Chapter 15: Getting Closer

Holmes sat quietly
"If you have no pressing questions at the moment," Sherlock Holmes said, "perhaps you can answer one for me, Doctor?"

"Of course!" I replied. "Ask me whatever you wish."

"We haven't seen the body of Gareth Williams, nor shall we," Holmes continued, "so we cannot know exactly how 'advanced' the state of decomposition was when the body was discovered."

"No, Holmes," I replied, "we really don't know anything except the description provided by the police."

"But we do know something about the holdall," said Holmes, "and we know Gareth Williams was alive at most eight days before he was found in it. I realize you are more accustomed to seeing live patients than dead ones, Watson, but I believe you have more experience with the latter than I. So I must ask you to speculate a bit. Do you think the body could have reached 'an advanced state of decomposition' naturally, so to speak? Or do you think some unnatural 'assistance' would have been required?"

"It is very difficult to speculate without knowing the cause of death," I replied. "We still don't even know whether he was dead when he was put into the bag, or ..."

My voice trailed away, but Holmes sat quietly.

"Some poisons, and certain viruses," I continued after a short pause, "kill by breaking down tissue. If he was killed by one of these methods, one would expect the body to reach 'an advanced state of decomposition' quite rapidly, with or without the bag. With the bag, which is virtually airtight, the body might have lain undiscovered for quite some time. Without it, the smell of decomposing flesh would have become overpowering, and the body would likely have been found in far fewer than eight days."

"Would it be possible to kill a man with one of these poisons, or viruses," Holmes asked, "without the cause of death being detected?"

"I suppose it would be, Holmes," I replied. "Forensic testing on a body which is rapidly breaking down is very difficult indeed. And, even without the complication of advanced decomposition, it would be impossible to test for all toxins and viruses."

"If, as we have some reason to believe," added Holmes, "the police -- or at least some of them -- are more interested in shielding the crime than solving it, then determining the cause of death would be -- shall we say -- even more challenging."

"On the other hand," I continued, hoping to give my friend as much benefit of my medical knowledge as possible, "if he was alive when he was put into the bag, and suffocated there, or died from a heart attack, as some reports have suggested, then one would expect the body to decay much more slowly. Even in the heat of August, it could hardly reach 'an advanced state of decomposition' in little more than a week."

"Can we take it as probable, then," the detective continued, "that Gareth Williams was poisoned?"

"I think it sounds more like a virus, Holmes," I replied, "although, as you say, we cannot be certain."

"Indeed," said Holmes, "and there is always the possibility that new evidence may surface which changes our minds. But with what we know at this point, no other explanation makes any sense."

"I suppose it may be possible," I suggested, "that some substance -- chemical, or perhaps biological -- could have been placed in the bag with the body, to speed the decomposition."

"Anything particular come to mind?" he asked.

"None at present, Holmes," I answered. "But I take it you wish to consider all the possibilities, and it is certainly possible that the cause of death and the cause of rapid decomposition were quite different."

"Of course you are correct, Watson," said Holmes. "I may have been indulging in a bit of wistful thinking, assuming we knew something we didn't in order to simplify the analysis. But self-delusion never helps, so it's a good job you've brought me up short."

I nodded. Holmes sighed or growled, or something in between, and said, "If we only knew when, or where, or how, or by whom, or for what reason this crime was committed, I would feel we were getting closer."

I had rarely seen my companion express so much frustration so eloquently. Mrs. Hudson, our long-suffering landlady, who has cleaned up many a mess left behind by the world's most frustrated consulting detective, would have been tickled to see him acting in such a civilized manner -- unless she happened to notice that there was nothing in our compartment suitable for smashing.

"All is not lost, however," continued Holmes with a hint of a grin, "for we are certainly getting closer to Chester. We'll change there, and after a few minutes on our new train, we will be in Wales. I promised you some scenery, Watson."

"You did," I replied.

"And I do hope you'll enjoy it," he said.

With that, Holmes straightened himself in his seat, threw back his head, and proceeded to sing one of the most lovely and intricate melodies he has ever played upon the violin -- Scarlatti, I believe he once said it was.