My own Sherlock Holmes story.
It has been clearly documented among my many chronicles and notes upon the cases of my friend Sherlock Holmes, his opinion that the most seemingly complex crimes tend towards the more simplistic solutions, whereas the small and apparently insignificant problems tend to prove vastly more complex and bizarre in their resolution. Such brings to mind a case back in the year of ’87. That year furnished me with a wealth of notes, many still loitering in obscurity. Several, while showing my friend’s particular skills and astuteness of mind in a most extemporary fashion, have subject matters too mundane to be of wider interest, while some had subjects too delicate or sensitive to be revealed in their full glory, such as it was with this case. To the well educated, it would have been overlooked as a quirk or queer media error. To the sensationalists, it was the proof of fiction becoming fact. To me, it proved a grand display of Holmes’ powers of observation and reasoning.
Having been estranged from Baker Street for a considerable time by matters of practice and marriage, I saw fit, one morning, to pay my old friend a visit. A glance up from the pavement, showed the curtains drawn aback and a thin wisp of smoke, no doubt escaped from my friend’s morning pipe.
I rang the bell and was admitted to my old abode and a faint reminiscence of my bachelor days. I found Holmes sitting in his armchair, pipe in hand, a part sifted pile of morning papers before him, as well as a folded note. Heavy, official grain paper, I noted, no doubt originating from a well to do business rather than an individual.
‘I rather think, Watson,” Holmes spoke in greeting, ‘that it is high time you engaged a locksmith in the mending of your front door.’
‘My dear Holmes!’ I exclaimed. ‘I can scarce conceive how even you can deduce a matter as obscure as a rusted lock. I am sure I cannot be wearing that upon my person.’
Holmes released a chuckle, his fingertips meeting before him. ‘People wear many things upon their person without intent. The fine dusting upon your shoes hints at only one trip this morning from which I can reason this is a purely social call. From the single strand of cotton at your lapel, I would deduce that your wife gave you a farewell kiss wearing a dress with recently added lace trimmings. As for the broken lock, it is worn in several places upon your attire, most prominently, the left-side rim of your hat and the outside edge of your left shoe. Both show scrap marks in being pressed against a wooden surface. Few wooden surfaces reach from head to foot save doors. It therefore follows that you have a stiff lock and have been bracing against it, in order to force it open. By the fine spray of oil upon the waist of your jacket, it further appears one of your household has already attempted an oiling of the lock which was clearly ineffective. Hence the cause is a mechanical one, for which the only remedy is a locksmith.’
‘As always, your explanation makes it sound quite simple, yet I am sure no one else could glean such details.’
‘Hence the constant demand for my services.’ Holmes pushed the folded letter across the table.
Taking a seat on the edge of the sofa, I drew it towards me. As expected it was a business letter. Quite the business in fact. The letterhead left no illusions as to its origins with the Royal Mint imprinted clearly upon the top left-hand side.
The note was brief and read:
‘Dear Mr Holmes, being aware of your character and particular talents in solving such events as would baffle any other, I seek consultation regarding a most puzzling matter of which you may have read vague accounts in the papers. I will venture into no details here but will visit you shortly after your reception of this letter.’
It was signed, ‘W.C Roberts-Austen. Chemist and Assayer, the Royal Mint.’
I remembered reading something in the papers with regards to the recovery of a substantial quantity of sovereigns but I could not remember the particulars. Holmes, as always, ahead of my trail of thought, pushed towards me two copies of the Daily Chronicle. The article of interest in each had been helpfully circled by Holmes’ own confident hand.
The first dated the 18th spoke of the recovery of four thousand newly minted coins the previous night, not a stone throw from the Mint’s boundary wall. The second dated the 19th spoke of the theft, overnight, of four thousand newly minted coins from the Mint’s stronghold. It could not fail to strike even the densest mind that the two events were back to front. Goods were usually stolen before they were recovered.
‘What do you make of the matter, Watson?’ Holmes drew back from the table, releasing a puff from his pipe.
‘Either the dates have been reversed in error or the coins must have been stolen more than once.’
‘Sound reasoning,’ Holmes complimented, ‘much more logical than the fantastical speculations of mythical time turning devices offered by the less informed.’ His expression turned deeply introspective, another puff issuing from his pipe. ‘However, I fear the solution is not so simple. The dates and events are corroborated in other publications and there is no mention of a previous theft. While there is the chance the original theft had been hushed up by the Royal Mint, it would follow, should that have been the case, the subsequent recovery would also have been kept from the public eye. Reason dictates, the events happened as reported.’
I hardly needed to remind Holmes of the impossibility of such a chain of events, as it was clear that very impossibility served to fuel his interest.
‘It seems all doubt on the facts are about to be lifted,’ Holmes said, at the sound of a carriage pulling up at the door to Baker Street. A moment later the bell rang followed by the sounds of a visitor being ushered inside.
The man who shortly appeared was impeccably dressed, in jacket, shirt and silk neck tie, with not a turn out of place. He was of his late forties, his hair a light silver-grey, while a dark brown moustache hinted at its colour in years gone by. The moustache ran the full width of his face meeting with his short cut sideburns where the hair silvered as it reached his ears. His expression could be best described as beleaguered, his face tired and drawn. He showed all the cares of a brewing crisis, a common characteristic in those who sought the expertise of Sherlock Holmes.
‘Mr Holmes.’ The man wasted no time in greeting my friend. ‘I see you received my note.’
Holmes nodded. ‘Indeed. Pray take a seat. This is, Dr Watson, my friend and colleague. I can assure you of his confidence in any matter you wish to discuss.’
Mr Roberts-Austen nodded but did not take a seat, instead pacing a little across the room. ‘I hardly know where to start, matters are such a muddle. I fear even a man of your talents will fail to draw sense from them.’
‘There are, on occasion, such problems for which there is insufficient data to draw a conclusion.’ Holmes placed his pipe to one side. ‘Perplexing as it is, this case does not strike as such. A few theories present themselves. Pray tell me what you know, so I might narrow them down.’
Emboldened by the hope of resolution, Mr Roberts-Austen thought for a moment and then embarked upon his tale. ‘It would have been three days ago. We completed the minting of a test batch of gold sovereigns for Her Majesty’s forthcoming Jubilee, four thousand in total, and not a single more. Late that evening, must have been closing on midnight, I sat in my study running through some figures when I received an urgent summons. Those four thousand Jubilee coins had been found outside the compound. From what I heard, they fell off the back of an erroneously driven cart. The military guard had already secured them when I arrived on the scene, but that was when events took a puzzling turn. On returning to the stronghold, where the coins were stored, we found it still secured with all four thousand coins still locked inside. You can understand our perplexity. We now had eight thousand coins where only four thousand were known to exist, a clear impossibility.’
‘Highly improbable, certainly,’ Holmes interrupted, ‘but nothing is ever impossible. Do continue.’
Mr Roberts-Austen looked uncertain for a moment but then continued. ‘Well, the only reasonable possibility left was counterfeiting. I took a selection from both batches and spent the rest of the night and all yesterday running every known test in identifying counterfeits, but the two batches matched in every detail. The composition of the metal, the pressing, even our best engraver could not tell them apart. The dies used would have to have been exact replicas. I have the figures and the assurance of the master of the pressing room that only four thousand passed through our machines. Where then could the others have come from? Then last night at about the same hour, midnight, I received another summons. The stronghold had been broken into and our original batch of coins stolen. The lock had been forced by some inhuman strength. The whole series of events is madness. The mint is patrolled by a military force, yet the perpetrators escaped without notice. There seems no logic to any of this.’
‘On the contrary,’ Holmes spoke, ‘there is a great deal of logic.’ He puffed twice on his pipe, his expression focused. ‘Watson, have you time for a trip to the mint?’
As we travelled to the mint, in Mr Roberts-Austen’s carriage, through the run down and grimy area of Tower Hill, Holmes declined any interest in stopping at the location of the gold’s recovery, explaining that on a main road any evidence would by now have been scattered by countless dozens of passing carts and carriages. We instead drove straight for the mint’s grand gates.
Glancing out of the carriage window, I saw the thirty foot walls of the mint compound followed by an open alley, which Mr Roberts-Austen informed us was known as the military way due to its constant patrol by military forces. Indeed, it was easy to comprehend the assayer’s incredulity regarding the breech in security as barely a patch of land lay unguarded round the perimeter. However, I already knew Holmes’ opinion on the matter, without his speaking of it. The perpetrators had been seen, numerous times, by the guard, just not observed. Over the years, I had managed to glean that much, at least, from his methods. As for the appearance of the extra four thousand gold sovereigns, I had not a clue.
The carriage drew to a stop outside the mint’s main building which held more the appearance of a grand, late Georgian, stately home than a place of manufacture.
‘The Smirke Building,’ Mr Roberts-Austen informed us with a grand gesture as we passed into the entrance hall. ‘The stronghold is this way.’
Led off to the left, we soon stood before the stronghold, its heavy, steel door still ajar. Mr Roberts-Austen’s description of inhuman strength seemed accurate. The lock mechanism had been ripped apart, its components scattered across the floor. A hollow remained where the complex lock had been which Holmes examined by lens. After a short examination, he squatted down, attention turning to the components. He lifted but a few for inspection before returning, sharply, to his feet.
‘To the pressing room, if you please.’ Holmes’ face was taught, his gaze piercing, soaking up any details it passed. The characteristics were unmistakable. He had caught the scent. The hunter was on the trail.
Beyond the Smirke Building lay a spread of single storey, shed-like buildings arranged around a quadrangle. The burning smell of molten metal came from the melting houses on either side while beyond the smell changed to that of sulphur and engine smoke. The pressing room lay to the far right. Vaulted by a high glass roof, the space was brighter and airier than its frontage would suggest. The lever presses, arranged back to back down the centre, sat still and unmanned, their large flywheels showing no signs of power.
‘Good, you ceased production.’ Holmes bent to study the first press, running a finger across the nearest joint. ‘An efficient design certainly,’ Holmes commented. ‘They would produce in excess of eighty coins a minute I might wager.’
‘Ninety, with smooth running.’ Mr Roberts-Austen informed.
‘I see you had the engineers in,’ Holmes paused and looked up, then added, ‘the last four nights, at least.’
‘Five.’ Mr Roberts-Austen corrected.
Holmes nodded thoughtfully. He then walked to one of the middle presses and hunched down, lens in hand.
‘I need but one thing more.’ Holmes straightened. ‘To examine the coins recovered from the road.’
‘I have a dozen in my office.’
‘No, no. That will not do. I must see the bulk.’
Mr Roberts-Austen looked puzzled by Holmes’ assertion. ‘The rest are in the keeping of Scotland Yard.’
‘Then we should make haste. Time is paramount.’ Holmes strode purposefully for the door.
Holmes spoke not a word on the way to Scotland Yard, and when he did, upon our arrival, it was sharp with urgency.
‘Is Inspector Jones on duty?’ Holmes asked of the first constable to approach.
‘I wish to speak to him, urgently, pertaining to the gold sovereigns.’
‘I will inform him immediately, Mr Holmes.’ The constable shuffled off down the corridor while one of his colleagues showed us into a nearby room, quite a plain room with a large heavy wooden table and several chairs.
Impatience was rare in Holmes’ countenance but I saw him check his pocket watch several times while waiting for the inspector. When Inspector Jones did, finally, arrive, however, he was followed by a sight which brought a rare half smile to my friend’s face, that of two constables carrying between them a large wooden crate.
‘I wager this is what you came for, Mr Holmes’ the Inspector spoke in greeting, directing with a gesture for his officers to place the crate on the table.
‘Quite so,’ Holmes spoke, rising from his seat. ‘I trust I can count on you for fast action?’
‘As fast as is possible. This case is quite the mystery. Any light you can shed will be well received.’
‘I believe I have the case fairly illuminated. I only need to confirm a few more facts.’ Holmes pulled the lid off the rough, wooden crate.
‘I assume this is not how sovereigns are normally kept at the mint?’
‘Indeed not,’ Mr Roberts-Austen responded. ‘They are kept in steel lockboxes. Even copper coins would not be stored in crates as crude as this.’
Through his lens, Holmes studied the coins in the crate, starting at the surface but then digging deep.
‘I have seen enough,’ Holmes announced shortly, placing his lens on the table. ‘Being a test batch, I would assume you had all twelve presses at work, in order to test the functionality of all the dies?’
Mr Roberts-Austen nodded. ‘We did indeed.’
‘Then in testing only a dozen coins you missed a vital clue. The die number on all these coins are identical. These coins were pressed on one machine with only one set of dies.’
Mr Roberts-Austen gasped and leapt to the crate to verify Holmes’ observation. His face soon went ashen. ‘How could I have failed to check this?’ He berated himself.
‘Nothing makes a matter seem more simplistic than the viewpoint of hindsight.’ Holmes spoke in part reassurance.
‘But how then were they pressed and by whom? The pressing room is guarded both day and night.’ Mr Roberts-Austen questioned.
‘Nothing is simpler.’ Holmes retook his seat. ‘They were pressed on the very evening they were recovered. I deduce that the engineers working on your presses that night were of the criminal persuasion. One might even go so far as to call them master forgers, as no forgery can be more complete than one crafted by the same processes and machinery as that of the original. They were, I wager, unaware the coins they forged were not yet in circulation as that would bring them added risk of discovery for some months. As for how the coins came upon the road. In their haste to escape, they failed to secure their loot fully to the cart, quite a common mistake. Any lesser criminals, I would have expected to flee, instead, they returned the following night and with their forgeries out of reach, in the vaults of Scotland Yard, instead sought possession of the originals.’
The logic was simple, I had to confess, although, how Holmes had come by it was a wonder. With the events laid out as such, it seemed the most reasonable course and yet the events alone had baffled all who sought to find such reason.
‘That does not explain how these criminals made it past countless armed, military guards with a crate full gold coins two nights running, when just achieving it just once ought to be considered near impossible.’ Mr Roberts-Austen objected. Again, Holmes was ready with his explanation.
‘They did so quite simply, using only this crate, or similar, and their cover as engineers. I deduce they brought an identical crate in and out of the mint each night they worked. For the first few visits the guards would, I imagine, have searched the crates to find only spare parts. After that point, the guards clearly assumed the contents to be the same, neglecting the search for subsequent visits. From that point on our criminals only needed to bring the crate empty or to switch its contents to their forged, or in the later case stolen, coins. The guards saw our criminals leave with their stash quite clearly, they merely failed to observe the matter or notice its relevance.’
Mr Roberts-Austen looked horrified at the revelation. ‘That constitutes a massive hole in security.’
‘Indeed, it does, but it is also a very common one. In any case, I suggest you and the inspector make straight for the docks. You should find our criminals and their stolen cargo aboard a ship awaiting the tide.’ Holmes drew out his silver pocket watch, checking the time again. ‘By my watch you have little over an hour.’
After a hasty thanks and all the promise of another once at leisure, Mr Roberts-Austen left with the inspector for the docks as directed while Holmes and I engaged a cab back to Baker Street.
‘There is one thing you have yet to explain,’ I spoke as we rode. ‘How was the stronghold broken into? It was not the sort of door as could be forced by mere human effort.’
‘It was achieved in the easiest of manners, by means of a stolen key.’ Holmes explained. ‘I examined the lock components, they were undamaged in themselves meaning the lock had not been broken but instead disassembled, by an engineer a work of mere moments. They sought to make it look like a break in as in the case of a key being used an inside job is the natural conclusion at which visiting engineers would seem a likely suspect. They hoped to be in far waters before their activities were suspected. Let us hope that is not the case.’
And, indeed, it was not. The criminals were captured aboard a ship due to be heading to America on the next tide. Another case closed by my friend’s particular methods.