The Death of Mycroft
First two chapters of The Death of Mycroft
May 25, 1944
Watson slumped against the doorframe, dazed. The body of Holmes lay massive on the bed. Unmoving. He couldn’t imagine Holmes dead, though it was right before him. The usual brilliant, purposeful analyst the night before, now—this. What would the prime minister say? How could any of them do without him? Especially now, with forty divisions of Germans eighteen miles across the Channel from Dover. God help us.
* * *
The old man shrugged his bony shoulder under the strap of his satchel and glanced left as he shuffled over the bridge spanning the lake at St. James Park, leaning heavily on his walking stick.
“Damn Huns,” he muttered, indignant at the rubble on the west wall of Buckingham Palace, compliments of the Nazi’s new V1 self-propelled bombs. It was the old man’s first visit to London in nearly a decade. He was not enjoying it, between the deafening traffic, the bombed buildings, and worst of all the Yanks swarming everywhere, including the grassy knolls of St. James Park ahead of him. What did they say? The three problems with the Yanks—they were overpaid, oversexed, and over here. Indeed.
Only Mycroft could pull him out of his retirement cottage in Sussex, his bees and his chemical experiments. Mycroft, his older and smarter brother, the heart of British intelligence for over half a century. The only man ever permitted to sit in the presence of Queen Victoria. Mycroft, the confidant of not just the imposing Victoria, but of the short-lived Edward Seven, the steady George Five, the charming but feckless Edward Eight—how many charming, feckless rogues did I send to the gallows in my time? the old man mused, several dozen, surely—and finally the stuttering George Six. All had leaned on the tall, portly Mycroft, and leaned still as George Six and Churchill tried to decide where to send all these swarming Yanks against Hitler’s seasoned killers across the Channel.
“Please come stop Supply or surprise stop Smell a B-P” last night’s telegram from Mycroft had said. Most of that was perfectly clear to the old man.
Mycroft would be in the thick of the decision where to send those Yanks and the British left after Dunkirk against the Germans. “Supply” dictated a Pas de Calais landing, the shortest invasion route, a mere eighteen miles across the Channel. The Germans knew that and were heavily fortified there. “Surprise” dictated Norway or Brittany or Normandy, less fortified but the longer supply line inviting disruption and defeat by the infamous Channel storms—as the Spanish Armada had learned three and a half centuries ago.
“Smell a B-P” was also clear, to a point. The Foreign Office had been rocked by the theft of the Bruce-Partington submarine plans in 1895. A distraught Mycroft—the only time he had known his brother to misplace his wonted calm—had appealed to him to recover them. It had been a German agent, then—Oberstein—and of course Sherlock had succeeded. But everyone had submarines now, and Mycroft had surely disabled every German agent in Britain. The Germans, again. What had Churchill said? “I thank God that He put a body of water between us and the Germans.” Indeed.
The old man crossed St. James Park and warily paused at the foot of the three flights of steps leading to the Duke of York column. The Grand Experiment had kept him and Mycroft alive and amazingly fit for their years. But still, he was 89, and those stairs seemed to stretch forever. He took a breath, and mounted them slowly but steadily. At the top he pulled his watch out of his pocket, catching his breath as he pondered its message. The watch contained a considerable amount of gold and diamonds, a gift from the King of Sweden for services rendered many years ago.
“Saturday, 11 am. Mycroft will be in his chair at the Diogenes Club.” He turned onto Pall Mall, meaning to traverse the two short blocks to his brother’s private club on the street’s south side. But a bustle across the street caught his eye. A small crowd had gathered around a bobby below a stone lintel announcing “Crusader House” between two marble columns—Mycroft’s abode. He regarded the crowd with a guarded eye, looked carefully right and left, then crossed the street.
“Pardon. May I? I beg your pardon,” he muttered as he wound through the crowd to the door. He addressed the figure in blue blocking the entrance. “I’m meeting my brother today, who lives on the third floor here. Could you kindly enquire of the concierge if Mr. Holmes is in?”
The bobby squinted at him, and tilted his helmeted head. “You’re ‘ere to see Mr. Mycroft Holmes?”
“Yes I am. Is he here?”
A gesture brought the concierge over. “This ‘ere fellow says he’s Mr. Holmes’ brother and wants to see ‘im.”
The concierge, a thin fellow with sparse white hair, twitched a bit and pressed his hands against his trousers. “Oh my. I’ll send for Mr. Holmes’ secretary, sir. Just a moment, please.” He dashed off toward the lift at the back of the foyer.
The old man stood very still, breathing lightly. He didn’t like this. And he didn’t know Mycroft’s new personal secretary. He wasn’t allowing himself to think; insufficient data. Insufficient data, he repeated angrily to himself, as several hypotheses thrust themselves unwanted into his head.
The concierge reappeared from the lift, and turned to introduce the man behind him. The old man tottered, and would have fallen had the bobby not extended an arm to lean on.
Mycroft’s new secretary was the ghost of John Watson.
“My God,” he whispered as he gazed in shock at the man. Taller than Watson, perhaps. Muscular, it appeared, as Watson was not, though perhaps had been as a young man. But the hazel eyes and hair were the same, the same honest, straightforward face amiably regarding the world. A sun-kissed face, curiously, unusual for a city dweller in early spring.
The ghost stepped forward, and extended a flesh-and-blood hand with a wondering look in its eyes. “Mr. Holmes? Sherlock Holmes?”
He took the hand, and nodded, too shocked to speak.
“How ever did you get here so fast? It can’t have been three hours since I sent the telegram.”
“Telegram? I received no telegram from you, young man. I received one from Mycroft last night, asking me to come here. I have come.”
“Last night? Then—you don’t know?”
“Know? Know what?”
Watson’s ghost looked right and left, then took Holmes’ arm and drew him out of the crowd, into the foyer a bit.
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I have the sad duty to inform you that your brother is dead, sir. He died in his sleep last night.”
Sherlock Holmes tottered again, and placed both hands on his walking stick, a sturdy Penang lawyer with a broad head.
Watson’s young ghost nodded.
“But, but—” he stammered. It wasn’t possible. And not just because of the royal jelly that had kept his brother and himself improbably spry and active well into their eighties and nineties. No, it was more because it was impossible to imagine England without Mycroft. He had outlasted a queen, three kings, and dozens of prime ministers, always in the very center of every decision of import. He was the constant that glued everything together. Mycroft couldn’t not be here. You could no more imagine Mycroft not here than Westminster Abbey, or St. James Park, or…
Holmes pulled himself together with a sharp breath. He had a duty to Mycroft. Something was amiss here. Mycroft’s telegram, then his death perhaps hours later.
He stared hard into the eyes of Watson’s ghost. “How did he die, my boy?”
The young ghost shrugged his shoulders. “He was 96, sir. His body just gave out, probably his heart.”
Holmes’ eyes remained locked on the amiable eyes of the ghost. Like Watson, also, in not being able to imagine evil.
“What is your name, young man?” he demanded.
“Watson, sir. John Watson.”
“Indeed! You bear a striking resemblance to my own late colleague, Dr. John Watson.”
“Not surprising, sir. I am his grandson.”
“Most interesting. However, I wish to see Mycroft. Mycroft’s body, I mean. I am his brother, after all.”
“Sir, the physician has not even arrived yet to pronounce him dead. It being Saturday, everything is taking longer—”
“I shan’t block access to my brother’s body by the officials. I want to see his body,” he said, his voice rising in volume perhaps a bit. “I must insist.”
Young Watson hesitated a second, then nodded. He turned, and motioned Holmes into the lift, which rose to the third floor.
Holmes exited the lift, and walked to his brother’s bedroom without waiting for permission from Watson. As he opened the door, he spoke back to the young man. “You will understand, of course, that I’d like some time alone with my brother’s remains. I shan’t be long.” He shut the door without waiting for a reply.
Holmes stared at the door for some seconds, steeling himself. He removed the strap from his shoulder, gently placed the satchel on the floor, then turned.
Mycroft lay in bed, his enormous girth rising majestic and solid. One look at his face, though, told all. The sparkling eyes, the animated expressions, the playful eyebrows below the massive forehead—all still. Gone.
“Mycroft,” he said in a broken voice, his throat tightening. “Mycroft, I shall mourn you later, old fellow. You understand, I know, and approve. We must see what has happened to you.”
He paced around the bed, eyes tracing every detail of the scene. He pulled the covers back, and unbuttoned the silk pajamas, letting them fall to either side of the chest. What was that about his skin—it was, what? Bluish. Yes. Certainly far from Mycroft’s normal, royal-jelly-induced pink skin of a seeming 60-year-old. So. Cyanosis. From asphyxia, most likely. A dozen scenarios producing asphyxia exploded into his head, and were just as suddenly banished. Insufficient data. This was for gathering data, not analyzing it. And he didn’t have much time.
He pulled his magnifying lens from its hiding place within the broad head of his walking stick. Rapidly he traversed Mycroft’s body, checking for bruises or the prick of a syringe, particularly into the major arteries. Nothing on his torso or arms. Nothing on his legs. He partially rolled the body over, with a soft grunt, and checked the dorsal aspect. No, nothing. A quick perusal of the soles of his feet and hands, the top of his head. Nothing.
He peered through the lens into Mycroft’s open eyes. He had never known them not to be dancing, but today they were empty and still. He closed his own eyes as his throat began to tighten again. “Later, you fool,” he reminded himself. Pupils normal. He gently pushed the eyelids down over the sightless orbs, and could not refrain from caressing the eyes and forehead.
“Old fellow,” he murmured.
He lifted the legs, then one arm, and the other. Rigor mortis relatively advanced. So death at least, what? Six hours ago, more probably nine to twelve. That would be sometime between eleven last night and five this morning, more likely last night. He found himself reluctant to release Mycroft’s arm, and gently straightened the fingers of the clenched fist. As he did so, something dropped from the fist onto the cream linen sheet. He held his breathe as he reached and picked it up. Small, though heavy. Dark grey, in the shape of a truncated volcano.
“Mycroft, old boy. Why are you presenting me with a barnacle, my dear brother?” he said softly, wonderingly.
Noises from the hallway. He jerked up, pocketing the barnacle, and quickly scanned the rest of the room as he buttoned the pajamas. Table tops and bureau, as he remembered them. He crossed to the desk. Immaculately clean, tablets squared up, pens nestled in the hollow bamboo section from Japan, all as usual. But nothing resting within the In box, blotter freshly changed, and everything—what? Even more tidy than usual, surely. As if Mycroft were putting his affairs in order? Bookshelves—what was that untidiness there? Why, there was a volume shelved upside down, and askew. How odd. Utterly unlike Mycroft. He turned the volume right side up. The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, by Charles Darwin.
“Just as odd as a barnacle in your fist, old boy,” he murmured. He quickly reshelved the book as footsteps approached the door. He sat, and adopted a mourning position, hand hooding his eyes.
The door opened, and an older gentleman bustled through it. “Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Holmes. I am Dr. Thorndyke, and must insist on being the first to examine the body.”
Holmes looked up. “I quite understand, and appreciate the few moments I had with my brother—my late brother, I mean.” He stood, and shook hands with the physician.
“Forgive my making an exception to procedures, Dr. Thorndyke. May I enquire whether I might be able to see the results of the autopsy?”
The physician raised his shaggy white eyebrows. “Autopsy? We generally do not perform autopsies on routine deaths due to old age, sir. The man was, what—96 years old, I understand?”
“Indeed. Although, in my day, when any senior member of Whitehall died, it was standard to perform an autopsy, as a matter of course.”
“Well, Mr. Holmes, that was quite a while ago, and in these modern times, we are not so suspicious, I suppose.”
“Well. Strange. Might I request one?”
“You may request all you want, but you must understand we are at war, sir, and the new bombings are ramping up casualties again. I cannot say whether we can spare the personnel or the time for an autopsy on a routine death.”
“Ah. I suppose I understand.” Suddenly Holmes staggered, and grabbed hold of the physician, slumping against him in such a way to push him toward the door.
“Dr. Thorndyke, sir. I feel faint. The shock. I...” He staggered again, and uttered a swooning wail.
“Smelling salts, sir,” Holmes croaked. “Please! Some ammonium carbonate!”
“In my bag downstairs, Mr. Holmes. Sit on the bed here, and I’ll retrieve them,” the physician pronounced, and bolted out of the room.
No sooner had he cleared the door than Holmes bounded up and shut it behind him. He noted the key in the lock, and twisted it. In a moment he was at the bed with his opened satchel, rummaging about for the medical kit he had inherited from Watson—his Watson, that is.
“Sixty seconds, you think? My apologies, Mycroft. The old fool won’t do his job, so I’ll do what I can in his brief absence. No time for a liver biopsy, of course, but a sample of your blood will tell volumes, old boy.” As he talked he pulled a syringe out of the satchel, and soon a vial. “Thank God I imagined you might be unwell and wanting a physical, dear brother. Everything I need is at hand.” He uncorked the vial, placed it on the side table, and eagerly bent to the inert arm’s brachial artery with the syringe in his hand.
“Damn. No blood pressure, of course. The arteries are worthless.” He stood, and closed his eyes. “All right. What now? Ah! My apologies again, Mycroft. I shall have to go straight into your heart. All for a good cause, my friend.”
He leaned down, located the appropriate spot between the third and fourth ribs on Mycroft’s left, then plunged the needle deep into the thoracic cavity. He set the needle, and pulled back on the plunger. Yes. A stream of blood was sucked up into the syringe. “And see how dark it is, Mycroft. Yes, cyanosis for sure.” With hands only slightly trembling, he pulled the needle out of Mycroft, directed it into the top of the vial, and depressed the plunger. He jammed the cork into the filled vial, and swept both vial and syringe off the table into the waiting satchel when the first fist pounded on the door.
“Let me in, sir! I demand you—”
Holmes unlocked and abruptly opened the door. “How ever did you manage to lock the door on your way out, Dr. Thorndyke?” he enquired. He staggered a bit as he remembered the cause of the good doctor’s hasty exit. “Have you the ammonium carbonate, sir? Bless you, sir! Ahh! Yes. Ahh! I believe I am quite myself again, sir, thanks to your quick thinking!” He brushed a relieved hand over his forehead, and uttered a feeble laugh.
“Yes, well, harrumph,” barked the doctor. “Now if you’ll allow me, sir.”
“Quite. Of course.” Holmes glanced back at his dead brother, etching the scene into his memory. One last look around the room. Then he passed through the doorway and turned for the lift, which was ascending with the most powerful man in England impatiently chewing on a thick cigar.