SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE PAPER JOURNAL
CHAPTER ONE: MR SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DR JOHN WATSON
It is difficult to know where to begin. There are so many moving parts to consider. I could start with the murder of Edwina May Lucas. That is what they call “The Inciting Incident”, isn’t it? Strictly speaking, though, the blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton, and his evil machinations were the jumping-off point chronologically. There is also a strong case to be made for starting with Mary Elisabeth Sutherland. After all, it is her paper journal that turned out to be the linchpin, providing answers to questions Sherlock hadn’t even thought to ask. Each of these characters provides a useful prism through which to view the events presented. It all begins with Sherlock, though, doesn’t it? And with me. So, I suppose that is as good a place to start as any: with us.
I met Sherlock Holmes not long after I was invalided home from service as an army surgeon in Afghanistan. The campaign had been a disaster for me. I was transferred from the R.A.M.C. hospital in Kandahar to a base in the interior of the country just as the fatal Battle of Maiwand kicked off. I was shot in the shoulder by a high-velocity round that shattered my clavicle and severed my sub-clavian artery. I should have bled out and died right there, but luckily a medic called Alethia Murray happened to be nearby, and she managed to pull me to safety and plug the bleeding with her finger. She kept me alive until we could safely evacuate the area. I underwent a series of surgeries and was healing well enough that my colleagues were optimistic I would recover fully, then my wound became infected, and I was back on death’s door. The infection ravaged my body, and, when I came out on the other side, I was a wraith, a shadow of my former robust self. When I improved enough to become ambulatory, I was honourably discharged and sent home to England.
The solitude was a comfort. I was glad of having no family, of my military service having alienated me from my school and university friends. I was glad there was no one to see how pitiful I had become. Thankfully, my psychiatrist’s request for a Medical Exemption had been granted, and I was (at least temporarily) relieved of the burden of having to maintain my Personal Archive File to the Generally Accepted Standards of Sociability, so I wasn’t being bombarded with well-meaning Sociability Reminders. While Sociability Enhancement is a necessary element of treating depressives and sufferers from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, Sociability Reminders are very often counter-productive, adding to the sense of failing to be “normal” and worsening thoughts of self-harm. Our Files are handled much more delicately, and Virtual Sociability Companions are often employed. My psychiatrist helped me design a Virtual Sociability Companion in the guise of a supportive elder brother called Harry. The progress I was making with Harry notwithstanding, I realised my self-imposed exile from the world would soon come to an end, if for no other reason than the teetering of my finances towards a catastrophic collapse. I would have to find new lodgings quickly. I was pondering my predicament in a dimly lit corner of the Criterion Bar when someone questioningly called my name.
I turned to see my old medical college classmate, Ian Stamford, smiling uncertainly. We hadn’t been close, but I greeted him warmly and was genuinely surprised by how glad I was to see a friendly, familiar face. He invited me to lunch, and I happily accepted. I told him of my travails in Afghanistan, and he offered genuine sympathy and commiseration. He asked me what my plans were. I did not want to discuss any further having to give up my career as a surgeon (even if physical therapy strengthened my dominant arm enough for it to be steady again, I no longer had the temperament required to cut into another human being), so I mentioned that I was looking for reasonably priced accommodations and was considering a flat share.
“You’re the second person today to mention that to me in nearly exactly the same terms?” he informed me.
“And who was the first?” I enquired, glad to have found a potential lead so fortuitously.
“Sherlock Holmes,” he responded. “He said he found a nice little flat on Baker Street, but that he needed someone to go halves with him. He was in one of the labs at Barts when I left him. He’ll probably still be there.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. “Do you think he would mind me going over to meet him now?”
Ian hesitated a bit before answering. “He seemed anxious to have his living situation settled quickly, but you should know that he’s a bit... odd.”
“Odd?” I asked.
“Yes,” Ian replied. I could see him struggling to be fair-minded and tactful. “He has a brilliant mind, but he’s not so good with people.”
“Many scientists aren’t,” I responded. Thinking of my recent reclusiveness and how it might look from the outside made me defensive of this stranger.
“I get on with him quite well,” Ian said a bit hurriedly. “But I see him infrequently...” His voice tapered off. “Perhaps meeting him yourself is best. He’s difficult to describe.”
Ian and I settled our bill and took a cab over to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (or Barts as everyone affectionately called it) where we had both trained and Ian now met his Professional Skills Utilisation Requirements as an anaesthetist. Barts was much the same as I remembered, and I found the happy memories of my time there were a salve to the dark thoughts that were never far from the forefront of my mind. Ian escorted me to the biochemical labs where I got my first glimpse of Sherlock Holmes. He was sitting at a lab bench, his long, thin frame hunched into a comma as he pipetted a solution almost mechanically into a series of Petri dishes.
“Sherlock,” Ian said quietly, not wanting to startle him into spoiling his experiment. Sherlock finished his task then turned to face us. The first thing you notice about Sherlock is his eyes. They are an ethereal, luminescent grey that looked almost silver under the harsh lights of the lab. His penetrating gaze froze me in place, and I immediately understood why Ian thought I might have misgivings about living with the man. There was something very nearly feral in his intense expression. “This is my friend, John Watson,” Ian explained. “I told him about your needing a flatmate.”
Sherlock snapped his latex gloves off then ran his hands quickly through his dark hair. “John Watson,” he repeated without inflection. “A military doctor who suffered a severe injury to his right shoulder in Afghanistan and recently returned home to England.”
“You messaged ahead?” I asked Ian, surprised that I had been so distracted as to miss him doing so.
“No,” Ian replied, smiling a bit. Sherlock wasn’t quite smiling, but there was a distinct hint of amusement in his expression.
“I’m sorry, but have we met before?” I asked Sherlock.
“No,” he replied in that same disinterested manner – it was beginning to get my back up.
“You’ve seen my File, then?” It was the only explanation. It was all there in grisly detail, including my diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome and my suicidal ideation. Part of me wished they still called my shattered nerves soldier’s heart or even shell-shock – something more evocative, something that didn’t make the agony, the bleakness, the fear, the reliving of it all sound like you could fix the problem with a few tablets, a massage and ergonomic furniture. Sherlock had seen my File. The only remaining mystery was why he would have looked me up and taken the time to remember a thing about me. Maybe he came across my File by chance but has one of those freakishly prodigious memories, I thought. Without realising it, I had simultaneously almost hit the mark and missed it spectacularly.
Sherlock covered his Petri dishes and stowed them in a nearby incubator. “We’ve never met, and I’ve never perused your Personal Archive File,” he said as he fiddled with the machine’s settings.
“Then how do you know all that about me?” I was becoming angry and suspicious. I could feel my adrenalin spiking as my overactive nerves reacted to what I perceived as a threat. I clenched my fist to stop it trembling.
“It’s not what you think, John,” Ian interjected gently. “He can just tell those sorts of things about people. What was it this time, Sherlock?” Ian asked, his voice filled with good humour as he tried to defuse the tension. “His shoelaces and shirt cuffs? A spot on his jacket?”
“His manner and bearing,” Sherlock responded after a moment. His strange eyes were still fixed on me, and I was paralysed – like an actor who had forgotten his lines and was trapped under the spotlight, frozen on the proscenium. “He’s practically standing at parade rest,” Sherlock observed. His voice was cool and clinical, and I thought of the first time I’d held a scalpel and cut into the flesh of my gross anatomy cadaver. His dissection of me continued. “And look at that haircut. He couldn’t scream military any more if he were in his full dress uniform. There is a slight yellowish tint to the sclera of his eyes – mild jaundice – one of the more common side-effects of amillomoxifan, medication any Westerner travelling to certain areas of Southeast Asia must take prophylactically. He holds his right arm awkwardly, carrying it almost as if it were still in a sling, and it doesn’t swing freely from his shoulder. He also unconsciously favours his right side so much that it’s very nearly set his spine out of alignment and given him an almost imperceptible limp. So, he was injured very severely in the right shoulder in the recent past. His demeanour communicates that the circumstances of his injury were deeply traumatic.” I could sense that he used eliding language to spare discussing my psychological shortcomings even though he was clearly observant enough to have discerned my likely diagnoses without having seen my Health & Well-being Sub-File. It softened me towards him immensely. He continued. “A military man posted to an area of Southeast Asia that required him to take amillomoxifan prophylactically who was severely injured under traumatic circumstances – it must have happened in Afghanistan.”
I was amazed. “How did you know I was a doctor?” I asked. His disposition shifted only slightly, but I could tell he was relieved I was no longer angry.
“You and Ian don’t keep in touch, otherwise when he posted to his File that he knew of someone looking for a flat share in London, you would have responded, and, by the same token, if he’d known of your needs, he would have mentioned you this morning. So you met by chance today, but you’re obviously familiar with Barts and feel comfortable here. And you’re approximately the same age as Ian. Old acquaintance who feels at home at Barts – probably another doctor he trained with.”
“That’s quite a trick,” I said, my admiration for his acuity evident in my awestruck tone. He flushed, and I welled with a sudden rush of pity for the strange, socially inept man standing in front of me. As Ian had said, he possessed a brilliant mind, but he was clearly unused to frank praise. I smiled and said, “So, what about this flat, then?” Sherlock smiled back hesitantly, briefly described the flat and suggested we meet there the following afternoon to see if it was to my liking. “The address?” I asked.
“221B Baker Street,” he responded.
Sherlock and I parted ways amicably, and Ian kindly accompanied me back to the street where he hailed me a cab. Once I was comfortably ensconced in the back seat after having given the virtual driver the address of my hotel, I pulled out my Life Management Device and searched for Sherlock Holmes’s Personal Archive File. I had known it would be anomalous (how could it not be?), but I was taken aback by the immense, update-free gaps in his Chronology. His File should have been littered with Sociability Reminders and Requests for Confirmation of Health & Well-being. They had got very serious about that sort of thing since that university student died alone in her flat while she was on break between terms. No one noticed her absence because the automated dispenser for her civet’s food and water kept updating her File, and she had set up a rather complicated personalised entertainment module that also kept updating her File automatically as the films, TV programmes and music she had selected played. As a result of similar incidents, if some sort of message indicating you were alive and well wasn’t posted to your File every forty-eight hours, the Office of Health & Well-being would send a Sociability Reminder, then another every six hours until someone posted something that confirmed your continued existence. If you failed to respond within an hour to the Request for Confirmation of Health & Well-being issued after ninety-six hours offline, burly Fire & Safety Officers would break your door down.
Desultory was the most generous characterisation of Sherlock’s updating habits I could muster. My immediate suspicion was that, like me, he must have had some sort of Medical Exemption. There were stretches of weeks at a time when he seemed to interact with no one. By comparison, my sparse updates were Proust-like in their effusiveness. My curiosity piqued, I’m ashamed to say I spent the rest of the day and most of the night poring over his File, beginning with his first ultrasound.
There was such an alien quality to Sherlock that I expected him to come from a singular sort of family – artists committed to scandalous bohemian excesses, Nobel laureates or even militant agrarianists who lived offline in a rural clan governed by radical Communist principles. His parents were fiercely intelligent – his father a civil engineer and his mother an economist – but they were more professorial than savant-like. Nevertheless, some strange combination of their genes produced Sherlock and his elder brothers, Algernon and Mycroft.
Algernon was the eldest, and his Personal Archive File halted around the time he turned twelve. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible outside of the finality of death. Just prior to its abrupt termination, his File is filled with increasingly medicalised then near hysterical posts about his refusal to speak. His school reports show that he had been a star pupil, but he was introverted, as many bright children tend to be. It seems as if one day he simply decided to stop speaking and refused to cooperate in the maintenance of his File. He must have been granted some sort of blanket exemption into perpetuity. I confess to having harboured intense curiosity about Algernon and his “disappearance”, and I have spent more hours than I am willing to own pondering how a twelve year-old had managed to pit his will against The Archive and the Ministry of Information and emerge victorious. I remained ignorant. Sherlock was so cool and detached, yet masterly, in manner – it was a combination that made me dare not take the liberty of making enquiries about his eldest brother.
Mycroft and Algernon are Irish twins, Mycroft having been born only fourteen months later. Of all the Holmes siblings, his Personal Archive File is the most conventional. It begins as Algernon’s had with their parents’ careful curation of the artefacts of his young life, and, as he learned to read and write, he began to contribute more. His lessons were always scrupulously neat, and there was a surprising level of careful detail in his drawings. That same cautious attentiveness lurked in his contributions to his File, which was almost too conventional. It was the sort of work you might expect a frightfully good Sociability Maintenance Engineer to produce – presenting accomplishments impressive enough to inspire confidence (like Algernon, Mycroft had been a star pupil) but tempered with enough human frailty to discourage envy and engender trust (as opposed to mere capitulation to a more masterful personality). How to manage a Personal Archive File well enough that it tells everything and nothing about you – Mycroft had worked out these subtleties of behaviour and communication by the time he was nine. He was a born politician. Had I not done a psychiatry rotation during my medical training, I may not have recognised the markers of an incredibly manipulative personality. His rotund corpulence, which persisted into adulthood, is the only sign that he may not have been as in control as he wished. Or perhaps it was some sort of elaborate double bluff, a carefully regulated over-consumption of cake to present himself as non-threatening.
Sherlock was born seven years after Mycroft. What must it have been like to be trapped between Algernon’s impenetrable silence and Mycroft’s machinations? It is no wonder Sherlock communicates so maladroitly.
Even as a baby Sherlock’s fierce intelligence had been obvious. Once his eyes were able to focus, that sharp, feral quality entered his gaze, and he seemed to scan his surroundings automatically, greedily absorbing all the details. It was almost creepy watching a baby, then a toddler, think so hard. I believe he has an artist’s temperament. His childhood drawings were bold and dark – all blues and blacks with strong, thick lines – and demonstrated an eye for unusual compositions. He would often draw only part of whatever object had caught his attention – half an apple, the bottom third of a face, a few petals of a flower. I suppose even then it was the details that had interested him. He was energetic, restless and easily bored. School must have been a trial for him. His marks were inconsistent, and, while his teachers praised his obvious intelligence, there was something in the tone of their remarks regarding his “Areas in Need of Improvement” that got my back up. It made me think back to the set of Sherlock’s shoulders when we had met in the lab and the unconscious way he seemed to brace himself to be violently disliked. I felt belatedly ashamed of how quickly I had been willing to judge him harshly. I relived the rush of pity I felt for him several times as I continued to peruse his File, but, the more I learned, the more I came to admire the strange boy I was getting to know. I liked him. That night I fell asleep to the sound of him at ten years-old playing his violin beautifully.
The next morning, over very strong tea and buttered toast, I realised that I needed to check on Sherlock’s finances if we were going to be flatmates. His Personal Finance Sub-File showed no steady employment, but the balances were respectable, and he seemed to receive healthy infusions of funds at regular enough intervals that I felt assured he wouldn’t shirk his share of the rent. Having seen him hard at work in the lab, I had assumed he met his Professional Skills Utilisation Requirements at Barts, but his lack of a steady pay cheque made that unlikely. He was a bit old to be a student, but people re-trained all the time. I clicked into his Professional Skills Sub-File and saw that he had entered a unique Professional Skills Designation: Consulting Detective. He was an independent contractor with no links to any of the usual agencies that keep track of vacancies and potential candidates. He seemed to be well out on his own – his Virtual Business Storefront had only a few patrons. He discussed in minute detail his deductive reasoning process and gave examples that mirrored his analysis of my personal history. The sparse remarks all asked some version of the same unkind question: What possible use was Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, in a world with Personal Archive Files? Of course, they were right. As impressive as Sherlock’s lightning-quick deductions about people were, they almost never revealed anything you couldn’t look up yourself in an instant. It didn’t seem quite so clever when cast in that light. There were actually a few requests for him to do his “trick” at parties. Even having met him only briefly, I knew how keenly that must have stung. I did feel a sense of commiseration with him, though. I could no longer practise my chosen profession, and his was very nearly obsolete. We were both relatively young men already set out to pasture. In hindsight, I should have guessed about the drugs, but it had been remiss of me not to check his Health & Well-being Sub-File.
I met with Sherlock later that day. We signed the lease to the flat immediately and moved in together the next day. He was mercurial and unpredictable – engaging and witty one moment and moody and aloof the next. There were moments (far too few) when he found some problem abstruse enough to occupy his mind. Those were the good times. I even found myself the object of his experimentation as he researched ways to help abate my night terrors. His cold, calculating manner as he converted my bedroom into a makeshift sleep clinic brought a fond smile to my face. I almost choked on my tea when he suggested hiring me a prostitute to see if sexual intercourse and orgasm would help relax me into a restful sleep. “Male or female, John?” he kept asking. “Both?” Needless to say, I declined the offer as gently as I could. How matter-of-fact he was about everything, how he disdained emotion could be off-putting, but I came to see quickly what a good and decent man of principle he was, and he earned my loyalty rather quickly. I assisted him with a few of his investigations, as much as my still poor health would allow, but he very often found himself unmoored and drifting into a dark abyss from which no distraction I could conjure up was strong enough to pull him back. I confess to feeling thoroughly inadequate for my inability to help. As a medical man, I found my failure even more disheartening because in those moments he turned to his only source of comfort, of escape: a morocco case tanned with sumac to an autumnal reddish-orange.
The morocco case contained two vials and a hypodermic syringe. The vials contained cocaine (a 7% solution that Sherlock, a master chemist, prepared himself) and morphine, respectively. Unsurprisingly, both vials were made of glass. Astonishingly, the hypodermic syringe was glass as well. Like the morocco case that was its home, the syringe dates back to the Victorian era – a time to which Sherlock’s eccentric temperament may have been better suited. Both the morocco case and the glass syringe were well cared for. Sherlock had slovenly habits, but he was particular to near obsessive-compulsion about certain of his possessions, the morocco case and its contents being among the honoured group.
I loathed that morocco case with more feeling than it is sane to direct at an inanimate object.
On the day the adventure recounted here began, I watched without comment as Sherlock opened the case and began his ritual. As always, he carefully measured out his dose and expertly found a vein. I had shouted, cajoled, and reproached him bitterly about the drugs – all to no avail. I never had the courage to threaten to leave – not when I knew that taking the drastic step of decamping from the place I had come to consider my home would do nothing to curtail his drug use and that it would hurt me far more than it would him. So, three times a day for the past few months I had watched as Sherlock’s thin, spidery fingers reached for that hateful receptacle, and as much as I longed to, I was always unable to look away as he rolled back the left sleeve of his shirt to reveal a pale forearm littered with puncture marks. His beautiful skin... marred. As he depressed the plunger, I realised I might crush the mug of tea I was holding to shards were I to grip it any tighter. Relaxing my hand, I tried to keep my voice light as I enquired, “What is it this time?” Sherlock gave one of his vague non-committal hums in response. “The white horse or Bolivian marching powder?” I pressed.
“Cocaine,” he responded without inflection. He often used that detached tone with me, but I could never tell whether he was trying to placate me by being co-operative or enrage me with his detached nonchalance. Perhaps my ensuing emotional paralysis was his ultimate goal.
“You know why I do it, John,” he said quietly. So, placation, then.
“I know why you say you do it.” I suddenly wanted to smash things and shout at him for making me remember what it was like when one of his black moods took hold of him. It was a place beyond despondence, past despair, devoid of hope, dark and teeming with the consciousness of one’s mortality. It was an abyss, and watching him fall into it without knowing if he would make his way back out was more painful than watching that needle slip into his vein. The war had taken me to the edge of that void, and better men and women than I had fallen in, never to return to themselves. The drugs made me afraid for him, but when the darkness dragged him under, I was afraid of him. So, I watched him poison himself because it was better than watching him really hurt himself or someone else.
When I looked over at him, his silver-grey eyes were shining almost feverishly, and there was a flush of colour on his prominent cheekbones. He was doing the thing where he looked inside my simple, chimpanzee-like mind and read my thoughts back to me. In those moments, I was like a moth under a lepidopterist’s straight pin. “You can’t save me, John,” he said, his gaze never wavering. I feel as if I am being autopsied alive, I thought. “Only The Work can help,” he reminded me.
Whenever he said it, you could hear the capitalisation. Sherlock fancied himself the world’s only consulting detective, and claimed (rather self-aggrandisingly) to have invented the job, never mind that police departments all over the world were stuffed to the gills with private contractors and consultants, many of whom met their Professional Skills Utilisation Requirements by working as investigators. That is not to say that if there were some sort of competition – an Olympiad of consulting detecting – Sherlock wouldn’t have streaked like a comet past the best anyone could put forward. I would back Sherlock in arguing that he was the most talented consulting detective working (or even perhaps ever to have worked), but his uniqueness came from the superlative nature of his skills not the fact that he was a civilian – technically so was half the police force.
My dear friend was an addict, but his true drug of choice was his criminal investigations – The Work. For some unknowable reason, some mutation of his personality, no other occupation would satisfy him. And so, the morocco case and its contents were our constant companions – we lived in limbo, between the frying pan and the fire.
I watched Sherlock slip away into his high and tried to suppress the desperation brought on by my powerlessness. His Life Management Device trilled. He grunted and made a vague gesture indicating that I should check it. He had granted me access to his L.M.D. only days after we had moved in together. I had been shocked by his trust, but I soon learned that I had merely been absorbed into the buffer he put up to the rest of the world. The incoming message was from Mycroft, and it baptised me with relief. I shook Sherlock’s shoulder. “Mycroft wants to meet later today,” I told him. “He has a case.”