...But With a Whimper
First published in On Spec, Fall 2007.
The small cottage stood on the shoulder of one of the rounded hills that made its particular corner of Sussex a quiet paradise for walkers. Not that its single resident walked much any more; seven decades, an accumulation of minor wounds, and the rheumatism to which his family was prone had rendered him stiff and slow for many years.
He pottered about the cottage that evening, muttering under his breath when the potatoes took overlong to cook. He had debated retiring to something much larger, with servants, a shooting range, and a proper library, but in the end had decided, regretfully, that it would be too much at odds with the ascetic image he had coached the good doctor to create. And as he had pointed out to the genial old bumbler at their last dinner in London, the bric-a-brac with which he would fill a larger establishment would just provide more cause for squabbling to the treasure hunters who would undoubtedly descend upon it after his expiry.
At first they had come in their dozens: self-appointed scholars (mostly young, pale, and earnest) eager for talismans to set on the narrow mantlepiece of their draughty one-room flats, or American ladies of a certain age, all aflutter to meet the great detective. One had even brought a list, typed on a Baldingham Model 20 with an erratic ‘r’: the deerstalker he had never actually worn, the Turkish slipper in which he kept his tobacco, or his Webley. As always, the old man had carefully hinted at desperate requests from various ministries for his assistance before sending her on her way. Her bright eyes and shallow breathing had hinted at interesting complexities of character; had he been even a few years younger, he would have tried to turn his reputation into a quick tumble, as he had with so many of his clients. Muttering, “Oh, Irene, Irene,” at just the right moment was such a wicked pleasure…
It was to his slipper that the old man turned when his evening meal was done and the dishes stacked in the sink for the village girl who would look in the next morning. He set it atop the yard-high pile of books beside his armchair before filling, tamping, and lighting his pipe. He had given up rough shag for a lighter Cuban blend some years before, but still missed the claws of his old favorite in his lungs. Especially on nights like this: the little straw he had left in the jamb of his back door had been in place when he returned from his constitutional that afternoon, but the sprig of rosemary on the kitchen floor had been trodden on.
An hour passed, and another. The bell in the tower of the village church three miles away, forged to celebrate the end of the Great War, rang ten. He started from an apparent doze.
“Who’s there?” he demanded querulously. “Show yourself! I warn you, I have a gun!”
A low chuckle answered. “Yes, I know,” said a cultured mid-Atlantic voice. “A Nagant .22, is it not? With seven shots? In your right pocket?”
By the time the speaker was finished, the old man had drawn the weapon in question. His aim was much steadier than his voice. “I said show yourself!”
“Please don’t bother to dissemble,” the voice said. “You do a fine imitation of sleep, but after the granulated coffee you put on your ham in place of pepper, I was surprised you even managed to get your eyes closed. Would you like me to open the curtain?”
“I should like you to get out of my house,” the old man snapped, his earlier pretence at frailty gone. Not for the first time, he cursed his creaking frame—he had fumbled slightly when palming the coffee. And his ears, too—there was something familiar in that nasal voice, but he could no longer tell if the h’s were being aspirated or not.
“In a moment,” the intruder said. “By the way, I replaced the rounds in your revolver with blanks this morning while you were inspecting your beehives.”
The old man hefted the gun. “Mm. You’ll forgive me if I don’t immediately set it aside?”
“As you wish.” Fabric swished as the blackout curtain that still hung over the picture window in the cottage’s eastern wall was drawn aside. A gibbous moon, five days past full, limned the figure of a slim man in a suit of a cut the old man had not seen before, though he judged it American. He wore no gloves, but fiddled absently with a ring on the fourth finger of his right hand; his hair was freshly barbered in a style contemptuous of his burgeoning bald spot.
But it was his face that gave the game away. “You’re a Moriarty, or I’m Guy Fawkes!” the old man exclaimed.
The man at the window sketched half a bow. “Bravo. I’m glad to see your eyes are still working, no matter what state the rest of your faculties are in.”
The old man snorted. “I assure you, young man, my faculties are in perfect order.” He slipped his hand into the slipper at his side and raised it to point at the intruder’s chest. Fragrant tobacco spilled onto the floor, but the old man’s aim didn’t waver.
The younger man laughed. “What are you going to do, pummel me to death?”
He was answered by a soft click. “It’s a Remington, in case you’re wondering,” the old man said conversationally. “I picked it up in Italy some years ago. It only holds two rounds, but at this distance…” He shrugged slightly.
The other man clapped softly. “Bravo,” he repeated, a note of genuine admiration in his voice. “Really, I’m impressed. And relieved, to tell you the truth. I was so afraid you’d be too far gone to make this worthwhile.”
The old man snorted again. “There’s hardly much point in revenge this late in the day, is there?”
“Oh, I think there is. Especially after what you did to my father.”
“What I did to your—hah!” The old man’s single sharp laugh was like a collie’s bark. “It was a fair fight!”
“I’m not talking about the fight. I’m talking about afterward. You and your half-wit amanuensis turned our father into a monster.”
“The man was a thief,” the old man said shortly. “And if I recall correctly, he hired someone to shoot me.”
“He was a petty embezzler who panicked when he realized you were going to ruin his reputation for the sake of a few headlines! But you—you turned him into a ‘Napoleon of Crime’. You changed the names of everyone else in your cases, but not his. Our mother…” The young man swallowed, then resumed more quietly. “Mother took her own life, did you know that? No one would have her in their house, not even after we moved to Chicago. She couldn’t bear it.”
The old man grunted. “So you have two reasons to kill me instead of one. I fail to see how that alters the current situation.”
“Oh, I’m not here to kill you.” The young man’s voice was as fine as silk. “I’m here to let you know that I already have.”
“Really? Some slow-acting poison? Or a bomb under your waistcoat to escort us both into oblivion? Do your worst, I say. To tell you the truth, I’d rather have my story end with a bang than be found stone cold one morning in my dressing gown with my hair uncombed.” He released the Remington’s hammer and dropped the slipper contemptuously back on the stack of books.
But the young man was shaking his head. “No poison, no bombs, not for you. No, for you, I have something new—a whole new type of crime.”
“Bah!” The old man made no effort to keep the disdain from his voice. “There’s no such thing. Murder, theft, blackmail—the costumes change, but the cast remains the same.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. Here.” He drew a broad envelope from inside his coat and, stepping forward, handed it to the old man. “Turn on the light if you want—I believe your glasses are at your elbow.”
Grumbling, the old man switched on the electric lamp that hung over his armchair and perched his glasses on his nose. The envelope was of plain white stock, such as any newsagent or stationer might sell, unadorned by lettering or postage, and unsealed. He slid half a dozen sheets of newsprint from it and unfolded them in his lap.
The young man watched silently as the old one perused the material. They were front pages from the Times, spanning the years 1893 to 1921. When he flipped the first one over, the young man said, “No, no, it was right there in front of you. Look closely.”
The old man ignored him and studied the second sheet, the third, the fourth. Only then did he hesitate. “That can’t be right. That was…”
“That was the day the headline said, ‘Great Detective Cracks the Case’, is that what you were going to say?” The young man tsk’d. “Go back to the first one. No mention of Lord Saltire at all, is there? And the second—dear me, it seems Mister Harker’s murder was solved by the Yard on its own, without any help from you.”
The old man tossed the sheets of newspaper aside. “What kind of game is this?”
“A new kind. Here.” The young man drew a small book from his pocket and tossed it at the older, who caught it one handed and held it up to the light to study.
“A pirated edition of the doctor’s memoirs, printed in America some time before the war. What has this to do with anything?”
“Take a look at the catalog card inside.”
The old man drew it out. “Fiction?” He scowled at the slip of cardboard. “Why would they file it under fiction?”
“They didn’t,” he replied. “I did. In New York, and Washington, and now in London and Edinburgh too. And it’s not just the doctor’s memoirs. Debrett’s, the Britannica, every newspaper you were ever mentioned in, every photograph that was ever taken of you—everything altered, relabelled, or destroyed.”
“Preposterous! It would take an army to do all that!”
The young man didn’t show his teeth when he smiled, or any sign of human warmth. “No, just a few starving librarians, and some intimacy with the bureaucratic mind. People are actually rather sheep-like, you see; no matter what they know, they’d never dare contradict a reclassification circular from the New York Public Library or the Bibliotheque National.” His smile broadened. “Would you like to know what the best part was? For twenty pounds, I had a curator at the National Portrait Gallery replace your picture with one of a spiritualist named Doyle.”
“A spiritualist!?” the old man spluttered. “But—this is preposterous! There are thousands of people who know who I am! And tens of thousands who know what I’ve done!”
“Thousands of old people,” the young man corrected. “Thousands of very old people who will soon be very dead people, and then what? You won’t be forgotten—too many small boys have play-acted at being detectives for that to happen. But as far as history is concerned, you’ll be no more real than Falstaff or Paul Bunyan or the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ you turned my father into. Someone with your name will be remembered, sir, but not you.”
With a slight bow—no more, really, than a nod of his head—the young man turned toward the door. The old man struggled to his feet. His heart was pounding. It was impossible. It had to be a joke, a ruse, part of some larger plot. “Falstaff?” he snarled. “Paul Bunyan?” His chest—it felt like he’d been kicked by a horse. He went down to his knees, tobacco spilling onto the cottage floor as he drew the Remington from his slipper.
The young man paused, his hand on the door, but didn’t turn around. “In the back, sir?” he asked quietly.
The old man didn’t answer. His hands were shaking too much to cock the pistol. Sparkling dots swam before his eyes as the future strolled whistling down the path, leaving a legend behind it.