Holmes returned at dusk, storming into the room without saying a word. Completely disregarding the audience’s well-being outside, the shrill rubbing of bow and string started blaring out his bedroom. After torturing them with erratic howls, screeches, and wails for a good 15 minutes, he finally put down the instrument in contentment.
He then said to Zhang Heng, who was at his side, “The meeting with Villard has been canceled tonight. I told him that we couldn’t acquire much useful information in the afternoon. Hence, the meeting would be pointless.”
“Sounds good to me. I actually wanted to tell you that I might not be able to make it tonight.”
Zhang Heng then took out the two opera tickets.
“A friend gave me these and invited me to her performance.”
“Huh? A new opera in the Queen’s Theatre?” Holmes’ intuition was as sharp as ever.
“Any companions that might be tagging along with you?”
“You know that I just arrived in London not long ago, and I’m still unfamiliar with the place. So, I don’t have any acquaintances…” “What a coincidence! I do happen to be going to the Queen’s Theatre tonight,” chuckled Holmes.
“Other than the violin, do you also like opera as well?”
“I really like opera, but we won’t be there for that tonight,” Holmes said, “We want to capture that Mr. M. Once we capture him, we will know who his target is. His playground has always been in France. Now that he’s come all the way here to London, he must have a big job to do.”
“So, you’ve narrowed down the list?”
“Well, I went to visit a few friends this afternoon and compiled a substantial list of his potential targets. He hasn’t moved his finger yet, but I would have begun studying my victims if I were to be him. It just so happens that the first, third, and fifth on my list will all appear in the Queen’s Theatre tonight. I know the chief makeup artist of the hall. Initially, I wanted him to help me get a ticket, but since you have an extra ticket with you, it’s all perfect!”
As they finished the last bites of dinner, Holmes and Zhang Heng draped on their suits and prepared to head to Queen’s Theater. Holmes got rid of his stubbles and cleaned up himself. When coupled with his aquiline nose and sculpted face, he looked bright, as if a renewed vigor clutched his soul. Perhaps he wasn’t the most dashing man around here, but he was definitely not ugly either.
He picked a walking stick. It had the carapace of a tortoise for a handle and rosewood for its body.
“My oriental friend, you are now wealthy! You should pick a walking stick that suits your standing.”
Zhang Heng might never understand the love affair between European men and their walking sticks. The streets of London saw every gentleman bearing their very own walking stick. And most of them had more than just one. When they walked their corgi’s in the morning, they would bring along their wooden sticks, and in the evenings, those would be replaced by a silver cane. Men waving their golden sticks around at some fancy banquet was a common sight for the more affluent and moneyed.
There were also custom walking sticks used only on occasions like business meetings and operas in theatres. When Balzac was depressed and in huge debt, he still didn’t hesitate to splurge 700 francs to buy a luxurious walking stick with agate embedded on it. Such manner of over consumerism surpassed most modern shopaholics, the Victorian equivalent to selling one’s kidney for that latest iPhone.
However, Zhang Heng’s principle has always been to adhere to the culture of the place he set foot in.
The 19th century was probably the golden age of the walking stick. Famous jewelry brands quickly jumped on the bandwagon, all wanting a piece of the large profit. Tiffany and Cartier launched their own walking sticks, though Zhang Heng wasn’t that interested in those brands. Other than their extortionate and extravagant price tag, what Zhang Heng had in mind differed from most ordinary people. Such an ostentatious price was one of the reasons why he wanted to stay away. He insisted on his own specifications too, where other than providing him an appropriate identity, he also wanted the cane to double as a defensive weapon when necessary.
Having that in mind, he paid more attention to the stick’s weight and sturdiness, and if it was qualified to be used as a weapon. Its appearance wasn’t his priority. Thus, he planned a visit to the flea market the next day.
When the two arrived at the Queen’s Theatre, there was still half an hour before the performance began. Irene Adler selected Zhang Heng, and his companion was superb; their seats were located right in the middle of the second row. Coincidently, the three persons Holmes talked about were in the second row as well.
Zhang Heng learned that one of them was the current prime minister of Great Britain, the Marquis of Salisbury. Before the show started, he strolled into the box with a cigar in mouth, accompanied by a few individuals.
Sherlock Holmes was also on the watch list, or more precisely, keeping an eye on the prime minister’s company. Thus far, he found nothing worthy of note. As spectators began to pour into the venue, the theater’s lights dimmed, the music started, and the curtains slowly drew upward.
Two minutes before the show began, Zhang Heng told Holmes, “I think I finally understand now.”
“Well, what is it that you understand?”
“I know where that oil painting is.”
“Oh?” Holmes couldn’t help but crack a smile when he heard that. “Let’s talk about it.”
“The disappearance of oil painting is the main point here. The painting’s frame is still in the room,” Zhang Heng analyzed. “It’s been something that has baffled me for a long time. Taking the painting and its frame along with it is rather unmanageable. In other words, my last deduction was indeed problematic. If the housekeeper and maid were conspirators, he could have brought it out first and left it with the maid. However, the maid removed the painting in the end. It shows that the housekeeper had nothing to do with it. She had taken the painting out of the frame to conceal it easily, probably rolled up somewhere. Since she had been searched and nothing was found on her, only one possibility remains-The painting is still in the room!
“Many tend to come up with the wrong idea when it comes to this. They think Mr. M has to hold something in escrow to threaten its owner. In fact, there was no reason for him to do so. There was an easier way to achieve his purpose. As long as the victim thinks he is the thief of the targeted items, his plan had already kicked into motion. The letter we found was a scheme to lead us off the trail to where we are now. Think about this—when the viscount woke up in the morning and found the painting missing, Mr. M’s letter was discovered on the ground at almost the same time. The combination of these elements would lead people to think that Mr. M was indeed the culprit.”
“Outstanding!” Holmes clapped his hands and praised. “I’m not ruling out how certain criminals deliberately mess up crime scenes, but most of the time, everything they leave behind serves a purpose, especially for such an experienced thief. Like an artist, he will not mind adding a couple of extra strokes to an already perfect painting… Let’s move forward. If I ask where the painting is hidden in the room, can you come up with an answer?”
“In that porcelain vase,” Zhang Heng replied decisively, “Villard is indeed a very conscientious detective. To collect more information, he rummaged through every corner of the room, except the porcelain vase. It has a tiny mouth, but is spacious within. If someone hid the oil painting and placed it close to the bottom, spotting it from above would be impossible.