The Case of the Assured Assassin
VIII: The Medicine of Life
Scarcely had the words left my mouth than came a mighty bellow from one of the constables below, yelling out for Lestrade. In my haste, I fairly pushed the Inspector out of the way and raced ahead of him down the stairs.
Outside, several policemen were crowded around the back of a Black Mariah, staring intently at something inside. I followed their gaze to find the huddled figure of Weaver on the floor. His wide eyes were fixed in an unseeing stare at the far wall and his clenched hands bore witness to the agony of his final moments.
A cursory examination confirmed he was indeed dead, and the slight smell I could detect from the encrusted vomit around his mouth pointed to the poison he had shown me earlier as being the culprit.
"Well, sir, I don't rightly know what happened," said a constable in answer to my question. "He was clutching at his stomach like, and then he started vomiting. Next thing we knew he was having a fit and then he was a goner."
"Poison," I explained to a stony-faced Lestrade. "One of his own preparations."
"And he poured it down his gullet just like that in the confusion upstairs?"
"He did say he wouldn't hang."
Lestrade was beside himself with fury and fairly laid into the hapless constables for their failure to search their prisoner. There seemed to be little to done about the matter, and so I made my way back up to the sitting room, where Holmes had been watching the proceedings from a window with the empty phial on a handkerchief in his hand.
"Poison then?" he asked.
"Aconitum to give it its proper name," said he, still with his gaze directed out at Baker Street. "Also colloquially known as monkshood, after the resemblance of the flower to the cowl worn by monks. That such a beautiful bloom could bear so deadly a poison does not seem in the settled order of things, does it?"
After this sentiment received no answer, he glanced back at me.
"I trust you did not get any on those hands of yours. Aconitum can be absorbed as easily through the skin as ingested. Cut skin is especially vulnerable."
"Yes, I know. I'd better wash them."
"There's water in my room, Watson. Help yourself."
I poured a goodly quantity into the bowl and scrubbed at my hands until the cuts reopened and coloured the water red. The full dose of the concentrated poison that Weaver had taken had worked devastatingly quickly to end his wretched life, but I knew that even a few drops could kill. Absorbed through the skin, the symptoms as I recalled were tingling and numbness, which would slowly spread up the arm to the shoulder, to finally affect the heart.
I flexed my fingers, checking for any sign of the first twinges that would indicate the poison's presence in my body. Thankfully, there was nothing and I let out a sigh of relief.
Drying my hands on a towel, I returned to the sitting room where I found Holmes in the process of lighting the fire.
"I should be going," I said. "Mary will be anxious."
"I sincerely doubt it, for she is staying the night with a friend in Barnet."
"How on earth do you know that?"
"Because I called round to see you after my journey into Essex, ostensibly to make amends, in reality to check that Weaver had not involved you in his plans for my demise. Unfortunately, a delay on the line meant I did not arrive at your surgery until after five, by which time I was too late and you had already been abducted."
"You knew it was him?"
"Mrs Watson told me you had been called to a confinement. Well, that was immediately suspicious."
"I've attended confinements before."
"Watson, you have a specialist not four doors along from your practice. Why would a new patient seek out a general practitioner when they could have an obstetrician? No, no, it would not do. So, I persuaded your charming wife that she should take the opportunity of your prolonged absence to visit an ailing acquaintance, to which she readily agreed. I saw her on the omnibus and, after informing Lestrade that the plot was laid, headed back to Baker Street at the expected time."
"You didn't tell Mary I was in danger?"
"No, of course not," said he, settling himself into his chair to watch the flames grow ever higher. "I'm not completely insensitive. It was merely a well-crafted suggestion to which she could find no objection."
"Good. But if you knew what had happened to me…?"
"Why didn't I look for you? My dear fellow, I could not take that risk. I knew where you were of course. Old Mrs Johnston – an invaluable source of information, by the way – was kind enough to inform me of the newest addition to Baker Street a few weeks ago. A curious, small gentleman, as she described him, with an unpleasant manner about him. Who else could that be but Weaver? My problem was knowing whether he had a gun at your head. Had I attempted a rescue, he might have killed you."
"What a reassuring thought," said I. "How could you be sure that he wouldn't have done that anyway?"
Holmes smiled languidly. "If I had read my quarry correctly, which I had, I deduced that he had kidnapped you and forced you into some dark deed, which would result in my death. Having done that, all that remained to him was to affix the blame entirely on you by manufacturing your suicide. To do that, he would have to be sure I was dead first and then bring you here. He could hardly carry your lifeless corpse across the street in full view."
"That's what he said. So that's why you pretended to be dead? I still don't see why you couldn't have told me, Holmes."
"Because I heard him coming. In all honesty, I had expected you to arrive together. The scene was carefully prepared – the tourniquet for my arm and a little whisky in the glass on the floor to complete the illusion. However, no sooner had you blundered in than I heard him enter below. I had no time, Watson. I do most heartily apologise, however, for any distress I may have caused you, but you must understand it was for the greater good."
"Very well, as you put it like that," said I, grudgingly accepting his apology. "You wouldn't have fooled me for much longer though, even with that tourniquet of yours."
"Thankfully, I did not have to. Weaver appeared, went through his usual routine and thus I was able to apprehend him in the very act."
"Was it really necessary to leave it to the last minute like that? He could have shot me in the head."
"Not with my pistol pointed at his. Watson, you know I have a flair for the dramatic. This had to play through the end. I had to know his every move."
As usual, he seemed to have all the answers. He had been confident enough in his abilities to risk both our lives on this venture and had been proved correct, although whether by sheer good fortune or good judgement I did not like to ask. The case had been concluded, an assassin was no more and my nerves were thoroughly rattled, yet there was still something I did not understand.
"Why did he do it, Holmes? You said he was a solicitor."
He took a long, deep breath. "Mr Stanley Wentworth Weaver was the youngest of a coal mining family of twelve. He had the good fortune to be born with brains, and this did not go unnoticed. He was saved from a life down the mines by a recommendation to a scholarship scheme, administered by Lord Bayborough. Weaver excelled and was expected to take the bar at the Inner Temple. However, his roots told against him and he was excluded despite his brilliance. Who can say what bitterness this bred or when his mind first turned to murder? His first victim was almost certainly Lord Bayborough, a classic case of biting the hand that had nurtured him. From then on, his career as a murderer for hire seems to have flourished."
"How did you make the connection?"
"In the usual way. A client came to me, some six weeks ago, distraught that the authorities believed that her sister had been killed by her husband, who had then committed suicide. I was convinced enough by her assurance that this could not have been the case to make a few enquiries. The main benefactor was the husband's younger brother and his representative was…"
"Mr Stanley Weaver."
"Correct. It seemed to me an odd alliance, given that Weaver was based in London and the younger brother in Cumbria. Weaver had done no work for him before and the choice seemed purely arbitrary. A few more enquiries revealed the nature of his unpalatable trade. Trapping him, however, was another matter. So, perhaps irresponsibly, I applied pressure by hounding him and forced him to show his hand."
It all made perfect sense now he had explained it. I was glad that an appalling murderer had been brought to justice, but not so by the method Holmes had employed. That my misgivings told on my face was evident from his next question.
"You are still brooding, Watson?"
"No, I am just a little shaken by the whole episode. You really should have told me about the case."
"You are busy with your own affairs," said he. "Despite what you may believe, I do not like to badger you incessantly with my petty problems."
"This was not petty, Holmes! Forewarned is forearmed."
He held up a hand. "Please, Watson, no clichés. I'm too tired. What would you have me say in my defence?"
"There was no other way?"
He shook his head. "Had there been, I would never have considered such recklessness."
"Then I suppose as you say the end justified the means."
Holmes shook his head. "No, it was not well done and this ending most unsatisfactory. If even a small percentage of his files represent a paid murder, then his victims must number in the hundreds over the course of his career. His death now before questioning has allowed the guilty to dart left and right from our net. His clients paid him for his skill and ultimately his silence. He was in that respect a true professional."
"At least he will not murder again."
"Yes, that is true. We must be grateful for small mercies. I'm sure with some deeper investigation some other of his foul deeds may be brought to light."
He had been staring long and hard at the fire while he spoke, but now his gaze came back to me and fell upon the blood-smeared towel I was holding.
"Those hands of yours, Doctor, need attention," said he.
"They are clean cuts. They will heal well enough."
"Many a man has died from an infected wound," said Holmes. "Physician, heal thyself, and then I think we will take a late supper at the restaurant around the corner. That is, if you are not too shaken to countenance a meal?"
"Now you mention it, Holmes, I am quite hungry. What about Mrs Hudson?"
"She will not return until morning, again at my urging. I did not want her here."
"In case of failure?"
He offered me a brief smile. "It was a consideration. Well, Watson, shall we be away? In view of my behaviour lately, I insist that this should be my treat."
"Funnily enough, that idea had occurred to me too. I bought you a gift, Holmes. A twenty-year old malt. It's in my bag. Oh, but don't drink it," said I, seeing him take up the bottle to investigate. "There's arsenic in it."
"Truly then a poisoned chalice," he remarked. "And a dire waste at that. Whatever possessed you to go to such expense on my behalf?"
"I felt I had wronged you by my harsh accusations the other day."
He hummed a little. "Ah, yes, you said I had been apt to use you in the past. Well, judging from the events of today, I fear your pronouncement may not be entirely unsound."
"Unfair then. I am as culpable as you are. What I have done and all I have experienced these many years of our friendship, I would not have missed for worlds."
"Even that, Holmes."
He held my gaze for a long moment before laying his hand on my shoulder.
"Ah, my good and faithful Watson, you are truly the medicine of life. 'Forsake not an old friend', as the Bible has it, for when a friendship is old, as with wine, does one drink it with pleasure."
It was said lightly, but I sensed the sincerity behind his words and was grateful for it.
"Very well," said I. "Just promise me one thing."
"Let's avoid whisky. I've had my fill of that day."
When he caught my eye, it was to see that my comment had not been seriously meant and we laid the ghost of that evening with laughter, dinner and finally a much welcome sherry.
Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson et al are the creations are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Characters and incidents mentioned in this work are entirely fictitious. This work of fan fiction is for entertainment purposes only and has not been created for profit.