Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Phantom Tweets

On consulting the reams of manuscript in which I have chronicled the second return of my dear friend Sherlock Holmes, I find that no pages encompass more activity than those devoted to the year 2019. Perusing my notes for that twelvemonth, I see that this was the period in which Holmes resolved the crisis of the Hackney Micro-Aggression, and brought a soothing termination to the hideous incident of the Unsafe Space. But no case of the time so severely tested my friend’s powers of deduction, or so thoroughly quenched his appetite for adventure, as the puzzle of the Phantom Tweets. My own affairs having taken me abroad during the first weeks of this cause célèbre, I remained quite innocent of the matter until my return to our lodgings in Baker Street, where I found Holmes seated before the fire, with his gaze fixed intently upon the contents of his tablet.

“Welcome home, Watson,” murmured my friend after a minute or two, without having glanced up from his device. “I perceive that your journey was a busy one.”

“Remarkably busy, Holmes,” I answered. “But how the devil did you know?”

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Holmes at last laid aside his reading matter, and fixed his languid gaze upon me. “Because, Watson, you have sat silent in that chair for two minutes now, offering neither comment nor conjecture regarding the celebrated affair of the unvirtuous tweets. Only a fellow who has been singularly busy during this last fortnight—so busy that he has had no opportunity to glance into a newspaper—would exhibit, upon his return to these shores, so perfect an indifference to the late misfortunes of Miss Jemima Appleby. Ah—your expression reveals that you are no stranger to the lady’s name, at any rate.”

“No stranger! Why Holmes, the lady is the most forward-looking journalist in the land—an impassioned foe of all known forms of injustice, and a tireless discoverer of fresh ones. Her ability to ‘read the room’ is quite unparalleled.”

“Indeed, Watson, which is precisely why the room reads her. At the acme of her popularity, Miss Appleby had accumulated some half a million followers and friends. If acumen can be gauged by fame, the lady is indeed the sagest writer in the land. Or perhaps I should say, she was.”

“Great God, Holmes!” I ejaculated. “You don’t mean to say the lady has been murdered!”

“Not quite, my dear Watson. But she has suffered a remarkable fall from favour. When last I looked, her followers could be numbered in the mere hundreds. Her weekly newspaper column has been cancelled, and her books have been removed from all respectable shelves. The lady is quite disgraced.”

“But pray,” said I, “what is the cause of all this?”

“The events of the past fortnight have been strange, Watson, but I will compress the story as far as may be done. Briefly, the facts are these. A week ago last Friday, on the fourteenth, Miss Appleby, as was her custom, dined with a friend at McFarlane’s. The dinner was a weekly ritual, governed by certain peculiar rules. These rules stipulated that neither Miss Appleby nor her companion was permitted to bring any kind of electronic device to the table.”

“No-phone Friday,” said I.

“Very good, Watson. I see that you are well acquainted with the lady’s journalism, which once furnished so panoramic a window onto her personal habits. Now, on the evening of the fourteenth, Miss Appleby left home at about seven o’clock. In accordance with the rules of the Friday dinner, she left her telephone inside her apartment, having placed it upon a table in her drawing room. The window of the drawing room was barred on the outside, and locked from the inside. Miss Appleby took the additional precaution of locking the drawing-room door, thereafter keeping the key in her purse for the entire evening. Upon leaving her apartment, she activated the alarm system and locked the external door. The alarm code consists of four digits, the combination being known to nobody except her. Arriving at the restaurant at eight, Miss Appleby joined her companion at their usual table by the window. The window gives onto the street, so that Miss Appleby and her friend could readily be observed from outside the establishment. At 8.14 p.m., while both parties were seated at the table, neither party having left it at any time, a tweet appeared upon Miss Appleby’s account, the nature of which produced instant consternation amongst her followers. It read, ‘Freedom of speech is the freedom that secures all other freedoms.’”

“Good heavens!” cried I.

“My dear friend,” said Holmes, knocking the ashes from his pipe, “you have gone quite pale.”

“But Holmes, free speech is the weapon of the oppressor. If anybody has taught us this, it is Miss Appleby. Her commitment to the legal strangulation of speech has been unwavering. Freedom of speech! Why, the phrase is but a byword for the subjugation of persons of faith and colour, to say nothing of the halt and the lame! Permit free speech, Holmes, and an epidemic of hurt feelings and self-harm will follow! No, Holmes. Miss Appleby would never utter so vile a sentiment, in so public a forum.”

“You have put the matter admirably, Watson. An utterance more harmful to Miss Appleby’s ‘brand’ can scarcely be conceived. But that, Watson, is the nub of the matter. For Miss Appleby emphatically denies having composed the tweet. In any case, the circumstances would seem to have made such a feat physically impossible. Her phone was never present in the restaurant, and she was never absent from the table. The point is confirmed by Miss Appleby’s companion, and by the waiter who served them. Upon returning to her apartment, Miss Appleby found the alarm system still enabled, the drawing room still locked, and the phone still present upon the table, evidently untouched. The following day, despite her protestations of innocence, the lady’s employers responded to the crisis as the public demanded. A series of humble apologies was issued, and the lady was stood down from all duties until the affair could be resolved. There matters stood until last Friday, a week after the first event. On that evening, Miss Appleby dined with her companion again. The essential circumstances were the same. Again the lady locked her telephone in the drawing room. Again she activated the alarm—this time having changed the code for good measure. Again she and her companion sat at their table by the window. At sixteen minutes past the hour, another scandalous tweet issued from her account. This time it was a quotation. It read in this fashion: ‘When you are going through hell, keep going. Winston Churchill.’”

“Villainy!” cried I. “Winston Churchill, the racialist war-monger and defiler of India! No, Holmes. Just no. What moral philistine would venture to repeat the words of such a man?”

“That is the question, Watson. For Miss Appleby, once again, was quick to disavow the deed. Again her alibi seemed impeccable, and again it was corroborated by her dining companion, as well as the waiter. Indeed, her story might easily have been verified by any person who cared to watch her dine from outside the window. Once again, however, the public bayed for blood. And this time they have been granted their wish. The good lady has lost her occupation, as I have said. Tell me, Watson. What do you make of the facts so far?”

“The explanation seems plain,” I ventured. “Some fiend has gained access to one of the lady’s other devices. For I have but little doubt that she possesses numerous additional appliances of the kind, each running its own independent version of the app.”

Holmes shook his head with evident disappointment. “Tut-tut, Watson,” said he. “You accidentally reveal that you have not read The Year of Living Basically, Miss Appleby’s latest book.”

“I blush to confess it, Holmes, but I have not.”

“The book describes, in very great detail, the year that Miss Appleby devoted to removing herself from the grid, one appliance at a time, until finally she was left with but one device, and one device only, that is capable of accessing the World Wide Web.”

“Her telephone,” said I.

“Precisely, Watson. The same telephone that never strayed from the doubly locked room.”

“Very well,” said I. “Suspicion must therefore fall upon Miss Appleby’s dining companion, whose identity you have not yet cared to reveal.”

“Her dining companion,” said Holmes, “was Miss Clarissa Scott.”

“Aha! A motive, by Jove! In the art of discovering fresh galaxies of social offence, Jemima Appleby has only one serious rival, and that is Clarissa Scott. She is the chief claimant for the lady’s crown!”

“Bravo, Watson. I perceive that my lessons have not been lost upon you. None the less, your analysis is superficial. Miss Appleby and Miss Scott write for separate organs, and they are employed by separate broadcasters. In that regard they are indeed rivals. But they are friends, and their political opinions exactly coincide. In any case, Watson, you seem to forget that Miss Scott, like Miss Appleby, was bound by the peculiar rules of the weekly dinner. She too had left her telephone at home, locked in a room of her apartment. She too had activated her domestic alarm. And Miss Appleby herself has furnished her with an impenetrable alibi, just as Miss Scott has supplied an impregnable alibi for Miss Appleby. Besides, Watson, I have not yet mentioned a most singular aspect of the case—one which would seem to confirm, beyond the slightest doubt, that Miss Scott cannot possibly be the malefactor. At 8.16 upon the first Friday evening, two minutes after Miss Appleby’s telephone issued its first impossible tweet, a tweet no less puzzling appeared upon the account of Miss Scott.”

Holmes paused to relight his pipe, with a curious smile playing upon his features.

“Devil take it, Holmes,” I said at last. “What did it say?”

“It said, Watson, ‘Let’s be honest, putting your hand on a woman’s shoulder is not the same thing as rape.’”

“Great God!” spluttered I.

“Exactly, Watson. A most outré suggestion, in this advanced age. Naturally, Miss Scott protested her utter innocence. But her employers were even less lenient than Miss Appleby’s. Acting with great alacrity and moral courage, they promptly and unceremoniously discharged the lady, allowing no possibility of redress.”

“Why, that is it, Holmes!” I cried. “Some centrist devil is behind this, forging the tweets in a campaign to have the ladies sacked!”

“Excellent, Watson. I was prepared to entertain such a conjecture myself, during the earliest days of the affair. But I fear that this theory suffered a fatal blow upon the evening of Friday the twenty-first. Recall, Watson, that Miss Scott had by that time already been discharged. If the object of this business was to get the ladies sacked, the rogue had already achieved his aim, at least as it pertained to Miss Scott. And yet Miss Scott’s account was struck again upon that second night. As on the previous Friday, the mysterious tweets went out in rapid sequence, first Miss Appleby’s, then Miss Scott’s, this time with a lapse of four minutes in between.”

“And what did this second communication say?” I inquired, dreading the information that my friend had yet to furnish.

“It said, Watson, ‘Obviously, not every person in the world is gay.’”

“Good heavens, Holmes! Who would say such a thing? Why, perhaps every person in the world would be gay, were it not for our culture’s relentless pressure to cleave to gender norms. At any rate we shall never know, until those power structures are thoroughly dismantled.”

“Quite so, Watson. Anyhow, my friend, you are now in full possession of the facts. Let us see what we can make of them. Leaving aside the question of motive, what can we say about the methods of the rogue?”

“The circumstances,” said I, “tell strongly against a physical breach of the phones. That feat would require an accomplice, and the breaking of several separate codes. No, the facts of the case are strongly suggestive of a remote hack.”

“Indeed,” muttered my friend. “And yet why would a hacker select this particular hour to strike—the one hour in the week when both young ladies are very widely known to be offline? By striking at such a moment, the fiend has only drawn our attention to his activities, thereby lessening the odds that the ladies will be blamed. I confess, Watson, that aspects of this affair intrigue me. Have you marked the curious lapse of time between the messages? Two minutes separate them on the first night. On the second night, the interval is longer, four minutes rather than two. Follow this thread, Watson, and I fancy we shall have the solution to the whole affair. But perhaps the lady herself can assist us. For unless I am mistaken, I believe I hear her footsteps upon the stair.”

A moment later the door was flung open, and a tall hooded figure rushed into the room. Within an instant, the hood was thrown back to reveal the face of one of the loveliest young women I have seen in my life. The face, however, was deadly pale, and the lips were trembling. It was the face of Miss Jemima Appleby.

“Why, Holmes,” I cried, “how did you know it was the lady?”

“The lightness of tread eliminated the possibility of a male caller,” said Holmes. “And what lady would wish to seek our counsel at such an hour, and on such a night? Only a lady in the very gravest despair, whose plight must for some reason deny her the opportunity to walk the streets in daylight.”

“Oh, Mr Holmes, you are right!” the lady cried. “I am a ruined woman, and you are my last firm ground for hope!”

“Pray young lady, sit down,” said Holmes. “Now, Watson, pour Miss Appleby a cup of hot coffee. Ah, very good. Now Miss Appleby, you would be doing me a great favour if you were to recount the story of this business from your angle, omitting no fact or detail, no matter how trifling it may seem.”

The lady recapitulated the story I have already set down. Holmes listened intently as she spoke. When her narrative was complete, my friend placed his fingertips together, as was his custom at moments of intense concentration.

“You say you were served by the same waiter on each evening?” he said.

“Yes, Mr Holmes. The same fellow invariably attends to us at McFarlane’s. I do not know his name, but he is an industrious and kind fellow, and I cannot conceive that he would be involved in this business.”

“Very good,” said Holmes. “And what, pray, did you have to eat?”

“I always have the soup.”

My friend listened with his eyes closed. “And what did Miss Scott eat?”

“Miss Scott always has the fish. Except that—”

“Pray continue,” Holmes urged her.

“It is nothing,” the lady said. “Only, last week the fish was not on the menu, so she was obliged to order some other dish instead. I cannot recall what it was.”

Holmes reopened his eyes. “Well, it is of no moment,” he said airily.   

“Oh, Mr Holmes,” said the lady. “What am I to do? Today is Friday. Tonight Miss Scott and I are scheduled to dine at McFarlane’s. Perhaps this meeting is destined to be our last. If only you could watch us from a concealed place, and deduce the hidden truth of this business, my reputation would be restored. At the least you shall be able to bear witness to my innocence, if the fiend should strike again while we are eating.”

“My dear Miss Appleby,” said my friend with a smile, “I am already halfway to solving the case. You and your friend shall dine tonight as usual. Pray, do not deviate in the least from your normal routine. This is most important. Return to these quarters at eleven tonight, and I assure you that the fiend will be unmasked.”

I had been delayed by an emergency, so it was a little before eight o’clock when I joined Holmes outside the restaurant. He briskly led the way across the street, where we concealed ourselves behind some low bushes. A minute or two after the chiming of eight, Miss Appleby appeared in the lit window of the establishment, and was conducted to her table by a tall and slender young waiter. The same fellow showed Miss Scott to the table a few minutes later, after which he departed once more, leaving the ladies to consult the bill of fare.

At around ten minutes past the hour, Holmes began to address me in an urgent whisper. “Watson, set your phone to vibrate! Good, now open the Twitter stream of Miss Appleby. Now, return the phone to your pocket. Good. Should you feel a buzz in your pocket, indicating that a fresh tweet has appeared under Miss Appleby’s name, do not attend to your phone. This is most important. Keep your eyes firmly fixed upon the surface of the table, and upon the hands of the ladies. For my own part, I shall observe the actions of the waiter, when the fellow returns to take the ladies’ orders. Ah, he approaches again now.”

The waiter returned to the table, but I received only a vague impression of his movements, being intent upon the actions of the ladies. At no moment did their hands touch any object upon the table, nor disappear below its surface.

“And now, Watson,” murmured Holmes, “I should hazard that your telephone will very shortly vibrate in your pocket.”

An instant after Holmes spoke, the device indeed shook within my trousers. “But Holmes, this is impossible!” I cried. “I have been watching the ladies’ hands with great care, and at no instant have they strayed from the empty surface of the table!”

“There is no time to explain the business, Watson. I will ask you kindly to take out your tele­phone, and to read aloud the message that has just appeared on Miss Appleby’s feed. I fancy that our friend has just said something very unbecoming.”

I did as my friend instructed, and recited the text on the screen. It read in this fashion: “Mansplaining? We’re getting to the bottom of the barrel, if explaining things is now an offence.”

“Very good, Watson. Go now to the feed of Miss Scott, and kindly read aloud the fresh message that has, unless I am greatly mistaken, just appeared at the top.”

“‘We live in the most racist culture in human history,’” I read. “Well, Holmes, that sounds rather more like the old Miss Scott, at any rate.”

“My dear fellow,” said Holmes, “I’ll wager that is a pinned tweet, hailing from a previous date. If only you should scroll down, and read out the next message in the column, I fancy we shall hear something of quite a different tenor.”

“Great God!” I cried, scarcely able to credit the sentence that confronted me, when I had implemented my friend’s instructions. At length some sense came back to me, and I was able to read the message aloud. “‘Our society may have its problems,’” I stammered, “‘but it is still a cut above Saudi Arabia.’ Why, Holmes! That is monstrous on so many levels!”

Holmes rose to his full height, and slapped the soil from his palms. “Come, Watson! Our work is done, and our supper awaits us at home!”      

“But Holmes, we have seen nothing.”

“On the contrary, Watson. We have seen everything. The mystery is solved, and we may now await the return of Miss Appleby in a more cosy place than this windswept shrubbery!”

Upon our return to Baker Street, I urged Holmes to disclose to me the secret behind the business. But he resisted my entreaties, and I was still none the wiser at eleven o’clock, when Jemima Appleby punctually entered the room, lowering the hood that had once more concealed her beautiful face.

“And now, Holmes,” said I, when the lady was seated with us before the fire, “perhaps you might reveal, at last, who is behind this unsanitary business.”

“There she sits!” said Holmes, directing his long, lean forefinger towards Miss Jemima Appleby. “At any rate, Watson, here is one of the culprits. Her collaborator, unless I am mistaken, is presently sitting in a cab downstairs, awaiting Miss Appleby’s return. Her name is Miss Clarissa Scott.”

Jemima Appleby flushed a deep crimson, and hung her head. “Oh, Mr Holmes,” said she. “You are right! But how ever did you know?”

“The mystery admitted of but one solution,” said Holmes. “An attack on both telephones at once was of course quite impossible. In any case, the notion that some unknown party had acted against both of you was quite illogical. If some rogue wished to do you harm, Miss Appleby, why would he choose that most singular of hours in which to strike? No, the only logical supposition, under the circumstances, was that at least one of you had carried out the business herself. Indeed, the more probable hypothesis was that you were both in it together. So far the matter was a simple one. The method was the trickier part of the puzzle. How did you transmit your seditious messages from inside the restaurant? Since neither of you had a device at the table, and since neither of you ever left it, my suspicions attached themselves to the only other party capable of relaying your words from your table to the world beyond—the waiter. My surmise was strengthened when I learnt that you had been served, on both occasions, by the same young man. Making discreet inquiries in the early part of last week, I was able to ascertain this fellow’s identity. His name is Fenton Bland. I had a hunch, Miss Appleby, that you might know this young man rather better than you purported to. Following this intuition, I sent a Friend Request to your Facebook page, having posed for my profile picture in the guise of a lady gypsy.”

“Mr Holmes!” cried the lady. “Was that self-identified Romani Traveller really you?”

Sherlock Holmes gave a slight bow. “Using the same identity,” he went on, “I sent a similar request to Miss Scott. Both requests having been accepted, I proceeded to peruse the very extensive galleries in which the faces of your other friends were displayed. Sure enough, I discovered that Mr Bland was a friend to both of you. I discovered, in addition, that Miss Appleby had on several occasions spoken very highly of Bland’s post-punk trio, going so far as to embed a video recording of one of the fellow’s live performances in her timeline. Upon the timeline of Miss Scott, I discovered similar positive references to Mr Bland’s musical oeuvre. A hypothesis suggested itself. Perhaps friend Bland, in recompense for these endorsements, had undertaken to assist the ladies in their subterfuge. Tonight, Watson, while you observed the actions of the ladies, I kept a keen eye on Bland. When he arrived to take the ladies’ order bearing an electronic tablet, rather than a pad and pencil, my hypothesis was confirmed beyond any doubt. Since he knew that the ladies ate the same meal every week, Bland had no true need to enter their orders into his device. Instead he stood ready with an open Twitter window, into which he had already typed Miss Appleby’s password. Under the guise of giving her order, Miss Appleby would dictate her outrageous maxims to the fellow, who proceeded to transmit them live into the ether. The charade was then repeated to transmit the heresies of Miss Scott. The greater delay on the second evening—four minutes rather than two—was occasioned by the unavailability of the fish. Miss Scott required an additional two minutes to consult the menu in earnest, and order a substitute dish, before she could dictate that evening’s aperçu.”

“Oh, it is all true, too true!” Miss Appleby cried.

“But Holmes,” I spluttered, “what of the motive? Why would this good and pious lady wish to say such unconscionable things?”

“Perhaps, Watson,” said Holmes, “we had best put that question to Miss Appleby herself.”

“The tale is soon told,” the lady answered, lifting her face, which was wet with defiant tears. “I didn’t set out to become an ideologue, Mr Holmes. It was my childhood dream to be a writer. But before I knew it, I had placed myself in a prison. I had converted my individuality into an identity, and soon enough my identity had hardened, concrete-like, into a brand—a brand which obliged me to say one thing, and one thing only, for the rest of my life, over and over again. One had to play a role, Mr Holmes. One had to deliver endless outrage, even when the true grounds for grievance were exceedingly small. My readers wished to hear their own judgments echoed, and if I failed to deliver that echo, gentlemen, if I strayed or faltered, who would want me then? One false step, and eternal penury would follow. And I was careful, Mr Holmes. For many years I did not put a foot wrong, until one day, during a private luncheon with Miss Scott, I made a fateful error. I spoke the word ‘terrorist’ without employing air quotes. I regretted the omission as soon as I had made it. In the hope of redeeming my blunder, I added a hasty reference to state terror, but it was already too late. My faux pas was quite irreversible. And yet Miss Scott reacted in an astounding way. Instead of hotly denouncing me, as she had every reason to do, she looked first over one shoulder, and then over the other, and then quietly uttered the same word herself, no more troubling to flex her fingers than I had, and pronouncing the word without a hint of ironic intonation! From there, Mr Holmes, we proceeded, by a series of cautious steps, to find that we shared many other forbidden beliefs. And we agreed that it was intolerable to keep those beliefs imprisoned inside us. At that moment we hatched the plot which you have seen through with such ease. We believed our plan infallible. For one hour a week we could each of us tell the perfect truth, with perfect impunity. Impunity indeed! We did not guess, Mr Holmes, that our followers would so swiftly desert us, without some definite proof of guilt. Within a week of the first event, my reputation, which I had devoted so many years to building, was already starting to crumble. Within a fortnight I was quite unemployed. Poor Miss Scott did not even last a day! You were our last hope, Mr Holmes. But the hope was vain, for we had to hope that your art would fail you. Instead you penetrated our little ruse, all too swiftly. Oh Mr Holmes, I am done for! I said two true things, and they shall haunt me forever. Is this what our life is to be now? A ceaseless procession of piety and pretence? Must we live always under a stifling cloak of caution, fearing to say what we really believe? Is this why we are given a brain, Mr Holmes? To think once, and never to think again? What is to become of us, if we all continue to talk nothing but nonsense, always waiting for some other person to end the charade first? What is to become of the truth, if denying the obvious is held to be the height of modern cleverness? Oh, the folly!”

The lady fell silent, and once more hung her head.

“You have said enough, Miss Appleby,” said my friend softly. “You may go.”

The lady rose to her feet, quite defeated. Pulling the heavy hood back over her face, she bowed and departed.

“But Holmes,” I protested, as her footsteps receded on the stair, “you are letting the ladies go! Why have you not summoned our old friend Lestrade of the Yard?”

“Tut-tut, Watson. You forget that violations of received opinion are not yet against the law. At any rate, both ladies have suffered a very great disgrace. Surely that will suffice.”

“I suppose it shall have to,” said I, as my friend stood to knock some life into the logs in the grate. “Well, Holmes, the affair is solved. There is one point of a general character that puzzles me, however. Perhaps you might satisfy my curiosity. Tell me, are you ever tempted to doubt these deductions of yours? Does it ever strike you that each case might be approached from a multitude of perspectives and cultural standpoints, yielding a range of possible solutions, none more ‘true’ than any other?”

From his position at the fire, Sherlock Holmes directed towards me a gaze which I might have mistaken, were it not for our long and intimate friendship, for an expression of the deepest disdain. “I should say not, Watson,” said he. “Even in this strange age, some things remain elementary.”

David Free is a critic and novelist who lives in Northern New South Wales. His psychological thriller Get Poor Slow was published by Picador in 2017.


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