The return of Shirley Holmes: a tale of coal mines, local history and undergarments (part 2)

At 10 am we presented ourselves to the reception desk at Lawcroft House to find that Inspector Lestrade had already extended the necessary permissions for our visit. We were taken down to see our client who, although red-eyed with weeping, still retained much of her beauty and composure. ‘Miss Holmes, Dr Watson, it is most good of you both to visit me in this dreadful place. I must start by apologising for having misled you yesterday over my poor father. I admit that I am very much the author of my own misfortune but I give you my most solemn and sacred word that I am guiltless of any murderous deed. Please spare no expense in proving my innocence.’ ‘I never supposed your guilt’ said Holmes ‘and as for my expenses I have a standard scale of fees which are never varied, save when they are remitted altogether. Doubtless the BBC will reimburse me for my time and trouble, but now quickly tell us the full facts concerning your father’s disappearance and, I beg you, spare no particulars’.

‘My father was a manufacturer of ladies’ under-garments in a small way of business. You may be aware, Miss Holmes, that no trade requires a higher degree of probity, and there is none where one’s income is so dependant on the esteem of the public. It was not true that I began my career as a television baker to earn a living after my father’s death but, I am ashamed to say, it was rather my deportment on the small screen that drove him to take the desperate step of flight. A decline in his trade led him to beg me to appear on screen in one of his creations. I am a dutiful daughter, Miss Holmes, but I could not bring myself to reveal, when cooking, so much as a discrete bra strap or a hint of fish-nets. I was implacable and in consequence my father had a mental collapse and abandoned us. He left a final tear stained message to the effect that he was travelling to the most obscure portion of the British Commonwealth, and was last reported to be working as a billiard marker in Norwich. His legacy was such that, though I continued to cook the richest and delicious pastries, my own tastes were now exclusively for the simplest, most degraded, meals imaginable, McDonald’s burgers or..’ and here her voice subsided to a whisper ‘…Domino’s pizza. More that this I cannot say’. With this last remark she fell to beating her head against the cell wall until forcibly restrained. ‘Do not fear Miss Lister’ said Holmes, ‘things may look dark now but I will have you restored to your kitchen by the end of the week, on that I take my oath.’

A burly constable accompanied us upstairs to Inspector Lestrade’s office. When we were seated Holmes asked for full information about the human remains. Lestrade gave the following account: ‘the pathologist says we have a male skeleton, 5 feet 10 inches in height, slight build and, from the skeletal evidence, about fifty years of age. Some hair was still adhering to the skull and traces of fabric were wrapped round the chest. He believes that the remains are modern, but this simply means no older than a century or two. The flesh of the body has largely rotted away in the sandy soil. We’ve sieved the surrounding area and have recovered one object. It seems to be a Masonic tie-pin but I’m no expert on antique jewellery. Holmes’s eyes had developed that misty grey appearance I only observed when she was exerting her full powers. She placed her finger tips together and eyed Lestrade critically. ‘Weak, Lestrade, very weak. The police view then is that the skeleton is that of Miss Lister’s father who vanished 5 years ago and whose mortal remains the accused is meant to have conjured in some way from her house into the foundations of a cellar. I, on the other hand, believe that the skeleton is a century old or more and even at this remove in time I am hopeful of giving it a name.’ I must admit that I gave an exclamation of surprise on hearing of this totally unexpected development. ‘The merit of our two theories’ continued Holmes ‘is easily tested by dating the skeleton; even you will not claim that Miss Lister is capable of murdering her own great grandfather!’ ‘How can that be achieved with certainty Miss Holmes?’ asked the inspector. ‘The answer to our puzzle is strontium-90 Lestrade. You will be aware I am an expert on radioactive elements, a subject on which I have recently written a short monograph. When strontium-90 is ingested it is treated by the body like calcium and fixed in the skeleton. Since the element is artificial, the result of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, minute quantities will be present in our bones and indeed the bones of anyone alive after 1945. If the skeleton were to be that of Mr Lister his bones will assuredly contain strontium-90 and the laboratory at Harwell will detect it.’ ‘Wonderful’ I said. ‘Neutron activation analysis’ Holmes replied.

We had a light but intimate lunch at Omar’s where I ate a fiery prawn vindaloo for which my service in Afghanistan had fully prepared me. Holmes toyed chastely with a poppadom. ‘I can’t think why these inexpensive places are not more popular with diners’ I remarked. ‘I suppose that it may be not be entirely unconnected with the two hours of explosive diarrhoea that inevitably follows a visit. My objection to curries is alimentary, my dear Watson’ observed Holmes moodily; she being very particular about what she ate. After lunch Holmes vanished into the Bradford Local Studies Library, while I returned home. Holmes remained out long after I had retired to bed.

The following day we were seated in companionable silence in our living room. I was deep in the British Medical Journal, while Holmes was at work with a powerful microscope while making more notes in her pocket book. At 11 am there was a ring at the door and I was able to usher in our client accompanied by a miserable and bedraggled Lestrade who looked a wholly different man from the confident detective of yesterday. ‘Miss Holmes ma’am’ he said ‘I forgot once again that you are the mistress and I am the student. The Harwell laboratory cannot find any artificial isotopes in the bones and are certain that the skeleton is more than 60 years old. As you see I have released Miss Lister from custody since I am now utterly persuaded of her innocence.’ ‘But Miss Holmes’ interpolated our client ‘can you shed any light at all on the true cause of this baffling mystery? Who did bury this body and when?’ ‘If you will all be seated I believe I am now in a position to answer all your questions’ answered Holmes with a half smile ‘and a strange, convoluted, tale it is.’

‘From the first it seemed quite apparent to me that the skeleton had remained in the soil for many years. Since coal mining was common in Heaton in the 19th century I checked back and found that there was once a coal pit at the very site of the planned cellar, which ceased working in the 1850s and was eventually capped and landscaped. I thought that it might be profitable to explore the microfilm records of newspapers of the period and so it has proved. Now, if you had lived in the Bradford of the 1850s the name of Harry Rhodes would have been as familiar to you as your own; ex-mayor, textiles in Bingley, minerals in Harden, hotels in Keighley, tripe and chips in Baildon.’ ‘He must have been one of the greatest subjects of the crown’ I said. ‘Yes, and one of the wealthiest’ replied Holmes. ‘Yet at the height of his powers, in the spring of 1851, having stepped into his mansion in Manningham to retrieve an umbrella, he vanished and was never seen again in this world. Now it is a difficult matter deducing vital statistics of height, colouring and so forth from press reports, but nothing I have discovered is contrary to the findings of the pathologist which I have heard.’ ‘And the tie pin?’ I enquired. ‘The newspapers stress that Rhodes was the worshipful master of the Bradford masonic lodge’ replied Holmes. ‘But how did his body end in a coal mine?’ asked Miss Lister. ‘I think’ suggested Holmes ‘that this may not be unconnected with the fact that two years later his abandoned wife had Rhodes declared legally dead, disinherited his children, and fled to the luxuries of the Cote d’Azur with with her ill-gotten gains and a singer of popular songs.’

Are you suggesting Miss Holmes’ said the inspector ’that Rhodes’s wife murdered him and deposited his corpse in an abandoned mine shaft?’ ‘I rather imagine Lestrade that others performed those necessary formalities in return for certain pecuniary advantages’ said Holmes. ‘Well we shall never know whom’ I observed. ‘That is not necessarily the case’ Holmes replied archly. ‘The year 1851 was of course a census year and Harry Rhodes disappeared a few days after the census returns were made. In the Local Studies Library I looked through all the hotels and boarding establishments in the Heaton and Manningham areas and found a name that seemed familiar. Look!’ Holmes held out a computer print-out for Kelly’s Temperance Hotel, Heaton Road. There between Jabez Ackroyd, traveller in potted meats, and Enoch Drebber, Latter Day Saints’ minister, was the name J. Moriaty, retired professor of mathematics. ‘The Napoleon of crime’ said Shirley Holmes.

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