It was upon my return to London from the Sudan in 1889—my now mostly useless right leg in tow—that a series of fantastic misadventures befell me, which I have taken it upon myself to record here for the edification of any reader who may chance upon these pages. The events I will relate are of no common occurrence, possessing, I think, a measure of interest to rival those of that recent literary sensation, Detective Sherlock Holmes. However, I challenge even Arthur Conan Doyle himself to produce such a record of goodness and faithful camaraderie as these pages will unfold. Like that venerable Dr. Watson, I write in tribute to a strikingly original personality—in my case, in tribute to Aiba Masaki, noted zoologist and (amateur) detective.
But while Dr. Watson had the enviable task of recording the acts of an apparently flawless logician with incredible powers of deduction, I have the more difficult task of depicting a man who is both singularly courageous and the most absurd human being I have ever had the misfortune of following into the slums of East London.
However, as Aiba assures me (with his characteristic generosity and stupidity) that he has no objection to an unvarnished account of the case, I shall do my best to fully describe the many contradictions of my friend.
Before I enter into the intrigues of the case that has gained so much notoriety in the London papers, however, Aiba requests that I inform the reader of how I first encountered this overenthusiastic gentleman.
It was a late autumn evening in 1889, with a fine gray drizzle soaking the streets of London. I was strolling (or, I might say, limping) along the Thames in sight of the Houses of Parliament, amazed by the gleaming gaslights installed since I last saw the Houses. I had spent the last three years as a medical attendant to the expeditionary forces in the Sudan, sent packing after an unexpected skirmish resulted in more shrapnel embedded in my right leg than had any right to be there. Indeed, I can only account for my uncharacteristic lack of an umbrella that evening by the fact that I had arrived in London a mere two days earlier—I believe I had forgotten the cold rains of the London streets after three years under the North African sun.
I was thoroughly wet and rather miserable, gloomily contemplating another evening spent in my comfortless hotel, when a small street urchin appeared suddenly at my side. The boy was panting as he skidded to a halt beside me. Dark hair was plastered across his forehead and his clothes were ragged, but he flashed me a confident smile before exclaiming in a rough cockney accent, “That’s a fine silk topper you have there, guv’nor!”
I touched my top hat reflexively (I’d worn it on the chance that I might attend the opera later that night). While I must furnish my wardrobe on the (comparatively) humble salary of a physician, I flatter myself that my clothing bears the mark of a rather sophisticated and discerning taste—my hat had been bought in Paris on my trip back, and it possessed a distinctive purple detailing.
“Thank you, young man,” I replied, unable to keep a note of suspicion out of my voice as my eyes narrowed; I had never known a street ruffian to address a gentleman so intimately, and I’d treated enough of East London’s poor to find something slightly strange about his accent. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it—he'd delivered the sentence quite naturally—but something about the rhythm of his speech felt artificial. A pickpocket?
No, a bolder thief! I’d no sooner tapped my hat in acknowledgement than the rapscallion had seized it from off my head, twirling it between his hands before stuffing his own insolent head inside it (carelessly wrinkling the fine material of the brim in his haste, I might add). The brat gave me a wink and a two-fingered salute before dashing off with a, “Sorry guv’nor, but I’m expected at the opera tonight!”
I naturally made to run after my property; it was only when my leg stiffened and I dropped my walking stick (a walking stick, not a cane) that I recalled my injury. I’d been doing that constantly—forgetting, I mean. I’d try to run down the stairs or hurry to catch a train and then I'd feel the unexpected pain all over again.
I suppose I was at my most undignified—soaking wet, shaking my fist at the sky and cursing in the rain—when I first made Aiba’s acquaintance; I’ve never been a particularly superstitious man, but perhaps the strangeness of our first meeting was a foreboding of things to come.
I was reaching for my walking stick when I heard a tremendous splashing of feet behind me and a bellowed, “Never fear, my good man! Your hat shall soon be in your possession once more!” I just caught a glimpse of a tall, athletic figure dashing past at a fairly impressive speed before the figure disappeared into the fog up ahead. Shaking my head, I wondered if I’d imagined the sudden apparition—perhaps loneliness had begun to turn my mind. Sighing, I retrieved my stick and continued my stroll, grateful that at least the rain had begun to ease.
I suppose I should have expected it after the shouted promise, but I was genuinely surprised (I had never undertaken such a shocking evening stroll before) when a few minutes later I heard steps coming toward me, and the fog parted to reveal the tall figure trotting towards me, my silk hat in hand. Catching sight of me, the figure waved the hat wildly above his head before running excitedly towards me, a blinding grin lighting up his whole face. Upon reaching me, he doubled-over, panting heavily, “My dear sir, please accept my sincere apologies for the delay, but I have retrieved your hat from the young scoundrel. The escapade had its doubtful moments, believe me, but I managed to rescue the innocent top hat unscathed.”
He held the hat out to me. The band was torn, the top was crumpled, and the entire article was splattered with mud. Seeing my nonplussed expression, his grin faded as his gaze shifted from my face to the hat. “Oh, I say…really…” he muttered, his cheeks turning redder, as though flustered. He began wiping the hat frantically against his pant legs, frowning sadly, “It’s rather spoilt, isn’t it?” he looked up at me, his wide brown eyes reminding me of nothing so much as my sister’s childhood puppy (whom I loved, but who always snapped at me whenever I came near).
I finally had a chance to observe the hat-rescuer properly; he was tall, with an athletic figure and broad shoulders (as I’ve already noted), with dark brown eyes and hair. His remarkably handsome face reminded one of a Greek statue in the gallery of the Royal Academy. His demeanor was undoubtedly that of a gentleman’s, and his clothes were fine though surprisingly colorful (he wore an orange linen shirt beneath his brown tweed jacket, and green shoes), and the cuffs of his overcoat were fraying at the edges.
I pulled out my handkerchief, “Sir, I cannot thank you enough. Not one gentleman in a hundred would have gone after such a low criminal for the sake of a stranger’s hat. Please,” I passed the handkerchief into his surprisingly warm hands, our rough fingertips chancing to brush against each other, “dry yourself. And may I know who I have the pleasure of addressing?”
At my words, his face seemed to light up so brightly that it rivaled the glowing windows of Parliament from across the river. I felt a strange thumping in my chest, and I found myself unconsciously mirroring his (to write the truth) rather idiotic smile.
He began scrubbing my hat vigorously with the handkerchief—spoiling my last piece of clean linen completely—as he babbled enthusiastically in response, “With pleasure, sir! Allow me to introduce myself. I am Aiba Masaki, lately a professor of zoology at the city college but most recently self-employed as an amateur detective at large, entirely free of charge for any in need, of course. I was in hot pursuit of the rascal who just passed, an acquaintance of mine, I’m ashamed to confess, when I witnessed his shocking affront to a fashionable gentleman of such obvious good-heartedness, and I must say it pained me to my core to be a party to such behavior. However, my happiness in being of service to someone so kind has more than made up for the inevitable rift between myself and my unworthy young acquaintance.” He pushed the mud-splattered hat and handkerchief toward me triumphantly, “And may I know your name, sir?”
Frankly, I was a bit stunned by this zoologist-turned-detective’s outburst, and not only because he was apparently acquainted with the rogue who’d stolen my hat. Having hardly exchanged more than a polite “Good morning” or “Good evening” with a soul since returning to London, I found myself rather breathless when confronted with so much confused eloquence. “Jun,” I managed, “Matsumoto Jun. Lately medical attendant of British forces in the Sudan, currently a London doctor of no fixed address.”
I may have imagined it, but the detective’s eyes seemed to soften further at my words. “Jun,” he replied, his breathy, surprisingly deep voice sending a strange thrill down my spine as he pronounced the syllable, “I realize that this is rather unorthodox on so short an acquaintance, but I was just heading for a late supper at the Oxford Club. You know it?” I nodded. “Then would you care to accompany me? There is a chill in the air, and I think we could both use a strong drink. Will you join me?” he repeated, his eyes so irresistibly entreating that before I had time to think I found myself nodding my assent.
“I would be delighted, sir.”
“Please call me Masaki,” he grinned cheerfully in response, stepping beside me and offering me his arm, “Will you take my arm, Jun?”
I flinched away from the proffered arm automatically, hating the thought that he might be inviting me out of mere pity. In those first months of my injury, I was very proud, and I shied away instinctively from all (often imagined) notice of it by others. “No,” I replied stiffly, my jaw suddenly tight, “In spite of my appearance, I am perfectly capable of making my own way, sir.”
Aiba dropped his arm immediately, looking for a moment as though I’d slapped him before he seemed to compose himself. He turned away quickly and began walking forward, “I beg your pardon, sir,” he offered, so gently that I instantly abhorred my rudeness.
I was falling back into my mood of fretful gloom as we made our way forward when Aiba suddenly raised a hand to his hair and burst out laughing, surprising me with his breathy guffaws. “Would you believe it, my dear Jun,” he exclaimed, “but I’ve lost my hat!”
As he turned to me with a warm smile, I could not help joining in his laughter, privately convinced that I would never again encounter a detective both so agreeable and so incompetent, a hypothesis that our future adventures would provide ample evidence to support.