Title: SHERLOCK HOLMES, The Missing Years: Timbuktu
Author: Vasudev Murthy
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
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Still wondering what Sherlock Holmes was doing between his reported death in 1891 and his reappearance in 1894? All the world knew that Sherlock Holmes died at the Reichenbach Falls, tumbling over the jagged cliff in a deadly embrace with his nemesis Moriarty. But for history’s greatest detective, death was only the beginning. Rumors abounded that Holmes had been sighted advising the Japanese emperor, studying with the Dalai Lama, and protecting the president of the United States, but only Dr. Watson knew the truth. From 1891 to 1894, Sherlock Holmes was dead to the world—and having the grandest adventures of his career.
It begins when an Italian scholar travels from Venice to 221B Baker Street, to beg the help of the legendary detective. He carries an ancient parchment, written in the hand of Marco Polo himself. It is a rubbing made from a brass disc found in the libraries of Kublai Khan, and it was torn in half centuries ago to protect the world from a terrifying secret, one that, apparently, first Marco Polo, then another great traveler, the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, took dramatic steps to guard. Where, if anywhere, is its missing half? Holmes springs into action. He fakes his death at Reichenbach, and proceeds undercover to Venice. A murdered scholar, an archivist from the Vatican, British imperial politics and, of course, the dire hand of Moriarty propel Holmes and a surprised but resolute Dr. Watson, playing the roles they assumed in Morocco, on a perilous journey down the Sahara to the ancient city of Timbuktu…and beyond. In deepest Africa, Holmes will confront ruthless criminals, an ancient culture, and a staggering surprise.
“O thou who goest to Gao, turn aside from thy path to breathe my name in Timbuctoo. Bear thither the greeting of an exile who sighs for the soil on which his friends and family reside. Console my near and dear ones for the deaths of their lords, who have been entombed.” – Ahmed Baba
A Visitor from Italy
“Ah Watson! A merry affair there at Norwich! The constabulary in ferment, I see!”
“Indeed, Holmes. Would you call it merry though? Six murders in two months! And not a clue in sight! One wonders why the authorities have not reached out to you yet!”
“Frankly Watson, I would prefer they did not. The answer is so obvious that I would not wish to embarrass them. However, if it pleases you, and since the loss of life is a regrettable matter, perhaps you could send a wire to the Inspector in charge – Cowley? – to interview Lazarus Smith, the village blacksmith, who very kindly took them to the scene of the crime in the second case. Ask them to inspect the attic. They are wasting their time talking to Donahue. Being Irish and ugly is not a crime.”
“Yes, Holmes,” I said, making a note.
I was visiting Holmes after a long interval. Consequent to my marriage, our meetings had become infrequent but were always warm. My wife was away on a visit to Glasgow and I had taken the liberty of travelling to London to meet Sherlock Holmes and attend to sundry business.
We had spent the better part of the day talking about past cases and discussing the eventual fates of many notables. The bitter January cold had seeped inside our room, and we moved a few inches closer to the fireplace that Mrs. Hudson had so thoughtfully prepared. Outside, the fog swirled and I could hardly imagine that anyone would be foolhardy enough to walk about risking life and limb. It was not an evening for profitable crime.
Holmes was stretched across the sofa languidly, violin resting carelessly on his left thigh and his right leg dangling on the floor. He was leafing through a copy of Debrett’s Peerage.
“Well, well, I see that the Duke of Beaufort studied classics at Oxford in 1875. I happen to know that he was almost rusticated for suspected plagiarism. And at about the same time, the Earl of Breadalbane played cricket there and was challenged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Two very different personalities, Watson, but both with some claim to a common experience at the same moment in time. Debrett’s say nothing about their scandals! The world is filled with strange people, eh, Watson?”
Before I could respond, he flung across a wire.
“What do you make of this, Watson?”
I looked at it.
“Why would anyone be interested in this parchment? The British Ambassador in Rome suggested I meet you urgently on a matter of utmost sensitivity. 1030 pm tonight. Grazie. Antonio Rozzi. Venice.
“An Italian travelling all the way from Venice to meet you, Holmes? Very flattering.”
“It must be very sensitive for him not to find it prudent to write. Something has happened that has made him abandon his routine tasks. He seems to be a man given to objectivity. A historian, I would wager, given the reference to a parchment. Ah, the time draws near! A carriage just outside, Watson.”
We heard the creaks of a carriage and the shuffling and snorting of horses, as they settled outside 221B Baker Street. In a few moments, we heard the sounds of someone taking the stairs quickly. Shortly, there was a polite knock.
I opened the door.
The man opposite was about my height, though stout. He was clean shaven, bald, with luxurious sideburns, and immaculately dressed. He looked quite English. He stooped a little, was about fifty-five years old, and carried a valise.
“Signore Holmes? I am Antonio Rozzi from Venice.” His accent was distinct.
“No, I am Dr. John Watson. Do come in.”
I helped him with his overcoat, while Holmes watched.
“I apologize for this late meeting,” said Antonio Rozzi, bowing to Holmes. “I had no choice.”
“You reached London this afternoon. There must have been something of interest at the British Museum that detained you for a few hours. But do sit down.”
Signore Rozzi gasped. “Che cosa! You are quite right, Signore Holmes! I visited a friend at the Chinese antiquities section. But how did you know?” He seated himself heavily on a chair, catching his breath, valise in hand.
Holmes shrugged. “The wire was sent from the Post Office at Great Russell Street at about three in the afternoon. I would expect a historian from the continent to visit the Museum first, practically as a religious duty. “
‘Si, si!” exclaimed Signore Rozzi. “That is so!”
“And how may we help you, Signore Rozzi?”
“Ah Signore Holmes, a very strange situation! I met your Ambassador at Rome, Lord Dufferin, and he said that you were the best person to help me. A most vexing matter, I am afraid, si. Extremely confidential, if I may say.”
Holmes nodded. “Please proceed. Everything remains within these four walls.”
Signore Rozzi looked relieved and began.
“I am the Chief Conservator of the Venice Museum, Signore Holmes. We have a very strange situation and need your advice.”
Holmes listened patiently.
“Have you read the Bible, Signore Holmes?” Signore Rozzi leaned across and peered intently at Holmes.
“As a matter of academic interest, yes. I am not a believer per se, but the book is entertaining and has its merits.”
“In what language was it written, do you know?”
“Yes, originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.”
Signore Rozzi sat back, beaming. ‘Superbo! Very rare, Signore Holmes, for anyone to know this, very rare!”
“I would like to show you something very sensitive.” He opened his valise with great deliberation and carefully took out a document.
He placed it on the table and invited us to come closer.
It was a dull brown parchment with unusual faded markings. Some were in red and some were in black.
Holmes examined it very carefully against the light.
“Where is the other half?”
‘Signore Holmes, you are very clever! Si, this is the left half of a manuscript. The right half is missing. And it has always been missing since this came into our possession shortly after the death of Marco Polo in the year 1324.”
“The script is perhaps Aramaic, since you touched upon the matter of the Bible. The parchment looks very old. And wait, the indentations on the paper seem to indicate the words were embossed in some way and then coloured.”
‘Si! Si! How correct you are! Someone has taken an impression of the text from a surface and then coloured it. Which means it is a copy.
“This manuscript is about two thousand five hundred years old, we think, pre-dating Christ. But the script is, surprisingly, not ancient Aramaic. It is not even related, as far as I know. It is Meroitic, which, sadly, I cannot read, but which I know originated in the Nile valley. Indeed there are very few scholars who can read that script. This is the reason why I visited the British Museum to meet Signore James Conway, who is such a scholar, and can read Meroitic with some effort. However, he was not available, so I shall be meeting him tomorrow.”
Holmes peered intently at the manuscript. “There seems to be some kind of a map at the bottom, perhaps. And only half of it.”
“Correct! We think so too.”
“And how may I help you? Surely this is not a treasure hunt.”
“It is much more than that, Signore Holmes.” Signore Rozzi looked grave.
“About two months ago, I started receiving strange notes in Arabic, which I happen to be able to read. Here is one. They are almost all identical.”
١- أعد النصف الاخر على الفور و الا عليك مواجهة العواقب
“And this means …?”
“’Return the other half immediately or face consequences’“
“To what address?”
“A post box in Casablanca, Morocco.”
“I see. And the reference is to this manuscript?”
‘Si, we believe so now, but we did not know about this until a month ago.
“You see, Signore Holmes and Dottore Watson, we get many anonymous letters at the Museum. People are fascinated by history and often believe that some object truly belongs to them. They ask for its return, claiming it belonged to an ancestor. We routinely ignore such letters.”
“But a month ago, we had an attempted burglary in the Chinese antiquities section. An alert security guard foiled the attempt and challenged the intruder, who stabbed him. The guard described the intruder as having Arabic features. Most unfortunately, the guard passed away the next day because of his injuries.
“When I examined the antiquities, I found that everything was in order, except for the section that contained old manuscripts. We have thousands and most of them are of unknown origin. They are often trivial – they could be books of accounts or a journal of a ship’s voyage. It appeared that the intruder had just started looking there when he was surprised. However, while going through the manuscripts, I found this parchment. And I stopped.”
“A parchment with Meroitic inscriptions in the Chinese manuscripts library?”
“Yes, it was very surprising. But then again, it was not, because they were in the papers bequeathed to us by Marco Polo.”
“The great traveller,” nodded Holmes. “Well, yes, he did travel to China and would have brought back many articles of interest including manuscripts picked up along the way.”
“That is correct, Signore Holmes. The matter became a bit clearer when we saw that there was a note in the hand of Marco Polo with this parchment. Here it is.” He took out something from the valise and spread it on the table. The three of us gathered around to look at it.
“It is in Old French, so let me translate it for you.”
He read the manuscript in a halting voice.
“Many come to me, as I lie dying, asking me to proclaim that my account of my travels to China is a falsehood. I have not done so. Indeed, I have not revealed even half of what I know to Rustichello da Pisa, when we were in prison together in Genoa, since the haughty citizens of Venice have no regard for anything that goes against what they think is the truth. Let them mock at me. I go to the Heavenly Father with a clear conscience.
Oh, our ignorance! Only travel will erase it, but how can I insist?
I beg my descendants to guard this document with their lives. It has value beyond money.
I left the court of the great Kublai Khan with immense sadness. The Khan himself wept, for I was like a son to him, and he, to me, was like my father. He asked me to take anything I wished from his Kingdom, a generous offer that we accepted in small amounts. Yes, gold, paper, gunpowder, vases – these were his gifts. You know, perhaps, that I was escorting a princess from his court to Hormuz in Persia to be wed,
But I spent time in his ancient and large library seeking books for they have great and everlasting wisdom and felt that they would have permanent value.
The many books which you see, along with this letter, are from his library, and reflect his infinite generosity to me and the Catholic Church.
I found a strange copper sheet in a dark corner of his library and became curious. It had peculiar inscriptions etched on it – they were neither in Chinese nor in any other language that I was familiar with. Yet it looked very pleasing, though out of place in the library. How is it that such a copper sheet was found in the library of Kublai Khan of China? No one had any idea as to its origin or value. I sought permission to take it because my interest was piqued. The Great Khan agreed as he could not find any use for it. For safety, I made a print of the copper sheet by pressing a sheet of paper down and then colouring the indentations created by the etches. I thus created a paper manuscript.
After the parting, about which I have written, I sat down in the ship that we had boarded at Zaitun and tried to translate the manuscript. It was impossible as I had no knowledge of this peculiar script. And yet, somehow, I felt uneasy. It was as if the letters were appealing to be read and understood.
Weeks later, we docked at the port of Calicut in India where I befriended the Zamorin of Calicut who welcomed me with great honour. We became good friends very soon and he gave me additional gifts and mourned with me for the shipmates I had lost on the way.
He introduced me to some priests of the Syrian Catholic church who seemed knowledgeable about ancient languages. Since I was concerned about the contents, I was cautious, and gave only tiny bits of the letter to them requesting them to translate it, which they attempted to do with enthusiasm, employing guesswork and experience. I then pieced the document together as best as I could.
As I learned how to read the faint letters and read out the words, I felt their impact. I will not tell you now what it was.
I took a decision to safeguard this manuscript in an unusual way for I was afraid of what would happen if someone with evil in his heart were to read it, fully understand and act on it. And so I tore the manuscript in two and requested that the Zamorin keep half of it in his custody, saying that it was a letter guaranteeing safety to those who wished to meet me in Venice. The Zamorin kept it carefully without asking questions and said that he would wait for someone to claim the letter someday.
I left directly for Persia. I had memorized the contents of the manuscript, of course, and chanted them to myself quietly as my ship bore west. My head was full of dark, angry clouds and confusion. In a moment of extreme fear, I flung the copper sheet into the sea, as though it were on fire; I instantly regretted my action, but of course, it was too late.
We reached Hormuz and then you know the rest.
Keep this letter with the manuscript, for everyone’s safety. It is too valuable to be destroyed and yet too dangerous to be complete. Let us pray that mankind does not find the other half. It will bring infinite misery, though many will believe, foolishly, that it will be the opposite.
Citizen of Venice
I was flabbergasted by this peculiar story. We sat in silence absorbing the words. Holmes puffed at his pipe and said nothing, waiting for our visitor to continue. We could hear the beat constable just outside. “We feel convinced, Signore Holmes, that the attempted burglary pertained to this document.” “What would you like me to do?”asked Holmes, after some reflection. “Visit Venice with me and help us to understand the matter better.” Holmes shook his head firmly. “We are working with conjectures. And my current engagements will not permit a trip. Why can your police not assist?” “They lack the scientific approach, Signore Holmes. More importantly, we think this requires secrecy and if we were to go to the local police, we cannot say with certainty that the matter would not become widely known, resulting in new complications. And we want to understand the mystery. Why is someone so interested in this parchment? “ “Why can you not get this document translated? Would that not help, even if partially?” “Yes, it would. This is why I visited the British Museum, as I said. And I shall do so again tomorrow. However, we think your involvement is needed. The Catholic Church worked closely with Marco Polo and sent some Sepulchral oil to the Khan on his request; there is an interesting story there that I could tell you about some day. Marco Polo was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice but his body was lost. Father Agnelli of that church is very knowledgeable about him. The Patriarch of Venice has expressly asked for your involvement after he consulted the Pope, though I must add that the decision was opposed internally at the Vatican. Though there are ancient Aramaic and demotic scholars in Rome, who could have perhaps tried to translate the Meroitic, it was felt that the matter must be kept very confidential, which is why I have brought it here. This may have ramifications beyond murder and a simple translation.”
“What kind of ramifications, I wonder. Hmm. Perhaps I should think about it. Shall we meet again at eight tomorrow evening after you consult your friend?”
‘Si, si! Let us hear what he has to say.”
With that, Signore Rozzi stood up, placed the documents back into his valise, bowed, and left the room quietly.
“Very interesting, Holmes,” I remarked.
“Indeed, no clear case, but an atmosphere of history and mystery. Well, let us wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, Debrett’s beckons!”
And with that, Holmes sank back into his sofa and was shortly lost in the vagaries of British royal lineage.