[Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]
It was September which meant that it was a certain blue-eyed someone's birthday. His thirty-third so not perhaps a notable one, but as usual I was totally stumped as to what to get the man who could buy anything he wanted. Fortunately inspiration came in the unlikely form of Mrs. MacAndrew's maid Sylvia, who one day mentioned to me how she always dreaded having to dust the presentation 'angel sword' that Holmes had been given by his father. I knew that all of Sir Charles' children had received one of these and could see that its razor-sharp blade would indeed scare some people.
I waited until Holmes was out then set about carefully measuring the object, before heading for a small shop I knew which could deal with such things. Sure enough they were able to provide a safe and secure mounting for the sword such that it could be either displayed on a surface like a photograph or even hung on the wall. And when I saw Holmes' happy face as I presented it to him I knew that I had made a good choice.
“Why an 'angel' sword?” I had once asked him. He had smiled at me.
“My mother had wanted to call us all after angels for some reason, but my father talked her out of it”, he had said. “In the end only I received an angel name as my middle one.”
I had been surprised having assumed (naturally in my defence) that the 'C' he sometimes signed himself with had been his father's name of Charles.
“I do not know any angel names starting with 'C'”, I had said.
“Castiel”, he had explained. “Mother felt sure that I would be born during her stay in a castle and my due date was on a Thursday, that angel's day of the week. Unfortunately I wrecked those plans by arriving nearly a month early and on a Wednesday.”
“Which castle?” I had asked.
“Windsor”, he had said dryly. I had gulped.
“I only wonder that he did not provide the scabbard to go with it”, I had said, still amazed at his 'royal credentials'.
“Father thought it an important lesson in life”, Holmes had explained. “He said that if we were so stupid as to test how sharp something was by seeing if it would cut us, then we would find life very difficult.”
I had stared at him. Again he had chuckled.
“You are right”, he had said. “Ranulph had to find out the hard way. He then went wailing to Mother for sympathy, and got none!”
I smiled at the memory and with an effort brought myself back to the present.
“I may have found my next case”, Holmes said pulling off his horrible long-coat and hanging it on the coat-rack. I stared disapprovingly at it; the thing looked paper-thin and I was sure that come winter it would not keep him warm.
“Why do you wear that?” I asked curiously.
It was another thing about him that seemed odd and it was I felt a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Holmes was after all rich enough to buy himself the very best quality in clothing. Yet for some reason this question seemed to make him uncomfortable.
“You will laugh at me”, he said quietly.
“I promise that I will not”, I said. “Go on.”
He hesitated but continued.
“This was my father's old coat”, he said. “When I was a boy I used to dress up in it and dream of being a brave knight, rescuing damsels in distress and slaying dragons. It... was a fantasy world but when my father got a better coat I asked for this as a keepsake.”
I would never describe myself as verbally adept, but for once I managed to say exactly the right thing.
“There you are then.”
He looked at me in confusion.
“You are a modern brave knight; fighting crime, saving ladies from distress, and slaying the dragon of falsehood with your angel blade of justice.”
I do not think I have ever seen him turn so red. But he looked pleased even if I was utterly mortified at the stream of verbal diarrhoea that I had just spouted.
I spoke maybe a little too quickly. The twinkle in his blue eyes told me that he was quite aware of my desire not to dwell on what I had just said but mercifully he let it drop. Although I probably used up a large amount of my credit in Heaven as a result.
“I have encountered a Mr. John Halberd in my travels”, he said. “He is about forty years of age, possibly of Balkan extraction and a sailor. He has come across some small matter which while it appears trivial on the surface may be something more. One never knows.”
“Tell me about it”, I said.
“He lives in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs”, Holmes said. “That area's long waterfront is as you might expect for such a area dotted with taverns. And many of them cater specifically for certain nationalities whose sailors drift to them knowing that they will meet people from their home country and be able to talk in their own language.”
I was not sure how I felt about that. England's strength, like that of the United States I had always thought, was not just the people who came to the country but those who came and integrated into it, adding their own culture to ours. People who kept to their own and did not mix – it made me uneasy for some reason. One only had to look almost anywhere in Europe to see that different cultures side by side did not for a happy country make; the mess in the Balkans was a case in point.
“His house is in the same road as one of these establishments”, Holmes went on seemingly unaware of my existential crisis. “It is called The Sultan of Turkey.”
“I would not have thought Mohammedans would need a tavern”, I said dubiously. Holmes smiled.
“You are forgetting the many Christian subjects under Ottoman rule in south-eastern Europe”, he said. “That may be part of the problem. Greeks still under Moslem rule, Macedonians, Rumelians, Bulgars, Rumanians, Wallachians – all want independence or self-government in some form or another but all dislike each other almost as much as they dislike their Mohammedan overlords.”
“Do they not have their own taverns?” I asked.
“That is what makes The Sultan of Turkey unusual”, Holmes explained. “Most taverns only cater to one cultural minority. To find one that caters to several is curious. And our potential client Mr. Halberd is worried that something is afoot.”
“Twelve inches”, I said.
He looked at me in confusion.
“What is afoot?” I sniggered. “Twelve inches!”
He shook his head at me but I saw the smile.
We were expecting Mr. Halberd at four o'clock, but from Holmes' reaction the fellow that was shown up at that time was not him. And whoever he was, he was not the least bit welcome.
“Mr. Sebastian Moran”, Holmes said and I shuddered at the chill in his voice. “What foul wind brings you here?”
Our guest was a tallish blond fellow of about fifty years of age and very clearly felt that he was descending some way Beneath His Station to visit our rooms.
“Your brother Bacchus is away dealing with the latest Balkan mess”, he said disdainfully. “We have spoken with Mr. John Halberd and informed him that he will not be requiring your services after all.”
I knew Holmes well enough by this time to know that when he narrowed his eyes like that, trouble was not far behind.
“Mr. Halberd asked me to investigate certain happenings at a Millwall tavern”, he said calmly. “He did not go into detail. I have not yet started my inquiries.”
“You will drop this matter”, our visitor said shortly.
I had to turn away to hide my smile. This 'Mr. Moran' was clearly one of those dreadful 'man-children' who had somehow managed to attain middle-age while remaining unacquainted with that particular two-letter word. He spluttered as he tried to process such an incomprehensible response and it was the best part of a minute before he could bring himself to speak again.
“What the blazes do you mean by that, sir?” he demanded.
“I rather think that the word 'no' is self-explanatory”, Holmes said, still with an almost preternatural calmness about him. “Would you like me to provide you with a dictionary so that you can look it up? There is one on the bookshelf over there.”
I barely bit back a snigger. Holmes clearly heard me for I caught the slightest twitch at the edge of his mouth. Our visitor spluttered again.
“The likes of you, sirrah, do not say 'no' to Her Majesty's Government!” he all but shouted.
“Well, if Her Majesty comes to me with a reason then I shall of course bow very low and do her the courtesy of listening”, Holmes said mildly. “Or you could always offer one yourself. But a peremptory demand – that will get you nowhere. Indeed, if such tactics do work at your department then that says something rather ill about the way things are run therein.”
“I do not think that you know who you are dealing with, sir”, our visitor said.
It was definitely a threat. Holmes banged down hard on the table with his fist, making us both jump.
“First, I will be informing my good friend Mr. Disraeli about this visit”, he said coldly. “And second, you have a choice, sir. You may leave by the door or I will bodily take hold of you and eject you through the window, the cost of replacing same being considerably less that that of ridding us of your foul presence!”
Our visitor huffed in annoyance but seeing Holmes rising to his feet hastily made his exit. I stared after him in wonderment then remembered something that he had said right at the start.
“What did he mean by talking about your brother being away?” I asked. Holmes had once mentioned that three of his brothers worked for the government in some way but had not gone into detail.
“Three of my elder brothers – Luke, Bacchus and Gaillard – all work for the government in a somewhat irregular capacity”, he said.
I stared at him in confusion, although I did note that he again referred to one of his brothers by their short form. He sighed again.
“They are, to use the colloquial term that Bacchus in particular loves, 'fixers'”, he said. “They sort out messes made by government ministers and other politicians, of which there is always a copious supply. Mr. Moran is Bacchus' superior and, incredible as it seems, possessed of even less in the way of human understanding. Proof that miracles do happen, I have always thought.”
“You do not seem pleased at their career choices?” I ventured.
“I can see that sooner or later I am going to come into conflict with one of them”, Holmes sighed. “Most likely Bacchus; his interest is making things go away by whatever means with justice not even being considered. Mine are justice above all and I do not care if it inconveniences some stuffed shirt in the process. I wonder.....”
He frowned for a moment then nodded.
“I think that we need an evening out”, he said with a smile. “The Isle of Dogs† is very nice at this time of year.”
“I shall get my coat”, I said.