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The Adventure of the Sealed Room

The Adventure of the Sealed Room



The irony is palpable when an evil man is arrested on suspicion of a crime he did not, in fact, commit. It is a frustrating thing. Deep down there is a strong sense if justice in all of us, even those who have a predilection toward a perverse disassociation with the law. I am want to believe that if the law is going to catch me, it will be for something of which I am actually guilty.


You can imagine my surprise when I received a missive sent by Moriarty from the police lockup! After counting out some bail money, I quickly spirited myself downtown to where he was being held. To my shock, I found he was being held on suspicion of murder! Naturally, no amount of bail would be sufficient to free him.


Making my way to the cells, under the watchful eyes of the police who were wary that I might slip him a weapon or some other contraband, I spoke to him across prison bars in a direction I always imagined would be reversed.


“Moriarty!” I exclaimed. “What’s happened?”


He looked rather unconcerned. “Simply put, Captain, I am charged with the murder of Morton Fairchild.”


I had never heard the name before and was forced to ask “Who on earth is Morton Fairchild? And what could your association with him possibly be?”


“He is a civil employee who works in the department of permits,” Moriarty explained. “As you know, I dabble in real estate and have need on many occasions to restore or even rebuild structures in my possession. This amplifies their revenues from rent. In order to get the needed construction permits, I would usually apply directly to Mr. Fairchild, as he is a high-ranking individual within the department and could get the permits rendered considerably faster than through normal channels.”


“Why would the police think you killed a man who was of such continued handiness to your real estate ventures?”


“It seems that the victim himself identified me for his murder.”


I was about to question how such a thing could be, but was interrupted by the approach of an inspector and two uniformed constables. The inspector wore a dour and somewhat angry expression, as one does when executing what one considers a particularly odious task.


“Professor Moriarty,” he said. “I am instructed to release you into supervised liberty. You shall be in the care of these two constables. You are to have free roam of the city, but you may not leave it nor board any train. These men will be with you at all times, watching your every move. Any attempt at flight will land you back here for the duration.”


“I understand, Inspector Forsythe,” Moriarty acknowledged. The Inspector released Moriarty, and the two constables took up positions beside him.


“Constables Lestrade and Samuels, you know the orders. If he gets away from you, it is to be your jobs on the line,” Forsythe cautioned. Then, to Moriarty “This entire situation is quite out of the ordinary, Professor. The police are not normally in the business of setting accused murderers free. I’m not sure what strings you pulled with the various missives you sent earlier today, but I’m watching you.”


“I merely contacted some high-born friends of mine,” Moriarty said, recovering his hat and cane from the desk sergeant. “Men who owe me favors. They came through. I assure you, Inspector, this works to your benefit as well as mine. I shall not sit idly by awaiting trial. It is my firm intention to find out who committed this murder and exculpate myself from suspicion by solving the case for you.”


And so it was that the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty set about solving a murder for the police.


Upon exiting the precinct house, Moriarty announced to his retinue of myself and the two constables “Our first stop shall be the scene of the murder. Captain, I trust you brought your carriage?”


I had indeed, and shortly the four of us were on our way to the boarding house of Miss Agatha Evans, the residence where the unfortunate Fairchild rented a room. Along the way, Moriarty explained his predicament.


“It seems, my good Captain, that Mr. Fairchild was murdered in his room at Miss Evans’s boarding house some two days ago. Shot in the heart by a small caliber weapon. Investigations proceeded as normal with no suspects immediately forthcoming. Today, Mr. Fairchild’s sister received a letter from him sent shortly before his death. It stated, without explanation, that in the event of his death, the likely culprit was me, whom he accused by name. Naturally, the police considered this to be tremendously incriminating and came to arrest me on the spot.”


“But fear not, Captain. I am in no danger of the noose. At the time of the murder, I was dining at Rothman’s, a most prestigious and expensive restaurant which is situated distantly on the other side of the city from Fairchild’s lodgings. A large number of wealthy ladies and gentlemen of impeccable reputation can verify my story, not to mention the restaurant staff.”


“Then why have they arrested you at all?” I asked.


“They have to be thorough, Captain. They must check with each of the patrons of Rothman’s individually and verify my story. Even then, they would likely continue to press the issue. A letter from the deceased naming his murderer is impossible to ignore, even if it is inaccurate.


“Making things worse, I had been to visit him very day of his death on a matter of a permit. He would often conduct such meetings in his room, after hours, as he had no private office at the city planning bureau. I do not deny that I was there, and repeatedly pointed out the police that I was seen by many of the other boarders leaving some two full hours before his death.” With the last statement, he gave a stern look at the constables.


Upon reaching the home, the four of us made our way inside. It having been two days since the murder, things had calmed somewhat, but the other boarders were still shaken from the events.


Mr. Fairchild’s door faced directly in to the dining area. The door itself was closed, but a large hole in the wall next to it provided access to the room. A workman was at the hole, measuring it in preparation for its repair.


Miss Evans sat at the dining table, morose and red-eyed from crying.


“Miss Evans,” the Professor said. “You may recall me from the other day and from visits I have made in the past?”


Miss Evans stood. “Of course, Professor.,” she said timidly. “I heard you were arrested for the murder? Only I saw you leave well before his death, and said as much to the police!”


“Yes, we’re working on straightening all that out,” Moriarty consoled. “Please tell me in your own words the events of the night of his murder.”


“I suppose you know the state of things in the house as of the time of your departure, Professor. So I will simply tell you of the intervening two hours between your exit and his death. There isn’t much to tell, honestly.


“He remained in his room, as he usually did, being a private sort. I serve dinner at six o’clock sharp every evening. Anyone who does not attend does not get fed. On that particular evening he did not come out for dinner. At quarter past, as we were all dining, we heard the shot clearly from his room.


“Naturally, we pounded on his door and called out to him. There was no answer. The door was locked. Some of the men who board here tried to force the door but it would not budge. We called a locksmith, but it was to no avail. The lock on the door was of singular quality and could not be picked or forced. We called the fire brigade, and they axed a hole in the wall to enable entry. We found poor Mr. Fairchild dead on his floor.


“How is it you were unable to get through the door for so long?” Moriarty asked.


“The locksmith informed us that it was a door made of steel, with wood paneling on the outside to hide its true nature. Also, the door-jam itself is made of steel, rooted to the frame of the house. Mr. Fairchild did replace the door some years back, but said it was his own clumsiness that broke it in the first place, and insisted on covering the cost himself. I had no idea he had taken such measures until the locksmith informed me.”


“Was the door watched at all times between the shot being fired and the fire brigade gaining entry? Can you guarantee no person left after the shot?”


“Indeed, Professor. We were all so very concerned. We congregated in the dining room until we knew what had happened. The door was our singular obsession. Nobody left through it.”


Moriarty entered the room through the hole (the door remained intractably shut). The constables followed. He paced to and fro, examining every aspect of the room. He spent a considerable time at the one window the room had to offer. “Captain, do you think a man could get through this window?”


It seemed to be a trick question. It was high on the wall, and small. Not too small for a man to get through but it was also heavily barred against intrusion. “Not with those bars across it, Professor.”


“Indeed not. But if they weren’t there?”


“I suppose a man could get through, were he slight of build and athletic in nature.”


Striding quickly to the workman at the hole, Moriarty asked “May I borrow a screwdriver, sir?”


The workman obliged and Moriarty made his way to the window. Using a chair to stand upon, he examined the bars. They were welded to an outer rectangular frame which ringed the window, and the frame was in turn bolted to the wall. With the screwdriver, he gave each of the many screws securing the frame a turn or two, then re-tightened them.  “Interesting,” he said. “Miss Evans!” He called out, “Was Mr. Fairchild in normal daytime attire when found?”


“Yes, Sir. In the very suit he’d been wearing all day,” came the answer from the dining room.


He began searching the desk and closets. “Captain, constables, you may aid me immensely in searching this room for a key. I must know if the key to that door is inside this room or out. I know it was not on the body, for the police surely would have searched that quite well. They would have returned the key to Miss Evans had they found it, and that door would now be open instead of us all traipsing in and out through the hole in the wall.”


After a few minutes of searching, it was constable Samuels who found the key on the floor under the desk. He confirmed the key was to the door by unlocking and opening it. Miss Evans was visibly relieved that the problem of the locked door was solved and repairs could properly commence on the unseemly hole in the wall.


“Mr. Fairchild had fallen asleep at his desk,” Moriarty explained. “The murderer, poised outside, unscrewed all the screws fastening the grate to the window frame, then quietly entered. Probably planning to kill Mr. Fairchild in his sleep, something went amiss, as Fairchild awoke. He stood and approached his assailant and was shot. As he fell to the floor, his room key slipped out of his pocket and slid under the desk. Miss Evans and the boarders heard the shot and immediately began attempting entry to the room. But it took hours as they tried to force the door, then called a locksmith, then ultimately the fire brigade. During this time, the murderer exited the room by the window and re-fastened the screws.”


I ran through the scenario in my mind, looking for faults. “It makes sense on the surface, Moriarty, but how can you be sure on all the details?”


“A screw that has been left alone for a long time will set in, and be difficult to initially turn. One that has been recently loosened and retightened, however, will not have that friction. The screws on the grating were clearly recently affected. From that it is obvious to deduce that the murderer entered through the window.


“Mr. Fairchild must have been in the room at the time the murderer went about removing the grate, and would hardly have failed to notice the activity nor taken action to stop it. The only possible explanation is that he was asleep. This also explains why he missed dinner. He was found with his normal clothing on, thus I conclude he fell asleep unexpectedly, rather than taking a deliberate nap.


“The key to his room being on the inside, we must also conclude that the murderer also left through the window, replacing the bars after his exit. Incidentally, I know why Fairchild had the barred window and steel door in the first place.”


He went to the closet and opened a panel that, to my eyes, looked exactly like the rest of the wall. From the hidden compartment he pulled a large and heavy cashbox. “I noticed this compartment while searching for the key. This is what he was guarding,” Moriarty grunted. The constables came forth and aided him in carrying it to the desk. “Judging from the weight and presuming reasonable denominations, there must be several hundred pounds sterling in there. Not to mention any paper bills that may also be inside.


“A man who’s job amounts to a high level office clerk has no business having that quantity of money. The only possible explanation is that he is taking bribes in return for permits. This explains also why he tends to have meetings at his home instead of the office.”


“Wait,” I said, examining the window. “There’s a flaw in your analysis, Moriarty. These window grates are designed specifically so as to prevent a would-be intruder from unscrewing them from the outside. If you look at the orientation of the screws and the narrowness of the bars, it would be impossible for a man outside the window to position his hand in such a way as to address the screws with a screwdriver.”


“Well spotted, Captain. These grates are made as you say, but this particular one is of low quality and has security flaws. If you imagine a screwdriver with a bend in the middle, operated as one might operate a spanner, you may see how the murderer gained entry.”


“Ah yes, indeed, Professor. I see how that would work.”


“So,” Moriarty said, clapping his hands together. “We now know how the murder was committed, but still do not know who did it. However, we have an excellent place to start.”


“How is that?” I said. I saw nowhere to begin to look for the murderer. It could be almost anyone in London.


“Why, the note to Fairchild’s sister of course. The one naming me as his murderer. It is a clue of the most vital significance.”


“All that does is imply you are the murderer, Professor!” I said.


“Indeed. We know, and the police will also know when they finish their verifications of my alibi, that I am not the murderer. But someone surely wanted him dead. As Fairchild himself would have no reason to fear me, he would surely have no reason to send a note accusing me of murder to his sister. So the note must have been sent by the murderer to frame me.


“My visiting Fairchild the day of his murder can hardly be a coincidence. The murderer must have plotted the attack to coincide closely with my visit. So we are looking for not only an enemy of Mr. Fairchild’s, but also an enemy of mine. There can not be too many people on a list that exclusive.”


“Begging your pardon, Professor,” constable Lestrade interjected. “I have myself seen the note of which you speak, and was present when the Inspector spoke to Mr. Fairchild’s sister. The note was written on Mr. Fairchild’s letterhead paper, and his sister identified the writing as his.”


“Mm,” Moriarty said. “The note was delivered today. In as much as it was posted from within the city to another location therein, the traditional transit time is two days. This means the note was most likely posted the day of the murder. I posit that it was posted shortly after the crime. The murderer would have had ample time before his escape to gather up blank letterhead from the desk, as well as any number of documents written in Mr. Fairchild’s own hand so as to provide samples for future forgery.


He seated himself at Fairchild's desk. Taking care to issue his actions with thoroughness, he searched the drawers in sequence until attaining a black, leather-bound appointment book. Opening it in front of him, he took notice of each page in turn as he examined it closely.


“Professor,” said I, “what is the purpose of this search?”


Moriarty continued his deep examinations of the book as he explained. “As Mr. Fairchild and I move in very different social circles, it is reasonable to assume the link is one related to real estate, rather than some personal connection. I am hopeful that a studious examination of Mr. Fairchild's appointment book will reveal a name that I recognize.”


After further examination in silence for some several minutes, the Professor said “Ah. Yes. Here, I think, is a suspect.” He pointed to an entry in the appointment book. “Mr. Fairchild has had several meetings with Wesley Sunderland. I believe we shall discover that Mr. Sunderland is the murderer.”


“Oh, Professor? How can you be so certain?”


“I can not, until we find more evidence. But of all the names in this ledger, Mr. Sunderland is the only person who would benefit from my demise. Sunderland is a disreputable character of highly questionable integrity. He is in the business of buying tenements then driving the renters out by intimidation and threats in order to convert the building to some more profitable configuration. He and those who work for him have been linked to several suspicious deaths of hold-out renters.


“At present we two are engaged in a bidding war for an East End tenement building of no small import. Whichever of us wins the bid shall undoubtedly turn a significant profit on the undervalued property.


“Regardless of who wins it, the property will need considerable work, as it is in a deplorably dilapidated state. I suspect Sunderland requested the work permits in advance, in presumption of winning the bid. Fairchild likely demanded a significant bribe, and the two could not come to terms. This led to Sunderland killing Fairchild, then framing me. It served the triple purpose of ensuring some other individual determine his permit status, removing me from the bidding process on the property, and allowing him to get away with the crime.”


Standing, he said “I believe we are done here. Constables, I shall require the assistance of the police and magistrates. I should like very much for you to obtain an appropriate warrant and then search the residence of Wesley Sunderland. It is my sincere belief that you will find evidence there that implicates him in the murder.”


Constable Lestrade stepped forward “What evidence do you expect we’d find, Professor?”


“Pay attention, man!” Moriarty admonished. “He must have taken papers from Fairchild’s desk as well as letterhead in order to write the note. He likely still has them.”


Constable Lestrade checked his pocketwatch. “It’s gone six, Professor. We won’t be able to get a magistrate’s signature until tomorrow morning.”


“Pah!” Moriarty said, visibly frustrated. “Very well. I’m done here, constables. I’ve nothing to do until you serve that warrant. Captain, take us all to my home.”


I conveyed the trio to the Professor’s home, afterward proceeding to my own. I spent an uneasy evening wondering what the next day might bring. Was it possible the great Professor Moriarty would be ended by, of all things, a crime he did not commit? Or would his deductions prove accurate and Sunderland be exposed as the murderer? I did not sleep well. For you see, Moriarty was more than an occasional consultant. I viewed him as an important ally in the underworld and even, dare I say, a friend. As much as one can have a friend in our way of life.


The next morning, bright and early, I made all due haste to the Professor’s house. There, I found the constables in his sitting room, enjoying a morning cup of tea, and Moriarty in his sleeping gown doing the same. The constables had slept in shifts to keep constant vigil on Moriarty’s bedroom door and see to it he did not escape. It was clear Constable Samuels believed his deductions. Constable Lestrade was less supportive and kept a wary eye on the Professor at all times.


“Ah, Captain Moran,” Moriarty said. “Do come in. Tea?”


“Yes, please,” I said, seating myself at the table.


As Moriarty poured me a cuppa, he said “The constables here were kind enough last night to send a message to the precinct house requesting the search I suggested. Inspector Forsythe has recently received the warrant from the magistrate and should be searching Sunderland’s premises as we speak. We should have news very shortly.”


After what seemed like an interminable wait, Inspector Forsythe finally arrived. The constables stood in the presence of their superior while Moriarty and I remained seated. Pulling his gloves off as he spoke, Forsythe said “It appears we have done you an injustice, Professor. While searching Wesley Sunderland’s home, we found in his desk several blank sheets of letterhead from Mr. Fairchild’s office. Also, as you suspected, we found some assorted papers of Fairchild’s, presumably used to forge the note. As a final piece of damning evidence we also found a screwdriver in his workshop that had been bent at a right angle in the middle. Exactly the tool you surmised would be necessary to unscrew the grate.


“Furthermore, yesterday evening we were able to finish the verification of your alibi. We have testimonials from no fewer than twenty individuals of high society and perfect reputation that you were at Rothman’s restaurant at the critical time. We have taken Mr. Sunderland into custody for the murder of Morton Fairchild.


“I do beg your forgiveness, Professor-” the Inspector sheepishly continued.


“Now let’s have none of that, Inspector,” Moriarty said, standing to shake Forsythe’s hand. “With the evidence and information you had at the time of my arrest you did your duty just as any policeman would do. While on rare occasion evidence that profound will turn out to be false or planted, the vast majority of the time it will be exactly as it seems, and you must act on the simpler assumption until proven otherwise. I bear you no ill will and in fact consider you an exemplary example of your profession.”


“That’s very kind of you, Professor,” Forsythe said. “If ever you have need of a favor at the precinct house, or wish us to look in to something, just let me know. I feel I owe you greatly, not only to make up for accusing you of murder, but also because you were able to expose the true killer.”


“I may take you up on that some day, Inspector,” Moriarty said knowledgably. “Now, if you officers will excuse me, I have a long day of mathematical computation ahead.”


Forsythe and the constables said their goodbyes and left, but not before Constable Lestrade took a good long look at Moriarty. Though the Professor was clearly innocent of this crime, Lestrade sensed a great evil in him. Well spotted, Constable, I thought to myself.


After they left, I heaved a great sigh of relief. “I’m not sad to see the back of them, Professor, I can tell you that.”


Moriarty pulled a slice of toast from a tray and began buttering it. “It was nothing to be concerned about, Captain. I was in no danger of conviction.”


I helped myself to a slice of toast as well. “Now that the coppers are gone, you can level with me, Professor. Be honest now: you knew Fairchild was taking bribes because you, yourself, were one of the people bribing him. Am I correct?”


“Excellent, Captain. You are of course correct. How did you know?”


“We all searched Fairchild’s room. But only you knew to search for a secret compartment. Why search for such a thing unless you knew there was something significant to hide?”


“Well done,” he praised. “Is that all? Have you deduced nothing further?” He challenged.


I ran through the events in my head as best I could, but found no further duplicity on his part that I could surmise. “I can think of nothing further, Professor. What subtle detail did I miss out on?”


“I am the one who murdered Fairchild. That’s what you missed out on.” He took a bite of his toast. “Mmm. Excellent marmalade. I shall have to buy this brand more in future.”


I fell limp into the back of my chair. “What!?”


“I said I murdered Fairchild,” he repeated. “Did I not speak clearly?”


“But… that can not be! I have seen your innocence proved before my very eyes!”


“Let me begin at the beginning,” he said, dabbing his mouth with a napkin. “I may as well tell you now it is my intention to build the greatest criminal organization the world has ever known. As with any empire, its successful construction relies not on the strength of its soldiers, but in the quality of its infrastructure. Do you think the Romans conquered the ancient world purely with their legions? Look closer at the history and you shall see it was their aqueducts, their system of roads, their postal system, and a thousand other details that enabled them to rise to such great heights.


 “I am laying out the groundwork for my organization. One part of that is a series of buildings I will own throughout London. I will rent out most of each building, keeping the ground floor in my own possession. Each of them will have a tunnel dug from there to the sewer system. This will enable my organization to have unfettered travel throughout the city, unseen by anyone, and bypassing any police. This is a crucial piece of my long term plans.


“Unfortunately, I erred. Fairchild, whom I had bribed for the work permits on every building, eventually saw through my plans. He tried to blackmail me. He called me over to his room and showed me a map he had drawn, showing my purchased buildings and the London sewer system together. Looking at these things in tandem it was clear I was deliberately buying the buildings above areas where the sewer system came closest to the surface, and the excavation work permits made it clear I was having tunnels dug to the sewers.


“I noticed the ink on the map was still moist in parts, so I felt certain there were no copies. We were in his room, with the door closed, and I sized upon the opportunity to end the problem. I shot him in the chest.”


“But how did you do that from across town?” I demanded. “You were at Rothman’s when he was shot!”


“No, I was at Rothman’s when the boarders heard a shot. I shot him some two hours earlier. I have, built in to my cane, a compressed air gun capable of propelling a small caliber shell to lethal velocity without making a significant sound. This is what I murdered Fairchild with.


“I gathered the map for later burning, then set up a simple system to ensure my alibi. I took a three-hour candle from his supply and cut a notch to the wick about two thirds down. While the cane is a good weapon in some circumstances, I also carry a revolver for more traditional threats. I took a bullet from the revolver then placed it with the firing cap end touching the wick. I secured it in place with some hot wax, then placed the entire assembly in Fairchild’s fireplace. I set the candle alight then made my departure, locking the door behind me.


“Two hours later, when the candle burned down the bullet’s location, it fired and the boarders all heard it. I knew from previous visits that the door was steel re-enforced, so I knew it would be some time before anyone was able to get in to the room. This eliminated the problem of the body already being cold when they found it. A medical examination of the state of rigor mortis would likely have discovered the true time of death, but the police did not call for it, as it was obvious from the boarders that he died at six fifteen.”


“But the candle and bullet would have been in the fireplace when the police got there!” I said. “How did they not notice?”


“The bullet is a small thing,” Moriarty explained, “which would have bounced around within the fireplace before coming to rest in the deep ash, which the police did not sift through. The remnants of the candle were likely visible, but it is quite common for people to throw candle remnants in the fireplace so it would have drawn no notice.”


“Why not have me do the deed, Professor?” I asked, feeling a bit put out.


“Do not be offended, Captain. It is no slight upon you. Certainly I would normally call upon your services when I need a life ended. But I did not expect to murder him at all. I knew I had to end things before he had a chance to make copies of the map. This was all a plan I devised while at his room after he demanded blackmail money.


“The candle and bullet in place, I dined at Rothman’s to ensure my alibi and considered the matter settled. Unfortunately, Mr. Fairchild was wiser than I gave him credit for and accounted for the possibility of his own demise. The note he sent to his sister caught me completely off-guard. I had to scramble to frame Sunderland for the crime.”


“Yes, how did you do that?” I asked. “You were watched at all times by the constables! So much so you couldn’t even enlist my aid!”


“Watched, yes. But not watched well. As I examined the scene of the crime and created the fictional version of how the crime had taken place, I encouraged the constables to help me search the room for the key. The key presented me with a unique problem, as I still had it in my possession at the time of my arrest. I hid it in my hat at the time and now at the scene of the crime had been able to slip it under the desk when I appeared to be inspecting the room.


“Later, while I searched the desk for the ledger, I was seated in a position that did not allow the constables to see my lower body. I took advantage of this to steal some letterhead and a few assorted papers of Fairchild’s. Really, it was most inappropriate for the police to allow the suspect free roam of the murder room.”


“But how the devil did you manage to get the papers into Sunderland’s study?” I demanded. “The constables were at your door all night!”


“A simple matter,” Moriarty explained. “In my line of work, it pays to have secret methods in and out of the various rooms in my home. My bedroom has such a passage. I was able to quite easily escape the house last night. I then simply broke in to Sunderland’s home and planted the evidence. I also invaded his workshop and bent one of his screwdrivers to strengthen the frame-up.”


“And you managed all that with nothing more than quick wits” I said, impressed. “The police even feel they owe you a favor!”


“Indeed,” Moriarty said. “It worked out rather well. And with Sunderland in the hatch, I shall be able to get that tenement building at a much lower cost without his competing bids. This made him the ideal candidate for framing.”


I stared at Moriarty in stunned admiration for a while. Then, I said “Could I get an air gun like yours?”


Moriarty thought for a moment, then nodded. “Why not? I shall have one made for you shortly.”


I wish that I could offer this as the happy ending to the tale, but unfortunately, the British justice system was more thorough and responsible than we had hoped. Though the evidence against Sunderland was significant, the defense engaged a university student specializing in the field of chemistry who had a particular interest in criminology. The student was able to show, through chemical processes, that the ink on the note sent to Mr. Fairchild’s sister was significantly different, molecularly, than the ink Sunderland had at his desk. On the strength of this evidence, the court acquitted him of the crime.


So the professor’s clever well-plotted frame was spoiled by some insignificant chemistry student. Still, Sunderland being on trial gave Moriarty ample opportunity to buy the tenement building.


I wish I could say it was the last time we encountered that chemistry student.