? One not as wealthy as Miss Covington?" I inquired. "Are you having misgivings about lending her your violin?"
"As a Stradivarius is a very recognizable instrument, at least to the trained eye, it strikes me as likely that someone has changed the strings, and used this abominable product in an effort to disguise the instrument. At any rate, the answer, dear friends, will not be found in this dwelling. Let us go amongst the throngs and see what can be unearthed!"
"All violins look roughly the same," said Lestrade with stolid stupidity, "and I hardly see why it would be so hard to pass one off as another."
I continued to try to wipe the sticky residue from my hands. My handkerchief now clung to my fingertips relentlessly. "Uh, Holmes" I said hesitantly. "I may need a pint..."
"Nothing easier, my dear Watson," my friend replied, "for I believe our next port of call is the public house just below us."
We all clattered downstairs to the Blue Octopus, its air filled with fug and merriment, and all sounds stopped as we pushed in the door. I followed the others, shoving my hand into my pocket in an effort to hide my awkward predicament.
"'Ello, dearie," cried a brazen-haired woman of indeterminate years.
"Flo!" cried Lestrade.
Holmes and I exchanged amused looks. "Of all the public houses in London..."
"Three eel pies and three pints of the best," said Holmes to the barman.
"So tell us — Flo, was it — in what capacity do you know our dear Lestrade?" asked Holmes.
"Saved my dear ole Nick, the Inspector did," the woman answered before Lestrade could speak.
Suddenly a scream came from the small stage set up at the end of the establishment. "What are you doing with that violin!" cried a voice.
"Torturing it," muttered Holmes.
As Flo moved closer to us, Holmes observed a torn piece of paper protruding from her pocket that exactly matched the tear on the slip Miss Covington had given us.
The door at the front of the pub was heard slamming against the wall and we saw a figure streaking by the front window. "The game is afoot!" my friend cried. He pushed his way almost rudely to the seating in front of the stage. "Surely there used to be a sofa here," he exclaimed, turning to look at Flo.
"Indeed," I reminded him, "and my hand is now stuck to the lining of my pocket." I added in some confusion: "Holmes, that piece of paper in her pocket... you saw it. I saw you see it. But you did nothing about it!"
"Lestrade is even now inquiring about the paper, Watson," he pointed out. I looked back and indeed he was, in a rather overly familiar manner.
"It says 'Shtrayd-ee-various.' What does that mean?"
"Clearly a message of noted intent," Holmes observed. He drew a huge knife out of his pocket and handed it to me. "Open up the sofa, Watson."
"Not until we get back to the apartment," I replied immediately. "I can't reach it from here in the pub."
"Yes, Watson," Holmes said. "Go upstairs and do it now before you're seen."
"'Ere, that's my furniture! You can't go rippin' ruddy 'oles in it!" Flo shrieked. She was now fending off Lestrade with some difficulty.
At that moment, Lestrade turned the paper over and grew very red in the face, declaring to Flo, "That other side was for show, and this is actually just a note arranging a tryst between you and Miss Covington's brother!"
"And wot's a tryst when it's at home?" Flo responded indignantly. "A girl's got to have some fun!" she went on. Leaning in to Lestrade, she whispered, "Though not necessarily with the likes of you!"
As I was making my way stealthily up the stairs, I realized that with my hand still adhering to my pocket, I would have some difficulty cutting open the sofa. As I climbed, I heard Holmes's low laugh, which I had not heard in some time. It was coming up from a back stairwell, no doubt leading from the stage.
"Don't let your hurt pride get in the way of the case, Lestrade," Holmes was saying. "Where was the rendezvous to take place?"
"At the Dancing Pony Hotel down on Adelaide Street," replied Lestrade.
Using the large knife, I sawed a hole in my pocket, allowing my hand to be freed, albeit with bits of tweed stuck on it, and smelling terribly of rosin.
Holmes had followed my steps up the stairs, and called to me: "We must away to the Dancing Pony!" I raised my eyebrows at that as I handed Holmes back his knife.
He made a sudden lunge at the sofa, slashing wildly, and a scream emerged from inside the upholstery: "Stop! Help! It is I, Ronald Covington!"
"Serves a chap right for stealing another chap's lady," said Lestrade testily, even as he helped Holmes free the man.
I would have assisted, but at that moment I was flailing with the sleeve of my coat which had become irretrievably tangled with my sticky hand, and my handkerchief.
"I'm not stealing anyone, I'm hiding from that Flo woman," said the newly appeared Mr. Covington, clearly irritated and quite shaken.
"Aren't you supposed to be at the Dancing Pony?" I asked, thoroughly confused.
In his reply, Ronald couched his words carefully. "She wants me to be there, but I am certainly not obliging her with my company. The woman drinks like a fish!"
"Then why write her the note?"
"Well, you see, there was this... well..."
"The real question," mused Holmes, "is how you got into the couch."
"Crawled up through the bottom," said Covington. "I had just come here from a long evening at The Dancing Pony, where I was performing a series of contortionist theatrical reviews. She wrote to me, and I wrote her back, but she conveniently lost that part while hiring someone to sew me in and take my sister's violin."
I took hold of a chair with my left hand, attempting to balance myself while I shook free the sticky mess from the right, only to find my left hand now stuck to the armrest. "Er, Holmes..."
"For God's sake, man," Holmes snapped, "wash it off with carbolic soap. I perceive a cake of the stuff on the table yonder."
"Wait!" Lestrade exclaimed. "Flo is behind this thievery?"
"It's not called the Blue Octopus for nothing," said Holmes. "She has fingers in many criminal pies."
I actually felt sorrier for Lestrade than for myself, at that moment, despite my entanglement. As I washed my hands with the carbolic soap, a thought occurred to me. "Holmes, did we check behind the sofa for any secret hiding places?" Then I had another sudden thought: "Holmes! If someone applied that resin to the violin in order to disguise it, that violin could very well be attached to their person!"
"You'd do better to search Flo's rooms downstairs," said the brother, brushing fluff off himself but looking none the worse for wear.
Holmes's gaze was drawn back to the window, where he saw a familiar shadow on the ground once again. "Did Flo look, um, stouter than usual, Lestrade?"
"She did look more portly now that you mention it. Maybe a bit too fond of the drink," Lestrade speculated.
"Or those eel pies," I said, thinking longingly of the one I'd left uneaten not half an hour before.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men," I murmured.
"Or what stupidity lurks in their minds," Holmes snapped irritably.
I scrubbed and scrubbed, at last freeing myself from the sticky mess. But when I looked up, the entire party had left the room. Holmes had run downstairs in a flash, with a reluctant Lestrade clumping behind him. I heard the front door bang once again and raced to catch up.
A smell more pungent wafted through the air, more overwhelming than the sewers only yards away. As a doctor, I knew that was not a good smell. Not a good smell at all.
Thoughts of the eel pie vanished. There was death in the air. Death, riper than a sweet pear.
I carefully sniffed the air, following the odor, which led outside, in the alley behind the pub. There was a body in the street, and the dead man clutched a violin. A very sticky violin. And his lips were sealed by a sticky resin.
Holmes immediately fell to his knees. "Watson, what do you make of it?"
"I'm a doctor, not an instrument repairman," I said, annoyed.
"Not the violin, Watson," said Holmes with an irritated glare. "The body of this man."
"Strangulation, judging from the tongue and the eyes... wait, don't touch him!" But I was too late. The unknown man was definitely beyond rigor mortis, as his skin was beginning to marble and his body bloated. I noted other indisputable indications which I need not mention.
"Clearly the corpse was dropped at this location just recently," stated Holmes. "Look!"
He pointed at carriage tracks traced along the wet pavement. "Clearly he was pushed out of the window above." My friend pointed to Miss Covington's apartment. "This man took the keys and stole the violin. But who disposed of him?"
"Holmes, I hadn't finished my assessment — but pray, continue. And here, let me help you unstick your hand."
"Thank you, Watson, but I am not in need of help, I have some patented azulean oil in a vial in my pocket for just this sort of emergency. As I was about to say, what makes no sense is how no one noticed the odor or increase in insect activity — ah, but of course, the Thames is close by."
While Holmes was distracted, Lestrade had been awkwardly reaching into the pocket of the corpse's filthy trousers, and now withdrew a tattered wallet.
"My God! It is Flo's husband!"
"So what's his name?" queried Holmes, then craned his neck to read the identification documents Lestrade was holding. "Flo's husband's last name is also Covington!"
"He is Miss Caroline's father!"
"Perhaps there's more to this family than we originally surmised," said Holmes.
"This certainly explains why Miss Covington is staying in such a decrepit place. Free room and board in London goes a long way."
All eyes turned to Lestrade.
"Oh, sure, look to me for answers," said Lestrade.
"It may also explain the disappearance of the violin," Holmes went on. "You will see by his fingers, hideously distorted though they now are, that this man was himself also a violinist. Well, now, Lestrade, did you push Miss Covington's father out of the window? Were you jealous of his marriage to Flo?"
"I... I..." Lestrade stammered, looking mousier by the second. "I did not commit murder, Holmes. While I knew Flo had a husband, we never talked much while we were together."
"Why am I surprised," Holmes murmured. "Someone strangled this man, then pushed him out the window. And if it's not you, then who, pray?"
"It was Flo, of course," I said. "He never spoke, but he constantly played the violin — but with his gnarled fingers, he could never play in tune."
"Of course!" Holmes echoed. "What a fool I have been!"
"Has Holmes been drinking?" Lestrade asked me in a whisper. "He never calls himself a fool."
Holmes rolled his eyes and sighed, then said, "After all these years, you still can't tell when I'm being facetious, Watson!"
"I may be intoxicated myself, Holmes," I said, "but I perceive that some of the patrons of the Blue Octopus may have finished with their fiddle music. Perhaps we need to reconsider that the violin may be hidden in plain sight."
"And Miss Caroline's violin is behind the bar — Flo kept it safe from her husband's ill use."
"It's oft been said that things are best hidden in plain sight," said Holmes. "And the shadow emanating from the lamp post is not shaped like a person!"
"Wait, then whose violin is this?" Lestrade asked, pointing to the decedent.
"Lestrade, it's a fiddle; not a violin!"
"Just one of a number of knockoffs that have been sold regularly at the Dancing Pony," said Lestrade. "I've been following the case for months now."
Holmes and Lestrade retrieved one violin from behind the bar, a second from underneath the body of old Covington, and a third that was simply leaning against the lamp-post. A moment's comparison made it clear which one was the Stradivarius.
"The violin case, hey, Lestrade?" I said, and he looked at me without comprehension.
"I think we should go to the orchestra pit now," stated Holmes.
As we strolled away from the Dancing Pony, I could hear the strains of music from inside the pub once again, but this time it seemed to be not a fiddle but a saxophone.
"Dr. Watson," said Lestrade with dignity. "I'm not above your little jokes, but please have some consideration for the deceased."
"Flo was running a market of illegal musical instruments," Holmes explained as we walked. "The Stradivarius was a true find. But have it your own way. For myself, I hope I never have to handle another case involving this much sax and violins."
Copyright © Chris Redmond 2016