“So, what can you tell me about the man that owns this walking stick?” asked Sir Arthur.
I took the proffered stick and made a show of examining it thoroughly. Sir Arthur, with his templed fingers pretended not to be observing me, but I knew that he was taking in my every move. I also knew that this was a test. He was testing my powers of deduction and, as his apprentice, I was expected to fail. Sir Arthur was only allowing me to tag along on his investigations because he had a bet going with Sir George. Sir George believed that I was at least as clever as Sir Arthur and Sir Arthur was convinced that he, and he alone, possessed the intelligence for which he was renowned and had made him England’s greatest detective.
I hefted the walking stick and tested its balance by twirling it between my fingers. I held it up and looked down its length. I examined the silver handle and scrutinized the worn tip.
“He’s a pompous ass,” I said and laid the walking stick down on the table that separated me from my mentor.
Sir Arthur’s hands dropped to the arms of the chair, but he only glanced sideways at me. His aspect was one of disciplined emotional control. After a long minute of silence, he finally said, “That’s a rather terse assessment. On what do you base it?”
“It’s quite simple, really. Anyone who would use such a pretentious thing as a silver-tipped walking stick in this day and age could only be a pompous ass.” I paused. “He also owns a dog.”
Sir Arthur’s looked at me then. If he’d taught me anything in the nine months since this ridiculous bet had been made, it was the art of maintaining disciplined emotional control. My face was devoid of any expression. I noticed his eyes narrow ever so slightly and I knew that the real game had just begun.
“I’ll not give you any points for the dog. The teeth marks near the bottom of the shaft are a dead giveaway. Any idiot could see them and tell there is a dog involved. You’ll have to do better than that,” he snapped. He gestured with his left hand for me to continue. He was yet to be impressed.
“Very well. He’s a pompous ass...”
“Never mind that part. You’ve made your point quite adequately.” Sir Arthur resumed his focused posture with his fingers templed under his chin.
“He shops at Mackey’s,” I said.
“Mackey’s? What makes you say that?”
“There is a Mackey’s insignia etched into the wood just below the handle.”
“Indeed?” Sir Arthur picked up the walking stick and pretended to search for the Mackey’s crest.
“That’s no better than the dog. Carry on.”
“He’s six feet tall, wears a size eleven shoe and limps. He’s clean shaven, but wears his hair just a bit longer than is currently fashionable. He takes enormous pride in his appearance. He carries a pocket watch and shuns modern technology. He thinks the walking stick is both debonair and intimidating. He hates salads and he’s well read; has an extensive and enviable library. His nose was broken once in a fight when he was learning to box in college and he’s left handed. He’s single – no woman in her right mind would ever marry him and...”
“All right! That’s quite enough.” Sir Arthur stood up and walked to the other side of the room where he poured himself a brandy from a crystal decanter. He sipped the amber liquid either thoughtfully or in great consternation. I was not entirely sure as I could not see his face. He was looking out the window.
“You think you’re very clever, don’t you William?” Sir Arthur spoke quietly, keeping his back turned toward me.
“Don’t you?” I challenged.
“Not really. You saw the walking stick in the closet at some point. You simply remembered it that’s all. But insulting me... Well, that’s not clever, William. It’s shear insolence.”
“You asked. I merely answered. If you did not want me to tell you the truth, you should not have asked.” I joined him next to the brandy decanter and helped myself to a finger or two. Sir Arthur snorted at my audacious display of self esteem. I took a sip of the vile liquor and managed to keep my distaste from showing. A swig of beer would have hit the spot just then, but brandy was all he had.
“So, after all I’ve done for you, that is what you truly think of me? A pompous ass? An undesirable man?”
“And a lousy boxer. Don’t forget the lousy boxer part,” I said.
“Get out. Get out of my house, you ungrateful little wanker!”
I put the brandy snifter on the table and looked at Sir Arthur. “Good-bye, Sir Arthur,” I said.
I took my leave of the man who would win a thousand pounds because I had to call it the way I saw it. And I was okay with that. What I was not okay with was having to face Sir George when I got home. I was not looking forward to looking him in the eye and telling him that I called his best friend a pompous ass.
I had grown up listening to Sir George talk endlessly about Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur this and Sir Arthur that. I had followed all of Sir Arthur’s cases and when I decided to become a police officer, Sir George insisted that I train with him. Sir Arthur, though, had no interest in me until I solved a particularly vexing case involving the serial murders of thirteen old ladies and their dogs. (The groomer did it!)
Sir George had been boasting about me to Sir Arthur, who wagered that I had not solved the case as much as it had been conveniently solved for me with an anonymous tip that paid off. Sir George wagered that I was just as good as Sir Arthur and, with one thousand pounds on the line I managed to become Sir Arthur’s Pygmalion, so to speak. I don’t know why I agreed to it, but there was a certain allure about studying under the tutelage of the great detective. It didn’t hurt with my superiors, who worshiped the man, either. They had visions of getting Sir Arthur to become a police consultant instead of a private investigator. With him in their pockets, they were sure that crime would all but cease. That is the level of awe they held him at.
The truth was that Sir Arthur was good at what he did. That he harboured the not-so-secret belief that he was some real-life version of Sherlock Holmes – only better – was a clear indication of how out of control he potentially was. His ego was the size of the British Empire (when it still covered most of the known world).
I arrived home to find Sir George sitting by the fire in the great room of his familial manor house, a pipe dangling from between his clamped lips and the evening edition of the London Times gripped in his perfectly manicured hands. I helped myself to a beer from the kitchen and joined him, ready to take my lumps.
“A pompous ass, eh?” he said around the pipe and paper.
“He called you?” I asked, somewhat surprised. I half expected Sir Arthur to call, but I did not expect him to give the details so forthrightly.
“A lousy boxer? No woman in her right mind would have him?” Sir George put down the paper and withdrew the pipe. “I dare say William that was the easiest thousand pounds I ever made!” He threw his head back and laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks and his ample belly ached.
I sipped my beer from the bottle, thinking that that Sir Arthur had been right about me all along. It was clear that I had missed something rather fundamental to the case.
“My dear boy,” said Sir George when he finally composed himself enough to speak, “you have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought that you wanted me to prove that I was as good as Sir Arthur.”
“And you did. You did, my boy. In fact you proved that you are better than him.”
“Just how did I do that?”
“Don’t you see? Sir Arthur expected you to give him some tripe about the walking stick’s owner. He was desperate to make a fool out of you and win the bet.”
“Didn’t he win the bet?”
“As I recall, the bet was that if you did not master his techniques within a year, I would pay him a thousand pounds.”
"And you bested him at his own game. He’s really quite impressed with you, William.”
I was confused. “So he asked me to tell him about the man who owned the walking stick with the intention that I would assume it was a clue in some case and rattle off some nonsense about it belonging to some wealthy aristocrat with excellent taste and a love of the opera?”
“Something like that, yes. He expected you to be entrapped by the stereo type associated with that sort of thing.”
“So he really had no idea that I knew that the walking stick was his?”
“I guess I should apologise to him.”
“For... Well for calling him a pompous ass, for starters.”
Sir George laughed again. “Nonsense. He knows he’s a pompous ass. He found it quite refreshing that you had the stones to say it to his face. I’ve been saying it for thirty-eighty years, but my opinion doesn’t count for much with him. I’d have to solve more than the Sunday crossword before he’d take anything I have to say seriously.”
“So why’d he call me an ungrateful wanker and kick me out?”
“Oh, that! Well, when he went over to pour his brandy, he saw his neighbour disrobing in her bedroom window. She only does that when she wants him to,” Sir George cleared his throat, “uh visit.”
My eyebrows meshed with my hair line. “I see. Well, then. I suppose that I should at least apologize for saying no woman would have him.” I drained my bottle of beer.
“Who said she was in her right mind?” Sir George and I both laughed, then retired to our beds for the night.