My dear friend Malachi Norton and I received letters and callers at our London apartments seeking our detective services on a nearly daily basis, but even so, my friend refused to interest himself in any of the cases, claming they lacked novelty. Average, run-of-the-mill crime had always bored him; he craved a challenge worthy of his outstanding mental capabilities. The nearly catatonic appearance of my friend, sitting motionless in his armchair, remained unchanged for the major portion of the day. He was seated thus in perfect silence, his gaunt features showing no traces of life, before he surprised me by halfway opening his eyes and meeting my gaze with indifference. “What I would give right now for a little mental stimulation,” he uttered lazily.
He uncoiled his lean frame from the chair and stood, turning to face the fireplace and clasping his hands behind his back. Suddenly, he jerked his head upright like a hound catching a scent, and turned to face me, catatonia forgotten. “Ah! If I am not mistaken, Johnson, our luck may be about to change. A young man of slightly under average height, in pain and with a marked limp, is now approaching our stoop. Be so kind as to get the door for him, would you Johnson?” At this, a knock sounded, followed by a sharp pull at the bell.
I simply shook my head. I learned my lesson a while ago about asking for him to explain himself, and I had no doubt that all was just as he said, although how he came to his conclusions was often beyond me. “Can I help you?” I asked, pulling open the door. I gasped when I saw the state of the man standing outside. His head and left leg were heavily bandaged, his face swollen and badly bruised, and his once-nice clothing stained and tattered. “Come in, come in,” I cried, quickly ushering him out of the cold and into a comfortable seat by the fireside.
Every movement seemed to cause him to wince with pain. I poured him a glass of brandy as he sat there attempting to catch his breath. “Here, good sir, to take the chill off,” I said, offering it to him. He took it gratefully and quickly downed it. “Have you seen a doctor?”
He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, and then his gaze traveled to my friend, where it lingered a while before returning to me. “Yes sir. I have just been released from the hospital, and I came directly here. I have read much at the hospital about the marvellous mental powers of Mr. Malachi Norton, and I knew instantly that this was the man I must see. If anybody can help me with the predicament I am in, it is he.”
“And what is that predicament?” Malachi asked, seating himself opposite the stranger with a flourish. His clear eyes were alight and his motions filled with energy; gone was the lackadaisical man of seconds before.
“It is hard to explain. You see, I don’t quite know where to begin,” the stranger said. I poured him a second glass of brandy, and he thoughtfully sipped it, consternation creasing his brow.
“The beginning would be a very good place,” Malachi suggested listlessly.
“Yes, of course. If only… if only I knew the beginning.”
“Then perhaps you can tell us what you do know.”
The stranger seemed to hesitate, but he downed the last of his brandy, and spoke. “I know this is rather unorthodox, Mr. Norton, but I know of nowhere else to turn. Sir, I will be upfront with you. I have not even a shilling with which to pay you, and I do not know whether I shall have money by the end of your investigation or not.”
“Pooh!” Malachi exclaimed, indignant. “We will discuss a fee at the end of the matter, if you so wish, but for now let us not beat about the bush.”
“Very good, then,” the young man said, stiffening. “I wish for you to tell me who I am, why people tried to kill me, and if there is the chance they will do so again.”
I was shocked at this turn, but Malachi seemed as though he had been expecting it. “Tell me all you can recall,” Malachi prodded.
Our visitor sighed. “It is very slight indeed. I don’t even remember the assault and battery. I know only what I was told by the doctors after awakening from a coma on a hospital bed. They said I had been sorely beaten, probably by more than one man, and that I was found lying in a roadside ditch in a sorry state. I have multiple broken ribs, a fractured tibia, and innumerable scrapes and contusions. I received a concussion resulting in complete amnesia, and the doctors are unsure if I will ever regain my memory. The thieves stole all I had on my person, besides what I stand before you in now. I believe that the assault was with intent to kill, and I fear I may be in great danger. If you agree to take on the case, I would be most grateful, and if it is at any time within my limited powers to repay you…”
“Say no more. I will take the case. You have my hand to it,” Malachi interjected, eagerly extending his arm toward the man.
Gratefully, the young man took his hand as if to shake on it, when Malachi suddenly lunged forward and brought the hand to his face. “Ah, just as I thought, Johnson. Soft hands, sensitive fingertips, with a distinct lack of calluses. That narrows down the profession greatly.”
“Ah, then you have a clue,” the man exclaimed happily, extracting his hand from my friend’s grip.
There was a brief silence, my friend’s fingertips tapping on the edge of the table as he reseated himself. “Yes, I believe I know a great deal about you now,” he finally said. “Pardon the question, but do you happen to have an old scar on your shoulder forming a most peculiar zig-zag design?”
“Why, yes! But how…”
“No matter,” Malachi interrupted, closing his eyes in thought. He hesitated, before decisively opening his eyes and continuing. “You are most likely a barrister, judging by your speech, demeanour, shoes, and clothing. I am of the opinion that somebody you once assisted in sending to gaol has since been released, and has come in search of you seeking revenge. He likely thinks his revenge has been accomplished, and thus sated, he will no longer be a threat to you. So long as he continues to believe you dead, you are safe. My advice to you is to not look any further for your identity; instead create a new identity and start over again. I would suggest moving to somewhere far away, adapting a different style of speech and gait, going back to law school to study that which you have forgotten, taking the bar, and resuming practice under a new name. You have no wife, as obvious by the lack of any sign of a wedding band, and therefore no pressing familial obligations to tie you down. In a way, you are a very fortunate man. You have no grudges, no regrets, no dark past. Use it to make the best of a fresh new life.” Here my friend stood, and reaching into the Persian slipper sitting on the mantle in which he stored miscellaneous odds and ends, retrieved his checking book. “I am writing you a check, the sum of which should be sufficient to get you through law school. There is not at this time sufficient funds in the account to cash it, and it will remain so until I see in my hand your acceptance letter from the school. I have an I.O.U. here that I would like you to sign. Since you do not know your name, then any name that comes to mind will do.”
The young man’s face lit up, and tears came to his eyes as he looked at the large sum written on the check. “You have saved my life, Mr. Norton; however shall I repay you?” he cried, signing the proffered paper with a flourish.
“All I ask in return is that you follow through with your end, and repay me when you become established in your profession and you can,” Malachi said. “Now get out, go make the most of your life. Here are a few guineas to start you out in the world.”
“Oh, thank you, sir! Heaven bless you!” he exclaimed through his tears, gratefully wringing Malachi’s hand.
“No more words. Just take it and go.”
After I showed the young man out the door, I wryly commented to Malachi, “You are quite generous with funds you do not have. But I cannot for the life of me see how you could know he was a barrister simply because of his speech and clothing. I have seen many a man not studied in law who dressed similarly. Besides,” I added, “how did you know about his scar?”
“How very keen of you, Johnson. Perhaps he was not a barrister at all, and perhaps it is recorded that he received the scar in a knife fight with his partner some years ago. Would you be so kind as to pull down my most recent index of biographies from the shelf?”
I passed the large volume to him with much curiosity. He turned over the pages lazily until reaching the P’s, where he stopped and abruptly tapped his thin finger against the paragraph he had been searching for. He passed the book back to me, and I read:
Perry, Jacob Phineas. Jewel thief, safe cracker, criminal mastermind. Born London, 19--. Son of the late Judge Handley Perry. Educated at Oxford. Author of multiple articles concerning the nation’s rights and the role of Parliament. Caught and convicted for three counts of theft, escaped and was not heard of since. Address unknown.
“This is astonishing,” said I. “Why would somebody of obvious means and good family resort to thievery? And how can you bring yourself to assist such a person?”
“After all, Johnson, I am not retained by the constabulary to supply their deficiencies. I suppose I am committing a felony, but it is just possible that I am also saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he simply must be given the proper avenues at which to direct his mental prowess. Many a magnificent mind has been tempted to turn to crime by the simple fact of boredom and stagnation. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Not always does one get the opportunity for a second chance.” As he spoke, Malachi strode rapidly into the adjoining room and took down his disguise kit from the closet. He perched himself on a stool in front of the stage mirror he had inherited from his mother, and began to alter his features quite expertly with prosthetics, plaster, and make-up.
“Whatever are you doing now?” I asked, curiosity getting the best of me.
“Why, I am going to make a withdraw at the Bank of England, of course,”
“Well, I could not very well withdraw Mr. Perry’s money from his account if I did not at least resemble him, now could I? Only enough to pay for law school, I assure you; and my fee, of course. Now, that I.O.U., Johnson. I must practice the signature. If the name he signed came so readily to his mind, then it is likely he has used it as an alias previously, perhaps even at the bank.”