The Case of the Reluctant Agent
(The Sherlock Holmes Series: Book 2)
A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
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“I am very impressed with her ability to write Sherlock Holmes close enough to the originals even Conan Doyle would have a hard time telling them apart.” — Cocktails and Books
Daylight was creeping in past the drawn curtains, illuminating Gregson’s spot on the wide, comfortable sofa where he sprawled, exhausted, when there was a murmur of footsteps and voices in the corridor outside the office.
Holmes looked up from his study of the bloody desk top. “That would be Lord Stainsbury, I’d say, pulling rank on your men.”
The door opened, and a man taller than Holmes stepped in. His excellent suit, with an immaculate pocket kerchief, and his shining tailored shoes set him well above the average clerk. His refined features—the sharp, sloping chin, sharper blues eyes, and the shining high forehead surrounded by carefully groomed hair, spoke of intellect. The erect bearing and squared shoulders spoke of power.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Lord Stainsbury intoned.
“My lord,” Gregson acknowledged.
“You are early, my lord,” Holmes observed. “It is not yet fully daylight.”
“I wanted to speak to you before you finished your investigation here.”
“I consider such an exchange an entirely necessary part of the investigation,” Holmes returned. “Your foresight is appreciated.” He stepped away from the desk, his hands on his hips, his forearms bare. His coat and jacket had long since been discarded—they lay next to Gregson on the sofa. It had not been particularly arduous work Holmes had been doing, but rather bloody and delicate.
“You have my condolences, Sherlock. God knows this business with your brother would be difficult enough under any circumstances, but your last meeting was less than amicable. That’s an added load I don’t envy you.”
Holmes smiled—one of the predatory expressions that Gregson remembered of old—and looked over at him. “Gregson, this is one of the two men who knew of my disposition tonight, and might have warned you.”
“The other was Mycroft, then,” Gregson concluded.
Stainsbury cleared his throat. “I hope you didn’t mind my sending Gregson, here. I thought it best he break the news….”
“Your thoughtfulness was not wasted. Gregson and I put the time to good use, after all.” Holmes turned, and strolled around the perimeter of the well-appointed chamber. It was a high-ceilinged room, and with the coming morning, it appeared light, airy, and gracious. A pair of tall sash windows on the west wall were bracketed by white bookcases that reached up to the ceiling. The north wall was a bank of the shelves. All of them carried their share of the paper, books and paraphernalia of a mentally active man’s work.
It was here that the first signs of violence appeared. Not far away from the shelves, a revolver lay on the carpet.
Holmes moved passed the door on the east wall, around Stainsbury, stepping over Gregson’s splayed foot, back to the windows on the west wall, to turn and face the majestic French Empire desk that dominated the room. It commanded attention for both its size and beauty. And at this moment, it drew the eye in its role as the centre stage of the tragedy. As well as the pool of blood spread across the inlay, the two ends of the desk—as well as the floor behind it—were liberally covered in a gruesome confetti. Feathers and down stirred even in the small disturbances of current that Holmes created as he moved thoughtfully around the desk once more.
The torn silk casing from which the feathers had been ripped lay three feet behind the gilt chair, presumably dropped there by the murderer once its use as a muffler had expired. Gregson shifted his hips against the remaining trio of cushions.
Stainsbury cleared his throat again. “I have cleaners waiting. Perhaps…if you’re finished, Holmes….”
Holmes held up his hand imperiously, staring at the desk top.
“Who was Mycroft meeting?” he demanded.
Stainsbury did not seem to object to the tone. “Given the subject under discussion between us at the meeting this morning…yesterday morning, rather, I would have thought that was obvious.”
Holmes nodded, satisfied.
Gregson shifted, tired bones protesting, and leaned forward. “Obvious to you two, perhaps. You’ll have to spell it out for me.”
Stainsbury, for the first time since he had entered the room, showed sign of genuine discomfort. “I’m afraid it falls under the domain of the King’s official secrets, my good fellow.”
“Nonsense!” Holmes barked. “You involved Gregson in this when you sent him to collect one irritable old agent tonight. You can’t extend the privilege only when it suits you. Poor Gregson may have had his nose shot off, and never known he was mixed up in the affairs of the empire. You owe him an explanation at the very least.”
Gregson blinked at the unexpected support. “Really, that’s not necessary at all. I do understand why some operations must remain covert. And I hardly need to know all the facts when Holmes is on the case.”
Holmes strode to the armchair that sat angled beside the sofa, and pulled it further into the room. He sat, and spread his hands on his knees. It brought him close to Gregson’s side.
“You would do me a service if you would take the time to hear all those facts, Gregson, in much the same way as Watson would listen, and allow me to order my thoughts as I went. Do you mind?”
Gregson thought of the valiant doctor, who he happened to know was occupied on the Western front, and right now facing the Huns.
“Why, certainly, Holmes,” he replied warmly.
Holmes nodded. He looked up at Stainsbury. “You might assist me, my lord?”
“An airing of the facts?” Stainsbury pulled up the chair that sat in front of the desk, and sat, crossing his legs. “Shall I start?”
Holmes steepled his fingers together, close to his face, and his eyes narrowed. “Please,” he murmured.
“Mycroft asked Sherlock to call yesterday morning, as early as the trains would allow, as he had some business to discuss. Sherlock arrived a little past eight o’clock, and I was at that meeting….”
The two brothers shook hands cordially, and Stainsbury was introduced to the younger.
“I was never a reader of The Strand, where all your adventures were reported by Doctor Watson,” Stainsbury confessed airily, “But your achievements are great enough to have reached ears as insulated as mine. It is an honour to meet you, Mr. Holmes.”
Sherlock smiled a little. “Insulated? I think you disparage your own position, Lord Stainsbury. You stand here in this office, introduced to me by Mycroft, who carefully avoided giving you a title beyond your peerage. As Mycroft would rather rot in this edifice than voluntarily move, and as he does not hold ultimate power in Whitehall, he must have a liaison there. And here you stand. You make a most unsuitable underling, my lord. Therefore, it would be safe to assume you are Mycroft’s superior. Such influence precludes isolation of any sort.”
Stainsbury glanced at Mycroft, who shrugged.
“You are as perceptive as promised, I see,” Stainsbury said. “But, please, listen to Mycroft. I am here merely to observe.”
Holmes frowned. “Another understatement, my lord. I believe you are here to add weight to my brother’s…what is it to be, Mycroft? A request? A proposal?”
“To which neither of them you expect me to easily agree. Hence, Lord Stainsbury. A personage designed to impress me with the gravity of the situation.”
Mycroft hhhrmmped. “And now that you have shown off sufficiently, perhaps you could seat yourself and we could begin?”
“By all means,” Sherlock agreed.
Mycroft offered tea, and the humidor, both of which were refused. The chair, however, was accepted. Sherlock perched restlessly while Mycroft worked at the end of his cigar. Stainsbury settled quietly on the sofa, well away from the brothers.
Once Mycroft had his cigar going to his satisfaction, he sat back.
“You must know, Sherlock, that my job is a matter of dealing in redundancies.”
“In information, or in people? You deal in both.”
“I’d rather the redundancies occur with data only, but….” Mycroft shrugged. “I have had a stable of agents in and around the Ottoman Empire since before the first bullets were fired across the Dardenelles. Their information has flowed across this desk. Mountains of it. Most of it repetitious. Each agent hears the same rumours, each agent picks up the same facts, each agent—from his different position and location—will see events and people and report them to me.”
“Hence, redundancies,” Sherlock said.
“Ah, yes, but very specific redundancies. Take that repetition away, and it is from within the differences that tales are told.”
“And how do you know those differences can be relied upon?”
“Because of their associated repetitions. The very redundancies that give this desk its bowed back are the provenances that let me sleep at night.”
“So, you relax when the information you get from your agents is very nearly the same.”
“For the last few months it has been too much the same.”
Sherlock rubbed his temple. “I don’t see a benchmark on that desk that says ‘this close, but no closer’. You cannot quantify ‘very nearly’ and ‘too much’. Do you have anything more than an uneasy feeling?”
Stainsbury spoke from behind them. “Actually, I was the one with the uneasy feeling. Mycroft felt much as you do—that one cannot act on a change in conditions when the entire playing field is constantly shifting to begin with.”
“Felt. Past tense.” Sherlock turned back to Mycroft. “What has happened to change your mind?”
“I will deal with that matter in a moment. There is another small issue, too, one of odd rumours. None of my usual sources can track the origins of the rumours down. Neither can they find any direct proof…but despite superior intelligence, the Turkish army is having severe problems dealing with guerrillas north of Iskenderun.” Mycroft shrugged. “We have no agent provocateurs out there.”
Sherlock shrugged. “Send in an infiltrator.”
“I did. One of my best. No word.” He didn’t expand on the failure. Sherlock did not press the matter.
“What about your agents in Berlin? Or someone in the German Imperial army?”
Mycroft raised one eyebrow and Sherlock smiled. “Come, Mycroft, I’m not a complete fool. If you have agents in the German and Ottoman Empires, you must have them in their standing armies out there.”
“Granted. I have no need to explain the limitations an agent must work with to you. And mine are all working under considerable restriction of freedom, quite apart from the German High Command’s paranoid security precautions at this point in time.”
“Paranoid? Don’t tell me…they are afraid they have a spy amongst their number?”
Mycroft merely smiled. He tapped his cigar on the ashtray at his elbow, concentrating on the task, then glanced at Holmes. “You know your way about out there,” he added casually.
Sherlock rose to his feet, his face thoughtful. He turned to look out the window. “I’d planned to return to Sussex,” he said quietly.
“You spent years in the Middle and Far East, Sherlock. You know the people and the language, and some of your contacts probably still exist….”
“Hardly. That was a long time ago. And much has changed since then. Not least of all is that since the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, the Germans have been swarming all over the Turkish Empire. I know the Turks are their allies, but the German army has never felt completely happy unless it held direct control of everything under its power.”
“So you have been watching that part of the world. I suspected as much. That only goes to prove my point—I don’t have another person on hand with your experience and proven ability to…cope. And I refuse to send just any green recruit. I will not allow my people to be unjustifiably put in danger simply because of careless selection.”
Sherlock raised his brow. “You have been accused of that?”
Mycroft shook his head irritably. “I lost a man yesterday. A boy. He was barely eighteen, but so terribly eager to deal his blow to the Hun….” He stabbed out his cigar. “Besides, if you go, it saves me the bother of officially informing Whitehall.”
Sherlock sat back in his chair, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe the German High Command are alone in their paranoia.”
“Perhaps we are all justified.”
Mycroft shrugged. “I’m pandering to my uneasy feeling.”
“Your redundancies?” Sherlock placed his fingertips together. “What makes you think one old man could do any more than a young boy?”
“I’m not asking you to penetrate the German High Command again, little brother. Hardly that…you would be summarily executed if you were caught and recognized. Your von Karnch persona has died an honourable and timely death, and he should not be resurrected. The Germans hold a justifiable grudge against you. No. I just want someone out there who can blend into the countryside without depending on allied armies for support or information. I want someone to sniff around and find out exactly what is going on there.”
“Then recruit a Bedouin. That Lawrence chap—one of his should be able to blend in nicely.”
“They’ve only just taken Gaza. I need you farther north. Damascus. Then east—into Constantinople.”
“No.” Sherlock stood abruptly and picked up his hat. “Thank you all the same. But I have better things to do.”
“Skulking around at home?”
“Why not?” Sherlock nodded to Stainsbury. “Good day, my lord.” He strode to the door.
“A moment, Sherlock,” Stainsbury called.
He halted with his hand on the door.
“This isn’t exactly a frivolous assignment. And it’s not entirely a request from one brother to another. I, as his majesty’s representative, am making this demand through Mycroft. And I deserve more than a curt refusal. An explanation is in order.”
Sherlock turned. “Not a frivolous assignment? My lord, I think you greatly underestimate my abilities. What you have proposed here is nothing more than…a messenger-boy’s task. Sniff out the lay of the land? Investigate rumours?” He drew himself erect, which put him barely an inch higher than Stainsbury.
“I am Sherlock Holmes. I have grappled with men who make your finest Prussian opponents look like third rate thugs. I have an intellect that has been challenged by the shrewdest and keenest minds of this and the last century combined. In 1915 I spent four months posing as an Austrian, working in the German high command, in Berlin. Last year I spent six months in St. Petersburg, and the remainder of the year on the Russian front, analyzing their command. I predicted the actions of the Bolsheviks.” He spread his hands. “I am a willing tool for his Majesty, but a sharp one. And I refuse to be sent on…an errand!”
Mycroft gave a series of light claps with his hands. “Bravo!” he intoned. “And may I point out, little brother, that we sent you to British East Africa last Christmas to observe German activities, and hand over certain papers to English irregular cavalry there. That was the sum total of your brief. Does that not fall under the definition of ‘errand boy’?”
“I uncovered a pocket of pro-German sympathizers who were planning to blow up the harbour at Mombassa.”
“Irrelevant. You were asked to deliver messages, and that was all. A task even more puny than this one.”
“I’ve done enough for King and country!” Sherlock cried, opening the door.
“Then you will not go to Constantinople?” Stainsbury asked.
“I would sooner inhale mustard gas!”
The door slamming was Sherlock Holmes’ final punctuation.
Stainsbury turned back to Mycroft. “I believe you just won your ten guineas. How did you know he would refuse? And so vehemently, at that?”
Mycroft smiled grimly. “Family history,” he said succinctly.
“Will nothing move him?”
“Stubbornness is one of the few inherent gifts my brother has in greater abundance than I.”
“I see. Damn!” Stainsbury clenched his fists. “We need him out there, Mycroft. Think of a way!”
“That was the last time I saw your brother,” Stainsbury added. “I left shortly afterwards to tend to other matters, expecting Mycroft to deal with….”
“Coaxing me?” Holmes suggested.
Gregson rubbed weariness from his eyes. “Then who was it Mycroft was meeting, if it wasn’t you, my lord?”
Holmes answered. “An agent or courier from the Ottoman empire.”
“A courier,” Stainsbury confirmed.
“Then that’s the blighter you’re after?” Gregson asked.
“Unfortunately, that particular blighter is dead,” Stainsbury responded with a sigh. “It was the first lead I pursued, even before I brought you in on it, Chief Inspector. I had some of my chaps hunt him up. He arrived on a steamer last night. My fellows found him in a dockside hostel around three o’clock this morning. He’d been strangled.”
“There is someone else in on this play that we don’t know and can’t predict as yet,” Holmes murmured.
“Actually, I think I can give you a prediction,” Stainsbury said.
“The information that has been worrying us—Mycroft’s redundancies. If you were to compare the various sets, you would find that all of them bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. Except for one.”
Holmes leaned forward. “Go on.”
“Mycroft had a loose canon. A rogue agent he had doubts about. The information he has been receiving from this agent is almost completely different from the others. That is alarming enough in itself, but now with his other agents all disappearing—”
“The lad yesterday, the one of whom Mycroft spoke—he was not the first?”
“No. He is the third, this year.”
“Very alarming, indeed!” Holmes stood, rolling down his sleeves. “You think this rogue agent of Mycroft’s is behind the disappearances?”
“Almost certainly. He was never part of the recruiting chain like the others. He did not report to Mycroft’s coordinator out there. And his information is different. Therefore it is unsubstantiated, and must be treated as suspect.”
“Mycroft shared these suspicions with you?”
“Yes. Which is why we approached you. If this rogue agent is indeed working his way back through our agent network, then we can’t use that network. We have to send in an independent. You, Holmes.”
Holmes lifted his attention from his cuffs. “You don’t know what you are asking of me.”
“No, I don’t. But Mycroft did, and he asked you regardless of that knowledge. And now he’s been shot, and left for dead. We don’t know why he was assaulted in this cowardly way, and that leaves you no choice.”
Holmes continued to button his cuffs silently.
“Why does it leave him with no choice?” Gregson asked, puzzled.
Holmes grimaced. “Until we know who shot Mycroft, and why, we have to operate on the assumption that only Mycroft’s death will satisfy the assailant. They may return to finish the deed.” He glanced at Stainsbury. “I have to find out who, and why, before they do return.”
“If it’s of any consolation, Holmes,” Stainsbury continued, “it looks as though our own agent network is being turned against us. There are some formidable minds at work in Constantinople, and they aren’t Turk. You’ll be scrapping with the some of the best of your third-rate Prussian thugs.”
“She is clever in her plot twists, true to Holmes in his logic and detailed thinking but she has also managed to give him a little bit of emotion that the originals lacked.” — Cocktails and Books