Like a great many people, I met Hemlock Jones by accident.
It was a week before Christmas, three weeks before the start of the spring term, and I was in London, viewing a room on Baker Street, which was rented out by a female acquaintance of the family who acted as a guardian and house-mistress for a few children who were attending school in the city, but had no family with whom to stay. As my parents were both abroad in India, pursuing my father’s never-ending investigations in to new scents for soaps, I was such a boy. I had been assured by my mother that this family friend would take good care of me while I began my new life as a student at the prestigious Hailforth School.
I should probably have been excited at this new adventure: A young gentleman, twelve years old, travelling and living without his family for the first time, and in such a vast and exhilarating city as London. But I wasn’t excited. I was terrified.
The driver pulled on the reins with an accompanying “Whoa there,” and I stepped down from the taxi and on to the cold, snow-smothered London street outside one of a row of cream-coloured terraced houses, narrower than the sprawling houses of the countryside. The door was black and solid looking, the letterbox burnished brass, as were the numbers: 211 and the letter B.
I rapped loudly and confidently with my wooden walking cane (an affectation I had adopted while at the Rudley Preparatory School for Boys in Durham, and which I considered a key fashion accessory for all young gentlemen in the 1890’s).
Moments later, the door opened and a gust of warm air flowed out into the wintry air, fogging up my spectacles.
“Mrs… Figgins?” I asked, unable to make out much through the misted-up glasses. I removed them and began to clean them with my handkerchief.
I could blurrily see that it was an unexpectedly young lady who had answered the door. She looked me up and down before curtly replying, “Quite clearly not.”
“I beg your pardon?” I was quite taken aback by her brusque attitude and wondered if perhaps my mother had made a gross error, or if I had knocked upon some stranger’s door.
The girl – I fancied her to be around my age – waggled one hand. “Firstly, do you see a wedding band on my finger? No, you do not. Secondly, do I look old enough to be a ‘missus’ anyone? No, I do not. Now, I accept that you have almost certainly had a long train journey from the North of England, and it is possible that that is to blame for your gross inability to recognise simple facts. Perhaps, in future, you should begin conversations not with assumptions, but with introductions.” She thrust her right hand towards me. “Hemlock Jones.”
I looked from her outstretched hand to her face and back. The hand was small, the fingers thin. The face pointed, the eyes large and green, the ears small and delicate. One freckle on her left cheek stood out from the light dappling across her face. Her mousey-brown hair was rather more wild and dishevelled than I would have expected from a respectable girl. I would soon come to learn that Hemlock Jones was not like any other girl I had met. A statement that holds true to this very day.
Cautiously, I took her hand in my own, while pushing my spectacles back into place on my nose. “Edward – ”
“ – Whitlow, obviously. Come in, come in!” Miss Jones didn’t so much release my hand as drag me across the threshold of 211B Baker Street with barely enough time for me to remove my top hat.
Once inside, she let me go and proceeded to walk up the narrow flight of stairs on one side of the unlit hall. “This way!” she said cheerfully. She was well spoken, and it was clear she was from a respectable family from her well-tailored, dark skirt and unconventional weskit. As she walked ahead of me on the stairs, I noticed her expensive-looking, ankle-high leather boots that should have been most acceptable lady’s footwear, but somehow seemed more like hobnailed workman’s boots.
“Uh, Miss Jones?” I spoke as I followed her up the stairs.
“Yes, Mr Whitlow?”
“How did you –?”
She cut me off in mid-sentence, a trait I would learn was synonymous with the name Hemlock Jones. “How did I know your name, your method of transport and from where you had travelled?”
“Well,” I swallowed. “Yes.”
She laughed through her nose, a quiet snort. “You arrived in a taxi with the ‘Prestwick & Sons’ logo emblazoned on the door, a taxi company that make most of their money from fares to and from King’s Cross train station. That, combined with the train ticket stub in your left coat pocket makes it perfectly clear that you arrived in London today, to King’s Cross, and caught a taxi from there to Baker Street. If you have come from King’s Cross, then you must have come from somewhere north of London, for of course the lines from there only go north.”
I reached in to my left jacket pocket. Sure enough, the stub of my train ticket poked out conspiratorially. But, that didn’t explain one thing. “But, how could you possibly know my name?”
We reached the top of the stairs and I was led through a door in to a comfortable living room. Two armchairs and a small table by an inviting fireplace. A dining table filled a space adjoining the kitchen.
Hemlock turned to face me, gesturing towards the armchairs. “Oh Eddie – have a seat, do – your luggage is stamped with EW and, like so many precocious schoolboys, you have attached a small luggage tag with your surname and family address to the handle of the suitcase.” In a most unladylike fashion, Hemlock fell into the free armchair. “So, we know you’re E. Whitlow. Edward is the most likely option, unless your name was Ethelred, or you’re from Scandinavia and called Erik.”
“I confess I am left speechless,” I said. And it was true. I’d never encountered anything like it. Hemlock had demonstrated powers of observation and deduction the likes of which I had only read about in the diaries and journals of a certain doctor, whose friend we do not mention by name – Hemlock’s professional rivalry knows no bounds when it comes to the great detective himself. While this was the first time I would witness her remarkable powers first-hand, it would not be the last.
Hemlock did not reply. Rather, she raised one eyebrow and cast a sidelong glance in the direction of the door.
It swung open and a larger, older lady rushed inside, carrying a tray. She was dressed in what I would describe as prim and proper clothing for a matronly lady: A sensible dress, with a small and practical bustle to support the back, and a pair of shoes that looked expensive but well-worn. I was reminded that Mrs Figgins had been the wife of a military officer and, since his death, had begun to rent out rooms to supplement what money she had been given by The Queen on her husband’s death.
As she approached the table with some speed, the china and cutlery on the tray rattled cheerfully, somehow mirroring the welcoming smile on her round, red-cheeked face.
“Master Whitlow! I’m so glad that you’re here. I was just telling Miss Jones that you were due to arrive in King’s Cross on the train from Rudley this morning. I can see you’ve already met.”
I looked at Hemlock before standing and offering my hand. “Please, call me Edward.”
The woman placed the tray on the table and shook my hand with a nod. “Pleased to finally meet you, Edward. Tea and cake?”
“That would be wonderful,” I replied, sitting back down. Hemlock snorted again. Mrs Figgins seemed not to notice, and continued to beam warmly as she set about pouring two cups of tea, before placing small plates with slices of delicious-looking lemon cake on the table.
“After tea and cake I’ll show you your room. Your father has asked me to ensure that you behave and avoid mischief. London is an exciting place for a young gentleman, but in my role as your landlady and guardian while you’re at school here in the city, I’ll thank you to follow my rules. Is that agreeable?”
“Yes, Mrs Figgins. Thank you.”
“Not at all. Now, do please excuse me, I just need to finish tidying. I’ll leave you in Miss Jones’s capable hands. She goes to the same school as you. In fact, Hemlock will be in your class! Isn’t that a lucky coincidence.”
As Mrs Figgins bustled out of the room, I returned to my seat and looked at Hemlock. I had something of a smug look on my face, I am quite certain. I removed my spectacles and cleaned them with a cloth from my trouser pocket. “So, Mrs Figgins had been telling you about my train journey to King’s Cross had she?”
It was then that Hemlock demonstrated another personality trait I would come to know all too well: she studiously ignored me, staring into the fire as she devoured a large slice of cake.
After a quick tour of my new home, I thanked Mrs Figgins and assured her that my rent would be paid promptly on the first of every month. I was then left to unpack in my room and make this small corner of London my domain.
I will admit that it did not take much time to unpack my shirts and trousers, and my two complete uniforms for my new school. Following the clothes, I removed the small photograph of my father and mother (him looking swollen and pompous, her looking nervous and doting), and finally the books, paper and stationery I would need for my school days.
It was quite some way in to the evening by the time I had finished. The flat had been generally quiet, except for the occasional noises of construction from the room adjacent to mine, which I had taken to be the residence of Miss Hemlock Jones. It had been a long day of travel and strange meetings, so I washed, changed into my pyjamas and retired for the night.
I woke, as I usually do, bright and early to the inviting smells of bacon and eggs wafting through the house. I washed quickly and slipped into my trousers and waistcoat before venturing downstairs, where I found Hemlock already seated at the dining table with the morning paper, forking mouthfuls of fluffy scrambled egg into her mouth while her eyes rapidly scanned the articles. Clearly, she lacked my concerns regarding the correct attire for breakfasting with near strangers; she wore striped pyjamas and a faintly ridiculous green silk dressing gown that had seen better days.
Mrs Figgins entered from the kitchen with a heaped plate of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon in one hand, a teapot in the other.
“Morning, Edward. Breakfast and morning tea,” she said as I sat at the table.
“Thank you, it looks delicious. How is it, Miss Jones?”
Hemlock didn’t look away from the paper. “Hmm? Oh, fine. It’s Hemlock, Eddie. Hemlock.”
“Edward,” I replied. I do not like my name shortened, I think mostly due to memories of being thrown into the duck pond at school by bigger boys chanting ‘Ed-die, Ed-die’.
“No, I’m Hemlock. You’re Eddie. Pay attention.”
I sighed and tucked in to my eggs.
“Why are you staying here, Miss – uh – Hemlock?”
“Long story short: I used to board at Hailforth –”
“That’s where I’m going,” I said, quite excitedly.
Hemlock silently looked at me over the paper for an awkwardly long moment. “So, I used to board at Hailforth, but it was decided that I should… not board at Hailforth.”
“Oh some concerns over my ‘misplaced enthusiasm.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, Edward, it means that I used to wander around and investigate things, solve crimes and such. Rather than rewarding me, the faculty politely asked that I stop being a boarder as they didn’t feel they could keep an eye on me around the clock. Some nonsense about requiring constant supervision. So now, I attend Hailforth during the day, and stay here at night. An arrangement that works very well for everyone.”
Hemlock turned the paper over to read the next page and the headline of the article she had been reading was revealed.
I read aloud, “Another case solved by –”
Hemlock slammed the bottom of her fork on to the tabletop with a loud banging noise. “No!”
I jumped at the sudden outburst. Quite perplexed, I stared at Hemlock Jones.
“Temper, Miss Jones,” Mrs Figgins maintained a cheery tone even while admonishing my housemate. “Apologies, Edward. Miss Jones has something of an issue with the gentleman.”
“An issue? With Sher – ”
“That is enough of that!” Hemlock practically shouted. “In this household we have the decency to not discuss our intellectually impaired rivals.”
“Intellectually impaired? I wouldn’t call the great detective anything less than a genius.” In hindsight, it would have been wiser to nod my head and say no more about it.
“Pah, a great detective? Might as well say an honest politician, or a… an… a doggy cat!” With the low squeak of wood on wood, Hemlock’s chair was thrust back as she stood up.
I leaned back in my chair, mostly to distance myself from any egg-flinging or fork slamming, but also so I could more easily look Hemlock in the face. Her freckled cheeks were flushed, her eyes fire-filled. “You’re not a detective, so how is he a rival?” Again, in hindsight, I probably should have shut up.
“A detective? Me? Why, I am offended! I am nothing so crass as a” – she spat the word as if there were no higher insult – “detective, following obvious clues to their equally obvious conclusion. I am a solver of puzzles, an unraveller of enigmas, a decipherer of conundrums. I,” her chin rose slightly, almost haughtily, “am a demystifier!”
Hemlock looked at me expectantly.
I looked at her, confused.
“A demystifier. I demystify. Remove the mystery from the mysterious. Any puzzle, any riddle, any strange unsolvable problem. I handle them all. That is what I do.”
I was, yet again, uncertain how to proceed. Slowly, without taking my eyes from Hemlock’s own imperious glare, I reached across the table and picked up the newspaper. “I think,” I said, “that perhaps we shouldn’t discuss the news over breakfast in future.”
“Hmph.” Hemlock returned to her seat and furiously ate her eggs, eyes narrowed and fixed on me. I could feel her studying me, appraising, as if she was measuring me and waiting for me to make another move. I studiously ignored her as I read the front-page article on the man widely hailed as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. Mrs Figgins was clearly busying herself cleaning and avoiding any confrontation with Miss Jones.
“He does have a remarkably fetching hat,” I said. Silence and staring were Hemlock’s only reply. I folded the paper in half and tossed it on the table-top. She took the paper, turned it around so I could read the text and placed one finger on a small article in the bottom corner of the page.
“You’re going to have to shape up if you want to keep up, Eddie,” she said. “While you were reading about the simple case of stolen treasure and murder, I was making myself familiar with something far more interesting: A mystery.”
I followed her finger.
“Mysterious Death in London Restaurant,” I read. “George Bantam, thirty-four, died yesterday. Whilst dining with his wife in a restaurant near Green Park he apparently suffered a seizure and died. Witnesses reported the lights failing, plunging the restaurant into near darkness, and a strange ghostly figure moving through the room. One witness stated, ‘The Angel of Death came for him. It took him. He collapsed, face down in to his meal’. A spokesman for the police, Inspector Trelawny, said that they considered Professor Bantam’s death to be accidental and it was unlikely that further investigation would be necessary. The spokesman discounted any suggestions of strange figures as ‘preposterous.’”
“Fascinating, isn’t it,” said Hemlock.
Confused, I replied, “Well, it certainly sounds ridiculous. Ghosts? I’m not sure I believe in ghosts.”
“Oh Eddie, you are such an idiot. The police are clearly wrong, or remiss in their duties. This was not accidental death.”
“Do you think Professor Bantam was killed by a ghost? They’re the police. It’s their job to investigate these things, Hemlock. And, as for accusing the London Police Force of being unprofessional, well, that’s simply unfounded slander.”
Hemlock smiled widely. It is a most agreeable smile, only ever ruined by the fact that it is almost always accompanied by the most unseemly smugness. “Is it, Eddie? Really? Perhaps you’d care to make a wager on that?”
I raised one querulous eyebrow.
“Shall we say five pounds? Five pounds that I can prove the police are wrong and Bantam’s death was no accident or natural death. What say you, Whitlow?” She thrust out her hand.
Frankly, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take five pounds of Hemlock Jones’ purse and perhaps bring her down a peg or two in the process. I shook her hand. “I am intrigued as to how you think you can prove that a ghost killed Professor Bantam. Where does one even begin to prove such a thing? You have no idea where to start even if you did want to investigate Professor Bantam’s death. You don’t even know where Professor Bantam lived, nor in fact in which restaurant he died.”
There was a knock on the front door. A rapid, timid knock-knock-knock. Hemlock’s smile lit the room. “I don’t need to know where Professor Bantam lived, because Mrs Bantam would appear to be at my front door.”
“What? That’s impossible. There’s no way she could…”
I heard Mrs Figgins open the front door. “Yes?”
Then I heard a quiet, cultured voice. I could just barely make out the words “Mrs Bantam” and what sounded like the name of another resident of Baker Street.
Mrs Figgins replied that while this was the wrong property for that gentleman, Miss Hemlock Jones had been expecting Mrs Bantam, and was waiting for her upstairs.
I stared, dumbfounded at Hemlock. “How… How on Earth?”
Hemlock laughed. As she hid the paper under her plate, her eyes twinkled. “You really are going to have to make more of an effort if you are to be my assistant, you know.”