A CASE OF BAD DICTION
In all the wide and strange stories of London and the variety of crimes that have visited its ancient streets, there are few at present who are not familiar with that ghastliest of atrocities committed against the literate gentleman. The serial, an addictive creation that is both a bane to literature and its present focus, made up of wandering tales that both shock and titillate with little by way of actual skill existing within the writer. Or so Mycroft bitterly lamented in his silence. Even Charles Dickens, while admiral in his pursuit of the plight of those less fortunate was, sadly, guilty of meandering prose that often left the reader with a perplexed mixture of wonder at the core tale and frustration with the odd characters who appeared only to disappear throughout. Within the highly descriptive mess there existed a solid story, but it was often like digging for coal as one read passage after passage of some strange creature Dickens had met during his daily constitutionals, along with vivid descriptions of horrific poverty that shocked the upper echelons of London. It was unlikely such visions presented would have the same hold upon those who were depicted, for there would no doubt be exclamations of 'Oh, how now! There's Mrs. Gibson on page four hundred and ten!' or 'Dear me, that's a very unflattering way to talk about Mr. Cartwright. He's only a poor linen salesman, he's no ogre and my Sally's got decent work through him.' London is, and shall always be for its inhabitants, a ferociously personal place where one's street is one's universe and little will define a person otherwise.
Along the definition of the strange are those who daily toil beside it, their days spent in a contrast of busy apprehension of suspects to the quiet contemplation of the murderer's crimes. The former belong, as they should, to those brave souls who patrol the streets of London's seedier backdrop, their shrill whistles screeching that harm against one's fellow man has most egregiously been committed. From Whitechapel to Whapping, there are few who do not tremble with a sense of macabre curiosity at the appearance of their fellows, crowded in a semi-circle around an unfortunate victim spewed out by the Thames. That miserable river was already overrun with unsettled spirits.
Mycroft will offer no criticism for among their number is a man we know well, his robust health a betrayal of his odd station in life, as used to physical exertion as he is to careful observation and study. This collection of virtues is the very first that one notices of Inspector Gregory Lestrade, for the next is his easy, cheerful disposition, his dazzling smile infectious no matter if he is tipping his bowler hat good-morning to the flower seller who peddles her wares outside of Scotland Yard or the dour faced Dr. Ziegler who'd been toiling over the cause of death of a waterlogged corpse for several hours at the city morgue. Inspector Lestrade, though now rounding out the early tip of forty years, is as handsome a version of an Englishman as one could fathom without resorting to the paint and pomp of the theatre. That he is intelligent as well is without doubt, for any subject that might pop into a person's head has already taken root and been examined in triplicate in Lestrade's own, every scientific breakthrough investigated at length, every new concept on biology and chemistry, every leaf of botany discerned. Professors and scientists alike had dismissed him due to his profession at their peril, for Lestrade was a keen student and as is the habit of such obsessive learners he quickly outranked the skill of his teachers. More than once Lestrade had walked into the middle of a crime scene and deducted, as a scientist in his lab would, the method used and the guilty party who committed it.
One might wonder how it is that a man of such shocking intelligence could end up as enforcer of the law, brushing elbows with East End whores and gamblers and all manner of London's Underworld, some of whom were too shocking to admit into Mayhew's detailed sociological books. But Lestrade, with all the bustling energy of an enterprising American, had made his home amongst this rabble and took great pleasure in the puzzles presented by his troubled version of London, enough for it to become as dedicated a vocation for himself as any man of the cloth.
But though Inspector Gregory Lestrade is a fascinating man, and an oddity in his bodily and mindful perfection amid the London rot, it is not he who is set to take our attention at present. Right now we are to observe the strangest of creatures, a pale and spindly man with a hawk's nose and small but doleful blue eyes who is now seated in a leather chair before a lovely fire with copious papers in a thick stack in his bony lap. Various newsprint and chapbooks from the London region are collected there, the London Gazette, a scattering of society papers filled with pointless gossip and sensationalized crime cases, a French newspaper of indeterminate title and age, a copy of that odd German's work, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint by Franz Bentano. The latter had been pressed upon him by Inspector Lestrade who insisted the theories within held true merit when it came to the study of the human mind, but this reader was not so moved by advanced learning in this subject as his friend. For as we know the man in question is his Honour, Judge Mycroft Holmes, and he is currently in the quiet room of The Diogenes Club and he is reading, with great displeasure, the latest issue of The Strand.
If one were to study a comparison and contrast of people, one would look upon Mycroft and Lestrade with an acknowledged nod to the obvious differences between them. Where Lestrade could boast of ruddy health and strong bones and muscle, there was little of either in Mycroft's construction. He was as pale as bleached paper, his dark hair and sharp features giving him the appearance of a sketch drawing more than a human being. He had a long nose that hooked slightly above thin lips that moved along with the words he read in his copy of The Strand, his frown a quaint 'w' between his eyes. His breathing was laboured, each intake difficult and slightly wheezing, an affliction that clearly left him exhausted. Even sipping his tea took effort, the slice of lemon doing little to ease the discomfort welling from within his chest. A cane lay propped beside the large chair, the handle turned towards him should he need it at a moment's notice.
His breath was audible in the otherwise silence of the room, and he knew he was earning the baleful stares of his fellow judges who gathered in this room to be rid of the usual mindless chatter that tended to float around men of their type with perpetually barbed intentions. The ale house attached to the corner of the building housing The Diogenes Club was already packed with lawyers, judges and clients, all of varying degrees of propriety, though the law of averages suggested folk much lower in social standing than the norm. He'd been pulled into that seedier corner against his will by Lestrade himself more than once, and he hated having to imbibe with his fellow judges who always had to comment on his poor health and slapped his back too hard and surrounded him with their meaty, sweaty complexions, mired in their own self importance. Here, he could at least be a part of their number and remain aloof from them at the same time. It was like he wasn't truly there, and they were content to see his ghost had made an appearance.
But he was more corporeal now, especially with this confounded wheezing, made all the worse the more words he read. His breathing whistled through the room like an intrusive mouse, and he forced himself to close his copy of The Strand and drink his tea and hope he could find his way back home without resorting to the handkerchief stuffed with eucalyptus leaves Mrs. Hudson had surreptitiously tucked into the side pocket of his waistcoat as he left that morning. Between the camphor treatments and this he reeked of a Delhi expatriate who hadn't quite lost their grip on patchouli. The smells weren't unpleasant, but he was getting tired of misplaced Englishmen bemoaning how much they missed the rainy season and the scent of jasmine in the arid air. He was often mistaken for a colony man, and thus suffered many a long winded tale of open air mansions built outside of Ranpur and the genteel, exquisite manners of their servants. How they missed the sweetness of ladoo and the rich spices of biryani! Has he tried the Savoy's new Indian inspired mulligatawny soup? Don't bother, it will only make you weep for tall grass and silk!
He really was feeling poorly, and with the stack of papers shoved into a leather case he had brought with him, Mycroft decided he could endure the silent judgement of The Diogenes Club no more. He glanced longingly at the entrance to the club, half expecting Lestrade to come bounding through it, the sunlight following him as the doors swung open. Such was how he had met the man ten years ago, both of them established already in their careers, with Mycroft serving the Quarter Sessions while Lestrade had taken on the newly formed Inspector role within the Scotland Yard.
It was Mycroft's brother, Sherlock, who had facilitated that meeting. Lestrade had sought him out after seeking the troubled young man's guardian and was more than a little surprised to discover he was a judge. Mycroft wet his lips at the memory, at the way Lestrade had bounded into the room, with his wide shoulders and quick gait, his sparkling smile holding every ray of sun upon his tongue. "Here, then, a right judge and all? And here I thought the little rotter was just plain mad and making up stories! Mycroft Holmes, your brother's in the nick!"
He'd nearly been banned for violating the silence rule, but Lestrade talked his way out of the sentence, as golden tongued as any lawyer and with logic on his side. How could a lowly commoner such as himself know such an obscure rule? Besides, it wasn't so awful having a police inspector dipping in once in a while to give new information about a case. Now that he knew where they were hiding, he could slip in and give the judges a heads up now and then on what to expect when they were handed evidence. Being prepared for some of the grislier murders and photographs of corpses made for better decorum in the courtroom. Vomiting judges often missed the more important details of a case, and a judge with a strong stomach had a better standing in the community.
Gregory could be a convincing flim-flam man when he wanted to be.
Sherlock had been found stripped to his underwear and muttering against the black shore of the Thames, his body shivering under the shadow of London Bridge. At first it was believed he was robbed, the thieves making off with his fine clothing for Lestrade noted his linen boxers were of good quality. Clothing was still bartered by the desperately poor who lived off the very putrid crumbs of London. But once Lestrade had him wrapped in a wool blanket and sipping hot tea, the lad's ramblings were as incoherent as any asylum escapee. "He kept going on about the world telling him its secrets. That there are snakes that can be trained to kill, nonsense like that." Lestrade had not been without empathy. "He were a right mess when he was picked up and it was only after we got him calmed down and listened to him banter for a bit that he happened to mention you. The chief thought it was another one of his crazy ramblings, but I had an itch that said this had the nag of truth in it. Mostly because it was so ordinary, the way he said your name, without any of the delusional embellishments he put on everything else. You're like a post in the dark to him, I think. Can't be an easy thing, managing a mad brother."
Lestrade had pulled Mycroft out of the quiet room and into an equally quiet private office to give him this news, and Mycroft appreciated his delicacy. He loved his brother dearly, but he was quite a burden at times, and he explained to Lestrade that he and his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, did their best to keep him under control. The last thing he wanted to do was have him committed to one of those mediaeval asylums, where all manner of cruel tortures would be visited up on him. "They are foul places, Inspector, worse than any prison. The walls are covered in feces and the stench of urine is enough to make one's eyes burn. And the screaming! I could not suffer a rat to be in such a place as a human being!"
He had given Mycroft a grim nod at this, and, wholly unexpected and pleasant, he dared to take Mycroft's slender, pale hand in his tanned, strong one and give it a gentle squeeze of reassurance. Mycroft's heart had hammered at the contact, his gasp audible. He locked eyes with Lestrade in that moment and had thought he was destined for the gaol himself, off to share the fate of Wilde for allowing the faintest blush to rush to his cheeks and his fingers to dare to return the caress. He was frightened in that moment, with little by way of relief when Lestrade gave him a crooked smile, one so infuriatingly charming it sent electrified jolts throughout his limbs, the feeling settling uncomfortably in his groin.
"We're all madmen, really," Lestrade had said. He leaned closer, his crooked smile nearly touching Mycroft's ear. "You're as pale as a geisha. You're trembling, like a lotus leaf in the breeze. You're bringing up oriental thoughts in me, your Honour, I wonder why? I think it must be the camphor, reminds me of the East."
Mycroft's brow furrowed. "You've been to China?"
"Japan, when I was a young lad of seventeen and working on a trading ship. I went back and forth to Tokyo long enough to witness the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. I picked up a bit of the language and went back a few times. Made nice with some samurai of the Shinsengumi back in '67. They got a hell of a way of thinking over there. Living by codes that the average coddled English gentleman wouldn't have the imagination to withstand. You screw up in the Shinsengumi you don't get a pounding by your mates, you go on your knees and disembowel yourself with your own damned sword."
"I don't. They call it seppuku." He smiled again into Mycroft's ear. "They wear silk kimonos, these get ups that are like silk coats belted at the waist with wide sleeves, kind of like a dressing gown. You'll never meet a more fearless group of men in all your life, and they shimmer like dragonfly wings. I got one of those kimonos at my lodging, packed away in my trunk. You could try it on some time. I'm betting against that pale skin...Well...It's a robe of a different sort, isn't it?"
He had been incorrigible, taking vast risks with a man dedicated to the process of the law and who could ruin him in an instant for his bold seduction. Mycroft didn't push him away, leaning towards him instead and offering up a small smile of understanding. "Thank you for taking care of my brother," was all he said.
Well, all he said *that* time.
Inspector Gregory Lestrade quickly became a regular visitor at The Diogenes Club, the friendship between himself and Judge Mycroft Holmes looked upon as one of those eccentric oddities that sometimes happen to sickly English gentlemen such as Mycroft. Lacking family save for the stressful care of a mad brother, Mycroft Holmes was in much need of a friend, and though his fellow judges often chided him for his ill health, there was a certain relief that someone out there was at least making sure his corpse would one day be discovered.
Thus, the surface of their acquaintance was easily explained away, for it was common for Lestrade to talk to judges about cases and doubly so for Mycroft as they had built between them a very friendly association that went beyond the professional. And when Mycroft's health took a turn and Lestrade moved into 221B Baker Street to assist in caring for the overly delicate judge no one questioned his motives. There was an easy explanation for this, one that Lestrade had given Mycroft across the expanse of a shared goose down pillow, the warmth of the fire waning and Lestrade's taut, choleric flesh providing a more satisfying comfort. "They think you're an invalid. Judges are all about the surface of information, My, they want it all handed to them with a bow so they don't have to think. They can make their judgements and pass their sentences and be home in time for broil and puddings, not a thought in their heads. They look at you, at your cane and your pale skin and your struggling breaths and think that exempts you from desire." He'd pulled Mycroft close, the heat of his bare skin intoxicating enough to make his subject shiver. "There's nothing wrong with you that some fresh, clean air free of the Thames's poison can't fix. These louts love their meat and wine and are terrified of some healthy exercise. You'll outlive all of them."
So far, that prediction had proved true. Each year, like an awaited annual event, a fellow judge would suddenly expire, placing mortality among their fellows in question. He knew there were betting pools about his longevity, for as each year crept past it was becoming more unlikely he would survive the next. And yet, here he was, a decade later, still wheezing his way through life. It was a perplexing mystery.
He stepped out of the club and into the din of London at noon, the busy streets filled with the stench of horse manure and human misery mixed with roasted chestnuts and the various smells of strange street foods that held all manner of rancid meat within it. The pork pies were always suspect, and Mycroft steered clear of them after having had a rather nasty case where a man had butchered his wife and children and sold their meat at the market. It was impossible to tell how much of the meat had been turned into little pies and fed to the massive amounts of people now littering the street in so thick a jumble it was difficult to walk without stepping on the hem of a woman's skirt. He had to wonder how many would have even cared that they had taken a human offering rather than a porcine one. For some of the scrawnier urchins, he doubted it would matter at all.
He caught the eye of one such orphan and waved him over. "Young Jack," he said to the small lad, who was no more than ten years old and had a mop of stringy, black hair that might be red underneath save for the crust of filth over him. The boy moonlighted as a chimney sweep, and the coal dust clung to him like a second skin. Mrs. Hudson would periodically pull him into 221B by the ear and direct him into the larder where she would force him to bathe in a copper tub filled with hot water and thick flakes of carbolic soap. He would emerge clean and unrecognizable, his clothes likewise sterilized and pressed and put back on him with much consternation and complaining. "It ain't right for a runt like me to be putting on airs and stinking of soap! What will the other fellas say?"
"They'll say 'Look at Young Jack, he's got a fine station in life, one befitting the messenger for a judge of the assize courts! Stand up straight and mind your manners, you'd best not be sticking that tongue out at me when my back is turned or it'll be tasting soap! Keep clear of the gutters, boy, there's all manner of diseases you can trudge in with your boots and you know how sensitive his Honour's health is! Walking in, proud as you please, with all the filth and pestilence of London all over you! If you so much as drop a flea in this house, I'll tan your hide!"
He was looking particularly crusty today, and Mycroft was sure the lad was set to have a good scrubbing, one that would have him gleaming like one of Mrs. Hudson's pots and pans. He handed a small folded note to the boy. "Please send this message to Inspector Lestrade, it states that I am returning home to Baker Street. I am feeling rather poorly, especially after reading The Strand."
Young Jack scrunched up his face and looked up at Mycroft as though he'd smelled something foul wafting off of him. "You been reading his silly stories again! Can't say I blame you, though, I'd be right mad if sommit like that was said about me. Calling you queer and lazy, that ain't right. And you get plenty of exercise, you walk farther than the Club and to the coach, I know you has to get to the Old Bailey every now and then I seen you walking it even though it pains you. And calling you fat, as if your bones have ever seen so much as gristle! Nasty lies, all of it!"
He wanted to ruffle the lad's hair, for he felt genuine affection for the bright if not messy child, but the gesture was ghosted above him with a questioning hand as Young Jack was in no state for such gentle contact. Mycroft reluctantly let his hand fall to his side instead, with Young Jack looking quizzically up at him. "I do believe Mrs. Hudson may have some sweets in the parlour for your hard work."
"Bother that! She'll haul me into the larder again and make me smell like the washing!"
"I wouldn't be so against the idea. She might give you two sweets if you are agreeable."
Young Jack gave him a shake of his head, but he could see the promise of sweets had already taken root into his mind, the thick pastries filled with jam and cream a delicacy few could resist, no matter the indignity that came first. Jack sprinted off on spindly legs as Mycroft watched him, knowing he would be at Scotland Yard in record time, well before Mycroft would make his way back to Baker St. by coach. He flagged one down and was happy to find a familiar face looking down at him, the brim of Mr. Pinter's stovetop hat tipped to him. "Good afternoon, your honour. Back to the courts, is it?"
"Afraid not, Mr. Pinter, I'm heading back home, to Baker St."
"Taking a turn, are you? You don't sound the usual wheezy like when you are in a bad way. Your nurse will be waiting at the doorstep, I'm sure, so if you get weak you let me know and I'll help you up those stairs to your room."
It irked him how much he relied on the charity of others, the weakness of his lungs creating a likewise malady within his entire body, where often taking a single step felt like an impossible task. He leaned heavily on his cane as he approached the coach, and he did not have the strength to shake off the help of Mr. Pinter, who had climbed down from his perch to place a steady hand beneath Mycroft's elbow and gently pushed him up the small steps and into the cab, followed by his leather case which was placed on the seat opposite him. Mr. Pinter loudly sniffed before closing the door and Mycroft felt a pang of guilt.
"I'm afraid I had to be quite liberal with my usual medicinal treatments today."
"Never you mind that, your Honour, the smell of camphor is as good as sea air to me. Having you in my cab disinfects the interior better than any brush, not a whiff of London remains! Lucky is the passenger who travels after you!"
Thus absolved, they were well on their way, the trotting of the lazy horse slow and even, a rhythm that Mycroft's breaths fought to follow. He closed the curtains of the cab and shut London out, his head resting against the frame of the window in a vain attempt to relax. The bland cruelty of Dr. Watson's words continued to annoy him, and he frowned against the way the man's selfishness had so meanly abused him. He did not avoid walking due to sloth, he had a cane because he needed one, each step at times an agony. He was not lazily indulging his genius in letters, he worked hard in the intellectual pursuit of the law, yes, but he could hardly sprint across London in his condition, his malady rendering him desk bound. To attack a man on those things he simply cannot change about himself seemed an especially nasty prank, one that Mycroft was not willing to forgive.
The coach pulled up in front of the large building just up the road from Regent's Park, the view of it only visible from the corner. Mycroft's lodging was behind a small sliver of a door which led to a series of spacious rooms, with the larder and kitchen as well as a separate bedroom for Mrs. Hudson on the ground floor and then up a set of narrow lacquered stairs which led to three rooms, one of which was a drawing room where Mycroft received his guests and where he breakfasted, dined and spent a great majority of his time when not at The Diogenes Club. It was furnished sparsely, but comfortably, with two large winged back chairs positioned in front of the hearth and a small settee near the tall window that overlooked Baker Street. Heavy gold velvet curtains hung from ceiling to floor and could easily obscure all form of light, the thick fabric shut closed at night to prevent any prying eyes from discerning shadows. Between his position in the assize and his unwelcome notoriety in Dr. Watson's stories, it was important for the inhabitants of 221B Baker Street to guard their privacy carefully.
If one stepped out of the drawing room, the next room would be a guest lodging wherein which Lestrade, in public company, was said to reside. An intelligent person with the most minimal of observational skill would quickly see that this could not be the case as the bed linens, while clean, had a neglected air about them, as did the room in general, a decided lack of humanity that the cold hearth did little to disprove. But the bedroom on the right side of the drawing room was alive with clutter, the floors stacked with books and papers, errant beakers and microscopes and stacked display cases of all manner of pinned insects within their glass confines, all carefully labelled. Bullets of varying size and composition were likewise on display, with careful annotations alongside each on a small white card that told of what calibre and gun they were fired from. There was a wardrobe on the other side of a large bed, the oak door open to reveal two judge's black robes and there, without a hint of irony, the law was hung beside them, the formal uniform of a policeman of Scotland Yard pressed and clean and ready for the donning should Inspector Lestrade require it for official functions.
The bed was the largest and most singular item in the room save for the wardrobe, adorned with a massive, ornate canopy in rich red brocade that brushed against the tall ceiling. It was this furnishing that had the most significant activity upon it, the sheets in disarray, a chaotic mix of large envelopes containing crime scenes and medical textbooks tucked behind pillows, with various teacups and a couple of brandy glasses perched messily on a nearby night table. This room was a place of life and delight for the intellect and senses, and it was, as one could guess, the favourite room of both his Honour Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Gregory Lestrade. In fact, it could be said that they spent so much time together in this particular room, that when it came to tuck themselves beneath the covers, exhausted from squeezing out the smallest grain of justice from the raucous ire of the quarter sessions, Mycroft and Gregory simply collapsed together on the large bed, sharing a pillow and a roaring, comforting hearth.
Inspector Lestrade is a practical man. He is well aware of Mycroft's poor health and agonized breathing, and this arrangement is a further point of charity in his favour, for to not share the bed could, of course, result in Mycroft suffocating in his sleep with no one to save him.
Such was the excuse if it needed to be made, but no one who came to Baker Street ever bothered to see the bedrooms, the one spare and abandoned and the other crowded with the musky scent of men. That they cohabited placed them in the realm of eccentrics, not inverts. Besides, the essential nature of Inspector Lestrade's work put him well above all manner of reproach--He had a success rate like no other in Scotland Yard, his keen intelligence and concentration on deduction both elements that Dr. Watson used in his silly stories but did not ascribe to their originator. Gregory was more than happy with this omission, he was sick enough as it was of the ribbing he earned at the Yard, where even his subordinates whispered behind his back that he had to have gypsy blood in him to know the things he did.
Mrs. Hudson opened the front door before Mycroft had a chance to offer the lock a key, and she stood stern on the front step, her arms crossed over her wide chest. She was a tall, muscular woman, in equal height to Mycroft who was as willowy as he was long. "You promised that little cretin a treat from my pantry?"
Mycroft sighed with effort, and Mrs. Hudson softened as she stepped aside, a hand firm beneath his arm as she helped him up the small step and into the tiny cloakroom of 221B. "I take it Young Jack is here, and he has delivered his daily message to the Yard?"
"He headed straight for the pantry, his grubby, filthy hands opening the far cupboard door and seeking promised treats. You know I can't abide his filth, Mr. Holmes, he is not to touch anything in my kitchen with all manner of disease crawling all over him, he knows the rules. Scrub first, eat later! I have to keep reminding him that this is a home that requires a strict cleanliness regime, one that is especially catered to in my kitchen."
He could hear the echo of splashing water. "I take it you have the issue under control at present?"
She was stoic as she caught his eye. "I do. As for you, I can hear the rattle in your lungs but it is nowhere near the usual detriment you suffer when you're in a bad way. You're wearing a pinched expression and you won't look me in the eye. There is only one thing that causes those symptoms--You've been reading The Strand!"
Mycroft sighed in defeat. "Dear Mrs. Hudson, you are becoming as expert at deduction as our Gregory. Nothing slips past you."
"I was a nurse for many years Mr. Holmes, and nurses are used to paying close attention to the sufferings of their patients. It is often up to us to ensure the doctor's cures actually work. But we are not here to quibble over who is influencing who this afternoon, for you are pale and clearly in need of a good, hot cup of mint tea which I shall bring up to you shortly. In the meantime, lean on my arm and we'll get you before the fire. You are clammy and ill. I don't know why you let that man vex you so!"
"If it's not so much trouble, Mrs. Hudson, could you steer me instead to my bed?"
"It's very much a bother, Mr. Holmes," she snapped, "as you well know that lying on that bed does nothing to aid your lungs. In the chair, before the fire, sitting upright to drain them properly. I'll not have you hiding in that messy cesspit, not until I've finished dusting it properly and I've yet to scrub the floors. I got rid of those stacks of papers by the door--Do not widen your eyes in alarm at me, Mr. Holmes! Not one word of protest from you! If it's all so important, I know you would have put them in the trunk beneath the window, otherwise it's all bedding material for rats!"
She plunked him rather roughly into his chair and tutted at him as was her custom as she busily made her way back down the stairs to put on a kettle of mint tea before finishing her disinfecting of poor Young Jack. Much as he understood that she took her role as his keeper very seriously, he was sometimes annoyed by her no-nonsense intrusion into his daily life and wished she would afford it at least some spontaneity.
Still, she was correct, which annoyed him further, for his lungs were clearing as he rested before his fire, the scent of dried eucalyptus leaves wafting up from beside the hearth, the little silver dollars that were its leaves cleansing the air around him and easing him into a sense of calm. When he was tightly wound his malady would flare up with unexpected force, and these calming measures did help. He reached for his leather case that contained the stack of papers he'd brought home with him and noted that Mrs. Hudson had snatched away the latest copy of The Strand. It was no doubt being used as kindling for her stove this very minute.
He tried to focus on other pursuits, the tome of Wilke Collins he had left on his mantle reached for and weighing heavy in his hands. As a storyteller, he preferred Collins's style compared to his friend Dickens, and The Woman In White was proving to be a fascinating study in madness, greed and legal manifestations that his own past work as a magistrate was mired in. The inheritance of property was often a messy business with various heirs and improperly penned wills putting claims into question, and always there was the outstanding matter of foolish patriarch debts that often wiped out all semblance of legacy. Not all gentlemen were good businessmen and his early years in law had shown him how a rich widow and her children could be left destitute. Though it was macabre to think so, Mycroft much preferred the straightforward nature of murder to the convoluted handling of money. At least in these matters, those who deserved to be punished, were.
Though the story of false identity held great fascination for him, Mycroft did drift off before the fire, his tea untouched as he fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the sun had dipped far below the horizon and he realized he had slept until well into the evening, the clock ringing nine. He could hear the gentle rumble of Mrs. Hudson's voice, followed by a cheerful, more familiar one, and he relaxed as the dark shadows in his drawing room took on more friendly aspects, made all the more cozy by the bounding steps that heavily made their way upstairs to their room.
Inspector Gregory Lestrade stepped into the drawing room, a tired hand rubbing his cheek as he approached Mycroft. A soft kiss on his forehead sent Mycroft's heart spinning, and he instinctively held his hand against its frantic beat, quelling the excitement such a simple caress could cause.
"I got your message earlier, and much as I wanted to reply as I always do, there was a terrible business to deal with. Not the usual, if that's what you're thinking, this one's got a puzzle attached and you know what that means."
Mycroft grinned. "Murder. Nothing sets your intellect on fire more."
"You shouldn't look so gleeful when you say that word," Lestrade admonished him, but he was smiling back. "But first, I need to know what brought you home earlier. Mrs. Hudson told me you weren't in need of a doctor, just some rest thanks to some stressful reading. The Strand, again?"
"Have you seen it?"
"I'm glad to say, no, I have not. What folly has your brother's alter ego been up to now? I don't know why you get so upset, it is all the ramblings of a madman, you know this, penned and polished by his physician. Is your brother earning any profit at all from these stories created out of his delusions? Dr. John Watson has been gaining more than a little notoriety as of late, especially after that last one about the jewels tossed in the Thames."
"The Sign of Four," Mycroft muttered, but without disdain. "Not a bad story, really."
"It was your brother's story, he near drowned himself looking for those imaginary jewels. Ruined a good coat an all."
"To answer your question, Sherlock's extended stay at Holloway Sanatorium is no longer costing me, veiled of course as an act of charity on Dr. Watson's part, but he knows better than to steal from the purse of a man so intricately involved with the formation and expression of law."
Lestrade frowned at this. "When did this start happening?"
"A few months ago, after the success of 'The Sign of Four'. Lippincott's ran out of copies and they had to re-issue it in book form. The profits have been ample, enough to house Sherlock for years if need be, or so Dr. Watson assures me."
Lestrade sneered at this and sat in the winged back chair opposite Mycroft. "He knows his meal ticket when he sees it."
"It is much preferable to the arrangement we had before," Mycroft reminded him. "Things have been much quieter since Sherlock was settled there four years ago. I do not want to go back to those tumultuous days when he lived with us."
"No, we don't," Lestrade agreed, a shadow passing over his handsome features at the memory of it. The spare room that had once been Sherlock's abode was now near abandoned save for the occasional visit, which was fraught with tension and worry when they occurred. His brother's mental state had been manageable, but not easy, and though Lestrade proved to be a strong influence upon him, his unchecked madness expanded under their roof. He became volatile and at times even dangerous. There had been no place for his brother until the invention of Holloway and Sherlock became one of its first residents the minute it opened its doors. He was doing well in the carefully calm atmosphere that was a far cry from the usual dungeons masked as asylums, the stays Sherlock had been forced to endure in such places still giving him nightmares.
He felt Lestrade envelope his hand in his own, the warmth of it near singing his delicate, pale skin. "Just because he takes care of Sherlock doesn't mean he can do what he wants with your reputation. The lads at work told me about the story. Constable Harding in particular was quite incensed. But then, I did remind them all that it is fiction he's writing, and it's clear that the characters aren't who the reality represents. I mean, he called me rat faced and depicts me as some bumbling cockney idiot who always bows down to Sherlock's genius. I think nothing of it, for there's the source of it all. The bloody bastard makes a sick man's delusion entertaining. Not sure I want to know what to make of a man like that."
He pulled Mycroft's hand to his lips and kissed the blushing knuckles affectionately before rising from his seat. "I'm right knackered. I got to wash London off. An afternoon full of a falsely literate gobshite's corpse, makes me want to brush up on the Shakespeare to shake off the stink of his lyrics."
Mycroft's interest was piqued. "Falsely literate? How do you mean?"
"The man who was murdered. Advertised himself as some world renowned poet. You know these types, they wander into London, print up a bunch of colourful bills and pump up their reputation above their ability. His name was Ewan McGonagall and he was a bloody fraud."
The bill certainly was colourful, a mess of pinks and greens that splashed across the page with fat, eye-catching flowers and the sepia toned photo of a swooning actress held captive in a circle in the centre. Exclamations of positive reviews littered the front and back of the bill, extolling the virtues of the poet's literary merit. "'Not since Shakespeare does London find a bard worthy of her! Marvel in a night of passionate discourse, one so frank and open that many a lady has fainted upon mere rehearsal!' There's certainly no poetry in the advert. How was he murdered?"
"It happened at the Granger Theatre, the one that has that alehouse attached to the side and on Wednesday nights hosts burlesque shows. Not exactly a place of intellectual might, though I'm a sure a few Oxford boys were willing to give it a go. The murder happened just after an afternoon performance of 'Tiddlywinks of Death'. Yes, that's the title of his masterwork in case you were wondering. There's plenty of artistic types mulling about that area, and the ale house is already full of limericks about the fellow."
Mycroft raised a brow. "Such as?"
"There once was a poet, Who wanted to show it, Words leapt from mouth, Till they were cut out, And pasted on letters for now't."
"That's a terrible limerick."
"It's what I heard." Lestrade sighed. "We found him in his dressing room, bloodstained letter opener on the desk and his tongue had been cut clean out. I doubt that was done while he was alive, and it looks like the letter opener was what was used to stab him in the neck and he bled out. Can't say what cut out his tongue yet, obviously a short knife of some sort. Haven't found it. My suspicions will be confirmed by Dr. Ziegler tomorrow when I visit him at the city morgue."
"Have they any suspects?"
"Unfortunately, yes. A young girl, one of the East End trollops, and I sincerely doubt she's the guilty one. The constables honed in on her, as they do, not thinking at all. I don't know why these idiots become policemen if they don't even bother to pay attention to details. It was clear she couldn't have done it, she was shaking like a leaf, didn't have a drop of blood on her and I can't for the life of me find a motive as to why she would attack the man. I had her in the station all afternoon and she never wavered once from her story."
"Do tell it," Mycroft said, curious.
"Not much to it, really. She had gone into the dressing room because he owed her money for her upcoming performance of his poetry. That's her picture on the front of the bill. He was swindling her, there's no doubt of that, but she didn't know that at the time he was killed. She went in around noon today and knocked on his dressing room door and when he didn't answer she opened it and found him there in a pool of blood. She remembered hearing some gurgling sounds, but she ran from the scene to get help. The constables are saying she stabbed him and then left him to die, that she's a murderess as a result. Bloody idiots! She panicked is all. It's what people do."
Mycroft studied the slight girl, who looked no older than seventeen and yet with eyes that were as dark as the Thames at midnight and full of its murky understanding. "She's barely a woman. She wouldn't have the strength to cut out his tongue, let alone do it spotlessly. Where is she now?"
"In the gaol, waiting on a lawyer."
"She's poor, she's a whore, she was at the scene of a crime and the Chief thinks quick justice in this case is good enough. Don't worry your head, I've turned his opinion a hundred times before, and I'll be doing so again in the morning. No innocent is hanging on my watch."
"Nor mine," Mycroft said, studying the young woman in the picture with a great mixture of sympathy and outrage. "Perhaps I should interview her first. Having a judge of the assize pleading her case would go a long way to dismissing the charges your Chief so foolishly wishes to pursue."
Lestrade nodded. He ran a tired hand across the back of his neck, massaging knots from his tired muscles. "I'm ready to pack it in. I'll be in bed in a short while, I just have to wash up in the bathing room first, I need to get the crust of London off of me. Do you need any help?"
"I'm not a complete invalid, Gregory," Mycroft complained, but he did not shake off the arm that slid beneath his and assisted him to his feet. Once standing he was able to open the adjoining door that led into their mutual bedroom, its spotless array instantly sending Lestrade into a shocked state.
"Where's my papers? I put them by this door!"
"Mrs. Hudson has been cleaning," Mycroft explained.
"Blasted woman! She knows I have a specific method of arrangement for everything in that room! I'll be forced to re-organize it all! Must she be so meddlesome!"
There was a loud clank of a tea kettle that echoed up the stairs and Lestrade was instantly cowed. He went to say more but Mycroft wisely held his fingers to his lips, preventing further damage. He kept his voice a low whisper. "If you want a good breakfast as you'll need one, you'll keep your temper addled mouth shut. It will be nothing but stale toast and weak tea, and she will be sure to tell you why."
"We are her prisoners," Lestrade complained.
"She is our benefactor in many ways. Do not complain of her rough kindness."
"We're not all patients in her ward. She may have ruled the Royal Brompton Hospital with an iron fist and terrified the doctors she worked under, but I'll have her know that wilfully tossing out my stacks of papers was out line."
"Politely and with great deference to her efforts, of course."
The bathing room had been a fairly new installation since 221B Baker Street was proud to sport indoor plumbing, and a large copper tub complete with shower and a flushing toilet had been installed. The washbasin was still in use, however, along with the ceramic jug which Lestrade filled with cold water out of habit and used to bathe himself with a clean cloth and soap. He kept his nightclothes in the cupboard above the towels, his uniform later draped over the stair railing for Mrs. Hudson to brush clean in the early morning before they roused. His steps were heavy as he made his way back to the bedroom the door gently creaking open and then carefully shut behind him, along with a quick inspection that the curtains were fully drawn before he slid beneath the thick bed covers and shed his nightclothes. Mycroft shivered at the contrast of Lestrade's hot tan skin against his own pale, cool offering, and he nestled comfortably into the taut, muscular arms that encircled him.
There is nothing here, dear reader, that is not uncommon among those of any married union, and it would be gauche to expand upon the passions that continue, a decade on, between the two men who share this bed. Though erotica of the female form is in abundance, there is ample imagination to fill in what cannot be expressed here, and the reader must be assured that what is believed and seen within the mind is far more complex and strange than anything expounded upon in clinical detail. The reality of this moment between his Honour, Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Gregory Lestrade is this: They are tired men, who find great affection and love for one another, and after fifteen minutes of protracted sighs that have become a matter of conjugal routine, they collapse onto their pillows and sleep. There are no perverse oddities invading their bedchamber, no protracted moans caused by strange manipulations of their sex, no hour long marathons of Marquis DeSade inspired pleasures that would make the populace of Sodom blush. What happens is private and simple, for this is what great love does, it becomes attuned to the other to the point of no questions, the heart flutters for company and seeks to cement it into permanence. It is beautiful in its calm. It seeks only to enhance, not bully.
With Lestrade snoring loudly beside him, Mycroft kept his light on, the flicker within the lamp sending long shadows across the red brocade canopy of their shared bed. He held the murdered poet's bill in his hand and he could not help but feel a deep pang of worry for the young girl depicted in its centre, her dark eyes filled with a pain he had too often seen in others of her kind. Those above her in station would find it easy to judge her. He most definitely could not.