Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Vanishing Robbers - Part 2

When I once read that Arthur ConanDoyle's character Sherlock Holmes did not care about the Earth's orbit Ithought it might be a good idea to have him collaborate with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Sobeing in both the "Doyle" and the "Astronomy" Clans, I thought I'd give it ago. This is part two of the "Case of theVanishing Robbers" -- Laurance R. Doyle

The ride to the observatory was cold given the humidity leftfrom that early evening's rain. However, it had been clear now for some timesince, and it was nearing one a.m. when we arrived at the door of theobservatory. We stepped out and the stars seemed dazzling on this little London hill. Holmesknocked loudly at the door of the tall silver dome, and a thoughtful young mangreeted us.

"Good evening, Sirs. May I help you? I apologize, but we arequite busy just now, so if you'll be brief."

"Indeed so", said Holmes. "I am Sherlock Holmes and this ismy colleague Dr. Watson. I wonder if we may have a talk with the resident astronomer?" We were shown into a waiting room with varioustimepieces and photographs of stars and nebulae on the walls.

"I say Holmes, isn't this a rather peculiar time for a tourof the observatory?"

"What better time to visit astronomers than at night?" hereplied, "But I see here is our host."

A small, brisk older man entered the room. He had on largeglasses and an overcoat, and was holding several lenses in his left hand. "Mygoodness, Patrick, we are going to miss the primary eclipse of Algol if wedon't hurry! Can I help you gentleman?" he said distractedly.

"I apologize if my timing is not in line with the stars, SirBarrington", said Holmes, "but if I could have a word with you for fiveminutes, it could be of great importance."

"All right.Five minutes then...if you'll follow me."

"Watson, perhaps you and Dr...."

"Patrick is just fine..."

"Perhaps Patrick can show you around for a few minutes."

We looked at the pictures and I asked about the art of astronomicalphotography. In five minutes Holmes emerged with Sir Barrington, who had a grinon his face. "I must say your Mr. Holmes here has some unique applications forour equipment", he said. As we left I must say that I have rarely been asperplexed at the thought processes of my friend as I was at that night. But hewas in deep thought on the ride home and, as always, I thought it best not todisturb him.

When I came down for breakfast the next morning my colleaguewas already up. It could have been that he had stayed the night in his cornerchair with his pipe well stuffed. However, he had a square look of satisfactionon his face and held up the morning paper to me. "Mrs. Hudson, could we havesome breakfast for Dr. Watson? Look at this."

The paper was folded back to an article about a goldexchange to take place at the Westminster Bank. "Holmes, do you suspect thevanishing robbers to try for that gold shipment?"

"Indeed not, Watson. But I believe they will try for thecurrency placed in the bank for the exchange. Yes, I believe that is where theywill next strike."

"Ah, but when Holmes?Tonight?"

"I don't know. It is not very pleasant out. A bit damp and foggy. It may even rain tonight. I think wecan relax for now. By the way, have you ever seen my monogram on the varioustypes of fibers - hair, grass, wood, and so on - that can be used to identifythe material and sometimes the location of the objects that criminals have beenwearing or carrying at the time of a crime? Mostinteresting."

"Like the straw reeds we found at the Bank of London?"

"Indeed, Watson. They come from a certain kind of verystrong straw grown in only one region of France and very uniquely applied. A most interesting study." We chatted on then about theweather and a bit about horse racing.

As the day passed on, I was somewhat involved with severalof my patients. Holmes turned to his chemical analysis of soil salts. It rainedagain that day, but the sky was clear again when we met for dinner. "Beautiful evening, eh, Watson? Cool, clear. I think we'llhave a robbery tonight, if the barometer is not lying."

"Surely the barometer cannot effect the criminalinclinations of men, Holmes?" I replied, remembering my renewed exasperation atthis ongoing mystery.

"Indeed, Watson. But we shall know soon enough."

Calling Billy up to our room, Holmes sent two telegrams, oneto Lestrade and the other to Sir Barrington at the observatory. Most peculiar,I thought of Holmes sudden interest in astronomy after dismissing it to mepreviously. Yes, most peculiar, thought I.

Within the hour a telegram came. "This is it Watson, thetelegram from the observatory. We have a robbery going on. Bring your pistol."

We grabbed our coats and were off. "To the Westminster Bank"I heard Holmes tell the cab.

We were off through the night at a rush. I must say that Iwas quite perplexed at what the observatory might have to do with the bankrobbery, but we soon arrived to find an excited Lestrade in front of the bank."They have escaped, Mr. Holmes. And most peculiar, too."

"Have the firecrackers gone off yet?" Holmes asked.

Why yes!" said Lestrade, "we heard the firecrackers goingoff same as before, just as we arrived. We picked this one up setting themoff."

We saw a small, snarling man being held by the nape of hiscollar by one of the larger constables. He sneered at us and said "Ah, so youthink you have me. But I ain't done nothing. What,setting off a few 'crackers ain't no crime, you know."

"Disturbing the peace is", said Lestrade.

"So is accomplice to a robbery", said Holmes. "We know howit was done. Now you can make it easier on yourself if you tell us where yourtwo accomplices have gone. We shall find it out one way or another."

"You ain't got no squealer here",said the small man and began to struggle.

"Alright, take him away, if you are finished with him Mr.Holmes", said Lestrade and my friend nodded. "Now what is this, Holmes? We findthe same footprints, two of them going into the bank, and none coming out. Wehaven't found any tunnel, but we find three high-pressure bottles again. Butthis time they are left in a hurry on the floor."

"Ah, then they suspect we are on to them now. We had betterget them this time."

"But they have gotten clean away."

"Not yet, Lestrade.But hold it... this may be just what I'm waiting for."

A young lad rode up on a bicycle. "Telegramfor Mr. Holmes!"

It was from the observatory. Holmes stuck his finger in hismouth and held it up. "Yes. The wind is certainly right. Gentleman,the meadow just off Tilsbury Road.And let us hurry!"

"Holmes", said Lestrade, "you were right about theWestminster Bank, but why are we rushing off to a pasture outside of town?"

"Because, Lestrade, it is where we will find our bankrobbers", Holmes said rather enjoying our perplexity, I think. And we were offat a gallop through the night.

In a few minutes we arrived at a pasture just off the roadin time to see an amazing sight. As our carriage slowed there were two men in abasket being pulled along beside us apparently coming from nowhere.They were down in the large basket and didn't see us hopping out to interceptthem. The basket scrapped along the ground until it tipped and the men andthree large bags tumbled out. It was then that I saw that ropes were attachedto the basket and were tethered to a great balloon apparently filled with gasor hot air. Quickly, our guns drawn, and taking them completely by surprise, werushed up to them and told them to stand up.

"How in the world...why even we don't know where we aregoing to be landing", said one of the men with a look of amazement on this face. Getting up out of the mud, we could see that these twomen were rather slightly built, most appropriate for their method of escape.

"Lestrade", said Holmes, "I think you'll find theWestminster Bank's currency in those bags. It should not be difficult to obtainthe other funds soon, as well."

"You sure do owe us an explanation on this one Holmes", saidLestrade handcuffing the prisoners. A constable led them away.

"I can now understand the bottles of gas being found. Theyhid them so that we wouldn't suspect their means of escape. Buthow about the firecrackers?"

"Why, doesn't a balloon make a lot of noise when it is firstbeing filled with hot air?" I said. "I heard them once at a fair where thebottles of gas made an awful roar when heating up the air inside the balloon."

"Exactly, Watson", said Holmes. "The third man was coveringup the noise on the roof with a firecracker barrage. Of course you now see thatthe men were carrying those high-pressure bottle-tanks in their balloon basket,the latter the source of the peculiar crisscross pattern in the mud and thesource of the little straw reeds. When I found out that balloon baskets areonly manufactured in a certain region of France, and only of this uniquetype of straw plant that comes from there, my suspicions were confirmed."

"But how did you know when the second robbery would takeplace, Holmes?" I asked.

"They certainly needed clear weather to fly away, but thecold air also helped them to get airborne. I told Sir Barrington at theobservatory of my problem in tracking a flying object over London and asked if the stars couldn't waituntil we had spotted these two over the bank."

"Of course!"I said.

"Well, he didn't have much trouble picking them out in thebright moon tonight. Their first exploit had made them rather bold. He spottedtheir balloon when it was inflated over the Westminster Bank and reported theirposition to me when they were coming down. Probably low of fuel, they had tocome down very near where they were last spotted, and we overtook them in timeto see them land."

"Well, if that don't beat all", said Lestrade. "We thank youagain, Mr. Holmes", and he was off with the prisoners.

"We should be in time for a late supper", said Holmes as weentered the carriage and started back to Baker Street.

"A most singular method of getaway", I said, as Holmes wrotea telegram to the observatory. "It certainly added a new dimension to ourinvestigations, eh, Holmes?"

"Assuredly", smiled Holmes. "I must say that while I've beennoted for my use of the magnifying glass, until now the criminologicalapplications of the telescope had eluded me. Yes, indeed, Watson, one couldcertainly say that business has been looking up."

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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.