The Case of the Blackmailer: part one

The weather on Baker Street was fit for neither man nor beast, I noted with somewhat more than a passing interest, and I was heartily grateful for the fire that warmed the small sitting room I shared with the worlds only consulting detective. For without it, the air between us would have surely been intolerably cold.

Still, I shivered as I turned to the next page of the Times in what was becoming a vain attempt to submerge myself in the news of the day while Holmes stood at the window behind me, silently pondering the downpour and our latest case, no doubt. I gave little hope that in fact his great mind could spare a moment for anything else, least of all the harsh words we had exchanged, not a half-hour ago.

Certainly we had quarrelled in the past. It was not an unheard-of occurrence. Usually it was over some trifling matter that was soon forgotten. But this new menace that threatened us both I suspected would leave a mark on our relationship that would not be so easy to put aside.

A blackmailer was at work. An individual, the likes of very few others we have had the misfortune to encounter in our work thus far. Holmes had been repulsed upon learning the details of man's misdeeds and though it was not usual for my friend to be so vocal in his abhorrence of another, as I slowly became aware of the lives that now lay in ruin because of the scoundrel, I soon understood why.

Charles Augustus Milverton preyed upon those whose only crimes, with perhaps the exception of the late Colonel Dorking, had been that of poor judgement when it came to matters of the heart, and trusting those closest to them.

Truly it was a warning to all. Trust; after all was the foundation of any relationship, whether it was between husband and wife or master and servant. And how any of us could ever hope to rest with the knowledge that men, the likes of Milverton existed was beyond me.

It seems difficult to comprehend now but it had only been a few short weeks ago that Lady Eva Blackwell had engaged Holmes' services and he had in turn challenged Milverton in these very rooms. Not something that either man was unfamiliar with, I surmised at the time, but there was an element of acquired grandeur about Milverton where clearly he believed himself to be not only above the law, but completely unstoppable in his trade that has bothered me incessantly about him ever since.

For as soon as I had met Milverton for myself I was convinced that he was a decidedly callous fellow despite his pretence of simply being that of a businessman. Meeting him face to face was just as Holmes had described, and I had felt as if indeed I was confronting a serpent. A creature capable of draining the life out of all that he encountered.

In fact after witnessing the interchange between Holmes and the man who would surely stop at nothing to achieve his despicable ends, I had begged my friend to take great care in his dealings with him. I had seen the disdain both men had showed the other, and my fear that Holmes' position and reputation would be the next on Milvertons' long list of London's gentry to be scandalised was all I could think of.

More than once during the years of our association I had known Holmes to become the target of one of our fair city's criminal types, but never had I felt so utterly certain that if Milverton put his mind to it he would find a way to destroy him.

I had prayed when Holmes had then decided to infiltrate the Milverton household so he might gain access to the letters that we knew must be hidden there, that he would heed my warnings, but it was not to be. Holmes, though he is a man of great intellect and impeccable manner refused to listen, to consider that a fate such as what had befallen Milvertons previous victims could so influence his life.

It could not go on. I could not bear to watch him day after day don his disguise of a common tradesman and then go forth, as it were, into the serpent's den when there was so much at stake.

Upon his return tonight I decided I would broach the subject again and once more take the opportunity to voice my concerns for his safety. I waited until Mrs. Hudson had served and cleared away our supper before I spoke, but despite my good intentions Holmes could only see my concerns as baseless interference.

"Surely you can't think the likes of Milverton should be allowed to prevail?" he had inquired.

What could I say? That I condoned the undertakings and betrayals, which had seen Milverton prosper so far?

"Certainly not," I had managed to return, already wounded by his accusing tone of voice, though I daren't have Holmes see that I was. I had only I wished to make myself clear and to request that if he insisted on continuing with this masquerade that he would err on the side of caution in his dealings with the man.

"What then, Watson? Do you think me incapable of keeping my feelings of disdain at bay? That I would risk more than necessary to bring this demon to justice?"

"Perhaps." I had answered, wary of his reaction but all the time knowing that in the past he had risked a great deal in the name of justice.

For a moment nothing was said, and as I watched Holmes pause briefly to light a cigarette, I had thought that given the long standing of our friendship I was finally seeing a glimmer of hope at the end of my dark tunnel of despair - that his hesitation meant he was actually considering the merit of my words.

"I see," he eventually replied, absently tossing the match he had used to light his cigarette into the fireplace. "You do not trust my judgement in this, Watson. But come now, you obviously have your reasons for why that is - pray share them with me."

As with the other times we had disagreed his words were sharp, though I could not say that they were unkind on this occasion, and even as he invited my explanation I had clung to my foolish hope, wanting to believe that with the right amount of clarification, he would then listen to me. See, as I did, that dealing with Milverton and his unsavoury staff had us engaging the lowest of all types. Those, who would twist and connive for profit, and never mind the damage they wrought.

Still it was not often that I challenged Holmes and as he stood quietly smoking his cigarette, waiting to hear what I had to say and regarding me in a way that slowly abraded my confidence; I wondered just how I might achieve my goal without further incurring his ire.

Holmes had asked me to explain myself; asked me to share with him why after our many years of association, I now felt his impeccable judgement was flawed. It was an honour very few others would ever experience, I realised. Though knowing even that, did not change the fact that I was certain that no matter how carefully I phrased my next comment he would misunderstand it.

There was no other way then to simply say it, I had decided in the end. Sooner or later Holmes would tire of waiting, and when he did, his belief that my concerns were indeed baseless would only be reinforced.

"This house-maid," I began slowly, testing the waters as it were. But he only continued to stare at me in a most sceptical fashion, waiting for me to continue. "You said you had a hated rival, but is there a reason why a wedding might be necessary?"

My dear friends face contorted into a sneer with my words, just as I feared he would. The inference behind my inquiry not lost on him for a moment. "So that's it," he announced triumphantly. "Your so-called concern for my safety and reputation is merely that you fear for your place in my heart."

Sometimes I wondered if Holmes knew as much about human behaviour as he professed. It was utterly absurd, completely preposterous that I could be jealous, as he obviously thought I was of a housemaid no less, or any other woman for that matter.

"Ridiculous," I retorted without thought. But much to my shame I had not stopped there. So infuriated by his accusation that my concerns for his safety were born of my own insecurities, I had not paused even a moment to consider the consequences of giving free reign to the emotions welling inside of me. "Surely my good fellow, you would first have to have a heart, for me to lose my place in it," I had gone on to say, subsequently silencing Holmes and leaving myself struggling to understand why I had spoken as I had.

It was perhaps the coldest, cruelest thing I have ever said to another human being, totally unwarranted under any circumstances. Where it had come from and what had possessed me to say such a thing I could not rightly attest to. But I had felt myself dying a little inside as our cosy sitting room had become suddenly chilled and my dearest friend then turned from me, and without another word, taken up his current place at the window.

For my part, so shocked by the incident and fearing that my usually sturdy legs would simply give way under the strain of supporting me, I had sought refuge in my favourite chair, and the companionship of the evening paper. Neither have provided me with any comfort however, and as the silence enveloping Holmes and I has grown, so has my regret. But for reasons I still can not name I have not been able to bring myself to apologise to him for what I had said. This was not the first time he had involved me in one of his cases and then scoffed at my opinions. Nor would it be the last, I thought wistfully.

I sighed heavily, forsaking my farce at last as I closed, and then folded the paper on my lap. Gestures it seemed, that were heard over the sounds of steady rain at our window, and the crackle of the fire in the hearth. For no sooner had I laid my paper down, Holmes was standing at my shoulder, staring down at me with a most curious look upon his handsome face.

"Are you recovered my friend?" He inquired, adding when his question was asked, one of his ephemeral smiles before he forged on. "Because if you are, Watson, I have need of your assistance."

It was just as I had thought I mused sadly. All the time I had been sitting here contemplating his lack of feeling, Holmes' mind has been working on the case, completely unaffected by the unpleasantness between us. I felt myself bristle momentarily and then sighed again. If all my years of sharing rooms with the great Sherlock Holmes had taught me anything at all, it would be that it was completely useless to attempt to harbour ill-feelings toward him. No matter how wounded my pride might become during one of our disagreements, Holmes would simply brush over it in preference to whatever problem held his attention.

Just why I had acted, as I had tonight needed to be left to another time to contemplate, I decided. If Holmes needed me then as his friend I could not refuse him my help. Heaven only knows, there is little else I can provide of myself, that he would accept.

It was settled, and putting aside my hurt along with the paper I stood, confronting my friend on equal footing so to speak before I answered him. "I am quite well," I assured him whilst I straightened my jacket; preparing myself both physically and mentally for whatever task I would be assigned.

Quite un-expectantly, given the circumstances, Holmes's face literally beamed with my response. "Capital," he remarked, reaching toward me to grip my shoulder briefly, adding a small squeeze before he once more withdrew his hand. It was a familiar gesture of his, and one I have come to understand that signalled forgiveness on his part. Still it often struck me as odd, as it did now, that a man as seemingly un-feeling as Holmes, could also be so affectionate.

"Now," I said, clearing my mind of all other thoughts, including why his touch filled me with such a feeling of warmth, so that I might focus on the matter at hand. "How can I assist you, Holmes?"

His face brightened again and without comment Holmes then returned to his place at the window. "What do you think of the weather, Watson?" he inquired, some what off-handed I thought, as I observed him staring down at the street below.

It was a curious inquiry considering the fact that he had spent the last half hour keeping a steady vigil over Baker Street and his recent request for my help; in a matter of some importance, I had believed.

I shook my head, slightly confounded, and then crossed to join Holmes at the window. Surely my opinion on the weather was not all he required of me, I mused as I drew back one of the heavy curtains to see if perhaps there was something I was missing. However, there was nothing out of the norm occurring on the street below us from what I could tell through the driving rain. No doubt, the inclement nature of the evening had driven most indoors. And as I stood, still trying to comprehend the relevance Holmes's odd question, I spared a thought for the many of London's unfortunates who would most certainly pass this dreadful night without any of the comforts he and I enjoyed.

"I think it's hideous," I informed Holmes as a sudden gust of wind shook the window pane in such a threatening manner that I was forced to relinquish my hold on the curtain and step back, only to find one of his hands on the small of my back, guiding me to safety and out of harms way.

"Agreed, Watson," Holmes concurred as he released me. "But it seems Mother Nature has decided to provide me with an unexpected opportunity. One I do not intend to forsake."

So saying, and before I could ask my friend what exactly he was talking about, Holmes turned on his heels and then just as quickly disappeared into his bedroom.

A commotion could be heard coming from within thereafter and I was of a mind to go and see if he was all right when he reappeared again, carrying with him a number of items which I had seen him utilise in the past.

Moving without invitation to the table where Mrs Hudson had earlier served us our supper I took it upon myself to investigate the items Holmes had arranged there.

"What is the meaning of all this?" I ventured, picking the glasscutter up in one hand and an odd assortment of keys in the other.

"Isn't it obvious, Watson?" he returned with another of his quick smiles and then added. "You may think that I spent all my time at Appledore Towers consorting with the sweet, and most accommodating Aggie, but I tell you, though it was far from an unpleasant experience, there had been a purpose to my deception."

I bristled again at Holmes' mention of the housemaid, whom through the course of his deception, he had become engaged to. Not that I thought he ever had any intention of settling with the predicament he had found himself in, but it still bothered me that he had found it necessary to consort as he had put it, with someone who worked for the likes of Milverton. I would not however, allow Holmes to see that it did.

Openly ignoring his last comment I replaced the keys and glasscutter; having already ascertained their use and at least one reason why he might have found his relationship with Milvertons housemaid to be advantageous, I only needed Holmes to now verify my suspicions.

"I would think that given the items you have here that you intend to gain entry where you have no rightful business," I told him.

"Ha, as always I applaud your deductions, Watson." He informed me, though it was clear that once again he had noted the accusation within my words as he continued. "But as I believe rightful business to be such a subjective term I cannot say that you are entirely correct."

"How so?" I inquired, curious to hear how Holmes would explain himself.

First laying open the old carpet-bag he had produced along with his tools and which I believed he would use to transport them in, my friend then turned his attention to me. "As you are aware, Watson, Lady Eva's marriage is now only two days forth and because time is an issue that cannot be ignored, I can spare no more waiting - tonight's downpour maybe our last opportunity to foil Milvertons plot to ruin her wedding day."

"So I was right, Holmes, you do plan to burgle Appledore Towers!"

Holmes merely nodded; apparently pleased that I had accurately deduced his plan but seemingly unconcerned in regard to any reaction I might have to it as he once more returned to his preparations. "You are especially astute tonight, Watson," he commented.

Though I had guessed as much, I was still astounded to hear Holmes admit the truth. "You can't be serious?" I protested.

"Oh but I am, Watson, now would you please be so kind as to fetch your revolver."

"My revolver," I repeated like a fool. My mind reeling as images of Milvertons henchmen cornering him made it difficult to think of anything else.

"Yes, I think it would be best if we went armed. And perhaps you could also furnish us both with masks."

For a moment I could not answer him. My fear for his safety and reputation once again became all I could think of, only my concern turned quickly to anger.

"You go too far, Holmes." I finally managed, literally fuming now. "Have you given no thought to what would happen if you are caught? The damage to your reputation would be completely irreparable. Good God manů"I ran out of words at that point, and unable to go on, I turned away, hoping to gather myself though if the truth was to be told, it was more that I could not bear to look at him or have him look at me. It was all too much.

I felt myself begin to shake. My efforts to calm myself were to no avail and it was not long before I found myself wandering without aim or purpose towards the mantle where Holmes had stood only a few minutes earlier. The fire crackled and the wind at our window continued to howl as I stood staring into the heath. How, I wondered, could he be considered one of Britain's greatest minds when he never gave any thought to his own safety? Or naught to the affect his actions had on those around him. I was forced to close my eyes on that thought as unbidden, visions of Holmes and Milvertons housemaid sprang to mind. When the occasion called for it Holmes was a man of considerable charm and I could well imagine the measure he had most recently enlisted to aid him.

It was all very unsettling and it seemed like an age before I was able to settle myself sufficiently to face Holmes. His earlier remark concerning my fear of loosing my place in his heart now felt closer to the truth than I would have ever thought possible.

Part Two



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