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The Adventure of the Unscrupulous Assassin
During my long association with Professor James Moriarty, I had on many an occasion the privilege to witness not only his amazing powers of deduction, but also his guile and cunning in the resolution of tasks allotted to him.
I had known the good Professor for some time and had come to be known, in my own way, as a conduit to his services. Moriarty was slow to trust, as many in the underworld are, and rarely accepted unsolicited appeals for his aid no matter what the potential client offered in recompense.
Thus it was that I found myself called upon, as I often was,
to be his agent de facto in the matter of the protection of Miss Violet
Sutcliffe. As I have mentioned in the past, at this point in my career I was a
hard working but small and insignificant member of the
“I do wish you would gather more information in advance, Captain,” Moriarty admonished as we approached Mr. Sutcliffe’s mansion. “I know nothing of this case save that it pertains to the safety of Charles Sutcliffe’s daughter Violet, aged sixteen years.”
“The note offered little in the way of information, Moriarty,” I protested. “I did only as I was told.”
We rang and were shown in to the stately mansion. The footman showed us to the study, where we awaited Sutcliffe for some time before his eventual entry. When he did finally arrive, he did so in grand fashion, flanked by no less than four body guards who took up positions around the room and eyed our every move. For his part, Sutcliffe sat at his desk and poured himself a tall brandy without offering any to Moriarty or myself.
“Thank you both for coming,” Sutcliffe said after a long swig of brandy. “Though I still fail to see why Captain Moran needs to be involved.”
“You have your intractable procedures, Mr. Sutcliffe, and I have mine,” Moriarty said sternly. “Now, what seems to be the trouble?”
Sutcliffe, a man unaccustomed to such undeferential treatment, scowled briefly, but recovered his composure. “It’s my daughter, Violet. I fear she is in grave danger. She is being stalked by an assassin who has shown considerable determination. I want you to find that assassin for me.”
“I see,” Moriarty said. “Please go on.”
“Until recently,” Sutcliffe explained, “I have had Violet
enrolled in the respectable Lady Werner’s Boarding School for Girls in
“This very house we are in now?” I asked.
“The same,” Sutcliffe replied. “The fire began in the boiler room. It burned a portion of the basement and did some small damage to the first floor. Fortunately, Violet was up on the third floor in her bedroom and didn’t even know of the fire until after it was out. With the damage so contained and nobody harmed, I thought nothing of it at the time.”
Moriarty leaned forward. “But since then you have had occasion to suspect it was more sinister than a simple spark landing on your coal pile?”
“Indeed I have,” Sutcliffe confirmed. “A week later, I was called upon to travel to the continent for business reasons. As you can see I take a retinue of guards with me wherever I go. I did not want to leave Violet weakly guarded, so I had her transferred to a safe house elsewhere in the city for greater protection. They who do not know her location can not harm her. But on the third night of her stay, the safe house was set ablaze. My men spirited Violet away to safety, but they were forced to bring her outside to a carriage in the process. Nothing untoward happened, but upon hearing the tale I began to suspect there was a plot to kill Violet. Setting a fire guarantees her exit from the structure, where she would be easier to attack.”
“Indeed,” Moriarty agreed. “An ingenious, if heavy handed, method of flushing out the prey.”
“After that, I returned home at once. I had her relocated to another safe house. I own many, as you can imagine. And then that safe house caught fire as well. That was just last night. I fear I am at my wit’s end, Professor. I need your help!”
“It must be one of your men,” I said.
“Hush, Captain,” Moriarty said dismissively. “Being a man of such criminal enterprise, Mr. Sutcliffe will have already considered such a scenario. Had he not disproved it to his satisfaction, you and I surely would not be needed. Isn’t that right, Mr. Sutcliffe?”
“Indeed, Professor Moriarty. My organization is very compartmentalized to prevent one traitorous person running to the police being able to cause much trouble. After the first safe house fire, I had a completely different group of men guard her at the second safe house. There is no connection or correlation between any of the men in the two groups.”
“I see. And where is Miss Violet now? I should like to speak with her.”
“In the sitting room, watched by four men at all times. But there is yet more to the story you have not heard, Professor.”
“Do continue, then, Mr. Sutcliffe.”
“Naturally, I made my own investigations into the situation. Through various channels of information and a great deal of money spread around and bones broken, I discovered that Thomas Rutledge was likely the culprit.”
“Intriguing,” Moriarty said. “Would that be the same Thomas Rutledge that has been these past three years in prison for his various criminal convictions?”
“You are well versed in the underworld, Professor Moriarty. Indeed it is the same man. It so happens that his son, Joeseph, was killed by one of my men during a territorial dispute some years back. Rutledge was heard by many at the time to swear vengeance upon me. And what better way to enact revenge for the death of his son than the murder of my daughter?”
“An excellent lead, Mr. Sutcliffe,” Moriarty conceded. Such a concession of another’s investigative prowess from the Professor was a rare thing indeed and I was almost taken aback. Sadly, the praise from Moriarty was not to last long. “I commend you for you diligence. I shall speak to Mr. Rutledge at once.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Sutcliffe said. “I had him killed in his cell and made to look like suicide.”
“Idiot!” Moriarty exclaimed. “Foolish bombastic idiot!”
I moved my hand slowly toward attaining my revolver from its pocket. A man of Sutcliffe’s disposition would surely not tolerate such a rebuke. It was unlikely I would be able to fell four bodyguards before they got me, but there was always the chance of only being wounded.
However, instead of the terminal end to the conversation I had anticipated, Sutcliffe, after a moment to compose himself, said “Explain.”
“By having him killed you accomplished nothing!” Moriarty fumed. “Surely he is not personally the culprit as he was locked away. He obviously must have hired an assassin for the task. As you well know being a man who has no doubt hired assassins in the past, they will execute their contract regardless of the health of their employer. It’s critical to their reputation. In your fatherly overprotective rage you have guaranteed that we shall never learn the identity of the assassin from Mr. Rutledge!”
Before Sutcliffe could respond, Moriarty was on his feet. “I shall commence a brief examination of the house now, and I shall need access to any and all of your staff I see fit to speak with.”
Sutcliffe nodded, still shaking with anger at Moriarty’s earlier outburst.
Moriarty first wished to see the boiler room; the scene of the initial fire. The damage since repaired, a scorch mark on the cobbled floor still had yet to be completely scrubbed away. The coal boy was most cooperative, but not very helpful. He only shoveled new coal in to the boiler once per hour, and he was, under normal circumstance, the only person to have need of entering the boiler room at all. It was clear that, with the fire having begun at nearly the half hour, the room had been unseen for at least 30 minutes prior to the arson.
Later, as we entered Miss Violet’s bedroom, I was compelled to speak. “I say, Moriarty. This will be a tough nut to crack. Anyone could have accessed the boiler room. How shall we narrow the field?”
“We shan’t,” he replied. “There’s no point in it. I scoured the boiler room and found no evidence. We shall have to deduce information from other available clues. Perhaps the target of the assassination may hold a vital clue that even she herself does not recognize the significance of.”
He examined the room. Having not spent any time in the bedrooms of upper-class ladies, I would not be able to attest to its normalcy. It was certainly well-appointed. Moriarty’s attention was drawn from the bed to the dressing area, then to the vanity station, and finally to the corner of the room. Kneeling down, he peered at a vent on the floor. “What do you make of this, Captain?”
I examined the vent closely. “Everything seems in order, Moriarty. A simple vent, drawing hot air from the boiler room to here.”
“Indeed but smell the faint odor of smoke,” he said, pulling the grate from the floor and peering into the shaft beneath. “Note the soot within the vent. Also, I see light below. If you look closely you can see the boiler room floor. It appears the fire was directly under this vent, from the scorching I can make out down there.”
“Yes, I see it!” I exclaimed. “Intriguing! The assassin set the fire directly under the vent leading to Violet’s room. Perhaps he intended to asphyxiate her with the smoke? Or perhaps to guarantee she was driven out?”
“Perhaps,” Moriarty said, enigmatically.
Just then a servant woman entered the room. “Begging your pardon, sirs. Mr. Sutcliffe directed me to gather up whomever you wanted to talk to.”
“I take it from your uniform and presence here that you are the upstairs maid. It is therefore to you that I wish to speak to first. At the time of the fire, where were you?”
“I was in that very hallway there, sir,” she said, pointing out the door.
“And what time was it?”
“It was half past nine, sir. I know because I was dousing the lamps and candles in the hall, which I do every night at that time.”
“And did you see or hear anything of note around that time?”
The maid looked uncomfortable to the point of flight. “Well sir, there was one thing. I ought not mention it on account of I have great affection for Miss Violet, she’s ever so kind to us servants, you see…”
“Nonsense, woman!” Moriarty scolded. “If you indeed hold such affection for the young Miss Sutcliffe, you should want very much for Captain Moran and myself to find her would-be assassin with all due haste! Now tell us what you know!”
The maid bowed her head in supplication. “Only I heard her talking to someone. There weren’t supposed to be nobody in her room at that hour. But I heard her through the door just the same.”
“Indeed? And what did she say to her mysterious guest?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t want to get Miss Violet in no trouble…”
“I give to you my word that I shall make all effort to keep whatever you say next between the people in this room,” Moriarty said with exasperation.
The maid seemed to accept him at his word. “She said ‘I love you so much. Now go, quickly’. Oh, Mr. Moriarty, you will keep it a secret as you promised? I shouldn’t like to think of what Mr. Sutcliffe would do if he found out she had a paramour.”
“Yes, yes, I am a man of my word, more or less. I have learned all I need to from you. Please send Miss Violet up.”
After the maid curtseyed and left, I asked “A young man in her life? Perhaps using her affections as a method of breaching the house? I find it hard to believe that the presence of a lover and the presence of an assassin are two unrelated events.”
Moriarty seemed unconvinced. “Were that the case, surely the boy could have killed her in her room, rather than sneaking down three stories to the boiler room and starting a fire meant to asphyxiate. I fear the truth will be more complicated than your theory, Captain.”
Shortly, Violet entered the room. She was a young lady of exceptional beauty and her charm school lessons were shining through as her poise and posture were perfect. The only part of her that did not match was her sullen face and deep eyes belying a troubled soul. A girl of so young an age and so tender an upbringing will rarely weather the threat of death well, but Violet was in my judgment doing her best and showing considerable strength by not weeping openly.
“Miss Sutcliffe,” Moriarty said. “Please have a seat.”
Violet nodded her head politely, then seated herself at the vanity station.
“When the first fire happened, the one here in this house, you were in this room, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
“And were you alone? Was anyone in here with you?”
“No, sir,” she said without hesitation. But her eyes diverted from Moriarty.
“Are you certain of that? I give you my word anything you say here will stay between us.”
“I was alone in this room, sir. I swear it.”
“Mm. I see. And when did you learn of the fire?”
“When father’s men came to check on me.”
“Very good. You may go, Miss Violet.”
Violet left the room with just a small bit more haste than she should have.
“She lied right to your face, Moriarty!” I exclaimed.
“You think so?” Moriarty asked. “Are you certain of that?”
“Of course,” I said, though now not as convinced. Still, I pressed on. “There was definitely someone in the room with Violet the night of the fire. Surely you noticed how she averted her gaze from you when you asked her the question.”
“Indeed I noticed, Captain. But I noticed considerably more than that. Did you? I suspect not.” He stood, suddenly. “Quickly. We must away to the telegraph office, then to my house.”
I often suspected Moriarty utilized me as a companion more for my horse and carriage than for my actual wit or insight. It certainly saved him a sum of money on Handsom cabs. On the trip to the telegraph office, Moriarty said nothing to clue me in as to his plan for resolving the case. Then, after sending whatever missive he’d sent, he came out and was equally laconic on the trip to his home, stopping once along to way to talk to a local ruffian on some matter he did not see fit to share with me.
When he finally did explain what was to happen next, I was a bit surprised, but willing to follow instructions as he had laid them out. We awaited developments in his study. I read the latest copy of The Strand to amuse myself, while Moriarty plotted mathematical calculations most vexing on his many blackboards. He was working on some great treatise that consumed all of his time not spent on cases.
After an hour, a boy showed up with a telegraph reply for Mr. Moriarty. He tipped the boy and read the reply without comment other than to say “Mm-hmm! As I suspected.” He did not share further with me the developments that led him to that moment of satisfaction. I fear the Professor needed more than just deductive challenges in his life, but also an audience to which he may reveal his brilliance at a pace of his own choosing, and I was apparently his victim in such regards. I did not mind the distinction, as it allowed me to see a truly brilliant mind at work, and also enabled me to occasionally make use of his services for a greatly reduced rate.
Shortly after the receipt of the telegram, a knock came at the door, exactly as Moriarty instructed me there would be. I greeted our guest and led him to the Professor’s study. A rough and ugly man, our caller was obviously no gentleman and an individual of the foulest sort.
“You are Slade the Blade, are you not?” Moriarty said without preamble.
“That’s my name, yeah. I heard you bin lookin fer me. What ya want?” This to my mind explained the brief conversation which Moriarty had instigated with the street ruffian on our way to his home.
“You may perhaps know who I am?” Moriarty said without hint of pomposity. “I am a man of some small distinction in the circles to which your kind may run.”
“Sure. I knows ya. Yer the Professor.”
“Indeed. As I understand it, you are an assassin who can get the job done. And, unlike other assassins who have certain rules against targets who are children or clergy, you do not have such limitations?”
“A taget’s a target, Professor. I just kills ‘em. I don’t make no judgements on why they gotta’ die.”
“In fact,” Moriarty continued, “from reading in the Times the police reports of the Nielson boy’s murder, I quickly concluded you were the artist responsible. Few men would be willing to take on a target who is an eight year old boy, yet you did.”
“What of it?” Slade said, mildly annoyed. “I makes an honest wage. That boy’s murderer was the man what hired me to kill him to get him out of the way of an inheritance or somefing or other. Not my concern. I’m not responsible.”
“Excellent. I think that you shall do nicely. Captain Moran, if you would be so kind.”
On his order, as he had instructed earlier, I quickly grabbed Slade’s wrists and bound them behind the chair. Then I set about beating him upon the face and gut as ruthlessly as I could. I broke what ribs I could and made sure to fracture his jaw and snap several teeth free.
“What you want from me…” Slade mumbled through his bleeding mouth.
“Nothing,” Moriarty said. “Captain, I believe you can finish now.”
On the command, I pulled out my trusty straight razor and slit Slade’s throat. He died within seconds.
“A question, Professor,” I asked. “If we were simply planning to kill him outright, why beat him first?”
“We need the marks and damage upon his body to be frankly evident. Applying the thrashing postmortem would not make them look quite right as swelling and bruising works quite differently when lacking a heart to circulate the fluids.”
He grabbed his coat and hat. “Bring the body to your carriage, Captain. Our work is almost complete!”
We rode with all haste to Sutcliffe’s house. We were a most unusual pair of visitors, what with me holding the corpse of Mr. Slade. Yet, being a man who has dealt with death and indeed arranged it on many an occasion, Mr. Sutcliffe was less shocked and more annoyed. Violet, in the next room, looked in at the scene with interest.
“What is the meaning of this dead man in my foyer?” Sutcliffe demanded.
“Mr. Sutcliffe,” Moriarty began. “Allow me to introduce to you Mr. William Slade, known in some circles as ‘Slade the Blade’. Or, more accurately, allow me to introduce to you to the vessel that once contained Mr. Slade’s soul before it relocated to its new home in Hell.”
“I’ve heard that name…” Sutcliffe said, pondering.
“I will spare you the search of your memories, Mr. Sutcliffe. Mr. Slade was an assassin, known for getting the job done and also known for a particular lack of ethics in regards to targets. More specifically, he was known for killing children. This was the man hired to kill your daughter. He admitted as much after some interrogation by my compatriot, Captain Moran. As you can see, the threat is now neutralized.”
Sutcliffe’s expression became immediately the face of a happy man. “This is wonderful news, Professor! Are you quite certain?”
“Quite certain, Mr. Sutcliffe. Your daughter’s life is not in any danger now.”
“Marvelous!” Sutcliffe said. “Let me just fetch your payment!”
“Captain, please see to the receipt of payment whilst I explain the good news to Miss Violet.”
After collecting a not inconsiderable sum of coin from Mr. Sutcliffe while Moriarty spoke with Violet, we rode toward his home where I would deposit him before returning to my own humble dwelling.
“I say, Moriarty, there’s a few things I don’t understand. How did you know Slade was the assassin?”
“It’s quite simple, Captain. I didn’t. In fact, I know for certain that he had nothing to do with this affair. But we needed a dead assassin to give to Mr. Sutcliffe, so I arranged one who fit the bill.”
“What!?” I said, incredulous. “Do you mean to say the assassin is still out there?”
“Not at all, Captain. There is not now nor has there ever been an assassin. Mr. Sutcliffe, understandably concerned for his daughter’s safety, presumed the worst. But the answer was much more internal.
“It was clear to me upon investigating Miss Violet’s room that she was lying from the start. You see, she told both her father, then later us, that she didn’t know of the fire until informed of it after the fact. But that would be impossible considering the amount of soot in the boiler vent leading to her room and the still present smell of smoke. She surely would have noticed the fire when it was in progress.
“Further, it should be noted that there was only one person who was present at all three fires. And that was Violet herself. She was the arsonist, Captain Moran, not some mysterious would-be assassin.”
“My dear Professor, that makes no sense!” I protested. “I fail to see what possible reason Miss Violet would have for endangering her own life in such a fashion, and I further fail to see how should could have started a fire in the boiler room of her house when she was in her bedroom some three stories above!”
Moriarty tisked in the way a nanny might at a child who simply can’t read a difficult word. “Her motivation is not normal or rational, Captain. She suffers from a mental ailment known as pyromania. She has an unquenchable urge to start and watch fires. I confronted her with this while you were collecting payment from Mr. Sutcliffe and she confirmed it.
“She told me she considered fire to be the most beautiful thing in creation, and that she could not help but set it free. She explained that her urges build up stronger and stronger until she can no longer contain herself and must set something, anything, alight.”
“What of her paramour,” I demanded. I was certain I had him this time.
“There was no paramour, Captain,” he sighed. “She told the truth on that point.”
“But she averted her eyes when you asked her about him! A sure sign of duplicity!”
“Ordinarily, yes. But in this case she didn’t avert her eyes so much as direct them. Following her gaze after asking the question I was able to see she was not avoiding my glare, but in fact directing her attention to the fireplace. The crackling fire was too much for a girl of her mental make-up to ignore. She stared at it with the obsession of a starving man staring at a shank of lamb.
“Suspecting she had an ailment of this nature, I sent a telegram to her boarding school on the continent, asking if there had been any fires in the last few years. Their reply confirmed that there were no fewer than six such fires in the last two years alone, but that each had a reasonable cause and no foul play was suspected. I’m certain it was Violet who set them, and wisely masked their origin.”
“But then who was she talking to in her room?” I asked. “To whom did she profess her love, then direct to leave quickly?”
“Why, to the fire itself, Captain,” Moriarty explained. “In her mind, she has anthropomorphized it into and entity that not only exists, but that she loves. She is a somewhat deranged girl.
“You may recall the maid explaining that she was snuffing candles at the time. The presence of candles makes it clear there is no gas laid in at the house. So Miss Violet would have had ready access to kerosene. She poured the kerosene such that it dribbled down the vent shaft all the way to the boiler room, then set it alight. The still-dripping kerosene conveyed the flames to the floor, where the puddle there caught and the conflagration was in full swing. Once it reached the coal pile, there was no way to tell the original source of the fire.
“What the maid heard was Violet instructing her lovely fire to direct itself to the boiler room. Which it obediently did.”
“Incredible,” I sighed after giving a low whistle. “But why not tell Mr. Sutcliffe the truth of the matter? He could perhaps get help for the girl. Why put the blame on Mr. Slade’s dead shoulders?”
“Help? Help!?” Moriarty fumed. “Would you ‘help’
Michelangelo out of his love of art? Would you ‘help’ Pythagoras to recover
from an interest in mathematics? Would you ‘help’
“Violet Sutcliffe is the most skilled arsonist in all of
“While speaking to her, I guaranteed that I shall meet her clandestinely once per month and take her to a building of my choosing that she may enflame completely in any way she sees fit. This will see to her needs, as she will have a regular date upon which to look forward to a release of her desires. I made it clear in no uncertain terms that she is not to burn anything without my consent. She agreed.”
“But how does this benefit you, Professor,” I asked, puzzled as I often was at the gears turning within his head.
“I have many ventures, Captain, considerably more than simply solving underworld problems for hire. In many of my pursuits it would be convenient in the extreme for a building to be removed from play. It may contain an enemy, or a business I need eliminated, or evidence I need destroyed. I will now have an avenue for such destruction, perpetrated by a master of the field.
“I see,” I said. “And you will need such services on a monthly basis?”
“Unlikely,” Moriarty said. “I chose that time frame because
I believe it to be frequent enough to sate Violet’s needs. On months where I
have no specific use for her services, I shall merely pick a building at
random, or let her choose.
“I say, Moriarty, you have gathered yourself a powerful ally and employee, and all while being paid to do so.”
“Indeed,” he said with such casualness as to imply it was an ordinary thing, worthy of no note. Still, I suspected he was preening a bit behind his enigmatic half-smile at his accomplishment.