Maura Pennington worked for a man who never existed. Every morning she took the tube to 221B Baker Street, where the Abbey House Building Society, which was really a bank, resided at the address made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She’d ascend the marble staircase to her little aerie under the eaves, switch on the electric heater, remove her gray Macintosh and slip into the cardigan she kept there. She’d splurged on it at Marks and Spencer – a lovely ruby red cashmere. She wore it only at work because when she put it on, she felt like a different person: not an aging spinster at all, but someone sharp and worth knowing, someone well able to cope.
She could not believe she was fifty. Where had her youth gone? Where was the sense of wide-open possibilities with which she used to view her future? She’d thought by now she’d be a wife and mum, looking after a boisterous British family. Instead, she lived alone in a bed-sitter, being a good auntie to her nephews and nieces, and treading tamely back and forth to her job. But at least, she comforted herself, she had a good job. She began slitting open the little pile of envelopes in her in-basket.
Maura had ceased to wonder why presumably normal people wrote to a fictional character who would have been long dead had he ever lived. The fact that current mail was still delivered to Sherlock Holmes’ address was enough to convince these credulous souls that he could be reached there. Her job was to deal with the correspondence in a kind but professional manner.
The first writer wanted Mr. Holmes to assist in finding Aunt Pamela’s good pearl brooch. Everyone in the family remembered it perfectly, but no one could find it now that Aunt Pamela had passed on. Maura uncapped her fountain pen, and took out a piece of creamy stationery headed “Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker St., Marylebone, London. In fine Spencerian script, she wrote Mr. Holmes regretted he could not take on the case since he had retired to the country to raise bees. He suggested that the family check all the pawn shops within two miles of Aunt Pamela’s house.
The next letter writer wondered if Mr. Holmes could locate her brother who had emigrated to Australia in 1995. At first, he’d written regularly, but then the letters stopped. Maura paused worriedly over that one, looking up the number of the Australian Federal Police. Again, Mr. Holmes regretted, but suggested.
Most of the letters were straightforward: people wanted something found. Some touched on the supernatural, a nod to Conan Doyle’s well-known interest in spiritualism. Maura, a faithful Church of England congregant, had trouble with those. She wanted to tell the writer to try going to church on Sundays, but she knew Holmes would never have done that.
Maura’s desk phone seldom rang. Most of her dealings with people took place via the written word. So when the phone rang at ten a.m., she guessed it would be her sister-in-law and it was.
“Maura, come to dinner tonight,” Philippa said. “We’re just having a few people in, the Smythes and a friend of theirs. Be a dear and even up the table.”
Philippa thought it bad luck when the number of men and women didn’t match. Her dinner parties were often soporific, but Maura found it easier to just go rather than cause hard feelings with lame excuses.
At five p.m., Maura capped her pen, straightened her desk, carefully removed her ruby red cardigan and reached for her gray raincoat. Then, remembering that she was going out to dinner, she looked thoughtfully at her outfit: black skirt, black tights, black boots, and a plain white shirt. Not very festive. She resettled the sweater on her shoulders.
Entering her brother’s warm living room, she immediately noticed the stranger leaning against the mantelpiece. Maura felt a tingle of recognition when his eyes met hers. Philippa grasped his arm and propelled him forward.
“Ah, there you are. There’s someone I want you to meet. I’ve been telling him all about you and I just know you two are going to be friends. Maura, this Dr. John Watson.”