It was a singularly warm day in the foothills; July sunshine had chased the weekend's unseasonal clouds away, and neither fan nor air conditioner could reduce the dry heat that always put me in a mind of Afghanistan. Perspiring under my summer cottons, I trudged into the upstairs office at 416B Baker Street, to be greeted by an all-too-familiar tuneless scraping upon a violin.
"Holmes," I cried with some exasperation, "Will that infernal racket never cease to entertain you in your idle moments?"
"Idle? Come, Watson," Sureclaw Holmes replied reproachfully, clicking "pause" on the YouTube video of the unfortunately talentless music student. "You cannot tell me that you are so unobservant as to have not deduced the pattern behind my musical habits by now."
"But of course," I replied, dabbing the sweat from my brow and glancing at my pocket-watch. "It indicates that you are deep in thought over some baffling case of grave import. I would wager pf on nccn3 is continuing its vexatious ways."
"Ah, Watson," he replied with a twinkle in his eye. "You would do well to rely upon the evidence of your senses over such trifling hunches! For upon my screen you observe no InterMapper console, nor any terminal windows but one! How then could one of our servers be having issues? No, the case that has my mind so engaged -- like all of the best adventures we've shared -- is one of trifling importance, one I perhaps should not even be dealing with on tech support time, and yet one that drove one of our customers so to madness that he should seek out professional assistance."
I leaned down to Holmes' screen and examined the open windows. "I observe that you are writing up a ticket for M----- K------ of woodnut.com. What, then, is something wrong with his Web site?"
"Nothing of the sort," Holmes answered with a twinkle in his eye. "I hope you have not forgotten he is a fellow Mac OS X user. Come, examine my Dock."
I espied the icons of his open applications. "Why, I see nothing out of place, Holmes. Except --" and there was a strange brown folder on the far end. "Except the Address Book? Now I must admit you have lost me."
"Could nothing be more obvious, Watson? He was having issues with his e-mail."
"E-mail!" I cried, astounded. "And yet there is nothing wrong with our server! Holmes, surely you don't mean to tell me you have found some interest in the common Large Attachment ticket? And what has the Address Book to do with any of this?"
"Oh, Watson!" Holmes said. "You should have considerable talent at sleuthing should you simply put your mind to work. But we are running short on time, so I shall put it plainly: He is getting e-mail messages in which the 'To:' line is addressed to his wife, though sent to his normal e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org."
"What, then, some nitwits have his wife's name in their address book with his address?"
"Hardly!" Holmes responded, leaping up and pacing about the room. "For messages with his wife's name in the 'To' line include not only legitimate inquiries, but also spam, and also automated messages such as that from an airline ticket confirmation."
I put my mind to work. "Well, then, surely his wife has been buying airline tickets, and some mailto link on his website is generating these other falsities."
"As you can see by my terminal window, Watson, this is not the case; for the first thing I did was grep all of his site's files for his wife's name, and not once did it show up. Should it have been so simple, I assure you this would not have had my considerable intellect so occupied!"
"Then I must confess I am stumped," I said, slumping down into my chair. "For surely no setting within Mac Mail would have any effect what-so-ever upon the 'To' line of incoming messages! Those are set by the client that sends them!"
"Ah, Watson, it is not always that simple, as you should recall."
"Ah, yes," I said, the singular adventure of the Outlook Settings of the Baskervilles flashing to mind. "Then perhaps his mail program is misconfigured? Should he be sending messages labeled as from his wife, and should others then reply --"
"And, indeed, that was the first thing that M----- checked," Holmes responded. "Nothing in his account settings is amiss in any way, nor has his wife ever used email@example.com. He was quite confident on that point."
"But then what you are describing is plainly impossible!" I cried. "For surely there is no global conspiracy to mislabel M-----'s mail!"
Holmes' eyes twinkled again. "Ah, Watson. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." He opened up some e-mail attached to the support ticket. "And indeed we can eliminate a global conspiracy as impossible -- for, as you see, he sent me the raw headers of several of these mislabeled messages, and they contain no 'To' text other than the bare e-mail address."
"Then those messages are as useless to us as is Scotland Yard," I sighed. "For we must find where his wife's name is added to the 'To' lines in order to find our culprit."
"On the contrary, Watson, it is exactly that lack of evidence that has illuminated this dark and queer problem."
"What!" I cried, staring at Holmes' screen. "Explain yourself, before I lapse into pidgin speech in the manner of a caption-bedecked feline." But he merely turned to fetch and light his pipe, and during his smoke, not even my most earnest "I can has clue nao?" was able to budge him.
At length, Holmes put the pipe down and smiled at me. "Come, Watson. I have confidence in your not insignificant intellect." Buoyed by this unexpected praise, I turned my mind to the mail mislabeling, and inspiration struck.
"By Jove, Holmes!" I erupted. "The address book! Mac Mail must search the computer's Address Book every time it happens upon an address in the headers of an incoming message, not merely in the 'From' line! When it found M------'s wife in the Address Book, it must have added her name to the messages itself."
Holmes leaned back in his chair and nodded, his attention already turning to the day's upcoming server installation. "Elementary, my dear Watson."
I sat down, satisfied at having produced at least a dim glimmer of the master detective's brilliance. "But then, if that is the case, I must confess there is one thing I do not understand," I said. "Holmes, as you aver, M------ was very certain that his wife had never used the sales address. But then why should he have added her to his Address Book under that entry?"
The master detective's aquiline eyes narrowed, his brow furrowing in thought -- and then, as though shot, he sat bolt upright. He leapt to the server rack, sending documentation flying with a sweep of his thin arm, and furiously clawed through piles of customer complaints until he found a screenshot showing M--------'s Address Book. I saw the color drain from his face.
The detective grabbed my collar. "Watson! There is not a moment to lose! Grab your great-coat -- and, I fear to say, your console and keyboard! I pray we are not called upon to use them." He bounded toward the door, and I was already in action myself; I had been on too many tech support calls with Holmes to question his judgment in a matter of such urgency.
As we ran down the stairs to the street, I could hear Holmes cursing to himself. "How could I have been such a fool! I let overconfidence draw me into complexity, when the true answer was but two mouse-clicks away all the time! Now I can but hope that another innocent message has not been butchered by my carelessness."
"And even so, how much worse should the world be without your technical knowledge!" I consoled him, dashing around the corner of the landing.
"Hush, Watson, save your breath to speed our trip. Ho! Driver!" he said, throwing himself through the door and hailing a passing bus. "We must get to M--------'s mailbox; we haven't a minute to spare!"
"That's two-fifty," the bored-looking driver said between mastications of her chicle.
I hurriedly flung pounds and pence into the fare box, and the trip began. At every red light, the corner of Holmes' mouth twitched, threatening a grimace. Inexplicably, a sudden thunderstorm darkened the sky, and giant spatters of rain attacked the windows to match our foreboding mood.
The downpour had begun in earnest when the bus screeched to a halt at our destination. I huddled inside my coat, feeling the comforting smooth plastic grip of my keyboard holstered under my arm, and Holmes and I descended from our transport into the chilling rain. Holmes raised an arm. "There!" he cried, pointing to an ominously shadowed alleyway next to the mailbox, whose insides were hanging open to the elements but not yet soaked.
We dashed to the entrance of the alley, and a fortuitous bolt of lightning froze the tableau in a moment of eternity -- for a young, innocent mail message was huddled against the wall, a shadowy figure looming over her with upraised regexp. "Watson! Fire!" Holmes cried, and immediately my keyboard was in my hand.
The message screamed and flung herself to one side as her vile assailant turned and hissed at me. I had faced certain death numerous times in the Afghan deserts, but not before that dark moment had such fear crossed my heart; for I was certain I was face to face with one of the men of that legendary race of Badly Documented Features. Arm shaking, I drew a bead on its pid, and the sharp report of my keys echoed through the alleyway as I repeatedly killed it. It staggered back, and I made my final salvo a kill -9, for no mere hup could stop this terror.
But at length, the lightning flashes revealed an alley motionless save for the sobbing of the intended victim. Holmes stepped to the fallen program and checked for child processes with a grim face. "Terminated," he confirmed.
I pulled a lantern from my pocket and lit it; then did a double-take. "But Holmes! I have seen this face before!" I exclaimed.
"Indeed," Holmes said, standing up and handing his coat to the shivering young message. "His name is Previous Recipients, a small-time hoodlum often found in the Window menu of our old nemesis. He aspired to the lofty position of Address Book, but I am afraid his morals were not nearly so praiseworthy, for in his effort to clone Address Book's functionality, he sowed the confusion and despair that you see ended before you."
The sun broke out from behind the clouds, and the two of us began our slow walk to the support queue to report this miscarriage of program functionality. "Our nemesis?" I asked. "Surely you don't mean --"
"I'm afraid so, Watson," Holmes responded, thin face weary with age. "I sense in this escapade the ominous hand of Professor Mailiarty."
And indeed that would prove to be the case, as I will describe in the Adventure of the Speckled Bandwidth ... but alas, that is a tale for another day.