A Little Night Reading: Five Vignettes
Sprawled bonelessly on the sofa, he's not quite comfortable, but he's far too exhausted to move. Exhausted and fascinated by the tatty paperback in his hands.
London. His London, his beat, his responsibility. It hardly matters that the Autumn of Terror happened more than a century ago. The unsolved case throbs like an open wound in the body of Scotland Yard, even now.
DI Lestrade aches for the city, for the victims, and for the policemen who remained baffled and eluded by that mad bastard Jack the Ripper.
He sympathises with Inspector Frederick Abberline, the driven copper with a burden for the people and for the truth, ultimately left with nothing but empty hands.
He doubts Sir Melville Macnaghten's judgments, which often appear unsupported by careful research. In particular, he questions the accuracy of the so-called canonical "Macnaghten five"; to Lestrade, at least one of those poor women seems an unlikely Ripper victim, and at least one other who didn't make the list seems a likely one. How many investigations over the years have been undermined by potentially false assumptions about which of the murders were Jack's?
He bristles at the hubris of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren. He knows it's coming – he's read the book before, after all – but when Warren orders the erasure of the mysterious chalked message on the wall on Ghoulston Street, discovered the morning of the Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes double-murder, Lestrade groans aloud.
The few contemporary accounts of the message, hurriedly scribbled before officials washed the words away, don't agree. Destroyed evidence. A potentially vital clue, lost forever.
All thanks to higher-ups who had no idea what dogged, painstaking police work truly is about.
Then, abruptly, he chuckles at himself and scrubs a hand through his greying hair.
Why am I reading this? This is my life, he thinks. No need to borrow frustration. Got plenty of my own, don't I? Sherlock's right: I'm an idiot.
He sets the book aside with more care than its battered condition warrants. He makes an effort to shrug off the stress of men long dead so that he can shoulder his own substantial load for another night.
As he reaches for the remote for the telly, however, Lestrade sighs again. He can't help himself.
If only Sherlock Holmes had been around in 1888, he thinks. Maybe some tired, desperate copper would've had the good sense to consult the genius before it was too late.
The e-reader is state-of-the-art, sleek and compact and complete with the latest features to enhance one's interactivity with a text. He sets it aside on the table, next to his snifter of brandy. Sometimes, even Mycroft Holmes yearns for a hands-on experience.
He reaches for a thick volume that is leather-bound and gilt-edged, and he settles it on his silk pyjama-clad thighs. It's been a hellish nightmare of a day, weeks of negotiations culminating in a fourteen-hour showdown that threatened to leave blood on the priceless antique rugs.
In the end, however, resolution came, and the destiny of continents was determined with a few nods and handshakes – no signed names, no paper trails. One must always maintain plausible deniability, after all.
Mycroft feels every moment of those tense fourteen hours knotted in the cramping muscles of his shoulders and neck. But he also feels a deeper, slower burn of primal satisfaction.
The day is his. For now, he's won.
He glances down at the book. Herodotus has his charms, as any connoisseur of human nature must admit, but Mycroft Holmes is a Thucydides man at his core. At his coaxing touch The Peloponnesian War falls open, as he knew it would, to a familiar passage in the Melian Dialogue.
If pages wore down beneath eyes as tiles and floorboards do beneath feet, Mycroft would have trampled these pages into dust with his frequent visitations.
After a sip of brandy, Mycroft ghosts long fingers over specific lines. The unfortunate Melians, "just men fighting against unjust," were putting their case to the powerful Athenians, one-time champions of democratic justice now turned imperial expansionists.
The Athenians' reply predated Niccolò Machiavelli and realpolitikby more than a thousand years:
"Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule whenever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us…"
Mycroft nods. Wearily. If he's tired of this day, no one possibly could blame him. But if he's tired of the game as a whole, he dares not admit it, not ever, not even to himself.
"To exist forever after us," he murmurs to the empty room. Forever is a crushingly long time. Then again, how much has changed since 416 BCE? Very little indeed.
Easing back into the overstuffed armchair, Mycroft stretches his neck and rolls his shoulders. With single-minded focus, he savours the warmth of another swallow of brandy as it slides down his throat and into his belly, joining that deeper, slower burn, encouraging it, heightening it.
"I won." He says the words out loud, the e-reader and books and history itself his silent audience.
The night is chilly. Mrs Hudson's bad hip frets and complains. At last she abandons the evening, avails herself of her herbal soothers, and props herself up in her cosy bed.
Goodness knows she should be ashamed of reading picture books at her age. Well, she should be ashamed of many things, shouldn't she?
Perhaps Sherlock's morbid sense of humour is rubbing off on her. Or is it the other way around? She'd loan her lodger the book, if she didn't fear she'd never see it again.
As she opens the pages, she's already grinning.
Really, it's positively indecent. No book about little children dying in all sorts of ghastly ways should be so amusing.
By the time she reaches "N is for Neville, who died of ennui," she's giggling aloud.
It's the illustrations, she tells herself. That's it.
Or maybe it's the herbal soothers.
Then it's "Z is for Zillian, who drank too much gin," and one last laugh, and time for sleep.
"Edward Gorey, dear man," Mrs Hudson murmurs to herself as she turns out the light.
As she drifts into slumber, she feels no pain.
An unrepentant grin plays across her lips.
It's late. It's dark. It's still.
Sherlock is on fire.
He darts back and forth beside the kitchen table, where stacks of files and dog-eared books, a laptop open to a split-screen view, and his mobile phone lie scattered. His pacing feet, his gesturing hands, his whispering lips – none can keep up with his mind as it races between inspiration and insight and back again with quicksilver speed.
Everything began with his unexpected discovery of an obscure scholarly article: "Prophesies and Politics: Millenarians, Rabbis, and the Jewish Indian Theory."
Of course the rabbis and the Native ambassadors of the seventeenth century both had clear, practical reasons to support the idea that the North American peoples were the Lost Tribes of Israel. But the Christian millenarians…
The Hebrew language. And Tsalagi.
The old Poole case.
Yes, he thought, as puzzle pieces fell together. Yes.
He unearthed the files and books without missing a beat.
This means Oklahoma, doesn't it? he asks himself now.
He reaches for his laptop and types in a Google search.
Tahlequah. The Cherokee Nation.
The stains on those boxes. Surely they're a fruitful clue.
Which leads him to the International Journal of Climatology. Four distinct quadrants of rainfall in the state… no. No, five.
But wait. Something doesn't fit.
Somewhere those unfamiliar words that the witness overheard must be replicated.
He grabs his mobile and consults YouTube.
No. Different sounds altogether. What has he missed?
He picks up a textbook. Flips through it. Chews his lip.
Of course! Tsalagi became a written language in 1821, but after the forced division of the Cherokee Nation via the Trail of Tears in 1838-1839, the dialects developed separately. One syllabary, two pronunciations.
Not Oklahoma. North Carolina.
His fingers fly across the laptop's keys. So close. So very close. His eyes scan the screen.
Aha! Direct flights from Charlotte, North Carolina to Gatwick Airport. There's the London connection.
What year did the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act take effect? The few moments it takes to verify the date feel like a lifetime.
The timing explains the smuggling. And thus the murder.
His ever-evolving list of suspects instantly dwindles to one name.
"Yes!" Sherlock shouts.
Another forgotten cold case, put to bed. Simple, really. Elementary, even.
He spins in a circle, arms thrown open wide, and laughs to himself.
He'll text Lestrade soon. Not just now.
It's not that late, is it? No, the night is young, and so is he.
And he's on fire.
There were times when John Watson believed he'd never know such innocent, profound pleasures again: the softness of a well-worn tee-shirt and pyjama pants against his skin, the warmth of a bedtime cup of tea, the comfort of a good book in his hands.
And it's precisely because of such times – once, as he bled into the desert sand in Afghanistan; most recently, as he crouched by the pool before Moriarty and his explosives – that these joys seem all the dearer now.
The short story he's reading is a simple one, on its surface.
John takes it seriously.
He thrills with Smith as the villager encounters the dangers and wonders of the Perilous Realm. He pities Nokes when the cook refuses to recognise Faery, to be transformed by it, even when its king stands before his eyes.
At the end, John's heart rejoices when Smith chooses the unassuming little lad Tim, so easily overlooked or overshadowed, as the one to be his heir. It's unremarkable Tim alone who inherits the fay star and thus a future of adventure beyond his wildest imaginings.
He'll take nothing for granted, John thinks. He'll try his best to do right.
A shout sounds from the floor below John, and moments later, a peal of Sherlock's mad laughter.
John wipes his eyes on the corner of his shirt, even as he smiles to himself. He knows all about facing the Perilous Realm, doesn't he? He knows all about recognising the deep magic that's right in front of him.
He holds the book to his chest for a moment. Feeling for little Tim. Feeling for J.R.R. Tolkien, who created him. Feeling for the genius downstairs.
One more story, he decides, and he reopens the collection. He leans toward its pages, like green life bends toward the sun.
Bibliographic Note: The works referenced above are as follows:
For Lestrade: The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sudgen
For Mycroft: The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Richard Crawley
For Mrs Hudson: The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
For Sherlock: Too numerous to count! The article "Prophesies and Politics: Millenarians, Rabbis, and the Jewish Indian Theory" appears in Seventeenth Century, vol. 14, no. 1 (April 1999). The article "Spatial Coherence of Rainfall Variations Using the Oklahoma Mesonet" appears in the International Journal of Climatology, DOI: 10.1002 (2011).
For John: "Smith of Wootton Major" in A Tolkien Miscellany by J.R.R. Tolkien
Vital Stats: Originally written in October 2011.