The voice of Sherlock Holmes shattered my mid-morning daydream.
"I suppose it can be," I replied groggily, thinking of fire brigades, and wondering what had got into Holmes, who didn't normally indulge in flights of philosophical fancy.
"And is it not true that virtue is its own reward?" Holmes continued.
"That may or may not be the case," I replied, "but I don't see where you're going with this, Holmes. Have you suddenly become a philosopher?"
"Not at all, my dear Watson. But I have been extremely patient. And my patience is soon to be rewarded!"
"Honestly, Holmes! You never cease to amaze me! How can you know what's about to happen?"
My friend smiled and drew an envelope from his inner pocket. "What, dear Watson, do you make of this?"
He sat quietly while I examined the envelope, then spoke again. "You know my methods," he said. "Use them. Tell me everything you can deduce about this message, and the man who sent it."
"The envelope is white, long and narrow," I said, "and fairly standard, I would think. It was sealed, but it has been cut open with a long, straight, sharp blade."
"I opened it myself, Watson," Holmes explained with a hint of friendly exasperation in his voice. "What else do you see?"
"It was sent yesterday afternoon from Anglesey, Wales, and it arrived in London this morning."
"Indeed. It came with the first post. And what of the contents?"
I unfolded a single sheet of white paper and read aloud:
Trefor near Bodedern"What do you say now, Watson?" Holmes asked with a glint in his eye. "Now do you see how my patience is about to be rewarded?"
Tuesday, 21 September
Dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
Amazing tales of your knowledge, skill and discretion have reached us her in the north of Wales, and I trust they are no too highly exaggerated.
My cousin Ellen, having herd of your incredible powers, has begged me repeatedly to ask you for help, but until now I have been reluctant.
The truth is, Mr. Holmes, the police are getting nowhere, and my family and I would be most gratful if you should be so kind as to help us.
I shall be in London on Thursday, and would be pleased to call upon you at your convenience.
Yours most sincerly,
"No doubt I am duller than you in many important respects, Holmes," I said somewhat testily, "but I cannot see any --"
"Perhaps you're looking in the wrong place. What catches your eye about this letter?"
"The man is extremely distraught, Holmes. He's misspelled several common words, even though, by his vocabulary, he is obviously well-educated."
"Distraught? I should say so! What else?"
"He mentions his cousin Ellen. It's clear she's put him up to sending this. Whatever has happened, this man Hughes might be guilty of it, and he might be coming to you only to pacify his cousin. I think you should be very wary of him, Holmes."
"I shall certainly give your advice all the consideration it deserves," said Holmes with a faint smirk, and I knew I was barking up the wrong tree yet again.
"Help me, Holmes," I conceded. "What am I missing?"
"Look at the bottom of the letter, Watson. Look at the very bottom of the page."
"He's spelled 'sincerely' wrong."
"The only thing below that is the man's name: William Hughes. Do you know him?"
"I don't know him, but I have read of him. And, unless I am very much mistaken, so have you."
"I can't say the name rings a bell, Holmes," I replied. "Are you certain I know it?"
"You've been reading all the papers, haven't you, Watson? Surely in the past three or four weeks you've run across his name several times."
"Well, that may be so, but I've lost the handle. Help me again, Holmes. Who is William Hughes?"
"I'm glad you finally asked," Holmes replied. "William Hughes, of Anglesey, Wales, is -- or was -- related to the unfortunate Gareth Williams!"
"I take it you'll see him?"
"Tomorrow at ten. Will you be here?"
"If I can be of service, Holmes, of course I will be here."
"Excellent. I'm on another case, as you know, and I'll be away for the rest of the day. But you, Watson, are welcome to my archive."
Less than a month earlier it had seemed the entire country was talking about Gareth Williams, the young government worker whose decomposing body was found in a padlocked bag in a bathtub in central London.
I had been vaguely aware of Holmes' curiosity about the case, but I didn't realize the extent of his interest until he handed me a folder of newspaper clippings nearly two inches thick.
"Amuse yourself with these articles, if you have nothing else to do," the great detective said. "I'll be back late tonight or early tomorrow, certainly in plenty of time to meet Mr. William Hughes of Anglesey."
And with that, Holmes picked up his hat and stick and left me to spend the rest of the day reading, preparing for a meeting which -- though I didn't realize it at the time -- would draw us into a mystery as deep and subtle as any we had ever encountered.