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The Strange Tale of Charon's Obol

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He used to tell me that I see, but that I do not observe. The darkness did not lend itself well to observation, I'd tell myself. Seeing was immense enough. But now, with him beyond the reach of even Their Majesties, and with due suppression I can tell this story in such a fashion as to injure no one. I must still only allude to the events with diffidence. Even though it has been years since the incidents of which I speak took place, I must still only share them with the utmost discretion and reticence, and leave you, my reader, to observe.

Forgive me, but I am not a literary man. I will do my best as that is all I have ever strived to do.

We had been out for our evening rambles, Moriarity and I, on a hot and humid summer's evening just trying to catch a breeze. My eye had caught on an advertisement for The Strand Players - making their triumphant return to the New Albion Stage for a one-night-only special engagement - the playbill proclaimed.

"We should have gone and seen him - I still have no idea what the man actually looks like. What do you suppose brought him to London this time?" I asked him. My friend tapped his silver tipped walking cane - a gift from a grateful client - against the cobblestones.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts," he replied.

I laughed a mirthless laugh. It was a common answer. I reached forward and tore the playbill that had been pasted over it. The advertisement was old and the date of the special engagement had passed a week ago. An amazing tale of a supernatural hound and a cursed family set on the wild moors of Old Albion! it proclaimed.

"Curious," I said. "That sounds remarkably like that business up at Baskerville Hall you dealt with this past winter."

"Does it?" he replied. "Well, I suppose anyone could have heard about it."

I had my doubts, but the conversation ended as we returned to our lodgings. I had wished to continue it, to ask him about Sherry Vernet, but upon arriving in our sitting room the light from the doorway fell upon a small side table; our eyes fell upon a card that had not been there when we left.

He snatched it up and read it, and then, with care and concern folded it and tapped it softly against his lips. It was neatly printed with only a name - Charles Augustus Milverton.

"Who is he? A new client who came while we were out? Why did he not wait! Surely our landlady would have told him that we were not to be gone long!" I said forcefully.

My companion showed me the reverse; neat handwriting declared - will call at 6:30.

"Oh," I said.

"A complicated man." Moriarity stepped forward and threw open one the front windows that faced the street and lit a gaslight. "Do you recall how you felt when you met the Queen? When she touched you? The feeling that passed through your body as you stared into her eyes?"

"Yes," I said, carefully. We almost never spoke of that moment. "My shoulder may be healed. But my nightmares have still not left."

"I have dealt with many terrible people, but only he makes me feel like that. But he is here at my invitation"

"But, who is he?"

"I will tell you. He is an Agent of the Great Old Ones, but he works as much for himself as he does The Ancients. Restorationists and other Enemies are of particular interest to him, but his currency is information - information he collects and sells as it suits the Queen and him best of all. He is a genius who will not relent for anything. He pays handsomely for this information - seven hundred pounds to a footman for a note only two lines in length. No one knows whose information he possesses and whose he seeks."

I seldom heard my friend speak with such passion. "But these peoples are enemies of the Queen?" I asked

He gave me an inscrutable look. "Technically, no doubt."

"Then it is right that they face the Queen's Justice. Why would your client fear this Milverton or his information unless he, or she, has done something illegal?"

"Do not people who have made mistakes deserve to move on from them?"

I thought of my own mistakes. I thought of gazing into the abyss and seeing my sins laid before me. I thought of Her touch.

I shook my head. "It is the Queen's absolute right to forgive, but we do not determine who deserves or does not deserve. If he is in the employ of the Queen, then it is for Her to determine that."

My friend inclined his head. "That is a very absolute way of thinking about it, I'll grant you that, Moran. But my client is a poet and playwright, a man by the name of Swinburne. He writes about taboo topics, true, be he is hardly a Restorationist. His words are risque, not incendiary. He is perhaps unwise, but hardly a criminal and hardly worth the notice of the Queen."

"Why is Milverton here, at Baker Street?"

"Because he has information about Swinburne that he wishes Milverton no longer have. He was once my client's man of business and took it upon himself to retain letters that Swinburne had meant for his publisher and friend. Rest assured, the letters had nothing to do with The Ancient Ones. Milverton will collect and hold information for only the smallest chance that it may be useful. This information is not nor will it ever be."

"That does not sound like something that the Great Old Ones would concern themselves with," I conceded.

Moriarty nodded. "So you see what I mean."

"It sounds as if your client is not wholly innocent."

"Is anyone?" he replied, gesturing about the room and to the world at large. "You have my assurances though, that in this case, my client is not an enemy of the Queen and that Milverton is working in his own self-interest and not as an Agent. I have commissioned to meet him to see if I cannot come to some sort of understanding on behalf of my client."

I nodded. The Queen's Justice could be ruthless, but it was not for Her Agents to pursue it to their own ends. It was not for us to decide on behalf of the Queen, but rather it was our duty to pursue it as She willed it. As uncomfortable as I was with our client most assuredly having done something to come to the attention of an Agent in the first place, the thought of that Agent then making his own determination as to how to use that information was even more troubling.

In that instant, there was a clatter and rattle in the street below. I stepped to the window and looked down to see a great carriage arrive at our doorstep. The four black horses gleamed in the lamplight and the silver finishes on the harnesses nearly blinded me as they glinted. A footman held the door as a small man in a fine summer coat decensed the step and paused for a moment before he headed up the steps.

A minute later he was entering our sitting room. The heat of the evening made the sweat prickle at the back of my neck despite the breeze that came in through the open window, but the man in front of us had not even a glimmer of sweat on his forehead. It was as if the cold feeling I had when I had stared into that Abyss in Afghanistan had somehow followed him into the room. I half expected to see frost form on the floor about him.

He was a man of middle age, but indeterminate in the way of those who had sold their souls. His eyes were icy blue and sharp framed by golden-rimmed glasses, but his skin was alabaster and his face framed by dark curly hair that was just a touch longer than what was fashionable. He had a strong chin which lead the features of his face and set his mouth to be slightly opened. His expression looked as if he had just set his jaw to say something that he believed to be profound. But there was a sincerity to it and a hard glitter to his eyes. His affect was smooth as he approached with his hand extended. I reached forward and shook it, surprised by the warmth and firmness of his grasp despite the aura of cold about him.

We exchanged a look.

"This gentleman is discreet." He said to Moriarity. I was perturbed by his presumption, but stayed silent. Moriarity ignored his hand.

"Mr. Moran is my friend and partner," Moriarity replied, coolly.

Milverton smiled and shrugged his shoulders, unbothered by my companion's rudeness. He removed his overcoat, incongruous in the great heat, and folded it over the back of the chair before he lowered himself gracefully and relaxed as if he had just popped round for a bit of tea and gossip.

"You strike me as a man who wishes to just get straight down to business," Milverton said with a warm smile.

"My client has empowered me to negotiate terms on his behalf," Moriarity began.

"That is all very well and good, Professor, but you and your client are mistaken on one point - there is no negotiation. Either the terms are met, or they are not."

Moriarty's gaze hardened. "Seven thousand pounds is outrageous. You very well know that he is not capable of coming up with that amount."

Milverton smiled affably. "It pains me to even discuss it, my good man. Either I have the money by the deadline, or I do not. You and your client are both aware of the consequences if I do not. It is that simple."

Moriarty was silent for a long time. "Perhaps you are overestimating the situation," he said, quietly. "I am familiar with the content of the documents you hold. Perhaps their release would not be as damaging as you suppose."

Milverton laughed a careless laugh. "Oh ho! I very much doubt that. If you are familiar with the contents then you know why I hold the documents in the first place. It would not be wise for their content to become known. Not at all. Your client may be self-sacrificing, but I very much doubt he is willing to his friends, how shall I say this, being compromised? Perhaps you hold your clients friends in such little regard, Professor, but I do not believe he does."

Milverton began to rise.

I could see my companion's face go white with anger. "You go too fast!" Moriarty said quickly, stopping Milverton before he had stood fully. "My client… values his friendships." I doubted Milverton understood Moriarity's expressions as I did, but I could see the seething hatred underneath and was taken aback.

My gaze darted between the two men.

Milverton relaxed into the chair.

"I am so pleased you see it my way, my good man!" He exclaimed.

"At the same time, he is not a wealthy man. Seven thousand is far beyond him. I assure you that two thousand would be more than fair."

Milverton grinned.

"Ah, you see, you are not wrong that two thousand would provide ample compensation for the papers themselves. But what I seek, and what nay, She seeks, is assurance that such deviance does not occur again. I would not be so crass as to suggest that exposing your client might send a message to others in his position, yet..."

Milverton's eyebrow raised and his eyes twinkled. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. The Great Old Ones cared little for our money. What Milverton did was for personal gain. He was not wrong, She did not appreciate deviance. But Her Justice was swift and exact. There was no need to blackmail someone for seven thousand pounds if they displeased Her.

Moriarity's demeanor cooled further. "It is simply not possible."

"Oh dear me!" Milverton exclaimed. "Perhaps I should do you the very good favor of pointing out to you what will happen should your client chooses not to pay." He pulled a small book from his breast pocket and consulted it at length. Finally he stopped and tapped the page with his forefinger. "It caused such a scandal with that dear poet had to retrieve those poems he buried with his wife. So ill-advised."

"Surely is it not better to take the sum my client can pay than to ruin a man's life in a way that in no way enriches your own?"

"Ah! You are mistaken, Professor. Every time a customer of mine fails to pay, it simply entices those that come after them to not make the same mistake."

Moriarty was silent.

"Well, I shall let you, and your client, consider it a bit longer, but my deadline is unchanged. I am so glad we could have this little chat." Milverton rose and slid his coat on with fluid and graceful movements. He gathered his hat and cane before he nodded in Moriarty's direction and offered an easy smile and tipped his hat in mine. I bowed my head slightly in acknowledgement.

I turned back to Moriarty when our guest left. He was seated silent and still, staring out the open window.

I watched him carefully, unsure as to what our next move would be.

After a moment he leapt to his feet and moved swiftly to his rooms. Not ten minutes later, he emerged, black valise in hand. "I shall be back, Moran, but do not expect me any time soon," he said, but was out the door before I even had time to reply.

I must pause for a moment here in my storytelling to reflect on the next series of events that occured. For some time, I had thought myself as his trusted friend and confidant. Oh, do not suppose that he told me everything, for if any man had secrets, it was Moriarty. No, no. What I mean is that I believed he never actively sought to deceive and obfuscate me. Now, with the passage of time and many events to which I will never be able to speak, I have another perspective. But I will describe the events to you to the best as I understood them then. Perhaps you can observe what I failed to even see.

For some days, he came and went at all hours and I knew nothing of what he was doing. When he wasn't home, correspondence arrived for him with startling regularity from a multitude of hands, far more than any he had ever received in the past. They all seemed to be from the same cast of characters, and I saw the same distinctive scrawls show up time and time again, signed with careful initials only. I had a few occurrences where I could carefully inspect these notes unobserved. One of them caught my eye, the writing disturbingly similar to the notes signed Rache and Sigerson tucked away in my dispatch box. Without reading the content of the notes, I could not allay my suspicions as to their authorship.

Each of these notes was tucked away with perfect casualness and I never saw them again. Equally interesting was his insistence on burning a small fire in our grate every morning. He claimed it was for hot tea, something he could not live without. But I had never observed such behavior from him in the past. Hot tea during a heatwave was most peculiar. But he was a peculiar man, I told myself.

It was not unusual that the only evidence I had of his presence in our home was of the ashes in the grate and hot tea turned cool on our table when I came down for breakfast. It was late one night, well after midnight, when he returned from his latest absence and sat himself tiredly in his armchair.

"You would call me righteous man, Moran?"

 

"Indeed!" I exclaimed.

"You agree with me that what Milverton does is not the will of our benevolent Queen, but rather has become twisted and self-serving."

"Yes," I answered carefully. I had had time to consider our encounter with Milverton and the more I did the more I was troubled by the way he seemed to twist Her Majesty's will into something that served himself.

"You will be interested to know what I have learned."

"About Milverton?"

"The very same. He is an acquaintance of Felice Orsini."

"The assassin who attempted to murder the French Emperor!" I exclaimed in shock. "But what connection does he have to that man?

"On the surface, very little. Yet when one digs deeper, Milverton appears to have provided not only the support for Orsini's attempt, but may have in fact been the mastermind behind it."

"My dear fellow! I-"

"I believe we can stop Milverton."

"Good heavens!"

"Do you not agree, Moran, that it is not for us to interpret the will of our benevolent Great Ones? We carry out their bidding when we are honored by their attention. But to act in their name without their blessing is a…"

"It's a crime." I said it with conviction and finality.

"Then it is no more a crime than to ensure it ends, is it not?"

"You want to kill him."

"It is necessary. You see, I have not been idle these past few days. I have been out each evening with a contact of mine. Who also happens to have a someone they are trying to assist who is being blackmailed by Milverton."

"Vernet," I said, flatly. Moriarity studied me carefully.

"I find myself in the difficult position of needing his help in order to make this plan work."

"So you do not plan on capturing him and turning him over to Lestrade, even though you have the opportunity."

"I hope I am able to, but for now, this business with Milverton has forced me to join with him."

I turned it over in my mind.

"I suppose it is morally justifiable so long as your purpose is to prevent Milverton from further exploiting the Queens benevolence and kindness. You will steal your client's papers and you will use Vernet, or whomever he really is, to accomplish it."

"Exactly. I undertake this with great personal risk only to help my client and prevent Milverton from furthering his criminal ways."

"You will be in such a false position," I exclaimed.

"That is a risk I'm willing to take. The man we knew as Vernet is also at great personal risk to assist his client. Our mutual success or destruction is assured. There is no other way."

"Well, I don't like it; but I suppose it must be," I said. "I will kill him for you."

"No."

He said it with such finality I was afraid that would be the final answer, no matter what I said next. Undaunted though, I continued.

"Then you will not embark on this crazy scheme of yours. You cannot burgle his house and dispatch of him at once. You need to be with Vernet in order to ensure he does not double-cross you. Murdering Milverton in his own house would bring too much suspicion to this entire enterprise - attention I highly doubt your client can afford. No, I shall kill him for you, or I shall go straight to Lestrade and confess all."

He was silent for a long time. Then finally, he said, "Be it so."

I sat back, relieved that he would not be embarking on this dangerous mission alone. I did not trust for one minute that this Vernet, Sigerson, Rache, or whatever he was calling himself these days, would betray my friend in an instant.

"He'll insist his doctor friend accompany you."

"I am quite capable of killing someone without needing a doctor to verify I've done it properly."

Moriarty's lips twitched in a smile before he responded. "He trusts you no more than you trust him. The doctor will be there as much to ensure you succeed as he is to prevent you from failing."

I shrugged. As he said, be it so.

"Milverton often drinks at a public house in Chelsea. We have ensured that he will be there tonight. The doctor will be there as well. He has a limp and served as you once did."

I dressed myself in simple dark clothes, silent shoes, and slipped a piece of black silk into my pocket to serve as a mask. My plan was to avoid shooting Milverton in public. I am an excellent shot and prefer the neat and clean finality that a well-executed shot to dispatch someone to messier and more personal methods. But shooting someone in Chelsea would surely bring the wrong kind of attention to us almost immediately. I slipped a knife into my pocket.

We left well after dark. Before we parted ways, Moriarty stopped me with a gentle hand on my arm.

"Thank you," he said quietly. I nodded once and set out for Chelsea.

The pub was quiet and I could see easily why Milverton favored it. The patrons did not acknowledge newcomers with even the most cursory glance, and the dark corners and narrow booths invited private conversations, but the close seating allowed for careful eavesdropping if necessary.

I didn't spot Milverton or the the doctor when I walked in and so I settled myself at the bar with a pint. After a few minutes, a man who had been seated towards the back rose and made his way towards me. He had a slight limp.

"Colonel," he acknowledged as he sat down.

"Doctor," I responded.

I wondered how he knew my rank, but I was not happy with either Moriarity's connection to his partner, nor my forced acceptance of his role in what was to come next. We were reluctant allies and it was only my loyalty and absolute trust in Moriarty that prevented me from dispatching the doctor. From the way he looked at me, I gathered he likely felt the same.

Milverton walked in a short while later. I kept my eye on him while he met with a man I observed carefully to be a plumber based on his dress. The plumber handed him a note, and he handed the plumber money. There was another life that was now held hostage. Who knew how long it would be before that poor sod-

No, it ended tonight. There would be no more poor sods.

Before Milverton was ready to leave, my companion nudged me and nodded towards the back. I rose and slipped out the door with him not far behind. We both melted into the dark of the alley shadows and I donned my mask. I was startled to see he had done the same.

I had not discussed with him what my plan was and he had not said more than the one word to me. The door to the pub opened in that moment and light spilled out before Milverton stepped carefully out and into the street. I would only have a moment to act.

Surprise was my ally and, without hesitation, I moved. My right hand was over his mouth to silence any screams, pinching his nose tight so he couldn't gasp in a breath and my left arm wrapped tight around his body hauling him back into the shadows. I groped for the knife in my pocket, cursing my lack of preparedness. I should've risked the gun. I got my grip on the handle just as he began to recover his wits and struggle. A man in his line of work would be more than capable of fighting off an attacker once he had gotten his bearings. I couldn't let that happen.

I lifted the knife and sliced as deeply as I could across his neck. The blood rushed over my arm. People bled worse than pigs, I thought to myself. I heard the doctor gasp behind me, but he was there by my side in an instant and helped me lower Milverton to the ground. At least I had managed to make a quick job of it. He was dead before we got him all the way down.

"I suppose you'll tell me he didn't deserve to die," I said.

"I generally try not to be judge, jury, and executioner. I save that for you lot."

I snorted. A believer then. Someone who thought that the beings that ruled us were evil and not benevolent.

"If that is what allows you to sleep at night."

"Sweeter than yours," replied lightly.

I hated him. He knew nothing of my nightmares.

He stepped forward and slipped something into Milverton's mouth.

"What's that then?" I asked.

"Payment, for the ferry," he replied.

I shook my head. Superstition.

He shrugged, "I'd like to ensure he makes it all the way to hell."

I turned to step out of the ally, but his voice stopped me.

"We're more alike than you think. And that's what makes us dangerous for each other. I'd do anything for him - I know you feel the same. I hope, for both of our sake's, we never meet again."

"Likewise." I replied. We left in opposite directions. I had the uneasy feeling that he knew more than I did about something very important. I wasn't sure if what he said was warning or a promise. It felt like both.

I was home by one. Moriarity slipped in by two.

"It is done then?" he asked.

I nodded.

"I know that can't have been easy for you. I hope I never have to ask something like that of you again."

I did as well. I was beginning to doubt him.

I did not sleep that night and arose at five am. When I crept down the stairs I could hear the soft murmur of voices in the sitting room. I paused and waited, unwilling to disturb Moriarty if he was meeting with a client so soon after our eventful night.

Two men stepped out of the door onto the stair landing. I knew instinctively it was not Swinburne, which had been my first thought. I stood still, unobserved in the shadows, not visible from where they were. Their conversation was soft, but I caught parts of it.

"You'll come then," the other man said.

"Yes," Moriarity replied. It was spoken like a promise and I shivered.

"I will find a way for us, perhaps Egypt, or even to see the Head Llama." The other man's voice was soft, even affectionate. I was startled for not even our landlady spoke to Moriarity with any sort of fondness.

Moriarty's response was simple, but no less warm. "I have contacts in Norway."

"It's been a pleasure."

"The pleasure was all mine."

"Reichenbach, then."

"Reichenbach."

I sat there, stunned. The other man's presence felt dangerous in our house, as if a delicate scale had been tipped ever so slightly. I had heard Moriarity feign many emotions with his clients, but I hadn't ever heard such raw promise from him before.

I returned to my room, unsure of what to do next.

I descended a few hours later at a much more reasonable time for breakfast and was relaxing in the relative cool of the morning when Mr. Lestrade of Scotland Yard arrived at our door.

"Good morning, sirs. May I ask if you are busy just now?"

"Never too busy for you, Lestrade"

"I thought, perhaps, that you might care to investigate a most peculiar murder that occured last night."

"Murder!" Moriarty exclaimed. "Dear me."

"A most dramatic and remarkable murder. One Mr. Milverton, of Hampstead, was found dead in an alley outside a public house in Chelsea. His throat was slit."

"A crime of passion! Or revenge." Moriarty said, thoughtfully.

"It is no ordinary crime. He was found with a coin for safe passage. To ensure no dark magic could resurrect him."

"Then you suspect he was murdered by…?"

"Well, I suppose by someone he had blackmailed."

"He was a blackmailer, then?" Moriarty asked.

"Yes, and his house was burgled last night. All his papers burned."

"I take it his house was not in Chelsea?"

"Oh no, he lived in Hampstead, but he was known to frequent Chelsea. I've got a man down questioning the pub patrons, but they're a notoriously tight-lipped lot."

"So you suspect then that the murderer and burglar were accomplices? Or mere coincidence?"

"That's what we were hoping you would help us with."

"Ah. Well, let me ask you this question then, Lestrade. Has the Queen taken a special interest in this case then?"

"Not as such."

"Ah, well, then maybe we should proceed with caution. Perhaps it might be a bit of an embarrassment to the Queen if we were to solve his murder. Perhaps he simply crossed the wrong client."

Lestrade was silent for a long moment.

"You suspect the Queen may not be troubled by his death, one of her own."

"I am suggesting that perhaps no one may miss him much and the more attention that is drawn to the case, the more that may change. Or be forced to change."

"Ah, I see."

"I thought you might." Moriarty smiled a thin smile. Lestrade looked more satisfied by every passing moment. After we'd all taken a breath and the air settled a bit, Moriarty offered Lestrade a cup of tea, which he politely declined, and then he was off on his way.

There seemed to be nothing more to say.

It was some weeks later that we were at lunch. Moriarty's gaze was distant, as if he were working through a great puzzle in his head. Finally he turned his attention to me.

"I am afraid that I have some business that will take me away to the continent soon, Moran. Switzerland to be exact."

I felt a chill run through me. Something pressed at the back of my mind, something important, but I wasn't sure what. I would have think on it a bit. He pressed on, then.

"Do you fancy a bit of entertainment tonight, Moran? I am not leaving quite yet and I have procured tickets to a very special show at the Grand Albert Music Hall. There is a special guest tonight, rumor has it they are featuring members of The Strand Players."

"They are back again, then?"

"Yes, special engagement. It promises to be a grand tale of murder, blackmail, and more."

"Which one of your cases is it this time?"

"Pardon?"

"It's remarkable just how similar their stories are to ours."

He laughed a pleased little laugh. "Hardly! Mere coincidence."

I smiled a thin smile. Not convinced and a little unbalanced.