In gratitude for KCS allowing me to steal the plot bunny from her "221 B" drabble series, this story is a (somewhat prolonged) birthday gift to her.
but I'm sure she'll let everyone read it too. ;)
Sherlock Holmes was looking thoughtfully at a telegram when I staggered into the sitting room, weary beyond belief and chilled to the bone. Taking one look at me, he laid aside the paper and stoked the fire. Then, as I collapsed into my chair, he passed me a glass of brandy and left an afghan within arm's reach.
"Mr. Callum is dead then?"
"Yes," I sighed. I had mentioned in passing to Holmes that poor Callum's case looked dire; the man had been nearly seventy with a rare and virulent form of pneumonia. Even so, I loathed losing any patient. Holmes knew that. My countenance alone was undoubtedly enough to deduce Callum's death, to say nothing of my having been called away suddenly almost six hours ago in wretched early-February weather.
"At the risk of throwing your own words back at you, you are running yourself ragged, Watson," Holmes scolded me gently.
It was true I had been absent from Baker Street more than I had been present these past couple months. Even without a practice, the services of every able-bodied doctor had been in demand. I smiled tiredly and sipped at my drink. "Well, it is influenza season, after all. Fortunately it has almost run its course."
"And not a moment too soon."
"No," I agreed. "I haven't seen an influenza season this bad since . . ." I trailed off, hoping to halt the onslaught of unpleasant memories before it began.
"Since?" prompted Holmes curiously.
"Late '91 and early '92," I finished softly.
"Ah." He fell silent for a moment, no doubt aware of hard that year had been for me, for so many reasons. There had been that infamous incident at Reichenbach but also the passing of Mary's and my infant daughter. It is terrible to mourn the death of a child but in the case of a baby, I think, it is worse. One mourns not only the child itself but the lost potential for the person she would have grown into.
Holmes interrupted my dark musings by passing me the telegram he had been reading. "If you are not too fatigued, perhaps you would care to take a look at this." It read:
Please help me will call ten am tomorrow.
"What a presumptuous, perfunctory message!" I cried, setting my brandy aside.
"Do you think so?" Holmes smiled. "I should rather like to hear your reasoning for such a statement."
"Well, for one, the lady assumes you will be free on a Sunday morning at the time she specifies rather than requesting to meet with you. There is also the matter of the lack of sentence breaks and her use of 'am' instead of 'a.m.' I also find it curious that she leaves off her pronoun entirely. Is she married or unmarried? We have no way of knowing the correct way of addressing her when she does come to call, which I find unnecessarily awkward and rude."
Still smiling, Holmes took back the telegram. "It has been a rough day for you, Watson, or I do not think you would be so quick to judge. For my part, I find the construction of her message to illustrate her strength of character and her ingenuity."
"The briefness of the telegram and the, as you put it, 'presumptuousness' of her desire to call at ten o'clock tomorrow morning tells of her need to economize. Sunday, of course, is a day of rest for laborers and the only day she is free to come. She dares not take a leave of absence from her work, no matter how dire her straights. Also, the telegram companies force her to have a minimum of ten words but she wastes not a one of them. 'Am' transmits as one word but 'a.m.' transmits as two, after all. Yet she begins with 'please,' an unnecessary politeness. As for what form of address to utilize, the lady is undoubtedly married."
I shook my head. "Come now, Holmes, however could you know that?"
"I know that because I already know of the lady. That may be one of the reasons she left off her pronoun to begin with." With that, Holmes turned to his indexes, pulling down the "L" volume and after a moment's hesitation, the "V" one as well.
"Do you have her listed under her maiden name?" I asked, for that was the only reason I could think of for the second volume.
"No. You may be gratified to learn I am utterly in the dark as to Mrs. Lynch's maiden name. I do, however, know her husband." So saying, Holmes passed me the "L" volume while he opened the "V." I was confused as to why Mr. Lynch would be listed under "V" instead of "L" and I said as much even as I turned pages dutifully.
"Victor Lynch," Holmes answered quietly, pausing in his search, "was one of my original Irregulars when I still lived on Montague Street. When he turned fourteen I helped him gain an apprenticeship at a bookstore specializing in antiques and rarities; he showed a remarkable interest in historical articles. He did very well, until the financial strain of a young but growing family tempted him to begin forging old books. He was quite good at it too."
"How was he caught?" I faltered. "Did you –"
"No, it was not I who caught him at it." My friend sighed. "However, I was at his trial. He was shown some leniency but even so, was sentenced to five years of hard labor. It was five years ago this year, as I recall, which may explain the desperate message from his wife today."
With this knowledge came a better understanding of the lady's circumstances. With a husband in jail and at least one child to care for, her life must be one of hardships. Small wonder she had phrased the telegram in the manner she had.
"Do you wish me to assist you in this matter?" I asked hesitantly. Clearly whatever mystery Mrs. Lynch had to bring to Holmes was one which would stir up unpleasant memories that, intensely private person that he was, he might not wish to share with me.
Instead, he looked surprised that I would even ask such a thing. "Certainly I would value your help," answered he readily. "That is, if it is not inconvenient. You yourself said this is influenza season."
I took up my brandy once again and enjoyed the warmth from the freshly-stoked fire. "I cannot make any guarantees but I shall do my best to be available." This optimism was sorely strained when shortly thereafter came a request to see yet another patient.