Sherlock Holmes is the singular and exceptional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story is a work of fan fiction, written by a fan, for the pleasure of other fans and no harm is meant or intended by its creation.
The Case of the Three Brothers
Chapter One: An Encounter in Bloomsbury
The year 1888 I remember as one being dominated, first and foremost, by women. For some there were beginnings, as in my own felicitous state of matrimony; for others, endings, in the wave of bloody slayings that brought terror to the inhabitants of Whitechapel and many beyond. Even Holmes did not escape this feminine onslaught unscathed, and it was some time before the case that involved the woman was able to pass mention without eliciting either a frown or a wince from my normally saturnine friend.
However, that afternoon, a mere three days from the date of my wedding, my thoughts were on anything other than the fair sex, and not even the comely freckled face of a laughing red-headed woman could generate enough interest on my part to spare her a second glance. I do not fancy myself a Don Juan, despite what Holmes might hold about my natural advantages with our female clients, a fact I attribute entirely to an unfortunate remark I once made – which incautiously appeared in print – about my former experiences with women over many nations and many continents. I contend that much has been misread into what I considered at the time an innocuous comment – and no end of trouble, from many and varied quarters.
However, I will readily confess that I am not immune to the charms of a pretty face, and certainly this Titan-haired beauty would have stood out in any gathering of handsome women. What caught my interest was the brief impression I had of the sizeable man she was embracing, or at any rate, attempting to do so, for her arms could not adequately encircle his girth. A great bear of a man, fully six feet tall, although his bulk made him appear larger, flabby of jowl and, one suspected, of other parts best concealed by his dark coat, he fairly towered over his paramour so that she had to stretch up on tiptoe to kiss his florid thread-veined cheek.
This was clearly a tender lovers' farewell if ever there was one, and while in certain parts of the capital such open displays of fondness are frowned upon, here in the shabbier part of Bloomsbury such matters were treated with rather more tolerance. One strives to exercise the greatest discretion in such circumstances, although on this occasion, I fear I was found somewhat wanting in this respect. I walked passed them, feeling my jaw growing ever slacker and staring rather more openly than was proper, and bumped into an elderly woman carrying a basket of flowers coming in the other direction. She clicked her tongue and muttered something ungracious, although whether about me or the embracing couple I could not say.
The effect of this was to startle the pair from their affections in the realisation that they were not alone. I darted down the nearest steps and into the darkened area below as the man glanced over his shoulder to investigate the cause of the commotion. From above came the sound of muffled voices, a final yet tender farewell, and then the bulky shadow of the man passed above my head as he set out down the street.
I dared not move for a full minute for fear that he might look back and see me emerging from my hiding place. Explaining to any irate gentleman why I had been caught in such an awkward situation would be difficult enough; trying to explain myself to the brother of Sherlock Holmes why I had been apparently spying on him had only less attraction than the prospect of putting my head into a hungry lion's mouth.
That it had been Mycroft Holmes I was certain as I watched his broad back retreat down the road. What surprised me was less what he was doing – how a man conducts himself in private is his own business, after all – but rather where he was doing it. Only several months before, when I had met his brother for the first time during the affair of the Greek Interpreter, Holmes had given me to believe that his sibling lived a most sedentary life, alternating between Whitehall and Pall Mall with very little variation. Clearly, that statement was now called into question.
From what I had seen, I had to conclude that either Holmes was lying to me or he was unaware of his brother's 'other' interests. I did not entirely discount the first; Holmes often lied by omission when it suited him to do, and I was not so dull-witted as to imagine that he had censored certain details about his family during the course of our earlier investigation.
That he had offered the information quite freely, however, without any prompting, led me to believe that what he had said was close enough to the truth as he saw it for me to take him at his word. If he did know about the existence of this woman, it was unlikely that he would have mentioned her to me. There are some matters touching blood that are better kept within the bounds of family and not made general knowledge, even to intimate acquaintances.
As plausible as this explanation was, it did not sit happily with either my slight knowledge of the gentleman or the setting for this encounter. The area had seen better days, and the blackened Georgian terraces slumped against each other like so many drunkards leaning against their fellows for support. The curtains were grimy, the steps unwashed, and the interior, one supposed, as lacking in the opulent comforts of the Diogenes Club as was possible to find. It was the sort of place one might expect to find pigeons in the rafters, rats in the skirting and fleas in the bed, rooms only countenanced when either down on one's luck or trying to hide a secret from friends and family.
It was not too much a stretch of the imagination to narrow the cause of this furtive behaviour to the object of his affections, an attractive woman undoubtedly, but somewhat less than a lady. A man with a position in Whitehall and an office of responsibility had to be seen to be above reproach in all matters, including his personal affairs. Holmes undoubtedly would have disapproved; we had seen enough men threatened with blackmail over slighter matters than this.
All things considered, I was fast arriving at the inescapable conclusion that Holmes did not know of his brother's personal affairs. If so, he would not learn of them from me.
With Mycroft Holmes long vanished, I pulled up my collar against the chill blast of wind from the unseasonal turn of the weather and set off towards Holborn, keeping alert for a passing cab. As usual, when one is most in need, ready transport never presents itself until too late to be of much use. My own spirits were not particularly high, plagued as I was by throbbing in my weak leg, and I admit I was distracted by my thoughts, so that for the second time that day I had the misfortune to run full into another pedestrian.
This fellow, an insolent man in a loud checked-suit with a pox-scarred face and lip twisted up into a permanent grin, made no attempt to disengage himself from our collision, but rather seemed intent on making a nuisance of himself by standing firmly in my way. Then it was that I became aware of another man behind me, and it began to dawn on me that the street was otherwise empty and dusk was beginning to draw in. I gathered I was about to be parted from my money and valuables, and could only curse myself the lack of attention which had landed me in this devilish mess.
"Now look here," I said, "get out of my way, won't you?"
The man with scarred face smirked, his lip lifting into something approximating the leer of a cathedral gargoyle. "Not so fast," said he, easily blocking my attempts to get past him. "Would you be Dr John Watson?"
I hesitated. "Yes."
"Dr John Watson what had a brother, name of Harry?"
My soul sank. The mention of my now deceased elder brother rarely boded well, especially when his name came up in the presence of ruffians such as these. "Yes, Henry Watson was my brother."
This affirmation pleased him. "Well, now, that's more like it," said he in what now I recognised as a pronounced Liverpudlian accent. "What wi'you being all hostile, like, and we having a mutual acquaintance in your brother, we didn't know what to think and us only trying to make sure we got the right fella, like. Ain't that right, Bert?" Behind me, Bert, unsmiling, arms folded, standing solid and immoveable as granite, made a grudging grunt of agreement. "Our boss, Mr Bulstrode, he don't have time for mistakes, see. It makes things so much easier if we get the right man from the get-go in matters such as these."
"Matters such as what?"
"The small matter of a gambling debt."
I suspected as much. Henry had left very little at his death, save the clothes he stood up in, a pawn ticket for our father's watch and a mountain of unpaid bills. Of this legacy, the clothes had been buried with him, and the watch and the bills had come to me. His legitimate expenses were onerous enough, but these so-called debts of honour were crippling and far too frequent for my liking.
"See, last time he was at Aintree," this would-be collector of debts went on almost apologetically, "your brother, Harry, backed a couple of lame nags. Now, he weren't to know their next stop'd be knacker's yard. We've all done it, Dr Watson, and a lapse o'judgement's not to be held against any man. Thing was, in your brother's case, he borrowed the money from Mr Bulstrode to do it, like, and Mr Bulstrode, well, he's a gambling man an'all, but he don't like to be outta pocket."
"How much?" I asked wearily.
"Oh, I'm glad you understand, sir. Makes things so much more agreeable, like, and me and Bert, we don't like having to rough up good people, o'cause of a debt. Now, in Harry's case, the sum in question is £100 10s and 6d."
I caught my breath. The amount was far beyond what I could afford, even at the best of times.
"Seeing as how you're to be getting hitched in a couple o'days, let's forget about the odds and make it a round hundred pounds," the fellow said affably. "And you have it ready the day after tomorrow. What wi'you having other things on your mind, you don't want to be worrying about this on your wedding day. Best settle it before, like."
"I'm not sure I can raise that amount by then," I admitted.
His face fell. "I'm right sorry to hear that, Doctor," said he. "We'd hate for you to have to miss your wedding, only we've got our instructions, see. You pay up or we have to give you a beating. We don't want to have to do that, what with you being an old soldier and having a pretty lass waiting for you, but we can't make an exception. Well, if we did, people'd be saying me and Bert were going soft or somemat. Now, what's it to be?"
I glanced at Bert, and wondered what chance I would stand against such a large, brawny fellow. It was the way he ground a fist into his palm with grim determination that finally convinced me not to be quite so honest about my financial problems and to adopt a more diplomatic tack.
"I'll do what I can."
The fellow clumped me heartily on the shoulder. "That's the spirit, Doctor."
"Where will I find you?"
"Oh, don't you be worrying yourself 'bout that," said he, smoothing down my rumpled sleeve. "We'll find you, won't we, Bert? Good at finding people, we are. Lucky, you might say. That's how we found you, by seeing your name in the paper, like. There I was, reading the announcements and there was your name, Doctor, so I says to Bert: 'You reckon that might'n be Harry's brother what owed Mr Bulstrode that money?' And he says to me: 'Reckon so, Fred.' And so here we are and here you are."
"Well, Doctor, now that's cleared up, we'll be getting on. You don't want to be hanging about round here; there's some very funny people about. Good day, Dr Watson. We'll be seeing you… soon."
Oo-er! What was Mycroft up to? And Dr Watson, get that money quick! Those ruffians sound like they mean business!
Continued in Chapter Two!