I decided ‘what the hell’ and have continued posting my Gambling John story. At this rate, I’ll quickly run out of finished story, (as I haven’t drafted the second half yet) but I’m not really concerned about that at the moment. I just wanted a bit of something out there that makes me happy while so many other things were making me feel bad.
Anyway, I’ve posted up through chapter 7 now, so I’ll post 3-7 here to catch up.
Soon I’d better get something done on Lazarus Machine. The villagers are restless 🙂
Mycroft’s Two Cents
Sherlock lounged in the chair facing Mycroft’s desk with the indifference of a recalcitrant student facing down a loathed headmaster.
“Brother, have you lost your mind?” There was no need to question how Mycroft had found out about Sherlock’s little deal with John Watson. He had spies everywhere that reported directly to him at all hours of the day and night.
“Hardly, Mycroft. I simply arranged to get what I wanted.”
Mycroft Holmes’ thin lips tightened until they were nearly nonexistent.
“You’re going to track down a criminal with your newest illicit lover. What happens when that extorter decides to turn his money-grubbing eye towards you?”
“Hardly a sound business practice for an extorter to choose me as a target. It doesn’t matters to me if people talk; they do little else.”
“You may care when you’re thrown into prison for your indiscreet and indecent behavior.”
Sherlock scoffed, knowing Mycroft dangled enough nobles by their purse-strings to ensure Sherlock would never see time in prison no matter what he did.
“And you wonder why I worry constantly.” The man looked sadly down at the little empty plate still perched on the edge of his desk from tea.
“Biscuits will only serve to pad your backside, Mycroft,” Sherlock lashed out impertinently.
“You’re no better than the malefactor for whom you’re searching, extorting intimacies from the victim,” Mycroft shot back.
The bright side to this conversation was that after Sherlock stormed out, Mycroft was free to ring for a servant to bring another slice of cake.
John stepped down from the carriage carefully. He was healing well, regaining most of the strength in his leg, but it still sometimes weakened unpredictably. His shoulder wound had healed better, despite the infection, but John attributed that to the time spent in sickbed. He was certain that with regular walks, he would continue to improve.
He swung the door knocker after assuring himself this was the right address given him. A young man opened the door, affecting a staid and proper aspect.
“Doctor John Watson for Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” John offered his card forward. The young man received it and nodded to someone just inside. Another footman emerged to lift his trunk down. John was ushered inside.
“Yes, sir, of course. Mr. Holmes told us to expect you. We will bring your belongings upstairs. You may take tea in the downstairs sitting room, if you wish, or follow Alfred upstairs to take a rest.”
“I believe I will have tea.” Tea was good, tea was calming, tea was every single day. It was the last vestige of normal in John’s life. Even at war, there was tea (though its authenticity was often questionable).
“Very good, sir.” The footman showed John into the sitting room, where he made himself comfortable. He wondered when Sherlock would make his appearance, whether he was even at home. While he waited, he had far too much time to examine his own choices and behavior. What was he doing here, preparing to play lover for some stranger for the promise of money? What guarantee, besides the promise of an unfamiliar man, did he have that he’d receive the money he needed? And even if he found himself able to pay, he would still be trusting that the faceless, nameless criminal would do as he promised and turn over the incriminating letters.
John tried to calm his thoughts, reasoning with himself. He had Mr. Holmes’ IOU in his pocket, a luxurious roof over his head for the next few weeks, and the freedom to explore the most sinfully titillating appetites this man inspired. His situation was little more precarious than it had been the day before when he’d struggled to win steadily against the odds. Maybe for once, the odds were in his favor.
He ought to enjoy it, for what did he have to return to after the month was up? A mouldy room with a snippy landlady who constantly harped on the fact that John returned to his room quite late at night? He couldn’t return to the estate house as it was let for the year. His sister Harriet had been living with her godmother since their father’s death and would do so until the wedding but their mother’s friend had expected John to take his own lodgings after his recovery. Soon, Harriet would marry and be safely away on her honeymoon trip, and he would have only the most distant family and tenuous connections and few of either in London.
John listed the good that could, that would, come of this. Harriet had a welcoming home until the wedding; John would have the money by the extorter’s deadline and ensure his sister’s happy marriage. John would find a job more easily as another month of rest and recuperation would surely benefit his limp and could begin to consider his own future. He may even meet someone in true need of a personal physician through Mr. Holmes, or at least be able to search for a position at a hospital. All this for a spending a month of his time with Sherlock Holmes. A month may go by quite easily, if he could quiet his conscience and assuage his shame. And surely Holmes would not need him every moment of the day; there would be plenty of time for him to make inquiries of acquaintances and colleagues.
John was hopelessly optimistic about their future intimate relations; their kisses in the office of the Diogenes Club made his blood run hot in simple remembrance. John hadn’t quite placed the man at first, but he’d finally recalled seeing him at Gentleman Jackson’s Saloon, stripped to his linen shirt, lean and rangy with a roguish air. John had smiled at him; perhaps the first spark between them was already there. If he hadn’t already been apprised of the blackmail, he might have considered that Sherlock Holmes had masterminded the whole plan just to trap John into his bed. Of course, in the way of novels, a few flirtatious winks and honeyed words would be too simple for a brilliant and jaded protagonist. He would have to play an elaborate game to win his conquests.
If he had, John mused, he was flattered in a twisted way. It would be a lot of trouble to go through to seduce a retired army surgeon who hobbled around London on a cane. He may have succumbed to a simple flirtation if his pride hadn’t overruled his loins.
John read too many novels during his convalescence.
The tea arrived, but Sherlock Holmes did not. The footman acting as butler bade him to feel free to use the library as he pleased, and John spent a pleasant afternoon being astounded by the vast collection of sciences and philosophies. Dinner was served informally, but there was still no sign of the man himself.
After dinner, the servant offered John a bath, and he was properly ensnared by what awaited him. The tub was ridiculously luxurious and large enough to recline in. The rising steam was scented with something subtle and masculine, spicy and foreign and was hot enough to soften his whiskers. John washed and relaxed in the water until his fingers and toes wrinkled. To John’s amazement, when he was finished, the water drained away through pipes installed in the townhouse walls.
He’d never felt so pampered before. But as soon as the word fluttered into John’s head, he stopped enjoying it so much. Of course he was being pampered. He was essentially a rich man’s mistress, being tempted and seduced by luxury and wealth, only to ease the master’s way into his bed. The realistic side of John wanted to keep enjoying it; at least Sherlock Holmes was interested enough to make the effort rather than just demanding John submit.
The footman helped John into a silk robe once he’d dried off and showed him into the adjoining bedroom. It was elegant and pristine in appearance, but somehow cold and impersonal. John wondered if it was Sherlock’s or if it was a guest room. Surely such a fine bath-room would be adjoined to the master’s bedroom; however, there were no mementos, no trinkets. He explored a bit. A tall wardrobe did contain clothing, neatly pressed and folded shirts and waistcoats, with drawers of various neck cloths and smallclothes. The desk near the window had paper and ink set out for use, but all the little drawers and cubbies were locked. Still, John did not feel entirely confident that Sherlock Holmes actually slept here. He moved to the bed, piled high with down pillows and what had to be the most expensive sheets he’d ever lain upon.
Most people found they couldn’t sleep in the face of anxiety. But John had been to war, had needed to sleep whenever and wherever he could. All the terror for his life was nothing when faced with sheer exhaustion. As it was, he only had uncertainty for what might happen that night, or the next, or the twenty-eight after that. That uncertainty, coupled with his stress and worry for his sister could be boxed up and shoved underneath this magnificent bed fit for the King. John Watson threw his robe over the end of the bed, huddled under the covers and fell straight to sleep.
“I’m not done with you.”
John woke to lamplight and the scratching of pen on paper. He jerked his upper half up awkwardly from the bed to stare at the intruder. No, not an intruder. Sherlock Holmes. The man was sitting at the desk in a thick, quilted robe, shiny like satin but likely lined with silk against that posh skin. It was dark blue, appearing almost black in the lamp and firelight, or perhaps it was so black it was nearly blue. Either way, it made Holmes’ pale skin glow.
“Ah, so you’re finally awake.”
“What time is it?”
“When did you get home?”
“Twelve.” Which meant if he had been at the Diogenes Club, he left quite early. Many nights the club was finally escorting the last patrons outside as the sun rose; on occasion, it played host to revelries that took days to dissipate.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I did not believe it to be a wise move to startle a wounded soldier in an unfamiliar bed.”
Holmes was correct, John supposed, as he still did occasionally have nightmares. He now kept no weapon within reach of the bed deliberately because he’d done so for years.
Holmes fell quiet after his response and continued to write, the nib scratching the paper almost continuously save for the brief second he dipped it into the ink. John’s heart had begun racing when he thought Holmes (ought he call him Sherlock? Lovers would surely use each other’s Christian names) might join him in bed forthwith, but as the lapsed time increased, John began to feel almost… disappointed.
Well, if Sherlock wasn’t coming to bed on his own, he would just have to invite him. Perhaps it was the nap that invigorated John, or perhaps it was the dream of gray eyes and sharply-drawn lips. He wanted those kisses from the previous day. He wanted more, even if it was an engraved invitation to perdition.
With a playful quirk of his lips, John pushed down the covers to his thighs. Sherlock’s head didn’t even flick in his direction. John plumped a pillow under his head, reclining comfortably, but upright enough to still be able to view the man across the room. Then he started trailing his fingers along his belly. He’d love the feel of Sherlock’s fingers there more, but the light tickle of his own fingers was enough for now. He stroked his other hand over his chest, tweaking a nipple and teasing it into rigidity. John imagined Sherlock’s mouth there, with John’s fingers combing through his dark, curly hair as the man nipped and sucked.
John smiled in Sherlock’s direction, though the man still wasn’t watching unless he had the all-seeing eyes of God. John let the hand on his belly trail lower, tracing the line where thigh joined hip. He raised one knee and scratched lightly at the sensitive flesh of his inner thigh. He combed his fingers through the dark blond hair around his cock and balls, carefully avoiding them while enjoying the exploratory touch.
It didn’t take much thought, seeing Sherlock’s damp curls, to begin to imagine Sherlock in that luxurious bathtub, or climbing in after him. He could slide his hands over that slick, wet skin, lick away the water droplets, feel the steam rise from the tub and the conversely cool drips from Sherlock’s hair on his chest.
The hum he gave when he allowed his hand to grip his hardening flesh made Sherlock finally lift his head from his work and turn towards the bed. If John was any judge at all, the man was instantly entranced. Glittering eyes followed John’s hand as he stroked himself lazily and without rhythm.
“What are you..?”
“Are you trying to seduce me, Dr. Watson?” Sherlock growled, pushing back his chair roughly and prowling towards the bed. His robe was unfastened. The shadows in the room were deep, and only a peek of alabaster flesh appeared as Sherlock moved towards him. John couldn’t move his eyes away. He suddenly knew what it was like to be prey: heart pounding, mouth dry, breath caught. He’d been to bed with people before, women, but why did this singular man make him feel so stalked, so caught? How did Sherlock so suddenly make John feel like the about-to-be-ravished innocent when John had set out to seduce him?
“Depends. Is it working?” John couldn’t believe he’d managed to make the cheeky retort.
Sherlock was taller than John, and in fine form. When he leaned over John, he utterly dominated John’s senses.
“I would have left the club much sooner had I realized you so highly anticipated our encounter that you would ensconce yourself naked in my bed.” Sherlock gave John the most devilishly pleased smile. John flushed, his hand falling away from his erection. Sherlock’s eyes fell to it and one hand moved as if he thought to touch it, but changed his mind.
“This is the room to which I was shown,” John stuttered. “If I’m disturbing your work, I can leave.”
“You are precisely where you are meant to be, John.”
The intimacy of being called by his first name by Sherlock Holmes was unbearably arousing and his cock twitched. “Oh,” Sherlock said, as if he noticed and was pleased.
Sherlock shed his robe at the side of the bed, let it slip off his shoulders and fall to the floor without the least twinge of shame or nervousness. His hands moved aside the coverlet and sheets more fully. John followed the movement up to his arms where the muscles flexed lightly under his skin, to wide, defined shoulders that arched over a well-formed chest. Sherlock may have been narrow and sinewy, but his state of undress showed off the toned muscle that roped over his long bones.
Sherlock’s right knee, and then the other, popped into John’s vision as he crawled onto the bed. John’s eyes bounced from firm thighs to tight stomach, to dark and shadowed curls centered between them. He swallowed, dragging his eyes away.
Sherlock’s eyes tripped down John’s body in return.
“John,” he breathed, making John’s body break out in goosebumps. Even his nipples hardened at the sound. Sherlock’s eyes were drawn to them, particularly the left where a tendril from John’s scar dragged low. “John.” Those sharply defined lips lowered to John’s chest, mapping the edges of the scar with the narrow point of his tongue. John’s fingers reflexively buried themselves in Sherlock’s damp hair, tightening when his tongue swirled around the tight nipple.
John felt more sensitive than he’d ever been, as if every nerve ending attuned itself solely to Sherlock’s touch. When Sherlock’s hands started to drift over his body, examining every inch, memorizing every texture, John could only sigh as he discovered how pleasurable a calloused fingertip could feel stroking the tender skin of his inner elbow.
“You surprised me, John.” Sherlock peered up at John’s face, eyes soft and half-lidded for once. “So few people ever do. I expected to have to tempt you, convince you, lure you into my bed.”
“I am inexperienced with men, but I am neither ignorant nor innocent, Sherlock. It could be important to know that about me.”
“I will not forget, John Watson.”
John suddenly blushed. Sherlock noticed and his lips rose in a smirk.
“Blushing, after all that? What naughty thoughts have crossed your mind, John?”
“I want you to kiss me… Sherlock.” The name was added on almost as an afterthought, as if John were tasting the word on his tongue and found it quite savory.
“Oh, yes.” Sherlock shifted so he was mouth-to-mouth with John, chest-to-chest, and nearly hip-to-hip, though Sherlock was slightly longer in the waist. It hardly mattered that they didn’t exactly correspond, though, once their lips met. Breathy, heart-racing kisses left John grasping for a handhold; he found the nape of Sherlock’s neck, the springy curls tangling around his fingers. His other hand wrapped around Sherlock’s back to pull him closer. His most secure grip, though, was the leg wrapped around Sherlock’s flank; Sherlock’s hips wedged between John’s thighs and they fitted together with perfect intimacy.
The kisses made John dizzy with lust, tongues dueling and then stroking gently. Sherlock would pull back only to lay chaste kisses on John’s mouth, then moments later, demand entrance. It tugged him much further down when Sherlock sucked lightly on the tip of his tongue.
“Touch me, John,” Sherlock whispered against his lips. John’s hands obeyed, stroking that pale, perfect back from shoulders to waist, and lower, cupping and pulling that plush arse. Sherlock’s cock had only been stirring to life when he crawled onto the bed, but he was now firm and interested and pressed along John’s length.
Sherlock stroked a hand along John’s thigh, the one he’d lifted around Sherlock’s hip, then dug his fingers into the softness of his arse as he pushed his hips tighter into the cradle of John’s. A stuttered moan came from John’s mouth beneath his. Yes, again, and that thought came simultaneously from both of them. Sherlock did it again, even though the heat and friction would quickly become too much.
John whimpered when he pulled away, eyes lust-blown and blinking slowly as he watched Sherlock sat on the edge of the bed and opened the top drawer of a small bedside table. He pulled out a small bottle of oil, which turned out to have a silky feel and considerable viscosity, and poured a little into his hand. John watched with a twinge of jealousy as the man wrapped the wet hand around his prick and began to stroke, spreading the oil over the whole length.
And his cock was impressive to look at. It was of a length commensurate with Sherlock’s height, and a pleasing width. The foreskin had already moved down to reveal the head. John shifted to get a better view, licking his lips as Sherlock’s hand slid up and down the shaft.
“Another time for your mouth, John, though I do want it so desperately. Lie on your side, facing away.”
John did as he was told, though with a rod of tension against his spine.
“Don’t worry, John,” Sherlock rumbled as he pressed up against John’s back. Of course he noticed the tension. “I don’t intend to penetrate you tonight. That is for a time when we are more comfortable together, or it will not be pleasant for either of us.”
The reassuring voice, in Sherlock’s particular deep tone, served to relax John a bit. He only twitched a little in surprise when Sherlock’s slick hand pressed between his thighs, rubbing the oil into the crevice between and up along his perineum. John submitted to the intimate massage, holding his thighs just slightly apart, a bit surprised at how pleasurable Sherlock’s fingers were, sweeping silkily over the tight pucker and forward almost to the base of his bollocks and back.
Sherlock teased a little, circling the tight hole, dipping into it just slightly and back around again. The finger moved forward again, finding a rather unlikely spot and testing different levels of pressure. Sherlock watched John quite closely, kissing his ribs as his breathing quickened, steadily increasing the pressure until John gasped.
John had his face turned into the mattress, fingers clenched in the sheet.
“God, do that again.”
Sherlock did, watching avidly as John’s cock hitched upward and seeped several drops of fluid. John’s hand moved from the bedsheets to flutter in the vicinity of his cock, clearly wanting to stroke himself but unsure if Sherlock would approve.
“Don’t touch. Mine,” Sherlock breathed into John’s neck as he plastered himself against John’s damp back. His cock nudged against John’s arse, prodding blindly for a moment before Sherlock found the right angle and slid into the crevice he’d so thoroughly oiled. A few experimental thrusts found the optimal movement.
“Sherlock, please. Touch me.”
A true downfall of this position was that Sherlock couldn’t clearly see John’s face. Still, he could easily reach around and wrap his hand around John’s cock, slicking it with residual oil; and the sound of John’s moan when he did so was by no means muffled. Keeping his hips rocking at a steady but indolent pace meant he could spend the time to tease John, alternating firm movements along his shaft with deliberate circles around the sensitive glans or exploratory fondling of John’s scrotum. Sherlock particularly enjoyed the latter when he thrust forward and could feel the head of his own cock just there.
He also had easy and plentiful access to John’s neck, and he set about to mark him; each bite and suck made John arch his neck and groan, sometimes Sherlock’s name, sometimes just a wordless keening of pleasure. They both drew it out as long as they could.
It wasn’t nearly long enough, in Sherlock’s mind, before his hips began to drive forth at a tempo of which he was not consciously in control, and John’s hands were clenched white-knuckled in the sheets to keep him from spilling before Sherlock was ready to allow it. They rocked together faster, John’s hips moving forward to thrust his cock into Sherlock’s tight fist, thigh and arse muscles clenching as he did so to squeeze Sherlock’s prick with a blinding amount of bliss.
John spilled first, his seed erupting onto the bed below and coating Sherlock’s fingers with new slickness. Sherlock had not yet released him when he reached his apex as well. Sherlock’s spend trickled down John’s thigh, smearing between them as Sherlock continued to slide in the crevice until he could no longer tolerate the hyper-sensitization. He panted against John’s neck, gratified to feel the other man slump against him rather than pull away.
Sherlock wanted to catalog the taste of John’s sweat, compare the drops in the small of his back to the ones on his temple. He wanted to taste the semen that dripped from him. He placated himself by pressing back against John’s backside once his spent cock had softened and running his hand over John’s stomach and chest. John didn’t complain that Sherlock was basically painting him with seed and oil.
“Sherlock, that was extraordinary,” he finally breathed, shifting a bit until Sherlock let him go and John flopped on his back. He was finally in a position where Sherlock could kiss him again, so he did. John responded lazily, eyes closed even when Sherlock pulled back to observe him. Sherlock couldn’t help but smile at the utterly satisfied expression on John’s face. He kissed John’s jaw so as to not disturb the smile, and then forced himself to rise and get a cloth and some water. John would be uncomfortable if their seed was allowed to dry on his skin until morning.
John allowed Sherlock to wash him, though now that the acute passion was exhausted, a touch of embarrassment returned. He obligingly parted his legs and let Sherlock wipe his most intimate areas, but he blushed as he exposed himself. When Sherlock was done, John shifted to a clean and dry portion of the bed and Sherlock tucked the bedding around him.
“Aren’t you sleeping?” John blinked slowly at Sherlock.
“In a few minutes. Rest.”
John dozed for a few minutes, waking to find that Sherlock was back at his desk.
“I can sleep elsewhere so I don’t disturb your work,” he offered again. Surely Sherlock didn’t intend for them to share a bedroom; there must be another tucked away in this three-story townhouse.
“No, I’m not done with you yet.”
John had to fight back a smile, residual from the rush of climax, surely. He lay back down, eyes watching Sherlock’s hair twitch over the collar of his robe as he wrote, dipped his pen, wrote more. John wrapped himself in the scent of sex and Sherlock and let himself doze back off until Sherlock wanted him again.
Lestrade and the Suicide
John woke alone in the morning. The solitude was a bit of a relief. After how utterly intimate he’d been with the enthralling and enigmatic Sherlock Holmes, he feared the difficulty of appearing detached and professional in public – or even at breakfast. He washed and dressed and tried not to think of the night before in too much detail.
Still, his cheeks showed a faint tinge of pink when he was shown to the room where Holmes sat indolent in a chair with a cup of tea and a newspaper.
“Good morning,” John said, cursing to himself when his face flamed hotter. He needed to get his reaction under control. John cleared his throat.
Sherlock’s eyes finally flickered up from his paper. “Watson,” he said coolly before returning to the accounts of things happening in London.
See, John, Sherlock can comport himself like a proper gentleman; you can do the same.
“Have you plans for the day, Holmes?” John asked politely as he filled a plate from the buffet.
“No. The city is insisting on being insufferably dull at the moment.” Sherlock flung away the paper in his hand and reached for another. One of the footmen retrieved the paper from the carpet, neatly refolded it, and handed it to John upon the doctor’s gesture.
“Have you eaten?” John asked, realizing as he seated himself that there was no plate in front of Holmes and there was an inordinate amount of food on the buffet for two men, especially if one was not eating.
“Doctor Watson, may I remind you that your guise as my personal physician does not actually require you to act in that capacity.”
The scathing tone of Sherlock’s voice did much to tamp down the lingering flush in John’s cheeks. He found it much easier to focus on breakfast and his paper. Still, John wasn’t about to let a whole meal go by in silence. It took less than ten minutes for him to speak up again.
“I wonder what happened,” John said, pointing to a short article in the newspaper. “I only met Captain Howell a few times, but he seemed like a good man.”
“Hmm?” Sherlock barely looked up from the crime section of the paper.
“It says here that The Honorable Sarah Blackwell ended her engagement to Captain Thomas Howell. I wonder what happened.”
Sherlock rustled his paper, turning the page and refolding it to hold in one hand as he sipped his tea. “Likely Miss Blackwell found out about Howell’s predilection for a certain male opera singer.”
“What? How do you know that?” John was startled. While he shared only a mild acquaintance with Captain Howell, having treated him for an arm fractured by a bullet, he’d never known the man to mention anyone but the girl he had waiting for him back home. Sherlock merely raised an eyebrow in reply and returned to his paper.
“He and I have run into each other once or twice.”
John cleared his throat, took a sip of tea, and cleared his throat again. “I see.”
Their breakfast descended into another bit of awkward silence until it was broken by a knock at the front door. Sherlock’s ears perked up and he set aside his paper, gulped the last of his tea. He bounced up and gestured to John.
“Come along, Watson! Our presence is required at the scene of a crime.”
“A crime? Holmes, what?”
“Don’t be slow, John. I occasionally consult for those that pass for police in this city. They’ve come to me with a case.”
“How can you tell that from a knock at the door?”
“Donovan always knocks the same way, five times, holding the door knocker instead of simply letting it clack once or twice. Do hurry, John.”
John descended the staircase only to see Sherlock and an unknown man talking in the foyer.
“And who is this?” Donovan drawled, clearly delighted to be an observer to some immoral facet of Holmes’ life. John was incredibly glad that Sherlock’s man had dressed him immaculately before breakfast this morning and that he had a starched, buttoned-up façade to show the constable. He was also glad that Sherlock had conceived of a realistic story to relate as to their cohabitation, though John wondered why people might believe Sherlock would be in need of a doctor ’round the clock.
“This is Doctor Watson, my personal physician. He will be accompanying me today.”
“Lestrade said nothing about you dragging along your physician to the crime scene.”
“Nevertheless, I require Dr. Watson by my side and Lestrade will surely allow it.”
John was quick to don his greatcoat and followed the two men to the hackney cab outside. The ride progressed in silence as neither Sherlock nor the man he’d named Donovan seemed inclined to small talk and when John asked about the nature of the crime, Sherlock responded tersely.
“I prefer to know as little about the scene as possible before viewing it, so as to not defile my observations with presuppositions.”
When they emerged from the cab less than two miles away, Donovan pulled John aside as Sherlock swept through the open door of the boarding house and up the stairs.
“Whatever you’re doing with that man, I recommend you run fast and far away. Sherlock Holmes brings no one anything but trouble. He’ll destroy you the second he doesn’t get his way and never feel one iota of guilt about it.”
“Pardon me,” John said coldly. He jerked his sleeve from the hand of the constable. Perhaps he felt some certain loyalty to Sherlock, whether the man deserved it or not. He had seen fit to take John’s problems as his own, even if it was because it served his own selfish needs. And if John was later tossed out and forgotten, well, it was nothing less than what he expected anyway.
None of the officers stopped him from mounting the stairs and from there it was easy to find Sherlock.
“Why have you called me in for a simple suicide, Lestrade? You do not need my confirmation when the gun is in the man’s dominant hand and he has left a note, several, in fact, to family and friends. Even you can see, Lestrade, how deliberately he prepared for his death. Howell rose early, or, more likely, stayed up through the night writing his letters, shaved and dressed to present the most respectable façade to those that might find him. So melodramatic, that, suicide at dawn, all too common among so-called men of honor. If you bumbling idiots have not noticed, this man is Captain Thomas Howell, who so recently became estranged from his long-standing fiancée. He would have been distraught over the circumstance and thus took his own life. Obvious.”
John made it to the door just as Sherlock approached it to leave, fuming.
“Yes, he did leave letters, Holmes. One of them, in fact, was addressed to you.”
The gray-haired man’s exasperated voice stopped Sherlock cold.
“Give them to me.”
John looked over at the body, lying across the bed in full dress uniform, blood staining the wall and the bedclothes. It was no shock to John, not after all those years at war, but the senseless loss of life still saddened him. The gunshot was at close range, through the temple. The captain’s hand was still wrapped around the butt of the gun, finger against the trigger. It was, as Sherlock had said, the man’s dominant hand since the other arm had been significantly damaged by his injury and John remembered Howell being relieved that it was his weak arm anyhow.
John was afraid of something like this happening to his sister Harriet. She’d been so distraught when she’d come to him with the blackmail note. John had been surprised anyone had ever found out about Harriet’s first lover, but apparently her highly incriminating letters from the man had gone undestroyed. Some enterprising servant must have come across them and was now using them, or had sold them for quick coin to someone who was willing to wait for and force a much larger sum. John had promised to help. In fact, he’d written her a letter before leaving his small rooms for Baker Street explaining he’d be able to produce the full amount of money when the time came for the exchange and necessarily indicating his address change.
Sherlock, meanwhile, had broken the seal on the letter addressed to himself and skimmed the contents quickly. He handed the letter to John, who, confused, took it. Sherlock gave him a significant look and broke the seal on the letter to Miss Blackwell.
“Oi, you can’t read the lady’s letter without her permission.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
“Just proceeding at the height of efficiency, Lestrade. We could trek to Mayfair, wait while the lady weeps over the death of her captain, wait for her to read it through bleary eyes and sniffles, and then beg permission which she will surely give, or we could simply read it now and pass it along later as necessity dictates.”
John read through the letter he’d been handed. The captain wrote to Holmes that he had been found out by an extorter and certain letters had been stolen from the dressing room of his opera singer lover. He’d refused to pay the extorter out of a mix of honor and fury, and the letters had been promptly delivered to his affianced. He did not beg forgiveness for his actions, only requested that Sherlock track down and stop the culprit before these terrible events repeated.
I know you will not be sympathetic to my plight, Holmes, but I rely on our most tenuous bond to request your assistance. I never knew the man who threatened me. Others must know, for I do believe I am not his first target. For their sakes, as well as the sake of my dear Sarah, who will be heartbroken even as she evicted me from her future, I implore you to stop this man.
Sherlock barked at the constables to vacate the room so he could search for more evidence. Even Lestrade seemed baffled by this instruction.
“Evidence of what, Holmes? I thought you agreed this was a suicide.”
“Hush, Lestrade. Watson, you stay. Everyone else, get out so I can think!”
Lestrade rolled his eyes but did as he as he was instructed. He was familiar with the ways and methods of Sherlock Holmes.
As soon as the room cleared, Sherlock began to spin in a slow circle, his eyes raking over everything. John looked around, too, curious and eager to look away from the sad sight of the corpse cooling on the bed.
“If you were going to hide a letter from an extorter, where would you put it?” Sherlock asked. John opened his mouth to reply, but Sherlock cut him off. “No, not you. Your concepts of pride and honor do not match those of Captain Howell. You are willing to pay; he was not. You sought a solution to your problem; Howell knew me and my reputation beforehand, yet foolishly did not seek my help until after his death. Idiot. He has made this much more difficult. Where would a vainglorious wastrel hide a threatening letter?”
“I was going to say, he probably burned it.”
“Of course he would!” Sherlock exclaimed as if he’d thought of it himself. “He would have been angry and embarrassed and tossed it directly into the fire.” Sherlock crouched immediately by the small fireplace in the room. “Shame his landlady was worth more than most. His grate has been cleaned recently and likely several times since he received his letter. We may as well go, Watson. How do you feel about the opera?”
“The opera? It’s still morning.”
“All the better to interrogate the performers when they are not performing, John.”
Sherlock brushed past Lestrade and dashed down the stairs. Lestrade shouted after him, but the man paid no attention, having hailed a passing hack by the time John had politely moved through the constables in the narrow hall and down the stairs after Holmes. Lestrade followed John out onto the street and demanded Sherlock speak to him.
After a deep, put-upon sigh, Sherlock acquiesced. “Lestrade, it was suicide. Your men can remove the body. Be sure to go through the man’s belongings and let me know if you find a threatening letter addressed to him, though I doubt you will. The man was being extorted. I’m on the case!”
With that, Sherlock swung himself into the carriage after John and pounded on the roof to get the driver moving. When they were a few blocks away, John fancied he finally couldn’t hear Lestrade swearing anymore.
“What did you do with your letter, Watson?”
“My letter? Oh, it’s tucked away in one of my medical texts under A for aneurysm.”
Sherlock laughed. “You are much less idiotic than Howell, at least, to have saved valuable evidence that may prove useful in tracking down the culprit.”
“You think that the same man is behind both threats?”
“I would be a fool to discount any possibility at the moment, but that is one of my theories, yes.”
The remainder of their trip into the depths of London was spent with Sherlock alternating between a manic sort of silence and sharp questions regarding the letter in John’s possession.
Suddenly, he said, “We’re nearly there,” and he directed the carriage to the mouth of a narrow street. He stepped down and tossed a coin to the driver. John emerged immediately behind.
Sherlock and the Case
“Where are we, Holmes?” John asked, looking around after descending to the street. There certainly wasn’t any indication of an opera house or any sort of theater in this neighborhood. The wider cross-street was lined with small shops and secondhand dealers, with a cobbler on the corner. The people moving around were simply dressed but not caked with the filth of poverty. It was a working class area, proprietors of small shops, perhaps, and respectable.
“Nowhere, yet. It wouldn’t do to be dropped directly at the door of a molly house, now would it?”
John tugged the brim of his topper a bit lower over his forehead and followed Sherlock down the narrow street, through an alley lined with garbage and prowled by strays, and up to the back entrance of an unassuming building that John would never have guessed housed much more than a lowly pub and a few rooms for tenants upstairs. John ducked in after Sherlock who spoke to a man sweeping the floor. A coin flashed between them and Sherlock was given a nod and a room number. Sherlock found the stairs and took the steps two at a time to the third floor. John trailed after only to see a door open a crack in response to Sherlock’s incessant knocking.
“What do you want?” Little more than a dark eye ringed with thick black lashes appeared between door and jamb.
“You know a Captain Thomas Howell?”
“I know a lot of men,” came the disaffected reply.
“He committed suicide this morning.”
The only indication that the resident of the room heard this pronouncement was the squeak of the hinges as the door swung further open. The young man disappeared from the crack and Sherlock took this as invitation to enter.
The room was dingy and dim, the single window covered over with a haze of gauzy fabric. Shimmering costume pieces decorated every flat surface, including the floor, though the majority hung along the nearest wall.
The young man suddenly looked particularly boyish as he wrapped his robe tighter around his waist and perched in a chair with his bare feet tucked underneath him. The shape of his face had a certain sweet charm, though his dull eyes spoke volumes. John sat where the boy gestured, but Sherlock stood, pacing the room and no doubt collecting every bit of the detritus with his eyes.
“When did the captain’s letters to you go missing?” Sherlock opened with the toss of a shilling into the lap of the captain’s lover.
If the young man was surprised at the stranger’s blunt question, he did not show it.
“About six weeks ago. I didn’t tell Tom, but he found out a few weeks later. He thought I was behind the threats, at first.”
“Did Howell injure you when he found out?” John thought the young man’s face was showing the faint discoloration of much-faded bruising, but perhaps it was just remnants of powder from a performance.
“Irrelevant,” Sherlock announced, still taking note of the reaction, which was better than an answer any day. “Had you any other gentleman callers who may have stolen the letters from your room?”
“No, Tom paid for exclusivity. He said he loved me and could not bear for me to be touched by any other.”
“Did you love him?”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow at John when he interrupted again, but let the question stand.
The boy exchanged glances with Sherlock then answered John with half a shrug. “He was handsome and wasn’t usually rough with me.”
“What did you think of his upcoming marriage?” John asked, curious if the boy had been jealous of his lover’s fiancée.
“Can’t say as it made any difference to me,” the boy replied, giving John a look that said he thought he was ridiculously naïve. “Wasn’t planning on becoming his lady wife myself.”
John flushed. What was he thinking? Of course the boy knew precisely where his place in Howell’s life was, and that would likely be unchanged by the man’s marriage.
“Who else besides Howell had access to your room?” Sherlock moved to the door to examine the lock. The rim lock was fastened to the door on the inside, but the keeper on the jamb was loose enough that a bit of wiggling and some force might encourage the release of the bolt.
“Anyone who had an interest, I suppose.”
“Hmm. Did anyone who worked here leave around the same time?”
“Rhetta’s been gone about a month. She did a shite job on the costumes, but the audience didn’t seem to mind when the stitches burst open on occasion. One night she told Steeds to shove the eight pence he owed her up his arse and sauntered out.”
“Do you know where I can find her?”
“She sometimes stayed in the garret above, but mostly with a man when she could.”
“Any man. The only place she’s likely to turn up is at Three Sheep.”
John saw Sherlock calculating in his head. It was clearly far too early to visit a pub.
“We’ll go straight on to speak with Miss Blackwell. Lestrade will have informed her by now. Hopefully she will be able to provide some information on how the letters were delivered into her possession.”
Sherlock gestured to John, who stood.
“I’m sorry for your loss…” John realized he had no idea of the boy’s name. He nodded his head as if dismissing himself then followed Sherlock out the door and back down to the street.
“I’m sorry for interrupting, Holmes. I make a horrible investigator,” he confessed as Sherlock raised his hand for a hack.
“It’s fine, Watson. Your questions were the questions anyone would ask. That you asked them did not impede me from asking the correct questions.”
“Thanks for that,” was John’s dry response.
Sherlock grinned. “We now know a number of useful things, Watson. It is likely that this Rhetta stole the letters and sold them to someone else. She is an unlikely candidate for something as sophisticated as blackmail, but she would have been easy to approach for a small amount of burglary. A few coins in exchange for a few letters, so very simple. If we’ve any luck, she won’t have been paid quite enough to completely forget her employer.”
John nodded, but he wasn’t thinking ahead to the next step of the investigation as Sherlock was. He was wondering how fate had entangled him with this inexplicable man, and for what possible reason.
“You ought to be more excited, Watson! If we can hunt the villain down through the clues Howell has left for us, we may be able to solve your little problem as well. That seems most efficient.” Sherlock rubbed his hands together. “Oh, I do love it when the most random occurrences tie together in such a satisfying way.”
John ignored Sherlock’s glee and remained silent the rest of the distance to the Blackwells’ door in Mayfair. The knocker had been removed from the door, signifying that the occupants were not “at home,” though with several constables milling about, someone was clearly in residence. Family friends and gossips alike were being turned away at the door. The news of the captain’s suicide had apparently travelled faster than thoroughbreds.