Author’s Note: This short story first appeared on the Here Be Magic Blog on Valentine’s Day, 2014. The authors belonging to that group blog challenged each other to write a flash fiction piece featuring a heart-shaped box. The pastiche below was my own contribution.
Sherlock Holmes’s top desk drawer held trophies of his many successes, plus a simple, wooden, heart-shaped box. One with Holmes’s skill in observation might note that the box was the sort of cheap trinket that a young person might buy with an allowance, painted after purchase with a tutored but inexpert hand.
I first encountered the box when he sent me looking for a tin of poisonous seeds that he thought might shed some light on a current case. I pulled out the thing with a laugh, for it seemed so unlike my friend’s tastes, and made some sort of jovial allusion to the tales of the monster who cannot be killed because he keeps his heart in a box, only this box was empty.
Holmes uncurled like a viper from his previous indolent pose and snatched the box from my hand.
Thinking I had offended him with my joke about heartlessness, I stammered out an apology— though he had said as much and more about himself on occasion.
Holmes waved off my contrition. “It is I who should apologize, my dear Watson. It is only that the box is a reminder of a matter most sensitive to me. While everything else you see in that drawer is a memento of my success, that box is a reminder of my failure. My very first mystery, which remains unsolved.”
Something in his face discouraged further questions, and suggested to me that personal sorrow, not professional frustration, drove his somber mood. Though Holmes lived and breathed rationality, I have often suspected his cold logic to be a defense. One need only hear him play his Stradivarius to realize that he was a man of deep passions. Perhaps he kept tight rein on his emotions out of fear that they would otherwise run away with him.
Something ran away with Holmes that dreary winter. He was out all hours, sometimes not coming home for days, often returning very much the worse for wear. When I asked him about the client, he would only say that there was none.
My friend sometimes undertook odd exercises to keep his skills sharp and, I suspected, to alleviate boredom. Since this was less unhealthy than some of his other methods of combating ennui, I held my tongue until the night he came back with a bullet wound for me to dress.
“Damn it, Holmes, life isn’t something to be held lightly.”
He tilted his head back to look at me upside-down. “You are right, my dear friend. It is not.”
Holmes slept for a day and a half, rose in a better mood and ate breakfast with an unusual appetite. I tried to engage him in conversation on the previous day’s headlines. The Yard had solved a serious of murders of young women, some going back almost two decades, previously thought to be unrelated. Such a subject would usually interest him, but he only said ‘indeed’ and proceeded to fill his pipe from the store he kept in the Persian slipper on the mantle. Our rooms filled with the strong, harsh scent of shag tobacco, and all was right with the world.
I was called out to an emergency in the evening and did not return until the sky started to lighten, so I might be forgiven for being still abed when Holmes received his caller, a somewhat older woman by her voice, in our shared sitting room. Eavesdropping was unpardonable, but I had caught the vice of curiosity from Holmes.
The woman thanked him, over and over again, for some service he had rendered.
Holmes’s voice was gentle, almost fond, as he quieted her. “I fear, madam, that my services were too little, too late.”
“But at least now we know what happened to her. A bit of peace, after all these years. And you were practically a boy yourself, without resources or training, when Patricia disappeared. You never did say how you discovered her killer, after all these years”
“Detective Inspector Lestrade was going on in his customary monotonous way about his early years on the force. Usually I ignore such prattle, but he mentioned two unsolved disappearances from his early years. I saw the similarities he had missed between those two cases. Similarities Patricia’s disappearance also had in common. Those peculiarities helped me build a description in my head of the killer as sure as if he had provided me with a photograph and a personal biography.”
“So you hadn’t the information you needed all those years ago to find out what had happened to our poor Patricia,” the woman said. “There was nothing you could have done earlier.”
“Yet it was my fault to begin with that she was lost.”
“No, Mr. Holmes— Sherlock. We have never held you responsible.”
“If I had escorted her to that dance as she requested, the blackguard would not have had his opportunity.”
“She knew such things were not to your taste. She could have stayed home, or accepted one of a half-dozen young men who would have been happy to escort her. She was just being our Patricia— outrageous, irrepressible, and even more stubborn than you.”
I heard Holmes open a desk drawer, sort through the objects, close it again. “I still have this, you know. The box she gave me. She said I should take it so I had at least one heart, as it was clear that I wasn’t born with one.”
I winced for my friend.
“You know she only meant it as a jest. She admired you greatly.”
“And I her.”
“Did you sometimes wonder, if she had not been taken. . .”
I held my breath, expecting my friend to scoff at the idea that he might ever have married, but Holmes will never cease to astonish me.
“Here, I’ve brought you something. It was among her things, I’ve kept it all these years, but I think you should have it.”
I blush to confess that by this point I had cracked the door to the sitting room open that I might watch. The woman opened her reticule and handed to Holmes a small locket, tarnished with age.
Holmes opened the locket, gave a wistful, sad smile. “Thank you.” He opened the heart-shaped box, put the locket inside, and closed the lid.
I will never again say that Holmes has no heart, nor agree with anyone who says that heart is empty.
Another note: This year’s blog challenge was love letters. Hop over to Here Be Magic on Valentine’s Day to see A Letter Raven Never Sent From Australia