We had long since finished breakfast and were both indulging rather lazily in a third cup of tea whilst reading through the morning papers [myself the Times and Holmes, sadly, the notorious Pall Mall Gazette.] He claims that all the gossip in a scandalous paper like that is worth more to him than the reasoned thoughtfulness to be found in a respectable publication such as the Times. I have given up the battle on that particular front.
Despite that long-running journalistic stand-off, all was contentment within 221B. Billy had done stalwart fireplace duty earlier, so the room was pleasantly warm and very cosy on what was a blustery chill day beyond our walls.
I cannot speak for Holmes, of course, but for myself that contentment was not unrelated to our to our activities of the previous night.
What we had experienced was so special that it can barely be spoken of. The words do not exist, at least within my poor lexicon to describe the tenderness, the sweet devotion that Holmes and I had shared within our bedroom. The heat of passion is one thing and not to be dismissed. But our mood during those hours was of a different nature. Each touch was a blessing. Each kiss an act of devotion. When we came to our completions, in harmony, the very act of love became a sacrament.
I suppose those words would, in the eyes of many, condemn me to a fiery eternity, but to anyone who believed in that sort of thing, I was already doomed. That was a possible fate I would be willing to accept, if I still believed.
As we ate our eggs, toast and ham, then continued to linger over too much tea and our newspapers, we still exuded a sense of mutual peace that was entirely pleasant.
Which meant, of course, that it could not last.
Holmes lifted his head suddenly, cocking it in a listening attitude.
“I fear, my dear boy, that our idyll is over. Unless I am mistaken, the carriage which just arrived below has brought a client to our door.”
“You are rarely mistaken, Holmes,” I replied automatically, but my mind was terribly distracted by his words. It was a pleasant distraction, because what he’d said meant that he had been enjoying our sense of quiet togetherness as much as I. The glow that realisation ignited within my chest warmed me far more than did the flames of the fire.
Holmes discarded his dressing gown in order to don his jacket just as the bell sounded from below. I grabbed the fluttering dressing gown before it landed on the floor and took it to hang in the bedroom. By the time I returned to the sitting room, Mrs Hudson was at the door.
“A Mr Conway to see you,” she said.
Behind her, a figure lurked.
“Thank you, Mrs Hudson,” Holmes said brusquely. The Great Detective was at work.
She handed me a calling card and then stood aside so that the prospective client could enter.
We three sat before anyone spoke. Holmes was in his chair, all sharp lines and haughtiness, whilst I took my usual seat to the side, my pen and pad at the ready. I know my role.
The presumptive client was a stoutly built man of thirty or a few years more. His manner of dress spoke of money; a well-tailored suit, clearly hand-crafted shoes, a fine silk tie. I recognise such things better after cohabitating so long with a man who occasionally displayed peacock tendencies. I also noted that Conway’s hair was carefully tended, artfully meant to disguise the fact that his hairline was indubitably creeping up his head.
According to the card in my hand, he was a Mr Charles Conway, Esq. and resided in a rather fashionable part of South Kensington.
After a quick look at the card that I held out to him, Holmes pyramided his hands and closed his eyes.
Conway glanced at me, clearly puzzled by Holmes’ pose, which was not unlike one adopted by some of the mystics I had seen in my travels as an officer in Her Majesty’s forces. I smiled at the man in a way intended to be reassuring. “Just tell us why you are here,” I said. “Mr Holmes is listening carefully.”
After one more sceptical glance at my friend, Conway took a deep breath. “I am being threatened,” he began. “Two notes arrived last week.”
Holmes immediately held out one thin, pale hand, gesturing.
After taking a moment to admire those elegant fingers and remembering their tender ministrations of the previous night, I gave myself a mental shake and returned to the matter before us. “Mr Holmes would like to see the notes,” I explained.
“Oh, I burned them immediately,” Conway said. “I simply assumed that they were someone’s idea of a jape.”
Holmes’ sigh expressed deep disappointment with the human condition.
“Can you tell us what the notes said?” I enquired.
Conway wrinkled his brow in what I supposed to be his thoughtful face; it was not an expression that seemed to be over-used. “The first one just said, ‘Be careful.’ And the second was “Danger awaits.’”
Holmes remained quiet, so I asked the questions. “What of the stationery itself? The envelope? What was the postmark? Was there anything distinctive about the ink? Or the script?”
Only because my gaze slid briefly towards Holmes [hoping, perhaps, to see that quiet pride he showed when I did well] did I notice that one corner of his mouth twitched upwards in an almost smile. Before either Conway or I could speak again, Holmes, still without opening his eyes, said, “I assume a third note arrived in this morning’s post and that is why you have come to us.”
My momentary pride at knowing the right questions to ask was rather dented by having Holmes state the obvious.
Conway reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. “This is just like the first two.”
He held it out to me. I took it and passed it to Holmes, who had finally deigned to open his eyes.
Even after all this time, my heart beat increased with the delight of watching my Holmes play the game, letting his brilliance shine.
“The envelope,” he mused. “From Liberty’s, of course, one of their better lines. And surely you noticed the Greenwich postmark. The address is written in a female hand.”
Conway looked none the wiser. “I have no acquaintances in Greenwich,” he said peevishly, as if that proved some point.
Holmes glanced at me, seeking sympathy for the quality of client that he was forced to deal with on a regular basis. I merely lifted a brow.
“Perhaps your wife knows someone in the city?” Holmes asked him.
Now Conway frowned at him. “My wife and I have the same acquaintances,” he said.
“Indeed? How…convenient.” The smile was entirely false. Holmes finally opened the envelope and slid out a single sheet of paper, which he unfolded, read quickly and then held it up for my perusal. “Nice to know that some villains still cling to tradition,” he said drily.
I hid my smirk behind a hand and pretended to cough.
The message was composed with letters cut from a newspaper. Not the Times, I noticed smugly.
“Amusingly enough, The Illustrated Police News,” Holmes said
We shared a smile. Sometimes it is impossible not to take inappropriate delight in what we do.
The words on the paper were simple, as befitted the method. YOU BETTER WATCH OUT.
“Well, that does sound very much like a threat,” I admitted.
“That’s what I said,” Conway replied, sounding irritated.
“Indeed you did,” Holmes agreed cheerfully. He handed the note to me for safekeeping. “How many children do you have?” Holmes asked, apropos of nothing, as far as I could tell. At the same time, he stood and walked over to the desk.
“”Two. Freddie is five and Mavis is three.”
“How charming,” Holmes muttered, as he searched through a pile of papers, looking for God knew what. “And you have a nanny, of course?”
“Yes, certainly we do. A pleasant young woman from…well, I cannot recall from where she hails, but her credentials from the agency were impeccable, according to my wife.”
“Of course…nothing but the best for…Edwin and Millicent.”
Conway looked puzzled.
“Freddie and Mavis,” I corrected. Sometimes I think Holmes does it on purpose.
He slipped me a tiny smile.
I do believe that more often than not, the hapless clients were in reality nothing more than pawns in the game that Holmes and I play.
A short time later, after supplying Holmes with a list of the household staff and family members residing in the home, Conway was sent on his way with a promise of speedy action on our part. When we heard the carriage below drive away, Holmes stuck his head out the door and bellowed, “Mrs Hudson, tea!” After a glance from me, he added, “Please.”
He walked back to his chair, rather surprising me by dropping a quick kiss on the top of my head as he passed, despite the open door. “Ah, my dear boy, this morning turned out to be highly entertaining, did it not?”
“We should not make light of our clients’ problems,” I felt obligated to say.
“Oh, I know. But sometimes it is irresistible. Such simple matters and they would rather pay me to figure it out than just thinking themselves.”
“And a good thing, too,” I said. “After all, Mrs Hudson does expect her rent on time and you do have a fondness for the best in tobacco and spirits.”
“I do, I do, “ Holmes agreed ruefully. “And Christmas is coming, as well.” He smiled at me guilelessly, then rubbed his hands together briskly. “First our tea and then off to discover who is threatening the estimable Mr Conway.”
It would do me no good at all to ask him where we would begin our search, because he would either ignore me completely or answer by saying something annoying about the dangers of theorising before the facts. So instead of just being irritated, I jumped to my feet and helped Mrs Hudson with the tray.
In the end, of course, it was as simple as Holmes had said.
The in-residence layabout brother of Mrs Conway, a sassy young nanny, a foolish plan to somehow finance a romantic elopement… I never did get all the details straight, but since the case was never going to be written up, it did not really matter. The cheque Mr Conway wrote was most welcome.
That night, when the house and the city beyond the windows were both dark and silent, we took a bottle of fine whisky to our bed. In the glow of the fire, we shared a single glass, passing it back and forth between us.
Holmes’ head rested in my lap. His hair was free of the pomade now and I ran my fingers through the unrestrained soft curls slowly. “Do you want to know something, dear one?” I asked.
“I always want to know whatever you want to tell me,” he replied languidly.
His cheeks were lightly pinked from the warmth of both the flames and the whisky, while his eyes were bright as the star the Magi followed. Sherlock Holmes in my bed was surely the most beautiful sight in the world.
I leaned closer to his ear. “I have never had as much fun with anyone else as I have with you.”
It is a rare thing for the world’s only consulting detective to be struck dumb, but I had apparently achieved such a feat. After a moment, he simply smiled with a naked tenderness that no one else had ever seen or ever would see.
We watched the flames and shared the whisky and it was all fine.