“That’s me.” As he avoided the swimming-pool sized puddles, he was engagingly klutzy, with a light brown moustache, grey suit jacket and dark tie underneath his hard hat and high-viz. He extended a hand towards Tess.
“Pete Fields. Site Manager. Thanks for coming down. Sorry about the bloody weather.” His accent was North West. “Down” and “Sorry”and “weather” became “doon” and “sorreh” and “weathah”. Which Tess – who had majored in Classics and History at Lancaster – couldn’t help but like. She took his hand. And had to shout above the rain.
“London summer. Never changes. What have you got for me Pete?”
Pete looked around hesitantly “Where’s Terry?” he called out to nobody in particular.
“I’m here.” Tess turned to see an unfeasibly large and wide young man in the obligatory high viz and hard hat, the rain dripping off the brim. He gave a wide and engaging smile.
“Terry Baxter. You the bird from the museum?” Pete’s eyes rolled skywards. A “Hammers Till I Die” T shirt was stretched over his broad chest. Pure East End. Tess couldn’t help another smile.
“Hi Terry. Yes. I’m an assistant curator at the Museum of London. So...” She shrugged to both of them.
“Right, of course. Over here, Miss...Tess” Pete gestured over an expanse of muddy wilderness. They squelched off after him.
“Used to be Docks and Warehouses, all this.” Terry gave the guided tour as they squelched onwards. “Jerry bombed the shit out of it in the 40’s. My grandad worked on the docks. So did my dad ...” He sniffed and wiped his noise noisily “Until Maggie Thatcher made him redundant. When the docks went, loads of families moved out to Essex and South of the river. Like mine. Now its all gonna be luxury flats for the Nigels and Nigellas. Out of my bleeding price range.” He smiled sadly.
“Mine too, Terry.” said Tess.
“Here we go.” Pete had paused in the middle of a flattened rubble-free expanse. Tess looked around.
“Three weeks ago there was a warehouse on this site. Dated back to the 19th century. Well, what was left of it. It was bombed pretty badly in ’41. Been derelict for decades. Would have been developed long ago, but there was a wrangle about who owned the land. The developers finally picked it up and we moved in. And like I say, three weeks ago we started tearing it down.”
As Tess listened and looked at the space, the building, hard by the waters of Albion Dock started to take shape. The outline of the walls was still there parts of the tiled and cement storeroom floors. It would have been massive. Pete was still talking.
“Terry and his crew were clearing the hardcore and rubble off the site when they found this.” Terry walked over to where a blue tarpaulin was covering the ground. He yanked it away. Tess walked over. It was a deep recess in what had once been the floor of the warehouse. Stone steps went down to a depth of about eight feet and at the bottom...
Terry pointed at the small wooden door “Weird thing was, this whole bit was covered by a false floor. Plasterboard, timber, layer of cement. We’d have missed it if one of the trucks hadn’t gone through it couple of days ago. Fing is...somebody, god knows back when, went to the trouble of covering over all this. Hiding it.”
Tess was gingerly taking the dozen or so steps down to the door.
“It’s open.” Called Pete. “There was a padlock on but it crumbled away when the light and the moisture hit it. Hinges are nearly gone too but it opens if you give it a push.” Tess pushed the door and the century-old hinges complained loudly. Inside was complete darkness. Gradually, the shape of a small square bricklined room emerged from the gloom. Barely big enough for an adult to stand upright. Just wide enough for one to touch both walls.
“It’s empty now.” Called Terry from the top of the stairs “But it wasn’t when we opened it.” Tess slowly turned to look at them both, the drizzle in her face, a flutter of excitement in the pit of her stomach.
“Pete..Terry..just what did you find down here?” The two men in hardhats looked at each other and smiled like guilty schoolkids.
“Come on up to the Site Office.” said Pete “We’ll get you a Cuppa.”
In the cramped site office, Pete shifted builders plans and papers from his desk while Terry hefted a large object wrapped in blue plastic sheeting onto it. As she watched them, Tess cradled her fingers round a large mug of Builders Tea, hot, mud coloured and with more sugars in than she normally took in a month. Terry peeled back the sheeting to reveal a wooden packing chest, grey and mildewed with age. On the lid, faded white lettering read: LONDON & ORIENTAL TRADING CO LTD. Tess put down her mug and walked round to the side where a small rusted padlock held the lid in place.
“You haven’t opened it?” Pete shook his head
“Didn’t know if we should.” Tess paused and drummed her fingers. She looked up at Pete and Terry. “Shall we?”
Terry produced a large screwdriver from his work belt.
“Allow me.” He slid the blade of the screwdriver under the hasp of the lock and eased gently back. The hasp came free of the damp mildewed wood with little effort. Terry twisted the lock off, it clattered onto the floor.
“All done with kindness.” He smiled. Tess had slipped on a pair of white latex gloves. Gingerly she stepped up to the chest, eased her fingers beneath the lid and lifted. Once more, the century old hinges squealed with displeasure. Tess, Pete and Terry crowded shoulder to shoulder to look at the contents.
Inside the crate were ten, maybe a dozen flat, book-sized packages wrapped in grey, slick material tied tightly with string. One slightly larger package lay on top across the others. Tess reached in and carefully picked it up.
“What’s that stuff they’re wrapped in ?” Asked Terry.
“Oilskin. It’s been keeping them airtight and dry for.....however long they were there.” She fingered the tight knots in the string holding the package together “Have you got any scissors?”
“I can do better than that” With a seamless gesture and a ‘click’ Terry produced a large, lethal looking flick-knife. Pete looked incredulously at him.
“Don’t tell me you’re carrying that thing around on site, Terry?” Terry shrugged “This is the East End, mate. Besides, you can take the boy out of Bethnal but you can’t take the Bethnal out of the boy. Innit right, Miss?” He winked at Tess.
“Terry, you’d be a walking exhibit at my Museum anytime.” She held up the package. Terry slid the knife blade beneath the string and slit it deftly. Tess removed the string and lay the package flat on the desk. Slowly and carefully, she unwrapped the oilskin until the cover of a book, black, smooth and featureless was revealed.
“Can I borrow your knife, Terry?” He handed her the knife hilt-first. Using the blade, Tess lifted up the cover. The white paper had only just started to discolour and brown at the edges. Tucked inside the cover was a newspaper cutting. The paper and newsprint looked nearly new. The banner read “THE TIMES June 15th 1916”. The headline read “LORD KITCHENER MISSING PRESUMED DEAD. COMMANDER IN CHIEF’S SHIP SINKS OFF ORKNEY ISLANDS. NATION IN MOURNING.” Tess slid the blade under the next page and turned. Pasted onto the next page was another clipping. The banner, pasted separately read “THE STRAND MAGAZINE December 1893” And beneath that the title “THE ADVENTURE OF THE FINAL PROBLEM” beneath that was a last clipping as carefully cut and pasted as the others, a sentence from larger fragment of a printed story. It simply read:
“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city...”
Beneath that, the final thing on the page was a line of handwriting in a clear, slightly slanted hand;
“If only you knew, my dear Mr Doyle, if only you knew.....”.
“So what you reckon then? Summink for your Museum?” Terry was carrying the chest to Tess’s car. The rain had eased off to be replaced by ragged clouds and blue sky.
“Won’t know until I’ve had a look at all of them. It’ll take a while keep me busy though.” She opened the back of her car, Terry loaded the chest in. She slammed the door shut.
“It’s wossname isn’t it?”
“Napoleon of Crime....Sherlock Holmes...the bad guy. “
“Yes, that’s the guy, Terry, just one problem for a historian like me.”
“He was fictitious. Like Sherlock Holmes. Never existed.”
Terry shrugged his broad shoulders
“Maybe. But that’s not what folk round here used to say. See ya.” He turned and made to walk off. Tess froze for an instant.
“Terry....” Terry paused and turned. “What did folk used to say round here?” Terry shoved his hands in his pockets and looked suddenly hesitant
“It’s nuffin. Just a daft old superstition. Summink my grandad used to tell me. When he was babysittin me and he wanted me to get off to sleep. He’d say “You behave yourself, Terence, or a bad man in a cloak and and a big top hat’ll come and take you away to his big house by the docks” Usually did the trick. I stayed under the sheets petrified. But when I was older, I asked him about that and he said it was something his grandad used to say to him. Except in his version, the man in the cloak and the top hat had a name. Always the same name.”
“And what was his name?”
“You’re gonna think I’m pullin your plonker. I’m havin you on. But it’s true...”
“Terry, tell me, what was his name?”
“He was always called The Professor. An’ more than that.
“Grandad’s grandad told him that one night he saw the Professor. After midnight by a gaslamp in Hanbury Street. Cloak, Top Hat. Face in shadows but...his eyes...gawd, what was it Grandad said he said ...oh yeah...”Eyes twinkling like silver sixpences in the gaslight. Cold and hard and evil.” “ Terry laughed embarassedly.”Silly old sod. Still, that’s what he said.”
“Terry, would your grandad spare an afternoon to come and chat with our oral archivist?” Terry smiled sadly and exmined his work boots.
“You’d have a job. Poor old buggers been dead for three years.”
Tess cringed in embarassment.
“No worries.” Terry looked up around him at the flat barren expanse of land waiting for the apartment blocks and the cold grey waters of the Albion Dock “Perhaps just as well. He wouldn’t recognise this place. His East End’s long gone.” He nodded towards the boot of the car “Maybe this’ll bring a bit of it back.” Tess smiled
“I’ll get the gate for you”. He trudged away through the mud.
Tess looked back over the empty land. Towards the little hidden chamber beneath the long vanished warehouse of the London Oriental Trading Company where, sometime in 1916, someone had sealed up a lost story. Who? And why? It was time for Tess Darby to get to work and for the dozen little oilskin packages to give up their secrets.
“ To anyone who knew him he was always the Professor. He entered my life on a dark October night in Whitechapel in 1888. I was a lost soul and he found me. I, in turn saved him. We were soulmates then and we are soulmates now and forever. The world never knew him as I knew him. They believed the foolish stories that made him out to be a pantomime villain. He was the greatest man of his age,cruel, courageous and brilliant. He was feared on every continent. The great Solly White himself bequeathed the City of London and it’s riches to him. Yet there will be no statues of him. No squares named in his honour. No monuments. Only what you hold in your hands. I have placed this, my testament, in the safest place I know and I trust to providence that one day some wise soul will find it and recognise it for what it truly is. The story of the great and terrible Professor Moriarty. My Professor. My James.”