Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Vanishing Robbers

Author's note: When I once read that Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes did not care about the Earth's orbit I thought it might be a good idea to have him collaborate with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. So being in both the "Doyle" and the "Astronomy" Clans, I thought I'd give it a go. So here is the two-part "Case of the Vanishing Robbers" -- Laurance R. Doyle

When writing about cases involving my remarkable friend, it has not always been the most profound cases that I have endeavored to portray, but more often the cases that have shown that insight and attention to detail he so remarkably displayed. However, some cases have been so singular that, although they may have been easy for my friend, they possessed a novelty about them that certainly makes them worthy of note. Such was the case of the vanishing robbers.

It was early evening at our home on 221 B Baker Street, and Holmes was approaching the state of gloom that he always descended to when challenging cases were few and far between. There had been nothing of note in the crime pages of the papers for several days, and a clear cold snap had descended on London tending to make even a very brisk mid-evening walk outside a bit uncomfortable.

"Holmes", I directed, "see what you can tell of this fellow from a small photograph I have", I said in a feeble attempt to keep his spirits up. I knew the fellow to have been a close cousin of my wife's, and she had had the picture taken a number of years ago.

"Well, let's have a look" said Holmes in an attempt at good nature, and he had hardly glanced at the picture, when suddenly Mrs. Hudson entered the room. "Telegram for you Mr. Holmes", said she, placing it in his left hand as he put my picture down on the table. "Watson, it is Lestrade. We must go at once! Can you accompany me on this adventure? I shall be grateful for your assistance."

"I wouldn't miss it for anything", I replied. "What has occurred, Holmes?"

"The London First National has been robbed this evening, and the events of the robbers' escape appears to have been most singular."

I picked up my picture, got my coat, and we soon found ourselves in a cab on the way to Market Square. "One should never cloud one's deduction by the formulation of scenarios without information, Watson. I have, however, often found it difficult to refrain. It is now that I will appreciate your little attempt at diversion."

"Surely you had only a glance, Holmes. I certainly would not have expected you to tell much."

"True enough, Watson. I could only tell that the man was a close relative of your wife's...probably a cousin, was a student at the time of the photo - which incidentally was probably taken over a decade ago by the colour of the paper - he was left-handed, has passed some time in the orient, and had certainly been a member of the crew team."

"By Jove, Holmes! I apologize for my feeble attempt at a challenge, but how on earth did you know, well for example, that George [for that was my cousin's name] had been in the orient for an extended time?"

"Surely it is obvious, Watson."

"It is certainly not obvious to me, I assure you", said I drawing the picture from my coat pocket.

"George, then, has spent enough time in the orient to have lost at least one button to his shirt, thereby necessitating the replacement of all of them by the ones you see in the picture. They are of a distinctly oriental origin, and not made of the usual brass or wood found in the European circles."

"But how about the rest? The left hand, the crewing, or that he was a student at the time?"

"Clearly a man with his watch bob on the left is left-handed. This is only emphasized by the small callous on the left middle finger, indicating that he did much writing. This drew my attention to his hands which are calloused in that singular manner that rowing produces. Now how can a man do much writing and still have calloused hands unless he is a student both taking classes as well as being a member of the crew team?"

"Amazing, Holmes! And how did you know that he was my cousin?"

"A bit of a guess? Really not much of one given that he was wearing on his pocket scarf what certainly appears to be the monogram of your wife's family. You had never mentioned that you had a brother-in-law of this age, so that I assumed it must have been a close relative. I'm afraid that I could not tell more in the time I had to see the picture. At any rate, we now seem to be at our destination."

We pulled up at the London First National Bank where various policemen and members of Scotland Yard could be seen swarming all over the area. "I'm sorry Sir. No one is allowed on these premises. There's been a robbery", a tall constable said as he stepped in front of us.

"Holmes! Glad to see you", came a voice from the steps of the bank.

"Ah! Lestrade! What is afoot tonight? And what is this about vanishing robbers?"

Stepping aside the constable smiled and tipped his hat. "As sure as Scotland Yard, Holmes, I can't find the sense of this one. We have been searching the grounds for footprints, which one might expect to be obvious after this afternoon's rain. Indeed, the footprints into the bank are sure. Two men, right here", he said leading us to a large broken side window down a little alley next to the bank. "But for the life of me, I can't see any coming out. Surely the alarm went off and the place was surrounded within minutes. Something else peculiar too."

"Firecrackers!" said Holmes.

"Why, yes!" replied Lestrade, a little surprised. "But how..."

"Surely you can smell the slight odor of gunpowder. And those little scraps of colored paper over there."

"Well, sure enough. When we arrived, first thing a full two minutes of firecrackers were set off down that little alley. Like to make us nervous wrecks. But the man who set them off was long gone. His tracks got nowhere near the bank window though, so I guess it might have been a coincidence."

"We don't often believe in coincidences, do we Watson?" said Holmes as he followed the tracks down the alley where they abruptly came to an end in the next street. "He fled in a small trap, here where the wheel tracks are then hopelessly mixed" said Holmes. "Let us return to the main tracks again."

"Lestrade. Were there any witnesses?"

"None, Holmes, I'm afraid. But quite a few people gathered after the firecrackers went off."

Holmes nodded and taking out his magnifying glass started to examine the two sets of tracks, around which was the broken glass from the windows. "Most interesting...indeed most interesting", he said. "Watson, come here a minute. You are a bit heavier than I. Come and place your foot into the mud here. Ah, as I thought."

"What is it Holmes?"

"Look at the step size of these prints. It is clear that they were carrying something heavy from the spacing of the steps. Yet their tracks don't really sink in very far into the mud. The ground could hardly have dried since this evening's earlier rain."

"The men must have been fairly lightweight, eh, Holmes?"

"Watson, you are certainly progressing. But there doesn't seem to be anything singular about their footwear." Stooping over, he picked up some small objects next to the footprints. "What do you make of these, Watson?" he said showing me some small little reed-like objects covered with mud.

"I say, Holmes, this may give us a clue to the area these men came from, eh? These little reeds may have been tracked up from some other area."

"Hardly, Watson. You see where I have picked them up from besides the footprints. If they were from the muddy soles they would have lain in the footprints themselves. Ah, and look here!" At the left of two sets of footprints nearest the bank, there seemed to be a small-hatched mark in a corner-like shape, placed well down into the mud.

"Excellent," said Holmes, " it appears that they placed their burden down here, before lifting it up through the window into the bank."

Moving into the bank Holmes began his fine survey of the premises. In a few minutes he returned. "They cleaned their shoes well before walking around the bank. Standard tools used in breaking into the vault. No fingerprints... and I suspect that the threads from their gloves I've collected will be a standard type, as well. These men were very careful, yet they must have left more behind. Here are some more of those little straw reeds found in several locations between here and the vault."

"Clearly they have tunneled out!" said Lestrade with a look of sudden determination on his face. "We are going to find a tunnel somewhere in here Mr. Holmes. No other way of escape is possible"

"I think it is a good idea to look for a tunnel, Lestrade", returned Holmes.

"Surely you can't take that seriously, Holmes", I whispered. "No one could have had time to dig a tunnel clear to the other side of the street. We saw no evidence of an exit tunnel around the bank. The sewer line is quite far away..."

"Ah hah! Here it is!" came Lestrade's voice. Dispatching to the other side of the room, which we had not yet had the opportunity to examine, we saw Lestrade and two constables lifting up several pieces of the floor that had apparently recently been removed. "Well, let's see where this tunnel goes, shall we?"

"It goes nowhere, Lestrade", said Holmes, "nevertheless, it is useful".

"Why it's just a hole", said Lestrade with a disappointed look. "But I say, what are these?" The same footprints had apparently been in the hole, but what Lestrade held up was most peculiar. He took out three long metal bottles.

"I should think that they are high pressure bottles of some sort", Holmes said. "It is certainly of interest that the robbers would want to bury them instead of either take them along or just leave them around. Let me make a quick examination of the hole, and then I think our work here is done, Watson." After a quick look, we bid Lestrade good-bye and found ourselves on the street flagging down a trap.

"What do you make of it?" I asked my friend, expecting him to be getting ready for a half-night's smoking and thinking on the case, as was his usual routine in the face of such a perplexing case.

"Oh, the case is all but solved", he said nonchalantly.

"Surely you haven't solved it already!" said I incredulous.

"Watson, as I have said, whenever all other possibilities have been ruled out, the improbable, however unlikely, must be the truth. I must say that this case is surely singular in all my experience, however."

"But how did the men escape without being noticed? Can they have retraced their footsteps? And the box? And the funny crisscross prints in the mud? And the hole with the metal bottles in it?"

"Now Watson, you know how I dislike to give away the answer before it is time. You have always, I assume, enjoyed, or at least tolerated, my flair for the dramatic up to now. Patience, and you will come to hear it all. But I will tell you this. By the way these men tried to cover their escape, we know that they will undoubtedly try another robbery soon." With that we flagged down a carriage.

"Coachman," said Holmes, "to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. They will certainly be up on such a clear night."

"What?" I said, more than mildly surprised. "I thought you had no interest in astronomy? You once said that it didn't matter to you whether the Sun went around the Earth, or the Earth around the Sun."

"I may have been premature, Watson. At any rate, it is never too late to learn something new, eh?" he said with a grin. The complicated whims of this man never ceased to surprise me.

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Contributing Writer

Laurance Doyle is a principal investigator for the Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute, where he has been since 1987, and is a member of the NASA Kepler Mission Science Team. Doyle’s research has focused on the formation and detection of extrasolar planets. He has also theorized how patterns in animal communication, like those of social cetaceans, relate to humans.