Helene Worthington, née Lestrade, possessed her brother's Gallic stature and narrow features. Were I describing her in a story, I would probably call her "slender," but "wiry" came nearer to the truth, and her fashionable olive dress fit her poorly. She had small, dark eyes, and seemed to be somewhat nearsighted as she leaned forward and peered intently at Sherlock Holmes when she spoke. "I do not wish for us to have any misunderstandings, so my circumstances force me to vulgarity," she said after the necessary introductions and a brief outline of her problem. "My brother is a sodomite."
I glanced at my friend, but he had either not reacted at all, or I had not been quick enough to tear my gaze away from the woman in our sitting room. Holmes now betrayed no expression other than polite interest, and I felt, for a moment, that this revelation had not surprised him in the least.
"There are, of course, other terms for it, especially over this past year," she continued, ignoring my startled inhalation at her revelation "But the act remains the same. You must see why I cannot bring the matter of Gabriel's disappearance to his colleagues in the police. Any investigation into his private life would ruin him."
"And quite likely, yourself and your husband by association," Holmes added clinically.
Mrs. Worthington paled slightly but otherwise maintained her composure. "Yes, and Mr. Worthington knows nothing of this business." She looked at me for the first time that afternoon, though she focused on the writing pad on my knee rather than my face. "I would prefer that it remain so."
"Of course, madam," I said, perhaps a trifle stiffly. "I have never published my notes without permission, and even then I take care to conceal the identity of those involved." I had not, in fact, written a word intended for publication since my friend had returned from the dead. He had insisted on this quite vehemently, and it remained a sore point between us. I did not feel like bringing it up again.
Neither did Holmes, it seemed, as he stated, "I assume we will have several days in which to find Inspector Lestrade before his compatriots realise that he is missing rather than continuing to nurse his chest cold at home."
Mrs Worthington nodded, obviously knowing enough of Holmes to take his deductions in stride. Though I had to admit that the combination of our friend's absence over the past fortnight, the lady's assumption that the police were not already looking for her brother, and the persistent smell of linseed oil and onions that I had noticed when she entered, made the matter rather obvious. "He had almost entirely recovered, and I believe that he had planned to return to his duties tomorrow morning." She smiled slightly. "I sent a note, signed in his name, delaying that until Wednesday, but I dare not continue such a ruse for long."
"When, exactly, did you realise that he was missing?" Holmes asked.
"I took a plaster to his house around seven yesterday evening," she said. "When I arrived, his housekeeper told me that Gabriel had gone out, and wouldn't be back until quite late. She said that Will..." Here she paused, and considered what to say. "She said that a friend had come to visit, and that they had left together about an hour before. Mr. Worthington was expecting me, so I left the plaster with the housekeeper, and returned home. I passed by his house again at nine this morning, and found that he had not returned at all. Following that, I persuaded the maid at his friend's house to tell me that she had last seen her master when he went out at six the previous evening. She said that the housekeeper was beginning to worry after him. I know what they say about people like him, but I also know my brother; he and his friend would not have spent the night at some... some molly house or anything of that sort. I spent the rest of the morning inquiring, in vain, at the hospitals. Now I have come to you." She leaned back a little, and watched Holmes expectantly. I wondered if she supposed that the detective would immediately pronounce the whereabouts of her brother, thus solving all her difficulties.
Holmes stood and walked to the window, glancing briefly into the noonday bustle on the street before turning back to the lady. "I will look into the matter," he said. "Before I proceed, I must have further information from you, including facts that you may feel reluctant to share." She nodded. "To begin, how long has Inspector Lestrade known Major Dunbar?"
Mrs Worthington finally lost her composure and demanded, "How did you know?"
"It is of no importance," Holmes said dismissively to Mrs Worthington.
"Of course," she said, and after during the ensuing questioning revealed that the two men had met about eight years ago, though she didn't know how. As far as she knew, only their respective housekeepers and she knew about the relationship, as they were both extremely circumspect. They did like to go to the theatre together, when they could, and to the opera. She had encountered Major Dunbar several times and had no cause for complaint. He apparently lived quietly off his army pension, and possibly some small inheritance that he had in funds.
Holmes then agreed to begin searching immediately, and sent the lady on her way.
She turned at the door, delaying her departure a moment to say. "I thank you, sirs, for helping my brother. I fear that, in these times especially, there are many who would not, no matter how long they had known him." And then she left before Holmes or I could reply.
When I looked to Holmes, I found his gaze on me, and I swallowed and tugged at my collar without quite knowing why. Then his mouth twisted in a mocking smile. I knew, somehow, that he directed the derision inward rather than at Mrs Worthington, her brother or even I, who had proved a common target. I said his name, making it a question, though I felt unsure of what I wanted to know. My friend shook his head slightly at the sound of my voice, and let his face fall back into its usual mask.
"Well, Watson," he said. "Who would have suspected that the worthy Inspector is, in fact, a criminal?"
"Aside from you, I assume?" I asked rhetorically. "I had no idea, of course, and I'll be damned if I know how you knew what he was, let alone the identity of his partner in crime."
"I fear," he said, returning to the window, "that I have no great feat of deduction with which to astonish you today. I happened to run across the pair while pursuing another matter; you had recently abandoned our digs for the dubious rewards of domestic life and were not with me. The circumstances themselves revealed nothing, but some small factors alerted me to the nature of their relationship, and further discreet investigations settled the matter." I could not see his face against the light, but I think he smiled at that. "I like to know what I can about my acquaintances, both allies and adversaries. Major Dunbar seemed an honest fellow, so I have let the matter lie ever since."
"As it were," I said. "If you found out, it must be possible that others have."
Holmes twitched. "It is possible that they have grown less discreet in recent years, but in that case I would think blackmail more likely than kidnapping or murder."
I shrugged, leaning back in my chair and stretching my bad leg. "Perhaps they had to flee the country to avoid exposure." I frowned and conceded, "Though it seems odd that Lestrade would not send word to his sister at least, but he may not yet have had time."
"I think," said Holmes almost to himself, "that, whatever the case is, we must act swiftly." He turned sharply from the window, and strode into his bedroom, calling out. "In the interests of efficiency, we had best divide our efforts."
Holmes confirmed my suspicions that he had claimed the larger, and more interesting, portion of that afternoon's work by returning late to Baker Street with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. I could not resent my friend his success, for, on reflecting my on failures, the importance of our investigations struck me anew.
I had learned little or nothing new from visiting our friend the Inspector's rooms and interviewing his staff. It had struck me as odd, on seeing his home for the first time, that I had known the man for over ten years, broken bread and faced death with him, and yet knew so little about him.
"What have you found?" I asked.
I ought to have known better than to expect my friend to answer such a question. Rather he said, "I've asked Mrs Hudson to set an extra place for an early dinner. I fear our guest will be frightfully hungry, and he needs to keep his strength up."
I sighed slightly, and asked. "Have you found Inspector Lestrade, Major Dunbar, one of the gentlemen's long lost sons escaped from the Australian colonies, or someone entirely unrelated to the case who you thought could use a square meal?"
"I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise," Holmes said. He had shed his hat and coat, and now sat on the edge of the chair across from me, attempting to brush the mud off the knees of his trousers. He wasn't having much luck as it had deeply embedded itself into the weave, and his fingers sported an equal display of grime at the start. I could make out the start of a deep bruise on the left edge of his jaw.
"It doesn't look like you found our mystery guest very easy to catch," I observed. "You may want to give that up as a bad job and change."
Holmes frowned. "I may have startled him slightly," he admitted, giving up on his trousers and flicking his hand like a kitten that had stepped in a puddle. "However, now that I've caught him and persuaded him to see reason, I am certain that he will solve the entire case. He should arrive in a moment." My friend rose, and turned towards his room. "Please endeavour not to anger him, Doctor, as I'm afraid these last few days have proved rather straining on his nerves, and I already have a good idea what he will do if pressed."
"Is he dangerous?" I asked, also rising.
"Extremely," Holmes said before he disappeared, "But not to us, I hope."
My friend had not been gone a minute when Mrs Hudson reluctantly showed in a middle-aged man of military bearing. He slightly surpassed my height, and had shoulders like a bull and very little neck. Bushy red sideburns hid much of his broad face but did not detract from his wide, startlingly green eyes, the left of which was starting to swell closed. His clothes had fared somewhat worse than Holmes'. I again wished that the detective would choose to include me in all of his dangerous capers.
"You must be Watson," the stranger said, educated accent tempering his bass rumble. "Lestrade told me about you. I don't think he ever quite forgave that description you published, but he said you were a reliable sort all the same."
I nodded. "Thank you, I try to be. I suppose that you are Major Dunbar," I said. "Please, sit. Holmes will join us shortly."
In fact Mrs Hudson and the maid arrived before my fastidious friend, setting before us a hastily prepared dinner of cold meats, bread and cheeses. The major stared at the food in such a way that I almost invited him to start without Holmes, but as I opened my mouth to speak my friend emerged from his room, again clean, neatly dressed, and with his bruised jaw hidden under make up.
"Now then," he said. "I fear that you have not eaten in some time, I believe it would be best if we dined before discussing the matter at hand."
Major Dunbar nodded sharply, and we all ate in silence for the next twenty minutes, our guest devouring a good deal more than Holmes and myself combined. "Thank you," he said when the maid had cleared the table, and he had a glass of port in his hand. "I have not had anything to eat since midday yesterday, and since then my life has turned into a waking nightmare."
"You had best tell us the affair from the beginning," Holmes said, "And then we may discuss how best to aid you."
Dunbar sighed and leaned back into his chair, taking a large sip of his drink before starting. "My grandfather made his name as a wool merchant, and on his death, left the business and his fortune to my uncle. My father was the younger son, and died for the Queen at Sevastopol when I was a boy, so my uncle took me and my mother in, and raised me with his own children. Had he treated me differently from his heir, we would not be sitting here now, I think, but in his house we were brothers. To say that my cousin, George Dunbar, resented my presence in his life would be drastically understating the matter. My uncle rebuked any open hostility between us, but that did not prevent a series of slights and subtle pranks from making my youth an unhappy one.
"As soon as I could secure my uncle's blessing, I joined the Fighting Ninth and did not set foot on English soil again for almost twenty years. Through happy chance, I returned in time to see my uncle again before his consumption overcame him. Of course, my cousin inherited the business itself and enough to sustain it, but his father also left a sizeable portion of his estate to me. Supplemented with my army pension, I believe it is more than enough to live off of for the rest of my life, so long as I suffer no grave misfortune, and do not live extravagantly. I soon settled into a quiet life in London, and met Gabriel Lestrade perhaps a year later.
"My cousin seemed to have nursed his ill feelings in the decades of my absence, and his father's decision did little to warm him to me. We had several explosive arguments after the funeral, and he threatened to challenge the will, though I believe he soon realised that would end in a costly failure. We have done our best to avoid each other ever since. Last year, I heard that his business had failed, and at the time I expected him to approach me for assistance. However, he never contacted me, and, when I made some inquiries into his whereabouts some months later, he seemed to have disappeared."
Major Dunbar had, by this time, finished a second glass of port, and set his glass down, declining a third. He shook his head angrily but continued his tale. "I should have pressed my investigations," he said. "I should have known that George would blame me for his failure, but in truth I merely felt relieved that he had seemingly gone from London.
"I neither saw him nor had news of him again, until last night that is. I don't know how he did it, but he controlled the hansom that Lestrade hailed as we left his lodgings. The driver started out towards Catherine Street all right, but before he arrived he veered into an entirely unsavoury lane. When I asked him what he was about, he reached through the hatch, held a revolver to the back of my head and commanded me not to make any noise. Before Lestrade could try to knock it away, he turned again, stopping in a black, foul-smelling alleyway, and we found ourselves set upon by a brace of armed ruffians."
Major Dunbar rubbed both hands hard across his face and over his head, making his hair stand on end and his sideburns even bushier. "At first, I did not recognise my cousin in such rough clothing and company. He wore a dirty attempt at a beard, but I could see how lean his face had grown; his eyes seemed like hollows, dark and shot with blood. He climbed onto the stair and thrust his revolver at me.
"'Hello, William,' he said, breath smelling of cheap spirits. Then the driver clipped me across the back of the head; I heard Gabriel call out, and the world went dark."
He sighed deeply, and paused, seeming to need to gather his thoughts before continuing. "The world remained dark when I woke, head splitting, lying in a heap on a rancid-smelling floor. For a moment, I feared that the blow had blinded me, but then I saw a glimmer of light through the crack under the door above me, and realised that they had tossed me in some sort of cellar. Tossed us, rather, as I heard laboured breathing beside me. I think that Gabriel must have fought them after they struck me, or perhaps they beat him merely for what he is. I rolled so that I could lean against the wall, and rested his head in my lap, but he did not wake for half the night.
"I think dawn must have been approaching when my cousin opened the cellar door. He still held a revolver, and didn't come down, but seemed to enjoy making us squint up at him." He stopped again, mouth twisting into a grimace. "I shall spare you the scurrility of our exchange. As I have said, I never thought much of my cousin, and a year on the streets did him little good. For that matter, neither Lestrade nor I showed our best. In short, he demanded that I return the inheritance that I had 'stolen' from him. If I did not do so by noon tomorrow, or went to the police, he would... he would kill Gabriel in a way that I wish that I did not have to think about, let alone repeat."
For the first time that evening, I interrupted the story, asking, "If he was after money, why didn't he simply attempt to blackmail you and Lestrade?"
The Major shrugged. "I don't believe that he can possess any evidence. Lestrade and I have been extremely cautious, especially these last few years. We never betray ourselves in public, write no sentimental letters and keep no mementos beyond those of ordinary friendship. Anyone who could condemn us has either proved his or her loyalty beyond question, or keeps too many secrets to seek attention. No, it would probably come down to George's word against ours, and he no longer has the money or reputation for the courts to seriously consider his claims. If he wanted to threaten me, he had to do something real. God help me, he did."
He stopped then, staring down at his hands, and Holmes and I waited in silence. At last, he shook his head abruptly, and said, "In any case, George ordered me out of the cellar, had his men blindfold me, pack me in a rattling old couch and throw me out in front of that first alley. I immediately made my way to the offices that manage the bulk of my funds, and then had to wait until they opened at nine." He sighed slightly. "I am afraid that, in my state of disarray, I had some trouble gaining admittance, and had even more difficulties persuading that beastly man that I truly wanted to withdraw my entire account. He said that it would take at least until tomorrow morning, possibly longer. I had to endure the whole ordeal over again at my bank, emptying my account in the hope that, if those blasted money lenders did not come through in time, I could perhaps stall my cousin with an advance. On doing that, I returned home, where I encountered Mr Holmes, and, overcome with nerves, reacted rather badly." He spread his hands to indicate the end of his tale.
"How long were you in the couch this morning?" Holmes asked immediately.
"Not more than a quarter of an hour," Dunbar replied without thought. "I managed to get a look at my watch right before they blindfolded me, and again after they tossed me out."
"Excellent," the detective exclaimed, and preceded to extract a description of every sight and sound Major Dunbar could remember. "Thank you, Major," he said when he had finished. "You possess an excellent memory for detail." Which was, sadly, not something he had ever said to me, but I consoled myself with the notion that Holmes was probably trying to make our guest feel more at ease. "I am quite certain that I will be able to locate the house in which your cousin held you captive. The question follows: what to do then."
"Well," I offered cautiously, "There are only three of them, which we know of; could we not attempt to take the house by force?" Dunbar nodded in approval, hand drifting to his hip. "Assuming that the major has maintained his service revolver, two of us are armed, and I do not believe that I need worry about you should it come to a fight," I said to Holmes. Which wasn't entirely true; I always did worry a great deal, even if it had so far proved unnecessary.
Holmes raised an eyebrow, and said. "Indeed not, though I believe a little more subtlety may be in order."
Autumn had blown in late this year, but now arrived in full force of icy wind and rain. Major Dunbar and I huddled in a dank alley, occasionally peering around the corner to see if we could make out how Holmes progressed in finding the house. No lamps lined this part of the city, and my friend's burglar's lantern flickered only occasionally.
I will never tell Sherlock Holmes this, let alone publish it, but the detective has never shown much strength in the line of subtlety. I suspect that his mind moves too quickly for it, and he doesn't have the patience to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. In this case, he had meant waiting for the cover of darkness, picking the locks, and then taking the house by force. I felt fairly sure that he had prevaricated simply because did not want to appear to agree with me.
At last, he bounded up to our hiding place, causing both of us to draw our revolvers, and grinned at me. "I have found," he said, "an east-facing house, with three stone stairs, the second of which is loose, a solid door, and a wooden railing. Shall we go?"
We followed him into the night, moving so slowly in the darkness that Holmes twice had to wait for us to catch up. He paused again when we reached the doorstep, smoothly unrolling an oil-cloth case of housebreaker's tools. He seemed to work by touch more than sight, hands unerringly selecting, manipulating and exchanging each tool. Each tiny clink and scratch sounded like a runaway couch in the night, and he seemed to take an age, though I'm sure it wasn't much more than a minute. At last he pushed the door open, gesturing for me to precede him in the same motion.
Before I could move, however, Major Dunbar shouldered past me, pistol in hand. I followed hard on him, but he already had a man shoved up against the wall with his hand over his mouth by the time I reached what passed as the hall. He seemed to need no assistance, so I pressed on into the kitchen, feeling Holmes' breath on my neck.
We caught the two men at the table in the process of rising to their feet. I could see that one already had a revolver in his hand, and flung myself at him.
I caught his gun hand with my left, and over we went in a cacophony of splintering wood. He caught my right temple with a swift hook, blurring my vision. I regained my focus before loosening my hold on him, tried to strike him with the butt of my own weapon, and finally twisted enough to bring my knee firmly into his kidneys. My opponent gasped, and I finally rendered him unconscious by means of sharply knocking his head against the floor.
Panting, I looked up to see how my friend was faring. Holmes seemed to have the other man in some fashion of wrestling hold, and was demanding that he surrender in the name of the Queen. Seeing my victory and Major Dunbar at the door, he did so promptly.
"Why didn't you shoot him?" Holmes asked, releasing his captive as I brought him into my sights.
I shrugged. "I didn't think of it," I said honestly, "I don't like gun fights in this close a space, in any case. Which doesn't mean," I added sternly, "that I would hesitate to put a bullet in this ruffian should he move from that spot."
"I should hope not," Holmes said seriously.
Major Dunbar ignored all of us, crossing the room in two strides to pull at the bar across the cellar door. When he couldn't immediately free it, he pounded on the door, shouting, "Gabriel! I'm here!" Holmes joined him, and together they wrestled the door open, and piled into the dark opening.
Still keeping watch on the kidnapper, I edged around the room to peer after them. Holmes' lantern illuminated a battered figure attempting to push himself upright against the wall. Lestrade seemed even smaller than usual, as Dunbar took him into his arms, whispering into his ear.
Holmes turned to look up at me, that same strange look in his eye, and I found myself returning my full attention to our prisoner to avoid it.
"You took your time, Dunbar" Lestrade said, voice weak, and Holmes and I both looked to him as he tried to gain his feet. "What day is it?"
"It is Monday night," the major said tolerantly, "or Tuesday morning, depending on the time. I came as soon as I could." He shifted his arm lower, supporting Lestrade around the waist. He added something else too softly for me to hear, but Lestrade snapped, "Of course I can," and took a determined, if unsteady, step towards the narrow stairs.
Holmes bounded up ahead of him and stood at my shoulder, reaching down to catch Lestrade's hand when he stumbled. The prospect of freedom seemed to strengthen him, and he shrugged out of Dunbar's hold as soon as he reached level ground, saying, "I'll manage from here, thank you, William." His friend looked sceptical, but let him do as he would.
"I assume the gentleman Watson left on the floor is your cousin," Holmes said, and Dunbar nodded. "Shall we revive him then? I imagine Inspector Lestrade has been looking forward to this arrest."
Lestrade smiled, making his horribly battered face look positively ghastly, and eyed my prisoner coldly. "I see no reason why we need to wait," he said. "You there, what are you called then?"
The villain in question started in on the usual speech to the effect of how he wouldn't tell us his name; we didn't have anything to charge him with, and if we did charge him we'd regret it, all intermingled with imprecations relating to our virtue and parentage. I have written variations thereof in a number of my stories and will not bother to copy it here. By the time he was finished, Lestrade had borrowed a pair of cuffs from Holmes, slapped them on his wrists and charged him with a half dozen offences. He didn't appear to regret making the arrest in the least.
By the time he was done, Dunbar and I had roused the other two men, and collected them for arrest, and Holmes had gone outside and blown his police whistle. Before the police arrived, George Dunbar said in a low, vicious tone. "You tell them this is all a mistake, William. I know what you are, and I can break you."
"No," Lestrade replied sharply before Major Dunbar could strike his cousin. "You cannot. Your word is worth nothing, and you have no proof."
"And you never will," Holmes added, "Nor will anyone else." Glancing up, he said, "Good evening, Constable Turner, we seem to have three miscreants for your custody."
"I think we'd best go home to bed," Major William Dunbar said when we had all found our way back to the comfort of our lodgings at 221B Baker Street some hours later. He sat on the settee with Lestrade slumped against his shoulder, apparently asleep already. I had done my best to patch him up, and told him not to do anything as strenuous as leaving his bed for the next three days at least. He had held up amazingly well under the barrage of police questioning, sympathetic as it was, but now it seemed that the combination of exhaustion and laudanum had finally laid him low.
"You will be sure to have someone watch over Lestrade over the next few days, won't you?" I asked, "I don't think he's in any danger, but don't hesitate to send for me, no matter what the time."
Dunbar shook his friend's shoulder, eliciting a grunt, but no movement aside from perhaps settling closer against him. "I suppose I might carry him," Dunbar said dubiously.
"You might not," Lestrade responded faintly but emphatically, apparently not as deep in slumber as we had thought. "What if someone saw us? I'll never hear the end of this from Gregson as it is."
"I am sure it won't be so terrible," Dunbar assured him as he levered them both upright. I noted that he was also showing more than a little wear from the past few days' events. To Holmes he said, "Thank you, sir; we are both deeply in your debt. Though I understand that Lestrade has become accustomed to the position, you must know that I shall endeavour to repay you in any way I can."
Holmes looked up from the task of meticulously cleaning and oiling his lock picks to say something gracious, while Gabriel Lestrade muttered rude-sounding words under his breath before adding his own gratitude more vocally. They limped out shortly thereafter.
"Do you think they'll find a cab at this hour?" I asked, settling back into my chair by the fire.
My friend left his task to join me. "I should hope so," he said. "I paid Gibbons enough to wait for them." Reaching for his slipper full of tobacco, he asked me, "Do you think you could change enough names and circumstances to present this to your adoring public? It has all your favourite clichés: revenge, greed, violence, daring done, a vaguely attractive woman in need," he hesitated, "and of course romance."
"The Strand," I said with dignity, "is a family magazine, I doubt that the kind of romance you are referring to would be very welcome, and Lestrade would never let me hear the end of it were I to make him the woman of the piece." I frowned, remembering an oft repeated argument. "Besides, what happened to not letting me publish another word as long as you live, God as your witness?"
Holmes focused his attention on his pipe. "Well..." he said, drawing out the word, then he looked up and met my eyes.
It was that moment that I realised that the strange expression that I'd seen on his face over this case, the look that I had seen when he regarded me in private ever since his miraculous return from the dead, was not strange at all. I saw in his eyes, at that moment, the same mixture of adoration, yearning and apprehension that I'd seen in Mary's eyes after she'd lost the treasure and before I'd proposed, all those years ago.
Without hesitation, I said the only thing I could. "I understand," I said, and I did.