Moriarty Returns a Letter
By Michael Robertson, Hugh Syme
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Michael Robertson
All rights reserved.
LONDON, ST. KATHERINE'S DOCK, DECEMBER 1893
In the damp, stinking cargo hold of the Queen's Gambit, a shirtless and bleeding man stood shackled to the rough wood of the center post.
A larger, barrel-chested man stood just behind and to the side, holding a heavy, brine-encrusted rope cargo net, gripping it with both hands as though it were a sledgehammer, eyes gleaming, eager to swing it again, as he had done half a dozen times already, and with an intent to improve his technique and get his full weight into it on the next try.
A smaller man sat at a narrow rectangular table near the door, perusing a penny publication he had stolen just a few moments earlier on the street, and a fourth man — the one the others knew as Redgil, taller than any of the other three men in the cargo hold and clearly in charge at this moment — stood directly in front of the shackled man and wondered just how much more it would take to break him.
Would he die before he revealed what they wanted to know? In Redgil's experience, and he had some in this area, the man was close to it now. That wouldn't be good. It wouldn't do to kill him right out and be done with it. Not just yet.
If the shackled man was just who he claimed to be — a great crime organizer extraordinaire, a deviser of illicit schemes, a money launderer with international resources at his disposal — then everything was fine. Redgil thought himself a great crime organizer extraordinaire in his own right, and he did not fancy competition. He could simply kill the shackled man and keep his share of their collaborative criminal enterprise, and not worry about it any further.
But Redgil had begun to suspect that there might be something else going on with the shackled man. It was just a rumor, but he needed to be sure. There was much at stake.
Redgil had in his possession a huge sum — nearly fifty thousand pounds — in counterfeit bills. The bills were too large and too many to just pass them off in small shops and street transactions — they required laundering on a larger scale, and Redgil had contacted this man, an American who had surfaced in London just recently, to find a way to get it done.
The current plan was straightforward: The shackled American claimed to have an arrangement for purchasing a cargo of whiskey, which was illegally imported from Ireland and sitting at St. Katherine's Dock, waiting for departure to the United States. The owner of the cargo, the American said, was anxious to do a deal and avoid import/export fees. He was not likely to look at things too closely. It was a fine scenario for turning Redgil's fake pounds into legitimate currency.
So the exchange would be tomorrow night. Redgil was to bring the money to the dock where the Queen's Gambit was berthed. He would deliver to the American the fifty thousand in counterfeit bills, in exchange for the cargo and a signed bill of lading. Redgil would then sail with the cargo to America, sell it for a handsome profit over the wholesale price he had paid with his counterfeit bills, and then he would return to London to expand his criminal operations in all the ways his imagination could conceive.
But late last night Redgil had been drinking at the bar in the Whistler pub with an acquaintance released just that day from Newgate Prison. The acquaintance complained that he had gotten nicked when the police unaccountably showed up at exactly the wrong time, late at night, when he was about to burglarize an antiquities shop on Bond Street.
The Bond Street burglary was an operation that had been planned by the shackled American. And this was not the first of these plans-gone-unaccountably-wrong Redgil had heard of.
It was true that the American had had a few successes since arriving in town a few months ago — arranging some successful burglaries here and there, with no one at home just as he said no one would be, and with loot that was pretty much as expected. Some lucrative and uneventful transactions in fencing stolen goods.
But recently Redgil had begun to hear of major operations where things would get cocked up. It was nothing conclusive, but it was certainly enough for him to do something that he enjoyed doing anyway — string someone up to a post and torture him until he expired.
So Redgil ordered the bulky man to swing the heavy rope again.
The American shackled to the wooden post raised his head up halfway, looked back at the London Limehouse scum that had bested him, and couldn't believe he had allowed it to happen.
Then he looked across at the table near the door.
On the table were a kerosene lamp, a bottle of whiskey sampled from the cargo (the second of the evening, and already mostly consumed), and two paper items. One of these paper items was a bill of lading, and the other was the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine.
The bill of lading had been in the American's coat pocket when he was ambushed by the other three men in the dark alley behind the Whistler pub.
The Strand Magazine was a monthly periodical that featured mainly detective stories, and this brand-new issue of it had been brought into the pub by the skinny man, who had lifted it earlier from a street vendor, just shortly before all four of these men were scheduled to rendezvous in the pub.
The American stared across at those two paper items. One of them was the cause of his current troubles, and the other, he had begun to hope, might just possibly be his salvation.
The Strand was running a serial of stories about a particular detective. It had been all the rage in London for more than a year. The American had recently begun reading them himself — and not idly, but with a purpose. He had read all the ones that preceded this current issue, and he had even managed a glance at the first few pages of this one, earlier in the pub. He hoped this one was like the others. If it was, perhaps he still had a small chance of emerging from the cargo hold alive.
"Tell us! Who are you? What's your real name? Who are you working for?"
Redgil backhand-slapped the American across the face.
The American did not regard the slap as especially painful. The lashes on his bare back from the heavy cargo net were a different matter. That pain did not diminish; the flesh on his back got more swollen and the nerves more exposed with each fresh flailing of the net. The pain from those and the hyperventilated breathing they induced were beginning to make him dizzy.
The problem with the slaps was that they jarred his head, made his brain rattle inside his skull, and he needed to be able to think. Like any other Pinkerton undercover man, he knew that if you lose your wits even for an instant, you're done.
He knew he was probably done anyway; he'd been found out. He'd been overconfident. He knew it; he knew now that he should never have taken this risk.
He'd gotten so good at manipulating gangsters in New York, he'd actually allowed himself to believe that going on loan to Scotland Yard would just be a lark. After all, they didn't even have any "real" gangs here, at least not yet. He had come across on assignment to help them keep it that way.
Within days of his first briefing at the Yard, the American had put the word out to the London underworld that he had connections none of the locals could match. Did you need to launder your hundred thousand pounds of counterfeit bills in a hurry? Did you need better rates for fencing your jewelry heist? Did you need to coordinate operations for any of the above? Then the American was your man. Especially because he was not merely an American. He was a New Yorker. The reputation of the budding gangs in New York was known worldwide. Why settle for a fledgling English gangster when you could work with the real thing?
He had started slowly, helping a few nonviolent, small-time felons to succeed in their enterprises — getting a pickpocket out of jail here, setting up a burglary there (after making sure that there would be no one at home to get hurt and that the loot would be minimal).
And then, after a string of those successes, with his reputation established, he had begun to set up the bigger fish, the real targets of the operation.
This had to be done carefully. The whole point was to nick the top-level felons or, at minimum, keep them off balance. But both the American and his colleague at Scotland Yard Special Branch knew that they could push such an operation just so far.
And that was even before the American knew he had a family to think about.
His young wife had come across the pond with him. He wished to God now that he had persuaded her to remain in New York. He had promised her this would be his last field operation, the crown of his career. There would be no more after this, he had said, he would return home and take a desk job, and then they would start a family. He had wanted her to stay safely behind until then.
But she wouldn't hear of it. She had come with him.
And then she had become pregnant.
And all at once, everything had become crystal clear for the American agent.
He'd been taking too many risks. He would stop. He had been overconfident. He would not be so in the future.
But that epiphany had come too late. He was stuck now in this cargo hold with three mean men, each of them stupid in the way mean-spirited bottom-feeding criminals are stupid, but one of them — the one the others called Redgil — was just slightly smarter than the others, smarter in the way that people who make it their business to cheat and steal and hurt get smart in doing so. Just the sort of lout that the American had come across the pond to nab.
But instead of the American and the inspector grilling the felon at Scotland Yard, it was Redgil doing the questioning in this hellhole.
"Tell us! How did they know?"
Another backhand slap. Just an insult, nothing more.
The American agent wished that someone would untie his hands just for an instant, so that he could return a proper response — but he knew it wouldn't happen. Not unless he could get them off their game.
He looked across again at The Strand Magazine on the table. He tried to remember everything he had read in it.
The man with the net got ready to flail it again.
It was now or never. The American agent let his head fall again, this time deliberately. He would play it for all it was worth.
He muttered under his breath. If you want someone to believe a lie, you need to make them work to hear it.
"It was that bloody Holmes," he said.
"What? What did you say?"
Redgil slammed the American's head back against the post.
And the American began to laugh.
"Fools. You bloody, stupid fools. Do you really think I would sabotage my own operations? Think! Why would I do that?"
Redgil seemed puzzled by the laugh. He responded, with natural and justifiable suspicion: "You could be a copper. You could be working for the Yard."
"Balls. If I were working for the Yard, you'd have all been in the nick a month ago. And so would everyone else in the Whistler pub. Use your head, man. This was Holmes's doing."
"I don't know who you're talking about."
The American channeled all of his pain into a laugh that was as loud and arrogant as he could make it.
"He thwarts me at every turn! It had to be him! There's no one at Scotland Yard with a mind like that!"
The skinny man — the one who had brought the magazine into the pub, the only one of the three who could read, the American had guessed — jumped up from the table and ran over eagerly, within a foot of the agent's face.
"You don't mean ..." He paused, eyes wide, and he spoke in a whisper: "Sherlock ... Holmes?"
"What do you think?" said the American. He said this with a sneer, his voice dripping with contempt. Presentation wasn't everything, but it was most of it.
"What are you talking about?" said Redgil to the skinny man. Then he looked over at the brute with the fishing net, who shrugged.
But the skinny one nodded affirmatively. "Sherlock Holmes," he said, fully out loud this time. "I've heard of him. Sherlock Holmes! Holy Mother of God, if Sherlock Holmes is on to us, we're done!"
The man tied to the post did not move his head. He did not move his eyes. He did not even breathe. If you want the fish to take the bait, you must stay completely still.
"An old wives' tale," said Redgil. "There is no Sherlock Holmes."
"No, no," said the skinny one. "I read about him. He's real." The skinny man ran to the table, grabbed the copy of The Strand Magazine, and brought it back like a puppy to the leader. "They can't print it if it isn't true."
Redgil took the magazine, opened it, stared into it — looked stumped for a moment — and then he tossed it contemptuously back at the skinny man.
It hit the damp wood floor with a nasty-sounding splat; the skinny man ran quickly to pick it up, and did his best to wipe the muck off.
Redgil never liked it if someone else might be right. Especially he didn't like being corrected in front of an audience, and the shackled American, at the moment, constituted an audience.
"No, no," said Redgil, rather grandly after a moment's thought, but not with genuine confidence. "Just because it's printed doesn't mean it's true. It has to be what they call ... what they call ... published ... published, that's it ... in a newspaper. Then it's true. But this is not a newspaper. This — this is just something where some git made stuff up!"
The American agent fought through his pain and focused. This was the final hurdle in any scam. The moment when the mark's basic common sense would try to take hold of him and let him realize exactly what was going on, and if that happened, then his basic instincts would take hold as well, and if that happened, with scum like these, then it was all over. The game was up, whether the mark had figured out all the details or not. He would be done with it and just cut your throat.
The American agent and Inspector Standifer at the Yard had always known that at some point the very success of the sting operations would begin to make the American's cover identity suspect. Someone would want to know, as the lead bunghole here wanted to know, right now, why plots kept getting foiled.
The agent couldn't keep blaming it on bad luck. He couldn't keep saying that a couple of bobbies just happened to be walking by when the heist went down, or that one of the conspirators must have talked in his sleep to his paramour, or gotten drunk and let something slip in the pub. He needed an explanation that was all-encompassing. He needed a scapegoat. He and the inspector had tried to come up with one.
And then, a few weeks back, he had been at Scotland Yard when a letter arrived. A letter that the Royal Mail had seen fit to carry directly into the inspector's office.
It was a confession letter.
That, by itself, did not make it a rarity at Scotland Yard, or even unusually important.
What made it important was that it had not been addressed to Scotland Yard. It had been addressed to someone else.
And it wasn't the first. There had been others — confessions to crimes, tips about crimes, questions about crimes — all addressed to Sherlock Holmes, and being delivered to Scotland Yard.
To the Special Branch inspector, such letters had been just a curiosity, and sometimes an actual annoyance.
But the American agent saw an opportunity.
Like everyone else in the English-speaking world, he knew the name Sherlock Holmes quite well now. And he had seen how eagerly the crowds would gather around the street vendor every month for each new issue of The Strand.
But more important, he had now begun to hear the name Sherlock Holmes muttered in fearful whispers in the Docklands' dirtiest, toughest pubs, by men with souls as hard and mean as lobster claws, huddled around pub tables like children around a campfire and scaring themselves with tales of the bogeyman.
This, thought the American at the time, could be useful.
And so he had invested sixpence and picked up last month's issue of The Strand and read "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty."
And then he had backtracked and read all the others, all the way back to A Study in Scarlet. He wanted to know who this fictional detective was, and why even streetwise felons seemed to want to believe him to be real. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Moriarty Returns a Letter by Michael Robertson, Hugh Syme. Copyright © 2014 Michael Robertson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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