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A Singular Case of Fictional Doubles

by Laurence Latham
Illustrations by Deborah Latham
posted February 22, 2015

Reflections on Croquet in Wonderland
Plus Twenty-Six and all that

Only very rarely does this editor find in his email a complete and well-edited manuscript, complete with illustrations and subheads in place, with letter-perfect copy editing. When Laurence and Deborah Latham sent me Reflections on Croquet in Wonderland in 2012, I was delighted to publish it. I didn't guess these Brits would do a sequel, and neither did they, but the draft I received for this sequel was also in perfect and meticulous order - and thus, irresistible. Reflections on Croquet in Wonderland will give you clues to some references in A Singular Case of Fictional Doubles, which, however, is a stand-alone narrative in its own right.

A Problem for the Manager

With something of a start, I became aware of two long shadows stretching menacingly across my as yet unfinished copy of The Croquet Gazette. I felt an icy shiver ripple down my spine as I whipped round to look behind me.

"So, you're here after all!" exclaimed the March Hare. "Your late start would have been tomorrow, but I'm afraid I've had to make alternative arrangements." He stood regarding me somewhat reproachfully for a few seconds, before relaxing his gaze into a more mollifying expression.

"I didn't mean to startle you," he apologized.

"If you don't want to frighten people you shouldn't cast such an eary silhouette," declared a familiar voice, as Alice walked into the room.

"He isn't here to play, he's here to help with the doubles problem," she continued, before I could even offer any form of greeting.

Alice turned to me. "Four players have vanished without reporting a result," she explained. "We didn't realize they weren't coming back until it was too late and we don't even know who was playing which ball." "Surely other people must have noticed the game," I protested in surprise. "Didn't anybody see what was going on?"

"No," declared the March Hare. "The court was already getting too big for that, so goodness knows what it will be like by now!"

"Too big? What on earth are you talking about?"

"It's all the fault of that Knave of Spades," revealed Alice. "He's the new groundsman and can only think of modernizing everything. He considers himself a real Jack of All Trades, if you want my opinion. Anyhow, he acquired some fancy new fertilizer and couldn't wait to try it out. He used a whole bag of it on Lawn 3."

"What does that have to do with the size of the court?" I spluttered.

Alice regarded me with an air of enforced patience. "You know what fertilizer does for a lawn, don't you?"

"Of course. It makes it grow, but... Oh, dear! I think I understand what you're saying. Didn't he read the instruction label?"

"Oh, yes," confirmed Alice. "But all that said was "Spread Me'." She shrugged and hesitated. "Well, unless you count a whole lot more about not putting the bag over your head and washing your hands."

"Instructions can be notoriously unhelpful," sighed the March Hare. "Why anyone would want to put a fertilizer bag over his head and then wash his hands, I can't imagine. You wouldn't be able to see what you were doing. You might drop the soap and then step on it and slip..."

Alice drew an exaggerated breath.

"You could fall and hit your head," continued the March Hare, his eyes widening at the potential horror. "The empty bag would never protect you - it's much too thin. Did it warn you that it wasn't a crash helmet?"

"No," said Alice sternly, "it didn't." She paused, before adding what she hoped might be a pacifying afterthought. "It did tell you that it was not a toy."

"Useless," muttered the March Hare. "That is quite useless."

Before there could be any further discussion concerning the potential shortcomings of fertilizer bags, Alice brought us swiftly back to the matter in hand and I willingly acceded to her direction.

"Presumably you have some information about the game," I insisted. "What do we know?"

"It was a handicap doubles match," announced the March Hare. "Carey and Ryder versus Munro and Mrs Warren, all visitors..."

"Really? I once partnered a Mrs Warren at doubles," I volunteered. "A charming lady. It was at Cheltenham in 1985, we..." I stopped and apologized, instantly aware of my impropriety.

"As I was saying," continued the March Hare pointedly, "they were all visitors and were playing primary colours."

"Was there a double banked game?" I asked, wanting to demonstrate genuine interest.

"No," said the March Hare, with an air of satisfaction. "As Manager, I decided we should go for quality of play rather than quantity. Besides, it's far too cold at this time of year for unnecessary hanging about."

"Quite," I agreed wholeheartedly.

Gathering my thoughts, I began to recollect my one previous experience of this most peculiar croquet club. "If my late start was to have been tomorrow, today must be February the fourth."

"Correct!" exclaimed Alice, obviously delighted by my accurate assessment. "Which, as it happens, makes it my three quarters birthday!"

"Do quarters have any significance?" I enquired, somewhat bemused.

"It would seem that they do for me," insisted Alice. "I'm pretty sure it was a one quarter day when you partnered me in that game of doubles. It was on a two quarters day that I stepped through the looking glass, and it was a four quarters day when I had tea with the Hatter, the Dormouse and him." She nodded in the direction of the March Hare. "So, there you are!"

"You're using misnomers," objected the March Hare, who had clearly been intent on interrupting at the earliest opportunity. "There's no such thing as a four quarters day - four quarters is a whole."

"I fell down a hole to get here in the first place," retorted Alice sullenly.

"That was because some idiot left the 'w' off," explained the March Hare. "We wanted to look into it, but that proved extremely difficult from down here, so I'm afraid we never did find the culprit." I felt myself being drawn into the conversation.

"Wasn't that tea-party the time your watch went wrong and you attempted to repair it with butter?" I demanded, eyeing the March Hare meaningfully, as I recalled Alice's original story.

The March Hare looked slightly uncomfortable. "All right, all right," he admitted, "but I've learnt from my mistake. Why, when my calendar stopped on December 31st, I accepted the inevitable and bought a new one. Shall we get back to the point?"

With the original purpose of the conversation temporarily lost once more, I had idly wandered over to the notice board, where my attention was caught by a small advertising card. I found myself looking at a picture of a hoop carrying three clips, the black and white image inscribed with the words 'Croquet Mysteries Solved'. I made an effort to renew my focus so that I might act on the March Hare's behest and duly regarded him with an expression which I hoped would convey an earnest interest.

"I have an unknown result," he confirmed. "That the winners went off without reporting is bad enough, but my main concern is tomorrow's order of play. I need to know who is still in the doubles before organizing the singles matches, you understand."

I understood all too well. Even with my limited personal experience of management, I appreciated just how easily difficult situations could arise.

"I'd like to be of help," I offered, "but I'm afraid I don't really know what I'm doing here."

"You can act like a catalyst, helping us to think in ways we might not otherwise do," explained the March Hare.

"And bring in a few external ideas of your own," added Alice encouragingly, "as you did during our game of doubles. That worked really well in the end."

Feeling a good deal more positive, I waved the card I was still holding. "What about this?" I asked.

"Oh, I wouldn't bother with that," retorted the March Hare.

"Where did it come from?" I continued to press.

"A confidence trick, I shouldn't wonder. Some passing vagrant, who must have overheard me raving about incomplete reporting, insisted on leaving it. As if he'd know anything about this - trying for a quick shilling, if you ask me."

I looked hard at the card. "I think we'll take it with us, all the same," I announced decisively.

"We could have acted on that ourselves," objected the March Hare.

"External ideas," I said, smiling.

Then I turned to Alice. "Shall we go?"

A Chance Encounter

We had only been walking for a few minutes when we saw a figure heading towards us. It wasn't easy to discern his features at first, but he appeared to have a bald head with largish ears and to be wearing a shell suit. I was at a complete loss, but Alice recognized him at once and introduced me to the Mock Turtle.

"Getting awfully foggy," I offered, by way of a passing pleasantry.

"It certainly is," he replied with unexpected cheerfulness. "A real pea-souper this evening. Beautiful."

"Are you playing in the tournament?" enquired Alice.

"Yes, indeed," confirmed the Mock Turtle. "In the Sea Class, obviously." Then, bubbling with enthusiasm, he went on, "We're through to the next round of the doubles, too. I'm partnering the Gryphon, you know, and we beat the Walrus and the Carpenter this morning."

"You did well!" announced Alice approvingly. "They're usually such a consistent pair."

"I think we may have been a little lucky, actually," conceded the Mock Turtle, modestly. "They seemed remarkably distracted and somewhat at loggerheads. I think there must have been some incident before the game, for they kept blaming each other about expired Oyster Cards or something."

"Do you happen to know where we are?" I asked, anxious to get on.

"Not really, I'm afraid," apologized the Mock Turtle. "I thought I was taking a short cut, but it seems a remarkably long way back to the clubhouse. There's a place not too far beyond that next corner." He nodded back over his shoulder. "You could ask there. From what I've heard, I believe the lady is called Epsi Longhammer, though we have never actually met. Anyhow, I must be getting along. Goodbye!" - and, with that, he disappeared into the gloom.

The fog was getting thicker and visibility was not helped by the gently drifting smoke from the dying bonfires which the winter competitors had lit to keep themselves warm between turns.

I had a sudden thought.

"Wasn't this tournament supposed to be just level play singles?"

"That was the original idea," confirmed Alice, "but the timber merchant delivered too many bisques. Clearly we couldn't add them to the fuel pile, so it was decided to hold a handicap doubles event, in order to avoid unnecessary waste."

"How many bisques was it that the March Hare allocated to each bonfire?" I queried.

"Eight thousand, one hundred and ninety two," she replied without hesitation.

"That seems a very precise number," I mused. "I wonder why he chose it. Do you happen to know whether it has any particular significance?"

"It certainly does. Our Tournament Manager isn't as harebrained as you might think. It's a cryptic encouragement to the players to get both balls all the way round - two raised to the power of thirteen, you see."

"Well, I'm blowed," I exclaimed. "That would never have occurred to me. There's even more to this place than I imagined."

Epsi Longhammer?

We soon found ourselves approaching a building, as the Mock Turtle had indicated.

"I suppose this must be Three," I announced, poking my finger at what I took to be the door number, hanging loosely upside down from a single screw. "Is it all right to go in, when we're not actually playing?" I was still uncertain about some aspects of the local etiquette.

"Certainly it is. It's all part of the Club, you know," Alice reminded me. "We shan't find any answers if we don't make a thorough investigation, shall we? Besides, I doubt there will be anybody here after play."

Inside we found a decidedly sparse hallway, the only thing of note being a small table upon which there stood a jar labelled with unfamiliar characters. Alice picked it up for a closer examination and together we watched the viscous yellow liquid within respond sluggishly to the tilting action.

"It looks like Greek honey," I said, regarding the jar thoughtfully.

"I can see it's Greek, but you're being rather over-familiar, don't you think?" Alice responded, a little curtly.

At that moment we were interrupted by the sound of footsteps and a middle-aged lady of Mediterranean appearance entered the room.

"Goodness!" she exclaimed. "I thought I heard somebody about. You gave me quite a start. I wasn't expecting to find anyone here at this time. In fact, I was just leaving. What's going on?"

I produced the calling card. "We're looking for this address," I explained. "It's not yours by any chance, is it, Mrs, er...?"

"Call me Epsi," interrupted the lady. She looked at the card. "Nothing to do with me, that, although I do know a good many croquet players by sight - they're in and out of here all the time. I wouldn't mind so much, but the really good ones never stay long. It's only the poorer folk who seem to stick around, cluttering up the place and always getting in my way."

"Did you happen to see anybody this afternoon?" I asked.

"I don't always take a lot of notice, you know. It's rare for there to be much excitement around these parts." Epsi looked thoughtful. "However, I'm sure there were only two gentlemen who came through here after lunch. I remember thinking that one of them was in a bit of a fluster. He kept muttering something I didn't really understand, about running after" - she hesitated - "angry ducks, I think. It made no sense to me. Perhaps it's an English habit?"

"He didn't say 'wild goose chase', by any chance, did he?" I offered.

"Yes, that was it, of course!" exclaimed Epsi, her face brightening. "Wild goose chase. Sorry, my mistake. Chasing after wild geese, he was - not angry ducks at all."

"It's an English saying," I explained. "It means..."

Epsi cut me short. "You English with your sayings and what have you," she laughed. "You've plenty of them, though they're not really all yours. Take my initials for example..."

We waited politely, expecting to have another eccentricity pointed out to us, but nothing was forthcoming and I found myself unable to bring to mind anything of either particular interest or amusement suggested by the letters E and L.

"I really think we ought to get on now," suggested Alice, taking advantage of the break in conversation.

"You be careful out there," urged Epsi with sudden seriousness. "This place is all well and good when people are playing, but I don't much care for it out of hours, least of all at night. It can sometimes give me the creeps and no mistake. I certainly wouldn't go poking round the back in the dark, even though I know there's nothing there."

Mindful of this advice, we took our leave and strode out into the growing darkness.

Five Away on Holiday

After a few more minutes, during which I could do nothing to dispel my confusion, we happened upon a signpost pointing back the way we had come. This proved to be a real eye-opener, for inscribed upon it were two Greek letters.

The lady whom we had both taken - quite reasonably, on account of our croquet-related thinking - to be called Epsi Longhammer, we now realized was in fact Epsilon Gamma, and all at once other things began to become clear.

The symbol on the door had not been an accidentally inverted numeral, but rather the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, cryptically announcing 3-back, while Epsi's seemingly incomplete remark about her initials, now revealed as E.G., suddenly made perfect sense. Furthermore, it was obvious that the labelled jar of honey should have provided a sufficient clue in the first place, but at least we now knew roughly where we were and this gave us the opportunity to regroup.

"We must be heading in the general direction of Five," I pointed out. "Perhaps there will be somebody there who can help us."

In due course, we saw a light up ahead and were greeted by the sound of someone working. Bent down in the open doorway was a rather odd-looking fellow wearing overalls and brandishing a spirit level.

"Oh dear," whispered Alice. "That's the Carpenter. I have to say he's not one of my favourite characters. I wonder what he's doing here."

"Good evening," she said, politely. "Are the residents at home, by any chance?"

"I'm afraid not," replied the Carpenter. "That's why I'm here now. I thought I'd take the opportunity to sort out this door. It's always sticking. Kept sticking this morning - cost us our doubles, it did!"

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Alice, trying her best to sound sincere. "Do you know if they'll be back soon?"

"I don't expect so. They've gone away on holiday - again. They're always going off somewhere or another, leaving the place unoccupied. That's probably one of the reasons that this door's not been fixed. They're young folk, mind, so one must make allowances, I suppose."

"Who are they?" I asked.

"I've not made their acquaintance myself," explained the Carpenter. "Though I have heard they're quite famous, apparently." He stepped back and immediately there came the sound of clattering metal and glass. "Not so very tidy, though!" he exclaimed with irritation. "What's this dog dish doing here? And look at all these empty bottles - lemonade, ginger beer - I don't know, I'm sure."

We made our excuses and left him complaining to himself.

Clues to Address

We had not gone far when we heard an eerie howl.

"Was there a dog there, now?" I wondered, peering back the way we had come.

"I don't think so," said Alice. "They would have taken him on holiday with them, I feel sure."

"If it is a him!" I exclaimed automatically, instantly hating my own pedantry.

"His name was on his bowl," explained Alice, with evident patience. "Didn't you notice?"

Obviously I hadn't, and her question made me think. I was supposed to be here to help and so far I had been little more than a passenger. Once again, I resolved to make more effort and apply myself properly to the task at hand.

For a second time, there came that fearful cry from somewhere out in the gathering darkness.

We stopped.

"Could that be Rover?" I suggested, without much conviction.

"I really don't think so," replied Alice in a hushed voice. "I doubt he'd be capable of making a noise like that. Besides, he won't be anywhere around here right now."

All at once, an obvious, yet hitherto unconsidered, thought flashed into my mind.

"Five and Rover," I said. "Aren't they the same place?"

"Of course not," replied Alice emphatically. "You've played here before - you must have realized it doesn't work like that. Did we ever visit the same place twice?"

"No," I agreed. It was true. When I had unexpectedly partnered Alice the last time I was here, we had not met the Foreign Gentleman in the same place as the Prisoner, nor did we encounter the Unicorn behind the Twobackonist's, but I had never given the situation serious thought.

"Remember when we left Epsi at 3-back?" Alice continued. "There was no sign of Four, was there? You can't have..."

I interrupted with a whoop of delight as all the muddled thoughts which had been whirling around in my head suddenly coalesced into sense. I scrabbled hurriedly in my pocket and fished out the calling card.

"I know where this is!" I declared with growing excitement.

Alice took the card and studied it once more.

"Look at the corner flag in the background," I urged excitedly. "It appears mid-grey, like one of the clips, which means it must be either blue or red. It can't be blue, not even if the image has been reversed, because the hoop has a white crown - so it has to be the second hoop, which means the three clips are saying 2,2,1b!"

"Isn't that the address of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street?" asked Alice.

"It is indeed," I confirmed. "I think we might be going to find some answers after all."

From somewhere out in the darkness that same disquieting yowl reached our ears for a third time.

"What on earth is it?" whispered Alice, a little nervously.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles, I shouldn't wonder," I offered cheerfully, "but it won't be giving us any trouble, I feel sure."

We set off with renewed vigour, now heading roughly northwest.

"How did you work out the significance of that picture?" enquired Alice.

"It was all thanks to you, actually," I explained. "I'd been trying to think what that awful howling reminded me of, when you uttered those magic words 'sign of four', and everything fell into place!"

Questions and Answers

Our ring of the bell at 221b was soon followed by the sound of footsteps and the opening of the front door.

"Ah, you must be the croquet players," said Mrs Hudson amiably. "Please, do come in. I'm afraid both Mr Holmes and Dr Watson are out, but I was told to expect you."

"Mr Holmes knew we were coming, then?" I queried, a little puzzled.

"Why, of course, sir. He probably knew before you did yourselves, I shouldn't wonder. You're to go straight up - I believe he's left a note for you."

We thanked Mrs Hudson and climbed the stairs. We entered Holmes's sitting room through the open door and glanced about us.

"What's this?" asked Alice, approaching the table.

In the centre stood a small plant pot which, instead of housing any flora, was playing host to a bisque, stuck untidily through a piece of note paper, upon which had been scribbled the words 'Look where the raven is hiding.'

"Oh, no!" wailed Alice. "Not another raven riddle - I never did find out why it's like a writing desk!"

"Brilliant, Alice!" I exclaimed. "That's the second time you've found exactly the right words."

She looked at me with an air of bewilderment.

I pointed across the room.

"That's a davenport, isn't it? And a raven can hide in a davenport, can't it? It's not even that well concealed. Take it out and you're only left with d pot."

Alice latched on to my train of thought without hesitation.

"Or do tp, which might be more appropriate," she observed.

We opened the desk.

"There's still a good stock of old quills here," I observed. "Be careful, though, most of them are black with years of ink."

Alice let out a little cry of joy. "Perhaps that's it!" she exclaimed.

"That's what?"

"That's why a raven is like a writing desk - because they both carry a supply of inky-black quills!"

"It sounds good enough to me," I agreed, pleased that she had regained her enthusiasm.

There, in the davenport, we found another note, this time attached to an index and inviting us to look through Dr Watson's journals, which were housed on a nearby bookshelf.

"Couldn't he have just left this on the table in the first place?" moaned Alice. "I thought Mr Holmes was in the business of solving puzzles, not setting them."

"But if he had, you wouldn't have sorted out the raven riddle," I offered, once again eyeing the contents of the davenport. "If I helped myself to a couple of paperclips, do you think he would work out it was us?" I asked with a mischievous grin.

Alice gave me a long, cold stare.

"If you helped yourself," she began, spacing out her words and laying deliberate emphasis on the euphemism, "it wouldn't be us, would it?"

I lengthened my face and closed the davenport.

"There are an awful lot of cases here," I pointed out despondently, as we scanned Dr Watson's list. What exactly are we looking for?"

"I'm not sure," said Alice. "Something to do with croquet, I suppose."

We examined the index more carefully. Finding no direct reference to the game, we attempted to widen the horizon, searching for possible connections. In vain we looked for mallet, ball, hoop and court. In desperation, we even tried peg, flag and corner, but these too produced nothing relevant.

"How is this ever going to help us find out who played which ball?" I groaned.

Alice jumped up. "Colours!" she exclaimed. "Are there any colours?"

Following this new line of enquiry, we soon came across an account entitled The Yellow Face and began busily scanning the text for names. Before very long we were rewarded with the discovery of Munro. Delighted that we were at last on the right track, we returned eagerly to the index.

In due course, careful study of The Adventure of Black Peter yielded Carey, The Blue Carbuncle, in its turn, offered Ryder and finally - after The Red-headed League threatened to derail us with a chromatically disguised herring - The Adventure of the Red Circle immediately gave us Mrs Warren.

"At least we now know who played which ball," I said, "but how do we find out who won?"

"Perhaps the accounts can help us with that, too," offered Alice, "but I fear it's going to take a while."

She stood, looking thoughtful. "Wait a minute," she continued. "Epsi told us she only saw two gentlemen, which would mean Mrs Warren never reached 3-back. Let's start by concentrating on the other pair."

In less time than we had expected, our research revealed that black had been pegged out, while the somewhat flustered individual, complaining about a wild goose chase, had obviously been his playing partner.

"I think we can safely report back to the manager that we have a result - Carey and Ryder beat Munro and Mrs Warren," I observed. "I wonder how he will deal with the winners' breach of tournament etiquette?"

After we had ensured that all Dr Watson's journals were back tidily on their shelf and Alice had sought reassurance that I was totally free of illicitly acquired paperclips, we called down to Mrs Hudson that we were leaving, and were duly ushered to the front door.

Reporting the Result

The night air was decidedly cold, but, thankfully, the light breeze had cleared the fog and the bonfires were out, so there was no more smoke. Our path was lit by a brilliant winter's moon and far away to our left I became aware of a regular vivid flash.

"What's that, over there, in the distance?" I asked. "It looks like a lighthouse."

"That's exactly what it is," Alice explained. "The Trinity House buoys are very obliging like that. They're always anxious to ensure that our Sea Class players get home safely."

I found it rather difficult to take in exactly what Alice was saying, but now that I was properly oriented, I realized I must be looking in the direction of Three.

"You know, I did once meet Sherlock Holmes," declared Alice after a while.

"Really? Where was that?" I asked, somewhat surprised that she had not mentioned the fact sooner.

"I think that's something you ought to be able to work out for yourself," she announced cryptically. "You can think about it on the way back."

We walked on in silence as I fruitlessly racked my brain for a viable answer. My mental efforts had yielded nothing when I realized we were approaching civilization. Before us lay a brightly lit inn, in front of which stood a large sign announcing The Cage and Bell.

"What's this?" I asked, hardly able to believe my eyes.

"It's our Victorian theme pub," explained Alice. "I'm sure you'll know about the cage and bell, which was added for amusement to some country house and vicarage courts in the 1860s, though never used in the serious game."

"I've certainly heard of it," I agreed, "but I've not actually seen one. It's amazing how such aberrations can still colour the perception of non-players. No-one imagines that serious golfers putt through windmills or cricketers bowl at lampposts."

"Quite so," said Alice. "Sometimes I think I still get blamed for the flamingo connection... As if anyone would ever really play like that!"

Suddenly we were hailed by a familiar voice, and I was delighted to see the Chimneypotamus waving to us from an outside table, at which two other unfamiliar characters were also sitting.

"I haven't seen you since that day when my tie caught fire at the barbeque. Can't happen again, though," he laughed, ostentatiously fingering his inadvertently truncated neckwear, which now ended in two blackened lines.

"No," I replied simply, feeling it prudent not to make predictable enquiries, while Alice managed to avoid rolling her eyes.

"Have you met the Lady Broughton and the Bishop?" enquired the Chimneypotamus, introducing us to his two companions.

"Isn't it a little chilly out here?" I asked, more by way of conversation than as a genuine question.

"I'm afraid we're rather heavy smokers," explained the Bishop, shifting his large frame somewhat self-consciously.

"Very heavy," confirmed the Lady Broughton, who smiled warmly and displayed no such diffidence.

"And of course they prefer me to stay outside, in any case," interjected the Chimneypotamus. "But, as you know, I'm well sooted to it."

At that point the Ace of Spades appeared, carrying drinks.

"I hope this will make up for your loss," he announced, addressing the Bishop and Lady Broughton, before turning to us. "We were playing cards, you see..." he began, only to be interrupted by the Bishop.

"Speak for yourself," he insisted. "The Lady Broughton and I have never been playing cards. We've always been chimney pots."

"And the Chimneypotamus has just cleaned us out," put in the Lady Broughton, "with the help of the Ace of Spades there - so it was only fitting that they should buy the drinks."

Fearing we might run out of meaningful conversation, Alice and I made our excuses and headed indoors.

Once inside, we found our way to what, to the possible confusion of non-croquet players, was called the Singles and Doubles Bar, and which was extremely busy.

I recognized the barman to be the Hatter and inanely found myself hoping that the ticket for ten and six, which he was still wearing in his hat, might now refer to the price of all drinks. There were also a few familiar faces among the clientele, along with many more people who appeared to be playing cards.

I was beginning to search the crowd in the hope we might spot the March Hare, when I found myself face to face with no less a personage than the Queen of Puddings.

"You are an Outsider, are you not?" demanded the Queen.

"Yes, your Majesty, I am," I replied, doing my best to sound both confident and respectful.

"Then why, may we ask, are you not Outside?"

"I...I'm afraid we found it a trifle too cold, ma'am."

"In our experience, trifle is always too cold," stated the Queen with great authority.

I found myself at a loss for words, but before the pause could become embarrassing, the Queen continued.

"And profiteroles are too small - too small to be allowed in the bar, that is." There was another pause, but this time for effect. "Which is why there are none here."

There was a general murmur of assent.

"And, now that we come to think of it, too small to be left in the tea room or kitchen, where the Duchess will doubtless be making a lobster bisque using far too much salt."

Everyone in the bar became silent.

"...Mustard!" said the Queen in a louder voice, as she attempted to correct herself.

The silence remained unbroken.

"...Pepper!" yelled the Queen, so piercingly that everyone sneezed in unison, and she hurried from the room.

"I thought you handled that rather well," said Alice matter-of-factly, though I considered it to be praise indeed.

In due course, we managed to track down the March Hare and offered him our findings.

"So, Messrs Carey and Ryder are still in the doubles," he confirmed thoughtfully. "Slightly awkward. I could disqualify them for their abject failure to report, I suppose. However, that would seem rather harsh, since they are strangers to these parts. I shall have a few words, nonetheless."

He poured over his managerial paperwork for a while before looking up once more.

"I take it that calling card was of no use - some sort of deception, as I suspected?"

"Not in the way you might think," I replied quickly, being aware of Holmes's propensity for disguise when on certain cases. "Actually, it proved extremely useful."

The March Hare merely shrugged and I made no attempt to enlighten him further. Instead I turned to Alice.

"It's no good," I confessed. "I can't come up with an answer. Where was it you met Mr Sherlock Holmes?"

Alice was regarding me with a slightly disappointed air, while in the background I could see the Hatter preparing to call Time.

"I really thought you would work that one out," she said. "The fact is, I once found myself next to him at..."

"Closing Time!" shouted the Hatter, rapping on the bar and drowning out her last words.

" the library," repeated Alice, raising her voice to ensure I would hear.

A Rousing Conclusion

"Closing time at the library," announced the assistant, noisily pushing chairs back under their respective tables.

Bleary and apologizing, I struggled to my feet and made a rather ineffectual grab at the volumes in front of me.

"Would you like me to put these back?" I asked.

"No, thank you. That's all right. I'll see to them," said the library assistant. She glanced at the books. "Conan Doyle and Carroll," she observed, "that's quite a mix."

"Quite a mix indeed," I agreed, and began making my way towards the door.

ABOUT THE WRITER: A Singular Case of Fictional Doubles might never have seen completion, for, while on holiday last year, a bolt of lightning punched a hole in the ceiling about eight feet from the author's head, when he was asleep one night. The bed was littered with debris and set alight, which was particularly inconvenient because Laurence hates having to get up quickly. Despite this setback, it would appear that he is beginning to embrace the modern era, for although the length of his ownership of the same car is now approaching a quarter of a century, Laurence has finally acquired a mobile phone. This was an anniversary present from his wife Deborah, who inexplicably used the possibility of a motoring breakdown as a viable excuse for endowing him with this gift. Nevertheless, it was obviously well received, for, after less than two years, the billing evidence clearly indicates that it has already been used for at least ten minutes. Maybe this is an indication that Laurence is making some effort to engage with the future in this world, having narrowly missed an opportunity for instantaneous transport to Croquet Wonderland himself.

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