Author’s Note: This was one of those stories that swore it was going to be short and sweet, and then took on a life of its own. It may have gone a little off the rails as well. It should have been done last week, though, so here it is, off the rails or not.
My only excuse is, Holmes did it, so Charlotte thought she should do it, too.
“You look real familiar,” the girl says through a wry, slanted grin. Her words slur a bit at the ends and her breath smells strongly of rum. Both of those conditions relate directly to her location – a less than desirable pub by the docks – and the pint container in her hand. It’s her second; she’s no expert at holding her liquor, though she wants to give off that impression.
Her name is Rebecca, though it doesn’t really matter. She goes by Becky. That matters little as well. At a quick glance, someone might mistake her for twenty. Closer examination reveals the faint wonder still present in her eyes and the softness that lingers yet in her face. She’s sixteen if she’s a day. Too young to be wasting her days scrubbing someone’s floors, but it’s what fate has left for her. Too sweet, maybe, for what’s to come, but that can’t be helped.
Becky leans her pink cheek against her hand. Her elbow hits the table hard enough to jostle the other glasses on it, though she thinks it’s a much smoother and gentler motion. “What’d y’say your name was again?”
“Charlie.” I pitch my voice as low as nature allows and wink as I pretend to take a swig from my mug. “Said you worked for Mr. Milverton, didn’t you?”
“You’ve been doing what?” Watson stares at me in blank disbelief. I can’t read a thing in his expression beyond shock. “For God’s sake, Holmes…”
“Well, I couldn’t hardly send you into do it, could I?” The adhesive tugs painfully at my lip as I pull the false mustache free. I’m amazed, looking down at the disguise, that a layer of skin didn’t come off as well. “Too good hearted, for one. Could never lead a young girl on that way.”
“And it would drive her spare with jealousy for two.” Fidelia sits in my usual arm-chair, the voluminous mass of her tell-tale red curls hidden by the hood of a dark cape. Her grin radiates amusement, and is unhelpful. “Besides, even you have to admit she makes a very fetching young man. Nearly a photocopy of her brother with that bit of shading on her cheeks.”
I pause in the removal of said careful shading to glance at Fi over the face cloth. “How do you…”
“Can we please get back to the part where you were flirting with one of Milverton’s maids?” Watson drops heavily onto the couch, like an invisible hand nudged him backwards into a fall. He still looks boggled. That’s the best word for his expression. “Charlotte, what were you thinking?”
“That we need a way into Milverton’s house if we’re going to get Fi’s letters back for her. The man’s home is setup like a fortress, Watson. Without an unwitting ally on the inside, we’ve no possible means of gaining access. The girl is the weakest link in his staff, but unfortunately, she saw both of us when we met with Milverton earlier. So, I…altered the plan a little.”
“A little? I’d hardly call that…”
“Oh, just be happy for her, Doctor. She’s engaged!”
Earlier that week…
“I don’t like this,” Watson said, hands clasped together over the head of his cane in a tight, nervous grip. We sat in a lavishly adorned parlor, a weighty air of excessive opulence dangling from the bejeweled fixtures overhead and the gilded accoutrements scattered about the room. It didn’t look like a serpent’s den exactly, but I still had the overwhelming impression that if I managed to cut myself on any sharp edge, the latent venom the owner exuded through his every pore would have me poisoned before I could take note of the wound.
London had no end of foul men performing fouler deeds amongst its rolls, but none sullied the city’s air more thoroughly than Charles Augustus Milverton, renowned blackmailer and our presumptive host. The reptilian analogy suited him well, because all accounts of the man pointed to him being as vicious and venomous as a riled cobra. He might have gone his entire career without crossing my path, if not for his sudden acquisition of letters belonging to one of Fidelia’s paramours.
“Paramours” always sounded much more dignified than “clients.”
“Anne refused to allow the man entrance in Baker Street, and for good reason. I don’t want him pawing about in my personal documents, thank you very much. But we had to meet him somewhere. Besides, he likely keeps his spoils in the house, so the opportunity to get a glance at the layout is…”
The sitting room door opened. A petite blonde girl in a typical maid’s uniform stepped in carrying a silver tea service. Only a few steps behind her followed a tall, ruddy-faced gentleman in a suit half a size too small for him, which only stood out more because of the high quality of it. His hair was gray and thinning at the top of his head. Except for the sharp, disingenuous nature of his smile, Milverton otherwise looked harmless. He further dashed that impression the first time he opened his mouth.
“Miss Holmes, I presume?” His voice had an oily quality that, in very few words, still managed to leave an unpleasant residue behind. He sat in the lush armchair across from us and shooed the girl from the room with a quick wave of his hand as soon as her tray touched the table between our positions. “And you must be Doctor Watson,” he said, nodding to my companion. “May I interest you in a spot of tea?”
“The hospitality is generous, but I believe we’re here on more pressing…”
Milverton cut me off with a clearing of his throat. “I believe you’re here mostly as decoration for the good doctor’s arm, Miss Holmes, and your own delusion that you’ve any place in the business of men. So do be quiet.”
“Listen here, you…” Watson stifled the rant, and my attempt to leap from the couch to pounce on our host, with a squeeze of my forearm and a quick glance. Like most of his looks, that brief flick of his eyes held multitudes: understanding, warning, a plea for me to keep my head, the promise that he had the situation well in hand. I didn’t doubt the latter; I simply had a problem managing the former.
“I think what Miss Holmes means, Mr. Milverton, is that the business we’ve come to discuss is likely not the sort to be delayed by formality.” His grip on my forearm loosened and he patted the tense length of muscle and bone instead. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“The business you’ve come to discuss is only worthy of discussion if you’ve brought me either Miss Thomas’ acceptance of my terms or,” Milverton paused to reach for the teapot and fill a cup, “a check that covers them.”
Watson cleared his throat; the sound synchronized perfectly with my attempt to interject. “While both Miss Thomas and her associate are well-heeled individuals, neither of them has access to the sort of funds you’re requesting.”
“I said, bollocks.” Milverton sat back in his chair with his teacup in hand. “I would apologize for my profanity in front of a lady, if that’s your objection, doctor, but I have it on good authority there isn’t one present.” He smiled at me; it was a revoltingly vulgar expression. “I have it on better authority you are well aware of how little lady there is to her.”
This time, it was my hand on Watson’s arm, my grip keeping him in his seat when he growled out an angry “Listen here.” At the display, Milverton laughed.
“I’m sure your client and her ‘associate’ could quite easily get their hands on what I’m requesting if properly motivated. Nothing seems more properly motivating than the publication of their correspondence in Friday’s paper. It’s none of my business, of course, but in your shoes, I would recommend they reconsider my offer.” He whistled. The door opened and the same blonde entered, curtseying to her employer. “See them out would you, Rebecca? We’re done.”
“This way, please,” the girl said, not looking up from the carpet. Watson rose and I followed suit, gently urging him toward the door. It was just about to shut behind us when Milverton’s voice rang out once more.
“When this bit of business is concluded, we’ll meet again to discuss your terms, Doctor.”
I barely managed to drag Watson from the house, so vivid was his need to go back and snap Milverton’s neck. Trust that I fully understood and shared his impulse.
Watson and I leave our hansom a mile from our destination and approach Milverton’s house on foot. It is a quiet walk. Part of the silence is the weight of what we are about to undertake, though it is hardly the only cause. The conversation that preceded our departure from Baker Street was anything but. Fidelia and I planned to handle the extraction ourselves; Watson, however, objected to this plan. Strenuously. “If you’re going to risk death or arrest, I’m going with you,” he said, standing in the doorway to impede our escape. “Otherwise, I’m marching to the Yard and reporting you to Lestrade myself.”
Capitulation proved easier than debate.
When we reach the house, I lead Watson to the side door Becky has taken to leaving open for my alternate persona. I guide it open, careful not to make a sound as I wave Watson in behind me. The interior of the house is pitch dark as we step inside. I reach for his hand and together we pick our way down the back hallway.
“Milverton has one live-in, his houseman. His room is at the rear. Milverton’s rooms at the front, upstairs. He retires early.” I snort as I ease us around a sideboard and down another hall branching off to the right. “Ruining people’s lives is tiring business, I suppose.”
“They do say only the guilty sleep,” Watson says. He pulls me to a jerking stop at the base of the servant’s stairs when the creak of a floorboard sounds overhead. We wait, still and breathless, to see if another follows. There is nothing but silence, though, in answer. I let out a sigh of relief and Watson squeezes my hand before we begin creeping our way up the stairs. “A life of crime is a bit more stressful than you expected, I take it?”
“Such a polite and brief lecture. Your growing range of skills is impressive, doctor.”
“Says the newly engaged woman. Man. I’m confused, actually, and wondering-“
“Oh for heaven’s sake.” I sigh. He sounds amused, at least, given the topic, though I’m not sure I appreciate being the target of his amusement. “Sweet Becky has her eye on the houseman. He makes a respectable living and is apparently endlessly charming. Likes to spread that charm around. Another suitor, in her mind, is an excellent way to inspire her beloved to take a more singular interest. I, sadly, am little more than a pawn in their game of romantic chess.”
We reach the top of the stairs and pause, listening. There’s not a sound. I lean forward enough to peek down the hall. Not a sliver of light can be seen under a single door. I pull Watson into the hallway and tiptoe toward a door near the middle of the hall.
“On the topic of pawns…” Watson says, clearing his throat.
“Yes. If any man knows anything of using people as pawns, it would be our current host. Keep an eye out, would you?” I kneel at the doorknob and pull a lock-breaker’s kit from the pocket of my coat. “This, according to a little bird in my recent acquaintance, is Milverton’s study. His safe, where he is rumored to keep all his dirty secrets, is inside.”
“Holmes, that isn’t what…”
“Just one more second…Ah-ha! There we go.” I turn the knob and push the door open with a triumphant grin. “Let’s get to business, shall we?”
Once inside, we discover a room equally as ostentatious as the one we were shown to on our original visit. A large desk dominates one interior wall; a picture window to the right of it, half obscured by drawn curtains, allows in the light from the street lamps below. A sideboard takes up most of the wall opposite the desk. There is just enough light to see the numbers on the dial – and that the safe itself is open. “Well, that’s odd.”
“Maybe someone else beat us to it?”
“Well, I suppose it’s…shh! I hear someone coming.”
This time it wasn’t a creaky floorboard, but the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Heavy footsteps, purposeful, alert. Watson grabs me by the elbow and drags me to the heavy curtains. We tuck in behind them just before the study door swings open. A moment later there’s the sound of a match strike, followed a second later by the dull glow of a lamp. The creak of leather and springs announces Milverton has claimed his chair; another match is lit, then the smell of cigar smoke joins the faint tang of burning kerosene on the air.
“I thought you said he turned in early?” Watson whispers right against my ear. I shrug and risk a peek around the edge of the curtain. Milverton is perched at his desk, feet resting on the top. He has a collection of papers open on his lap and his back to the window. A steady curl of smoke curls up from the lit cigar in his mouth. If not for the occasional twitch to turn a page or a snorting laugh, he might look as if he’s fallen asleep.
We stand long enough behind the curtain that my toes start to go numb in my boots. Watson leans in to whisper another question – likely “should we attempt to slip out the window when another set of footfalls echoes in the hall. These are softer, more delicate, almost hesitant. Milverton leans forward in his chair when they stop outside his door. As it starts to open, I duck back behind the curtain to avoid being seen.
“You’re late,” he says. The same bitter amusement threads through his words now as a week ago in his sitting room. “I was beginning to think you might have changed your mind.” I wait to hear the door close. The other person to speak. I hear nothing. The only sound that follows is Milverton’s laugh. “Come now. So quiet? Fine. We don’t have to talk. Just hand over my fee and your business can remain good and quiet, just like you.”
The next sound we hear is a gunshot.
Breakfast is late the following morning. It took Watson and I longer than one would expect to sneak out of Milverton’s house without drawing too close attention from witnesses. The gunshot itself drew the police and we found ourselves fleeing the authorities. We eventually lost them without really being seen and made a circuitous route back to Baker Street. By then, it was near dawn, and we fell into an exhausted heap on the sitting room couch, neither of us having the energy to make it to bed.
While I wait for Watson to join me, I peruse the letter Anne brought up with the meal. It’s from Fidelia, and includes a rather generous thank you from her associate, who has apparently decided to take a much needed overseas holiday after the stress of the ordeal. I try not to notice the crest on the stationary or wonder at the feminine hand of the note that accompanies the display of gratitude. Fidelia’s business – as well as her “business” – is her own concern.
I am perusing the newspaper’s account of the incident when Watson joins me. “I do have one question,” he says as he approaches the table.
“Just one?” I snort, nearly inhaling a mouthful of coffee as I do. “I have several. Most of them revolve around the identity of Milverton’s late-night visitor. I should have dared a peek sooner. Not, of course, that I would be much compelled to report their identity to the authorities if I had. Milverton’s death is nearly a public service.”
“Holmes…” Watson sighs as he slides into his chair. It is the slightly disapproving sigh I’ve come to expect. “My main question, though, involves that game of chess we were discussing last night.”
“Chess? What game of…oh, I see.” I gesture for him to go ahead, a faint smile of amusement tugging at my lips. “Go ahead, then, since I can see the curiosity is nearly incapacitating.”
He makes a grand show of adjusting his napkin while working out how to ask the thing he can’t resist knowing. “I merely wondered how involved your…gambits…became while you were playing the pawn in this particular game?”
“I, sir, was a gentleman. I did my wooing with words, thank you very much.” I reach beneath the table to pluck his hand from his lap, wearing a haughty, highly amused grin as I do. “I learned from an expert at the method, after all.”