Watson starts with a tragic tale of a guy named Isa Whitney, an opium addict who first tried the drug because he read Thomas de Quincey (author of Confessions of an Opium Reader).
One night, in June of 1889, a woman comes to his house late at night: Kate Whitney, Isa's wife, who's a friend of Mrs. Watson.
Kate is desperate for help: Isa Whitney has been missing for two days, and she needs Watson to go to an opium den on the east side of London (right by the banks of the Thames) to get him. She can't go by herself because it's not a safe part of town.
So Watson heads out to the slums of London in the middle of the night. He finds Isa completely high, having totally lost track of time, and tries to drag his drugged up butt out of the opium den.
But as Watson goes to find out how much Isa owes, a tall, bent, wrinkled old man suddenly touches the skirt of his coat and tells Watson to keep walking and to look back without drawing attention to them.
Watson obeys. When he looks over his shoulder, for a brief second he recognizes Holmes before his friend goes back to his old fellow disguise.
Holmes tells Watson to put his drugged friend in a cab and then wait outside for five minutes so they can talk.
Holmes continues with his disguise for two blocks as he strolls next to Watson, and then he stands up straight and resumes his normal appearance.
Holmes asks his friend if he thinks Holmes has added opium to his cocaine addiction? But no! He's on a case, and he's in disguise because the owner of the opium den would kill him on the spot if he recognized Holmes.
Watson agrees to stay with Holmes overnight, and to help him out with his newest case. Holmes is pleased to have the chance to talk to someone, because he's feeling depressed that he doesn't have any news for "this dear little woman" (Twisted.54).
Here's the case:
In May 1884, a man named Neville St. Clair rents a house in a small town called Lee. Three years later, he marries a local girl. The couple now has two children. He has good habits, no money troubles, and spends his days in London dealing with investments in several companies.
The Monday before, St. Clair went into town early. He promises to bring back a set of blocks (or "bricks," as Conan Doyle calls them) for his kids.
By coincidence, soon after he takes off for the city, Mrs. St. Clair finds out that a package she's been expecting has arrived. She needs to go into London to pick it up. So she goes.
At 4:35pm, she's walking down Swandam Lane (which is also home to the opium den Holmes has been staking out) on her way to the train station to return home.
It's hot and she hates the neighborhood, so she's looking around for a cab.
Suddenly, Mrs. St. Clair sees her husband looking out of a second floor window and (apparently) waving his hands at her.
Mr. St. Clair is pulled back from the window by some unseen force.
Freaked out, Mrs. St. Clair runs into the building (which turns out to be the opium den Watson visited the night before) to find her husband. But the owner of the opium den stops her from climbing the stairs and shoves her out the door.
Mrs. St. Clair manages to find some cops and a police inspector on street duty nearby and brings them to the opium den. The cops go in, but they find no one on the second floor except an ugly wretch who apparently lives there.
The cops are pretty much prepared to not believe Mrs. St. Clair at this point when, suddenly, she spots a box on a table that contains none other than children's blocks, which St. Clair had promised to bring home.
The police inspector decides that this is serious. The cops find blood on the windowsill and the bedroom floor, as well as St. Clair's clothes (except his coat) stuffed behind a curtain.
The owner of the opium den says he has no idea what his lodger, Hugh Boone, has been doing. The owner himself can't be responsible for St. Clair's disappearance because he was at the foot of the stairs when Mrs. St. Clair came in.
As for Hugh Boone – the name of the ugly dude living on the second floor of the opium den – he must have been the last person to see St. Clair.
Everyone who spends much time in downtown London knows Hugh Boone.
Hugh Boone is a beggar who sells wax vestas (a kind of match). He's so amazingly ugly (mostly thanks to a giant scar on his face) that he stands out in a crowd, even among other beggars.
The other thing that makes Boone special is his cleverness. Any time someone gives Boone guff, he's always there with a witty answer.
So that's Boone. The inspector arrests him in suspicion of the murder of St. Clair and has him searched. There's nothing suspicious except some blood on his right sleeve, but Boone has a cut on his ring finger that accounts for that. Boone adds that the stain on the windowsill is also from the same cut.
Boone says he's never seen St. Clair, and has no idea how St. Clair's clothes got into his room.
The police find St. Clair's coat in the river nearby when the tide starts to go out. It's weighted down with 421 pennies and 270 half-pennies (about U.S. $305 now).
Holmes speculates that Boone might have pushed St. Clair's body (after stripping it?) out of one of the windows overlooking the waiting river. A body would be dense enough to get caught in the currents and be washed out to sea.
But clothes, unlike a body (reasons Holmes) might float, so maybe Boone tried to weigh down St. Clair's coat with his day's taking of coins.
Even Holmes admits that he's pretty confused. He has no idea what St. Clair was doing at the opium den, what happened to him, where he is, and what Boone has to do with all of this.
After telling all this to Watson, the two arrive at Mrs. St. Clair's house in Kent.
Mrs. St. Clair welcomes them, even though Holmes tells her that they have no news – good or bad.
She asks him directly if he thinks St. Clair is still alive.
Holmes admits that he believes St. Clair is dead, and that he may have been murdered, perhaps on Monday.
So then, replies Mrs. St. Clair, how do you explain this letter from him that arrived today?
Holmes is super excited.
The envelope is addressed in someone else's handwriting, but the letter inside is definitely St. Clair's penmanship. He tells his wife not to worry and there's been a mix-up that he's working on fixing.
The letter (and St. Clair's ring, which accompanies the letter in its envelope) isn't definite proof that St. Clair is still alive, but it's encouraging.
Holmes reviews the facts of the case with Mrs. St. Clair, noting particularly that St. Clair was dressed normally except that he didn't have his collar or tie on.
They all retire for the night, Watson and Holmes to a guest room with two beds. Watson goes to sleep right away, but Holmes stays up smoking and thinking.
Very early in the morning, Holmes suddenly cries out, waking Watson.
Holmes tells Watson to dress so that they can go for a morning drive.
Holmes has it at last, and feels stupid for not figuring it out right away. There's something in his bag that will unlock the whole case.
The two head off to London and, finally, to Bow Street, where there's a famous police station and district court.
Holmes asks a duty officer about Boone. The officer replies that he's been quiet, but also filthy: he won't wash.
Holmes wants to see Boone. The inspector lets him in to Boone's cell (where he's fast asleep) and Holmes pulls out his secret weapon: a large sponge.
Holmes tiptoes into Boone's cell, grabs a water jug and gives Boone's face two sudden, unexpected scrubs.
The face of "Boone" peels away! His scar scrapes off and his lip returns to a regular shape. Holmes also pulls off the prisoner's bright orange hair – a wig, it turns out. And who should be sitting in Boone's place but a sad-faced, sleepy looking regular old working man – Neville St. Clair.
St. Clair hasn't committed a crime exactly, so the police aren't going to hold the guy. Since he doesn't have to appear in court, he's going to be able to save his family name from shame, which was his main reason for not revealing his double identity to the police during the first round of confusion.
Here's what's going on: St. Clair has some experience as an actor, and he has also spent time writing for a newspaper. Working on an article on begging in cities one time, St. Clair uses his acting experience to disguise himself as a beggar.
St. Clair makes the happy discovery that, as a beggar, he can actually make lots more money than he ever made as a reporter. And it's pretty easy work: his secret is that he's good at witty repartee, which rakes in the big bucks.
The only person who knows St. Clair's secret (well, besides Holmes, Watson, the inspector, and now you) is the owner of the opium den, who St. Clair pays well to keep quiet.
He's been doing this for years and years, making upwards of seven hundred pounds (U.S. $92,000 in today's bucks) annually on begging alone. That's how he's been supporting his wife and family.
Until, of course, his wife spots him one afternoon. Unluckily, she catches St. Clair in that second story window just as he has finished up for the day and is putting on his Neville St. Clair clothes.
Once he knows that she's coming up the stairs, he puts on his beggar costume and takes his all-too-recognizable coat, weighs it down with the day's coins, and throws it out the window into the Thames.
Then the police run in and arrest him for the murder of... himself. Which, actually, St. Clair is glad of because he doesn't want his wife to know what he really does for a living.
St. Clair tries to comfort his wife by sending her that letter in the brief few minutes he can speak to the owner of the opium den before the cops arrest him. St. Clair doesn't know that the letter was delayed by a week (thanks to a forgetful delivery person?), so now he feels really guilty that he's made his wife worry for so long.
The police inspector says, OK, this is all very well, but we'll only cover this up for you if you swear you're retiring Hugh Boone.
St. Clair promises.
The inspector warns that, if St. Clair's found begging again, the whole mess will become public. He finishes by complimenting Holmes on being awesome.
Holmes says that he figured it all out while sitting on five pillows and smoking an ounce of shag tobacco. And that's that!