The Misadventure of the PDF – Part one

A Sherlock Holmes- Professor Challenger crossover

By Robin Rowles

The spring of the year 1896 was warm, placid and peaceful. The weather had recovered from its rainy spell earlier in the year and there was every hope for a glorious summer. Then the explosions began.  Sherlock Holmes was faced with an investigation that might have originated from the pen of HG Wells, whose scientific romances fired the imagination. Indeed, when the facts were recounted to Wells, he immediately saw the dramatic possibilities and wanted to write the remarkable story behind the man who found a way to walk through walls.

 I was part of this investigation, so I am telling the story. However, Wells ‘borrowed’ one element of the mystery, and instead of writing about a scientist who discovered a way of displacing solid matter, wrote a story about another, fictional, scientist, who discovered a way of defying gravity itself. Although naturally disappointed, Wells promised not to allude to the real story, even indirectly, in case it encouraged reckless experimentation.

I am only writing this now under the stern gaze of Professor Challenger who requires a detailed record of the facts. Like Sherlock Holmes, Challenger was intolerant of what he called unnecessary romance and wanted a straightforward account. However, my readers would find this as engrossing as an out-of-date copy of Bradshaw, and Challenger reluctantly acceded to my request to breath more life into the narrative, provided that certain facts and one very specific formula, were either removed, redacted, or altered. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

April 1896 started brightly, and Sherlock Holmes was rather busy. It was just before Easter, and Holmes and I, feeling somewhat jaded, were looking forward to a little rest. This was not to be. A tap at our door, and Billy entered.

‘Mr Holmes, inspector Lestrade’s here’ he chirped, looking rather pleased as though he’d said something clever. Holmes sat up in his armchair and emerged from behind the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

‘Well, that’s nothing new. What’s up this time?’ Holmes asked.

‘Dunno, Mr Holmes. Except he’s brought a giant with him.’

Holmes was about to ask who this giant was when he walked into the room. I say walked, but it would be more correct to say he strode in. The whole room shook, and the coalscuttle rattled in protest at this titan’s intrusion. We had entertained larger than life characters in Baker Street before. Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft was formidable in size and intellect, and the murderous Dr Grimsby Roylott had twisted our poker as though he was practicing origami.

The vengeful but justified Dr Leon Sterndale was a force to be reckoned with, but our visitor eclipsed each of them.

There was no doubting who he was. A regular, if controversial speaker at the Royal Society lectures and frequent contributor to the letters page of the Times with suggestions to the government on all scientific matters. From the elimination of the common housefly to preventing tidal floods in the river Thames, there wasn’t a single topic our visitor didn’t have an opinion on. I refer, of course, to Professor George Edward Challenger. Lestrade scuttled in after the professor and literally stood in his shadow, nervously holding his hat and stick. Billy deftly relieved Lestrade of these items and he subsided onto the settee. Meanwhile, our other guest maintained his stance. The somewhat cluttered sitting room in 221b suddenly felt somewhat claustrophobic.

Challenger spoke first. ‘Good morning, gentlemen. I presume you are not busy’ he said as he plonked himself into the guest armchair. Holmes recovered his wits.

‘Good morning, Professor. Please let me have the facts, in due order.’ Challenger harrumphed. ‘Lestrade has all the details. I came here to tell you you’re going to take the case’.

Holmes smiled. ‘What case, Professor? You haven’t told me anything yet’. Challenger turned to Lestrade. ‘Well, man, get on with it. We haven’t got all day.’ Lestrade reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a notebook. ‘Explosion at the faculty of science and technology, Imperial College last week. April 1st, to be precise. Nothing of significance- ‘. Here Challenger interjected ‘Nothing of significance, except months of scientific experiment and research lost.’ He growled. Lestrade saw his chance and continued ‘-and ever since then, we’ve had reports of people walking through walls. Not ghosts, Mr Holmes, but real flesh and blood’. To say that Holmes and I were rocked back on our heels by this statement wasn’t quite true. The Baskerville affair and that of the Sussex Vampire had demonstrated there was usually a logical explanation for everything. However, this was a new departure. Holmes sat up in his chair, all tiredness gone. ‘That’s quite remarkable’ he proffered the obvious comment and added ‘every criminal in London would rather know that trick’. Challenger glared.

‘No trick, Mr Holmes. It’s happening now’. Shopkeepers are reporting people walking through walls, locked doors, closed windows. Banks are guarding their strong-rooms and everybody’s afraid of being burgled.’ Holmes held up a finger to quieten Challenger’s outburst. ‘But how did this come about?’ he asked. Challenger took a deep breath.

‘Come to the laboratories and I will show you’, he said. Half an hour later, we were shown into the office of Professor Sir James Smith. Sir James was Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology. After introductions, Sir James wasted no time on small talk, but led Holmes and I down long white corridors. Here, we passed laboratories where fellows of the University toiled away at their experiments.

We reached a doorway, which was guarded by a Metropolitan police constable. He straightened up when he recognised Holmes. Sir James waved him away, unlocked the door and showed us the room behind. Or rather, showed us what was left of the room. It was a smallish storeroom with a small antechamber on the left-hand wall. The walls were ranged with wooden shelves and illumination was provided by a modern Edison and Swan electric lightbulb.

 Further illumination was afforded via a large window overlooking the gardens, although the modernity of the lightbulb was offset by the wooden shutters that opened either side of the window. However, the room was a mess. The floor was a sea of smashed scientific instruments, shards of wood from the shelves and mangled pieces of equipment which Sir James explained were the remains of scientific experiments. The professor described the sequence of events.

‘It was just before nine o’clock and I was in my study finishing some paperwork’.

‘What was the exact time, Professor?’, Holmes asked.

‘Between five and three minutes to nine’. Sir James answered.

‘How do you know that?’ Holmes pressed his question.

‘Because the faculty bell had struck. It goes off every night at five to nine to remind those fellows in the laboratory to pack up. It’s also when lectures and seminars finish.’ Holmes asked the professor to continue.

‘There was a commotion in the corridor, and I popped my head out to see what was going on. Tovey, our commissionaire was following a man. He was wearing a lab coat and was carrying something, a Gladstone bag, I think’. Holmes’ eyes lit up.

‘Where did he go?’

‘He ran into this room and into this’, here the professor pointed to the smaller room ‘and locked himself in’. Then there was an explosion which wrecked this storeroom. By now, Tovey had caught up and showed great presence of mind by standing guard at the door until I arrived. We thought we had our man trapped in here where we store the research papers.’ Here, the professor turned sadly to Holmes and turning up his palms, gave a bemused shrug.

‘Where is this man now?’ Holmes asked. The professor took a couple of deep breaths then answered. ‘We don’t know Mr Holmes. He wasn’t here when Tovey unlocked the door to this store-room, nor the file-room’. Holmes turned and held his breath for a second or two.

‘So he escaped, then’. This was the only possible solution. ‘Could he have gone through the window?’

‘It doesn’t open Mr Holmes. It’s purely for illumination. There are air vents above and below that provide all the ventilation necessary. And he can’t be hiding unless he’s invisible. There’s nowhere to hide’. Holmes snorted. The professor turned and his eyes walked around the devastated store-room looking for an answer. Finally, he found one.

‘In which case, Mr Holmes, our mysterious visitor has achieved something very remarkable. He can only have escaped being captured by Tovey and myself’, he hesitated then went on with the only logical answer that fitted the utterly fantastic narrative. The professor took another deep breath. ‘Mr Holmes, he must have walked through the wall!’.