Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Paper Journal — 3
by Kitanya Harrison writing as Harrison Kitteridge
Charles Augustus Milverton.
I had first heard the name a few months earlier. From time to time, Sherlock would cajole me into taking exercise to help rebuild my shattered stamina. That evening, we were walking on Hampstead Heath when Sherlock’s L.M.D. buzzed. He absently removed it from his pocket and handed it to me. “I’m not your personal assistant, Sherlock,” I complained, taking the device, checking his messages and reading the short missive aloud. “‘Will call on you tomorrow at 6:30 pm. Charles Augustus Milverton.’ That’s a bit presumptuous,” I commented with a frown, “not even asking if you’re available. And what sort of twat signs his full name?” Sherlock had stopped walking, and when I looked over at him, I was taken aback by the expression of pure loathing on his face. “Who is Charles Augustus Milverton?” I asked with some trepidation.
“The most detestable, odious man in London,” Sherlock replied, almost spitting in disgust. Sherlock rarely took enough note of anyone to form such a low opinion of them. I knew immediately that this Milverton person must have done something unspeakable.
“Has he killed someone?” I asked. “More than one person?” Sherlock’s answering laugh was without humour.
“Were it only that simple, John,” he replied. “He is the king of all the blackmailers. I can see by your expression that you, like many, think that shouldn’t be of as much concern as murder, but at least a well-placed bullet or stab wound, an outright killing, puts an end to a thing. Charles Augustus Milverton torments his victims for years, decades even. He has driven some to near madness, others have worried themselves into ruined health, a few have even taken their own lives rather than suffer the disgrace he threatened to visit upon them. A clean death would have been a mercy to any of them. Believe me, the average bungling murderer has a more unsullied breast than Charles Augustus Milverton. He does not belong in society. The man possesses as antisocial a personality as one could imagine. His Majesty’s prisons are not up to the task of rehabilitating him, so I say send him to Bedlam, and leave him to the forensic psychiatrists — perhaps they can find something of use to humanity in that foetid cesspit of a mind.” I rarely heard Sherlock speak so strongly.
“How does he do it? How does he get the information?” I asked.
“He pays very, very well,” Sherlock replied. “He has agents everywhere out looking for the disgruntled or disloyal and offering them fortunes to betray those who have taken them into confidence. It is quite an enterprise.
“I know The Archive makes it seem as if we live in a world of unfettered transparency, that we are somehow post-shame, but there are still activities that society deplores, still fragile alliances between the powerful that can be broken by indiscretion, still secrets to keep. So long as there is power or status to be had, there will always be those who covet it, and the Charles Augustus Milvertons of the world will always find a way to jam a foot in the door.”
“Can’t the police stop him? Can’t someone sue?”
“Not unless they are willing to lay bare whatever terrible secret he has used to shackle them. The secrets must be kept, so he can’t be touched.”
“What does he want with you?” I had no desire to have that viper anywhere near Sherlock, much less in our home.
“He’s got his claws into someone I knew at university.”
“Victor Trevor?” I asked. Sherlock’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“He was your friend?”
“And he’s asked you to deal with Milverton on his behalf?”
“Yes.” Sherlock hesitated a bit. “You don’t want me to.”
I sighed. “I don’t know, Sherlock. This Milverton sounds like the sort of prick we would do well to steer clear of. But Victor is your friend, so — ”
“Victor was my friend. He hasn’t been for a long time now.”
“He obviously still trusts you.” Sherlock snorted in derision. “He does, Sherlock, or he wouldn’t have asked for your help.”
“I’m the only one he could ask for help,” Sherlock exclaimed, his agitation pouring off him in waves.“Because he knew he could trust you with his secret.”
“Because I already knew his secret!” Sherlock didn’t quite look ashamed, but I could tell he deeply regretted whatever action he was recalling. “I deduced it,” he said. I imagined him back then: nineteen years-old, awkward and alienated, even more arrogant than he was now, wanting to show off for his new friend, letting his mind run ahead of his common sense. “It was something terrible… to do with his father. He idolised the man, and I knocked him off his plinth. His father had a heart condition, and when Victor confronted him, he collapsed. He died soon after. Victor never forgave me.”
“Not that you bothered to apologise,” I said fondly, careful to keep any hint of reproach out of my tone. Sherlock gave me the peculiar penetrating look he sometimes did whenever I would see something of him he thought he had secreted away.
“It wouldn’t have made a difference. He moved to the other side of the world to get away from me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, suddenly wanting to hug him, but it seemed like a liberty. Instead I suggested, “Chinese for dinner?”
“All right,” he replied, smiling a bit.
I admit to having been devoured by curiosity about Victor Trevor, and as soon as Sherlock was distracted, I went straight to Victor’s Personal Archive File. Sherlock wasn’t exaggerating when he said Victor had moved to the other side of the world following his father’s death. He took his inheritance and moved to Alaska. He made a success of his business endeavours in the Great White North, but once his grief abated, the isolation and anonymity he experienced in Alaska were no longer to his liking. He cashed out and moved to Shanghai where he fortuitously met his fiancée, a British M.P. who was part of a trade delegation, and made the decision to move back to England. He had been back in the country only a few months, and he and his soon-to-be wife were the toast of the town. His fiancée was incredibly ambitious and was being groomed to challenge for her party’s leadership in a few years. If Victor’s father’s transgression had been as terrible as Sherlock had hinted, it could very well ruin all her well-laid plans. No wonder Milverton was salivating. If he played his cards right, he could have the spouse of the future Prime Minister of England in his pocket.
“What advice have you given Victor?” I asked Sherlock.
“I told him to make a clean breast of it with his fiancée, that allowing that vampire into his life was not a viable option. Needless to say, he wishes to avoid alienating the affections of his fiancée, and I was unable to persuade him to see reason.”
“He thinks his fiancée will leave him.”
“Yes, I think so. The road to Number 10 is treacherous enough without adding the avalanche of an immense personal scandal into the mix.”
“Is what Victor’s father did really so terrible?” I asked. “I’m not asking you to break his confidence,” I clarified hurriedly. “It’s just that I think you’re right — Milverton will poison Victor, and his relationship will suffer anyway.”
“I fear, as does Victor, that she loves her career more.”
“How did Milverton find out about Victor’s father in the first place?” I asked.
“A letter Victor’s father’s accomplice wrote on her death-bed confessing the whole sordid affair. It apparently spared no detail, and Victor assures me that Milverton is fully apprised of the circumstances of his father’s crime.” Sherlock hesitated. “I’ve told Victor that your assistance is absolutely necessary to me, that you are my particular friend and partner, and that you could be trusted never to speak a word of his family’s shame.” I had never met anyone as disinclined to trust as Sherlock, and welled with pride at having earned his confidence. “I’ll tell you Victor’s secret, but only if you wish to know. It’s quite a burden to carry, and you owe Victor nothing,” he continued.
“If you think it will help you for me to know, then I want to know.”
Sherlock had met Victor’s father when, at Victor’s invitation, he went to stay at the family estate in Donnithorpe for a month in the summer before their final year at university. Victor had bragged to his father about Sherlock’s skill in deducing people, and one night at dinner old Mr Trevor, a good-humoured man who was always looking for new diversions, gamely volunteered to be a subject. And Sherlock — brilliant, careless Sherlock — leapt at the opportunity to dazzle Victor. During the few days he had been in residence he had observed Mr Trevor sufficiently to make quick work of presenting his conclusions (it used to take him a bit longer to work things out in those days). “No hints or corrections, Victor!” Mr Trevor had commanded after receiving Victor and Sherlock’s word that Sherlock hadn’t read his File. “Let’s see what your clever young friend can do.”
“I can tell by your accent that you spent your childhood in the north, Manchester, most likely,” Sherlock began. “However, there is a certain inflection that enters your voice from time to time and certain turns of phrase you sometimes use that hint at a Scottish influence.” Victor was smirking, but his father got paler with each word Sherlock uttered. “You are a well-travelled man. You speak Spanish quite proficiently for a non-native speaker.” Victor snorted aloud at this. “You likely learned it from poor Argentinians. You pepper your speech with the word ‘che’ — a term of endearment in the country, and your phrases lack the sophistication of an educated Spanish-speaker. I also noticed that you have undergone tattoo removal, but remnants of the ink remain on your forearm. The pattern is one generally associated with dockworkers in Indonesia. The injection of ink so far into the skin as to resist laser removal is indicative of non-Western techniques. As Victor can’t remember you having the tattoo during his childhood, you most likely had the work done as a very young man but had it removed for some reason.
“You have a fondness for exotic food and hired a chef who is capable of managing all the different flavours you might request. You are quite particular about your food, careful to ensure that it is authentically prepared, be it English Shepherd’s pie, Indonesian mie goreng or West African fufu — all places you’ve spent time living among the locals. It is interesting that, although your Spanish is Argentinian in inflection, you weren’t as demanding about the parallada you asked the cook to prepare a few nights ago. There is a small, but vibrant, community of Argentinians in Indonesia, most of whom live and work near the port in Surabaya, and it is unlikely they would have been able to find all the ingredients used to make the dish the way they would in their home country. I think you spent some time by the docks in Surabaya as a young man before moving to West Africa, which is where Victor informed me you made your fortune.” Sherlock’s recitation of the facts of Mr Trevor’s life as he had observed them was met with Victor’s hearty laugh.
“I’m afraid you’ve missed the mark rather widely this time, Sherlock,” he said. “Daddy learned to speak in Ecuador. He is a native Spanish speaker, aren’t you Daddy?” Seeing his father’s white face, his mirth left him. “Daddy?” His father gripped his chest and slid off his chair. Victor ran to him, rifled his father’s pockets and found a pill bottle. He pried the lid off hastily, scattering pills everywhere. Unsteadily, he managed to feed his father the medicine, and the man swallowed it dry. After what seemed like an age, the colour began to return to Mr Trevor’s face.
“I’m sorry to frighten you, lad,” Mr Trevor said to Sherlock. “My heart is weak, and it sometimes acts up without warning.”
“But usually only after there’s been some excitement and you’ve had a shock,” Victor said in worry, oblivious to what had just occurred. He and Sherlock guided Mr Trevor back to his seat.
Later that night, Sherlock reviewed Mr Trevor’s Personal Archive File. According to his File, Victor’s father, Herman Edward Trevor, had been born in Ecuador to a British father and an Ecuadorian mother and lived in the country until he was thirteen when the family moved to Australia. When he was twenty-two he struck out on his own, moving from country to country in West Africa trying to find a foothold in the film industry. Either the information in the File was false, or Sherlock’s deductions had been wildly inaccurate. As Sherlock’s visit stretched on (now seeming interminable), Mr Trevor, who had been perfectly amiable, now regarded Sherlock the way one might a malevolent voodoo priest. Victor began to cotton on that something was dreadfully wrong and that it had to do with the contradictory accounts of his father’s past. Sherlock, sensing he had worn out his welcome, made his excuses and returned to London for the rest of the summer. Before he left, Victor asked, “You know more don’t you? I know you’ve read his File. That means you know more.” Sherlock, for once in his life, held his tongue. “Sherlock!” Victor shouted. “I have the right to know!”
Reluctantly, Sherlock said, “Ask him about Gloria Scott and James Armitage.”
“Gloria? His first wife?” Victor asked incredulously. “What does she have to do with anything? And who is James Armitage?”
“Your father should be the one to tell you,” Sherlock responded.
A month later, Sherlock received word that Mr Trevor had suffered a heart attack and died. When he tried to post his condolences to Victor’s File, he found he had been barred. Victor didn’t return to university that autumn, and Sherlock’s only friendship came to a precipitous end.
Charles Augustus Milverton arrived at 221B Baker Street at 6:30 pm on the dot the day after Sherlock received his message. I was fidgeting with anxiety, unable to prevent myself from pacing in front of the window that looked down onto the street. Milverton arrived in a monstrously expensive, gleaming self-piloted luxury automobile, yet he still sprang for the extravagance of a liveryman to open the door and help him out. The ostentation of it all spoke of a brazenness I couldn’t help but abhor. He had no reservations about flaunting the proceeds of his evil undertaking. He was a squat, toad-like man in his early fifties who smiled ceaselessly, although it never showed itself in his hard, cruel eyes. The result was an iniquitous countenance that communicated his reptilian morals and the cold-blooded manner in which he loosed himself into the lives of others and set about systematically destroying their peace of mind. I loathed him on sight. He entered our flat with a practised (but still effortful) suavity and extended a hand to Sherlock. Sherlock regarded the offered appendage as one might the maggot-ridden corpse of a piece of roadkill. Milverton smiled only more, shrugging out of his preposterous shaggy overcoat (which I later learned was Astrakhan) and took a seat. He gesticulated at me and said, “This person, is it discreet?” I took great offence to being referred to as an “it” and glared at him coldly, already impatient for him to take his leave of us.
“Dr Watson can be trusted,” Sherlock assured him. “Mr Trevor knows he assists me on all my cases.”
“Ah, yes, your… cases,” Milverton said maliciously. “That’s how you refer to your little… diversions, isn’t it? Well, I suppose we all need hobbies, some small entertainments to help us escape boredom.” It was insupportable, listening to that loathsome vulgarian belittle Sherlock’s intelligence and his achievements. I have never been a violent man, and even the horrors of war never incited much bloodlust in me (more feelings of abject desperation over the futile waste of it all), but, as I stood there watching that odious little fat man smirk while he sat in my chair, all I could think was how my steady surgeon’s hands had surprised all the squaddies when they realised I, the unassuming doctor, was a crack shot. I would have liked to surprise Charles Augustus Milverton with that revelation as well. “Well, if Trevor has no objection, then who am I to complain,” Milverton said pleasantly. “And he has permitted you to accept my terms?” It did not slip past me that he did not use the term “negotiate on his behalf” or its equivalent. This was a shakedown, and there was no pretending otherwise.
“I am Victor’s agent in the matter, and I speak for him,” Sherlock responded with remarkable calm. “What are your terms?”
“Nothing extravagant,” Milverton replied, his reptilian smile widening. “Eighteen million pounds.” The man was mad. Eighteen million pounds!
“And if he can’t pay?” Sherlock asked, seeking confirmation of what he already knew.
“My dear, Mr Holmes,” Milverton said in a voice that would have sounded kindly had I not been looking directly into his avaricious gaze. “You’re far too clever for us to be beating around the bush like this. Mr Trevor and the minister make a handsome couple, and I’ll allow them to marry. But if I’m not paid in full by the day after their marriage, then what I know will become headline news. Such nasty business, too… I mean, killing a man and stealing his identity, his wife, and his estate…” He made a tut-tutting sound of mock disapproval. “They say behind every great fortune there is a great crime. I suppose Herbert Trevor — sorry, James Armitage (it’s so difficult to keep things straight with doppelgängers involved) — made the mistake of committing a small crime to gain a small fortune.”
“It wasn’t as simple as you make it out,” Sherlock said.
“Oh, yes,” Milverton agreed genially. “The real Herbert Trevor was quite the ogre. He drank to excess and regularly beat the stuffing out of his wife. Put her in hospital more than once.”
“James Armitage saved her,” Sherlock said.
“They could have just run away together. Instead, they plotted to kill him and did so rather efficiently. The body’s never been found. It makes one wonder if they’d had any prior experience.” Milverton was demonstrating that he would cast the worst possible light on Victor’s father’s crime. By the time the gutter media were done, James Armitage and Gloria Scott would be the new Fred and Rosemary West, and poor Victor would be ruined by association.
“Victor had no knowledge of his father’s misdeeds,” Sherlock interjected. “It all happened well before he was born. Gloria Scott isn’t even his mother.”
“Do you think that matters?” Milverton exclaimed. “Come now, Mr Holmes. You have seen enough of the world to know how these things work. Your handsome young friend is set to snap up one of London’s most eligible catches. The jackals will leap at the chance to rip his throat out.” Milverton was a nasty, jumped-up little toe rag, but he did understand people, how they thought, and he was a master at manipulating them into colluding in his extortion. At least he got paid for it, though. At best, all the gossip-mongers got was the fleeting satisfaction of seeing a rival felled.
“Eighteen million pounds is not possible,” Sherlock said. “Victor can raise fifteen at the most.”
“I’ll take what I’ve asked and not a penny less,” Milverton replied, his smile becoming more oleaginous with each exchange. Sherlock shifted tactics.
“Surely, it would do you well to allow your investment to mature. In a few years Victor could be the Prime Minister’s husband.” Milverton made his condescending tutting noise again.
“Mr Holmes,” he said as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. “Surely, you can see that making an example serves me better. I have several similar cases that are maturing as we speak. I think making a severe example of Mr Trevor and his fiancée will make the concerned parties more amenable to reason. That I prevented someone from becoming Prime Minister will make things run much more smoothly for me in the future. Surely, you can see that, Mr Holmes.”
God, but I wanted to shoot him in the face. His comprehensive lack of empathy was more chilling to observe than any of the fevered killing I had seen during the war. The violence of war is like a fire burning out of control — it always eventually exhausts itself. But the void at the heart of men like Charles Augustus Milverton could scarcely be comprehended much less wrestled with. Sherlock was right: it was a kind of folie sans délire, a very real kind of mental disease, and it was best left to psychiatrists specialising in antisocial personalities. The rest of us were ill-equipped to deal with these people. Nevertheless, there we were, in our living room, watching that human reptile sun himself in the heat of our disgust.
Milverton stood up, communicating that our interview was over, and said, “Eighteen million pounds, Mr Holmes. Paid to me by the fourteenth or their married life will be destroyed at a time of my choosing and with no warning. It may happen in a day or a year or five years, but it will happen, and they will be devastated.” He shrugged into his ridiculous coat and left.
“What a disgusting human being,” I said with a shudder. I looked at Sherlock’s set face and began to worry. “Can Victor really not pay?” I asked.
“It would ruin him financially. He would have to liquidate nearly everything or borrow recklessly.”
“What will you do?”
“I see only one of two paths: I manage to convince Victor to tell his fiancée everything, or we somehow manage to stay Milverton’s hand.”
“Only a well-aimed bullet will stop that man,” I observed. “I don’t like vigilantism,” I made sure to clarify, “but if Victor were my brother, I might see it fit to take matters into my own hands. That man deserves a thorough thrashing if nothing else. Did you hear him call me ‘it’?” I asked incredulously, still in disbelief at the casual insult.
Sherlock laughed. “Yes, I did notice that. I thought for a moment you might actually slap his face and demand satisfaction. Pistols at dawn.”
“It was a near thing,” I said, laughing along.
I could see no clear way out for poor Victor who seemed hemmed in on all sides. I was by no means a cynic about romantic love (Sherlock, on the other hand, was almost violently vituperative on the subject), but even Victor’s fiancée declaring her love and setting aside her career to be with Victor did not seem like a favourable outcome to me. Looking at it from Victor’s point of view, how could anyone ever hope to live up to being worthy of that kind of sacrifice? And surely resentment would creep in down the line. No; there was no clean way out of the mess Milverton had dropped them in. I had expected Sherlock to spend the evening either in an extravagant sulk or working manically. When he suggested we watch James Bond films (which he loathed), I stared. “You hate James Bond,” I said in confusion.
“Come now, John,” he reproached me. “Why would I hate a fictional character?”
“The last time I suggested we watch a Bond film, you said he was the most repellent character an Englishman had ever created — nothing but life-support for an errant, perpetually erect penis.”
“You like the films.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then stop complaining,” he commanded as he put on The Quick and the Dead. The pre-title sequence began, and Sherlock not only paid attention but took copious notes on his L.M.D.
“Reginald Popper was a decent Bond,” I commented as I watched him stylishly punch out two baddies. “Too bad he never had a proper script to work with.” Sherlock grunted in response and kept fiddling with his L.M.D.
The next morning Sherlock left without so much as a word and returned with his hair dyed blond and cut shorter. He was also sporting brown contact lenses. When he burst in, for a moment I thought he was an intruder and very nearly tackled him to the ground.
“Sherlock?” I asked.
“Yes, John,” he responded, sweeping as imperiously as usual towards his room, as if it weren’t an absolutely incredible event for him to have turned up with different coloured hair and eyes. When he emerged, he was wearing a suit of moderate quality, and I wouldn’t have recognised him if I had passed him in the street. It wasn’t just the cosmetic and wardrobe changes that rendered him unrecognisable. The entire shape of his face seemed different — his jaw was somehow more square — and his eyes were less intelligent but sharper in a way that spoke of a familiarity with violence. His shoulders even seemed wider. But it was the small idiosyncrasies of movement and expression he adopted that made him into a new person. His demeanour was still confident, but it was more couched in physicality than intellect, and there was something of the military man about him — it was subtle but recognisable. Had I met this stranger, I may have asked him if he had served. I honestly believe that had Sherlock trained as a Thespian he could have been among the greatest actors of his generation. His ability to become another person was uncanny.
“Who are you supposed to be?” I enquired.
“The name’s Peter Escott,” he replied jovially, his voice a shade deeper but less mellifluous, his accent a bit rougher than usual. “I’m a paper courier with Latimer’s,” he continued, giving me a roguish smile and looking so unlike Sherlock I shivered. Watching him like that really was quite unsettling. I couldn’t help wondering how much of the Sherlock I knew might be some sort of elaborate performance. It was all so dramatic, after all.
Sherlock’s mention of Latimer’s gave me the most insight into the character of Peter Escott. The company provided courier services to the wealthy and powerful all over the world. They were the sort of outfit one hired to transport expensive jewellery and other items that required discretion. In the post-Archive world, they had also drummed up an immense business in the delivery of documents too sensitive to be transmitted electronically. If data travelled across a network, someone somewhere who wasn’t meant to see it was having a look. Usually, it was government intelligence agencies, but sometimes it was activist hackers or corporate rivals. No encryption stayed un-cracked forever. Any information so discreet it had to be kept on paper was likely incredibly valuable or potentially ruinous, and there was a high likelihood it was both. As a result, paper couriers were carefully vetted and many were former military intelligence. I remember reading a feature in a magazine about the industry, and while some of it could devolve into Spy vs. Spy preposterousness (the exertions taken to protect the formula for Coca-Cola as it was moved from one undisclosed location to another were almost hysterical in their excess), paper couriers had become a kind of status symbol, an accessory of wealth. Men and women who could organise the transport and protection of a lorry full of gold bullion and efficiently disable or kill anyone who dared interfere were often sent to hand-deliver birthday cards and love notes. This development was soon absorbed into the paper couriers’ strategy, and what seemed like innocuous deliveries could be the most important. Milverton was just the sort of nouveau riche grasper who would have paper couriers running around all over town delivering frivolous nonsense — it was the perfect logistical support for his blackmail venture.
Paper couriering was a bizarre, secretive industry that was nearly impossible to infiltrate. Not even Sherlock could sham his way into Latimer’s. But The Archive Liaison Office would have the contacts necessary to create a believable back story. I suspected that Mycroft had called in an extremely valuable marker to create Peter Escott.
“Catch you later, John,” Sherlock said as he bounded out the door.
Over the next several weeks I saw little of Sherlock. He returned to 221B intermittently, usually only for a change of clothes, never really dropping the new persona he had adopted. One night, however, he threw himself onto the sofa and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, a bit testy after having been left out for so long.
“What would you say if I told you I was engaged?” It was one of those moments where everything seems to stop, and you wonder if you’re hallucinating.
“Did you just say you’re engaged?”
“Does it really surprise you so much?” Sherlock asked in a mocking tone; his blond hair and mud-brown eyes were putting me off.
“Yes, it does, Sherlock,” I responded. “When I mentioned starting to date again now that my health has improved, you compared romantic love to an opportunistic infection.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Sherlock said, laughing even harder. “But who said anything about love?”
“When you said ‘engaged’, you meant engaged to be married, didn’t you?”
“So, you’re engaged to someone you’re not in love with?” I felt a strange fear, a premonition that the forthcoming explanation would be worse than objectionable. The very air itself seemed to sharpen and become charged as I waited for Sherlock to enlighten me.
“Well, I suppose I should have said that Peter Escott is engaged to be married.” He looked so pleased with himself.
“Who are you engaged to?” I asked, my gut twisting uneasily.
“Milverton’s Sociability Maintenance Engineer.”
“Sherlock… Please tell me you didn’t make some poor, unsuspecting soul fall in love with your cover identity then propose to them?” His pleased countenance shifted, like a cat discovering the cream had curdled.
“I needed to gain her trust, and she’s the one who proposed to me.”
“So, it’s a woman, then,” I said, staring at him like he was a stranger. And in that moment he was. How could he have done something so cruel? And for a case?
“Yes. Her name is Mary.”
“And she thinks you’re in love with her.”
“Because you told her so.”
“And she’s in love with you.”
“But in her case, it’s real, not part of some elaborate plot to entrap an extortionist.”
“Jesus Christ, Sherlock!” I was livid. “Did you stop and think for even one moment how much this scheme of yours would hurt her?” I shouted. “Do you even realise there is another human being involved? A person with feelings is involved, Sherlock!” We had quarrelled and raised our voices to each other before, but this was different. This was about him not being the man I thought he was. Underlying every word I spoke was a sense of keenly felt disappointment. My head was suddenly splitting.
“John,” Sherlock said uncertainly.
“How could you?” I asked, speaking mostly to myself. “What sort of person thinks that’s all right?” I put my spinning head in my hands. The situation was nauseating. “Will you marry her if that’s what it takes to get Milverton?”
“Of course not!”
“So, there are some limits, then. I suppose that’s good to know.”
“I thought you’d be pleased.”
“You thought I’d be pleased that you’ve premeditated lying your way into some poor woman’s affections and breaking her heart?”
“I thought you’d be pleased that I figured out how to help Victor, how to thwart Milverton.” I looked at the injured indignation on Sherlock’s face, the high colour on his cheeks, the ridiculous blond hair, and observed his certainty that what he had done was justified, proportional — more akin to a minor breach in etiquette than hurling an emotional Molotov cocktail into someone else’s life. I understood who and what he truly was for the first time, or, more accurately, I accepted the truth I had been denying.
“You really are an addict, aren’t you?” I said sadly. He flinched as if I had struck him. “You would do anything, anything at all, to maintain this high you’re on, wouldn’t you? You slept with that poor woman — you must have. You told her you loved her…” As the details of what must have occurred became clearer to me, I began to feel a wave of immense fatigue come over me. It was worse than all the anger, that sense of profound defeat. “You’ve even convinced yourself it’s about helping Victor and stopping Milverton, but it’s not. It’s about that gaping hole inside you and what it takes to fill it.” I met his eye and saw the shock there but pressed on because I realised my part in the debacle. “I’ve been enabling you. I’ve been enabling you because I didn’t realise that nothing else, no one else matters to you. Not really.” I was suddenly so exhausted I felt I might faint. “I’m going to bed,” I said. I got up to head to my room.
“John…” Sherlock sounded as shell-shocked as I felt. On any other occasion, I would have tried to lift his mood out of fear that he would turn to the morocco case, but his business with Milverton wasn’t settled, and, so long as that game was being played, he would be getting his fix.
“I really am very tired,” I commented absently as I made my way towards the stairs. It was the truth, nevertheless, my sleep was restless and plagued by nightmares. I woke up screaming for the first time in months. I realised then just how much the improvement in my mood, how much the progress I had made was down to having moved to Baker Street and formed my strange connection to Sherlock. Something about the sense of betrayal I felt had me backsliding. But leaving and heading to some cheap hotel was not an option. Baker Street was my home, and Sherlock was a part of that home. I knew that despite the events of the previous night Sherlock felt the same way. That day at Barts we had chosen each other.
I rolled out of bed, exited my room and tripped over Sherlock who was sitting in the hallway outside my door.
“Sherlock! You almost gave me a heart attack!” I exclaimed.
“I heard you shouting. Sometimes you… I didn’t want you to hurt yourself. I’m sorry.” He got up to head down the stairs. I hated the contrite tone of his voice, his defeated posture. For a moment, though, I wondered if it was all an act, part of some manipulation. Even if it was, I certainly wasn’t clever enough to suss it out.
“I’m not leaving,” I said, needing to cut through all the doubt and uncertainty thickening the air around us and get right to the heart of things. Sherlock stopped so suddenly it was almost cartoonish.
“You’re not?” he asked in disbelief, spinning around to face me.
“No,” I replied.
“But I thought you hated me now.” I could hear the unspoken “like everyone else”. During the night he had shaved off the silly blond hair and removed the brown contact lenses. While the close-cropped hair was a novelty, and his eyebrows were still lighter than usual, being able to see his bright grey eyes filled me with relief. He looked like Sherlock again.
“I don’t hate you, Sherlock,” I said. “But what you did to that woman… I won’t lie; it frightens me that you can’t see what’s wrong about it.”
“I can now,” he replied thoughtfully. “I thought all last night about why it upset you so much when you don’t even know her, when you know what is at stake with Milverton, how many people he’s destroyed.”
“Did you put yourself in her place?” Sherlock gave me his “why would I ever do something so absurd?” look, and I almost laughed aloud. Of course he wouldn’t have done that. Sherlock had managed to convince himself he didn’t have emotions — especially not the type that would let him do anything as pedestrian as fall in love with anyone.
“No,” he replied. “I put you in her place, and I thought about how much I would despise anyone who hurt you like that, what I would do to punish them.” I was afraid to think of what that meant — Sherlock being unable to use himself as the subject in an exercise in empathy and employing me as a replacement for his conscience. I didn’t want to become his Jiminy Cricket, the voice in his head telling him right from wrong. But even I could see that it really wasn’t much different from the way he helped to keep the edge off my post-traumatic stress, how so much of what animated me and kept me moving forward seemed to come from him. Good Lord, I thought, were we co-dependent?
“It’s good that you understand now,” I finally said. “Promise me you won’t do anything like that again.” Sherlock hesitated.
“When you say ‘anything like that’ what exactly do you mean?” he asked carefully.
“You’ve got something else morally reprehensible planned, haven’t you?” Sherlock nodded reluctantly. “What?” I demanded.
“Burgling Milverton’s house.”
I discovered I was a terrible substitute conscience because instead of gainsaying the illegal act, I smiled and asked, “Can I come along?”
That is how that night I came to be with Sherlock in Milverton’s study when a series of incredible events took place.
Through his betrothed and his role as a Latimer’s courier, Sherlock had learned a great deal about Milverton’s habits. Mary reported that Milverton stored his important paper files in a safe in the study outside his bedroom. He was a demanding employer who often kept her working late, and she came to learn that he was a heavy sleeper who was very nearly impossible to wake. He also kept regular hours, going to bed at just after ten o’clock each night unless he had specific plans to do otherwise. Milverton’s desire for privacy and fear of break-ins were connected to a fondness for the arcane. Most thieves had never seen a purely mechanical lock. They had stopped being manufactured decades ago. Decryption algorithms or biometric circumventions were the lock picks of contemporary burglars. Milverton used thoroughly outdated technology from the second half of the twentieth century to secure his home, and its obsolescence was surprisingly effective in stymieing the criminal elements. Unluckily for him, Sherlock had been the president (and sole member) of an amateur mechanical safe-cracking club he founded when he was thirteen, and he was quite adept at getting past complicated tumblers and the like. We broke in through the garden door and quietly made our way upstairs to the study. Sherlock worked on the safe using an intricate process that required a stethoscope and graphs while I kept watch. After about half-an-hour of listening carefully as he rotated the dial and made notations on his graphs, Sherlock had the combination and opened the safe. We rifled the contents which all seemed to be legal documents and financial instruments. Paper bearer bonds were becoming rare, but there was still a demand from a class of people who wanted to trade without much scrutiny.
“It’s not here,” Sherlock hissed in frustration.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Maybe there’s some sort of code, or information on a safe deposit box or something.”
“Maybe,” Sherlock said, taking out his L.M.D. and beginning to scan a sheaf of documents. I took a stack and started doing the same. Sherlock had installed a security patch often used by undercover police officers on their cover L.M.D.s. It allowed us to archive geolocation information we had pre-programmed. If anyone checked our alibis, it would seem we were at Baker Street watching a personalised entertainment module I had selected. We had been working on scanning the documents for about ten minutes when Sherlock went very still then whispered urgently, “Someone’s coming.” He quickly thrust the documents back into the safe and closed it quietly. I hadn’t heard anyone approaching, but my hearing had been damaged from all the gunfire and explosions during the war, and I knew Sherlock had ears like a wolfhound. Sherlock grabbed my arm and dragged me behind one of the floor-length drapes moments before a man, dressed much as we were in comfortable black clothes and a balaclava, entered. He had a strong, athletic build and moved with a predatory grace. I somehow knew that if he discovered me and Sherlock, it would be a near thing to fight him off even with both of us using all of our combined skill and every dirty trick we knew. He headed right for the safe and stuck some kind of contraption to the door next to the dial. The dial began to spin, and soon his gadget had unlocked the safe. He rifled the papers and cursed, it seems he met the same disappointment we did.
“There’s nothing here but legal contracts and bearer bonds,” he whispered. “How should I proceed?” He was on a communication device with a confederate. He began flipping through the papers, and said, “Scanning now,” and after a brief pause, “Are you receiving?” He wasn’t using an L.M.D., no other device was evident, and his eyes weren’t emitting the low-level glow of digital contact lenses, which would have been obvious in the dim light.
“Micro-camera grafted to his cornea,” Sherlock whispered directly into my ear. The man was probably some sort of spy, then. Christ, what was Milverton involved in? After a few minutes of scanning Milverton’s documents, the man looked up suddenly. “I thought you said no-one else would be here,” he hissed. I thought we had been found out, and I confess I lost my head a bit and almost rushed out to fight him, but Sherlock caught me in an iron grip and restrained me. The man replaced the documents hastily, pushed the door to the safe closed and quickly but almost silently made his way to conceal himself behind a tapestry on the other side of the room from our hiding place.
Milverton entered wearing a wine-coloured dressing gown, and I almost gasped aloud. We had been working under the assumption that he was in his bedchamber asleep. He sat at his desk and switched on the banker’s lamp. The room was still poorly lit, and the shadows being cast across Milverton’s face made him seem even uglier than usual. Soon a well-dressed man and an elegant woman entered still wearing their overcoats and gloves. Good Lord! How many more people were going to turn up tonight? Had invitations been sent out without our knowledge? Would a clown car pull up and unload a baker’s dozen of guests? Sherlock’s grip on my arm tightened suddenly. He recognised the couple. It took me a moment longer in the bad lighting, but I did too, and I knew with certainty that things were about to go horribly awry.
“Mr Trevor,” Milverton said brightly, his unpleasant smile looking even more like a sneer in the unflattering light. It was Victor and his fiancée, both looking very resolute indeed. “I didn’t expect you to bring company.” He turned to Victor’s companion. “Minister, may I offer you a brandy?” There was a faux deference intended to mock in his tone, and for the first time I wondered if Milverton was really as clever as we all had assumed. I had seen the look in the minister’s eye before, and it was usually accompanied by the adjustments of the fastenings on body armour and a final check of ammunition. Milverton had probably dealt with people desperate enough to lash out violently, but he seemed genuinely unable to recognise the danger he was in.
“I think it’s best if we get down to business,” the minister said calmly, pulling a revolver out of her pocket. It was an antique, but it was gleaming and looked as if it had recently been cleaned. It would almost certainly fire if the need arose. “I think you know why we’re here.” She gestured to the safe with the pistol. “Open it,” she commanded.
“I most certainly will not,” Milverton blustered.
“Pet,” the minister said to Victor.
“Yes, dear,” Victor replied.
“Cover him.” Victor pulled out his own revolver. The pistols looked to be part of a matching set. It was sort of sweet, their Bonnie and Clyde routine. The minister slipped her pistol back into her pocket and walked over to the safe and knelt to examine it.
“It’s already open,” she said in confusion. Our friend across the room hadn’t made sure the heavy door had swung all the way shut and engaged the locking mechanism.
Milverton shouted, “What?”
“Shut up!” Victor commanded. The minister pulled everything out of the safe, making a dreadful mess as she tore through the papers.
“It’s not here,” she said. “I was certain it would be here.” She turned to look at Milverton who was smirking smugly. The minister’s answering smile was lethal.
“These bearer bonds certainly look valuable,” the minister commented casually, walking over to the fireplace, tossing them on the hearth, and calmly setting them alight. Milverton jumped out of his seat ready to shout in protest, and Victor took a menacing step closer, pushing the gun right into his face.
“I will fucking shoot you,” Victor swore. “Sit down!” Milverton obeyed. We all watched as the minister burned the entire contents of the safe, including millions of pounds worth of bearer bonds.
“I will ruin you,” Milverton hissed malevolently.
The minister laughed. “I think not.” She paused and observed him contemplatively. “You really don’t know why we’re here, do you?”
“You’re here for the letter… Aren’t you?” Milverton was legitimately confused. As was I.
“The guns aren’t for show,” the minister replied, pulling the revolver from her pocket and cocking the hammer.
“You wouldn’t dare!” Milverton exclaimed. “If you do, you’ll never find out where that letter is. I can still ruin you from beyond the grave. I have a partner who knows — ”
“You have no one,” the minister interrupted firmly. Her calm, commanding demeanour was something to behold. “I know your sort. You don’t trust anyone. No one but you knows where any of the evidence is, and you’ll have hidden it so well that we could tear this house to pieces and dig up the entire garden and not find it or any hint of where else to look.”
“Are you willing to take that risk?” Milverton asked.
“Absolutely,” the minister said. “I won’t be beholden to a man like you.” She took aim and pulled the trigger. She shot Milverton in the face. Victor followed suit. The couple stowed their guns in their pockets, clasped hands and ran out the door. The doctor in me wanted to rush to Milverton’s aid, undeserving though he was, but I knew the gunfire would have raised the household. The man from behind the tapestry emerged and tore across the room. “A Member of Parliament just shot Milverton! In the face!” he exclaimed and leapt out a window, probably doing some frightfully difficult parkour to make his escape.
Sherlock raced across the room to lock the door to the study from the inside then led us to Milverton’s bedchamber (ostentatiously decorated in a Turkish theme that must have been retina-scorching in daylight) and down the back stairs. Sherlock had memorised the layout of the house and took us on a circuitous route to a back entrance where we engaged in some deft urban camouflage to avoid the gardener before making it over the wall.