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Case 17: The Shocking Business At The Tankerville Club (1879)

Chapter Text

[Narration by Doctor John Watson, M.D.]

One of the many advantages to having Holmes as a friend was that it solved one small but important societal problem for me. As a doctor who treated some of the cream of 'high society' it was considered only fitting that I should hold membership in at least one of London's top gentlemen's clubs, because the richer people that I treated expected to be able to find a smattering of 'suitable' establishments on my calling-card. Had I not been able to fulfil that societal nicety I doubt that they would have continued using my offices, such was the snobbery of those people. Which was all well and good except the fees for being a member of these were frankly eye-watering, and my already grumbling bank-manager would have had a conniption had I paid them!

Fortunately my friendship with Holmes solved that problem as his father had insisted on his having the highest class of membership at each of his six clubs clubs, and at four of them that included the right to associate membership for at least one gentleman friend. Hence I was able to have four illustrious names on my 'Doctor John Watson, M.D.' cards and to talk to my patients about them as if I did not only go to each of them once in a blue moon.

All right, I occasionally accompanied Holmes to Benfield's on a very small number of Thursdays because of the pie. But we always walked there from the house so despite what some snarky blue-eyed genius was prone to comment about my having two desserts on those days, that did not count. Besides it was pie, not dessert.

One of these days I am going to work out just how he can smirk from the other side of a closed door!

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It was shortly after our return from Cornwall and its free smirking fishermen that I was called out to old Lord Merioneth who had collapsed during a game of cards at the Tankerville Club, a very plush establishment (not one of mine I might add) on the banks of the River Thames in Chelsea. The doorman had looked at me most pityingly and had seemed quite disbelieving that I was a doctor come to treat someone in his establishment. Fortunately I was eventually admitted and Lord Merioneth needed little more than some reassurance plus some stomach powders. The place left a bad impression on me as absolutely everyone in it seemed to be looking down on me and I was frankly glad to get away from it.

I thought nothing more of the matter until two days later when Sergeant Henriksen called round. I had assumed that it was because Holmes wanted to brief him about the resolution of the Cornish case (and also because by an amazing coincidence it was Mrs. Hellingly's sponge-cake day!) but to my surprise he wanted to talk to me.

“You were seen entering the Tankerville Club, doctor”, he said.

I looked at him curiously.

“I had to treat a patient there”, I said wondering what this was all about. “Why do you ask?”

The policeman hesitated.

“It may be something or nothing”, he said, “but there's a few fellows from my own Dutch West Indies that live along the riverside in Stepney. I know Eddy, one of them; he's a copper in the area. He came to me yesterday about that club and he thinks something odd is going on there.”

I wondered as to why an East Ender would be concerned about a West End club. Indeed I sometimes thought that the two parts of London functioned almost as two quite separate cities.

“Odd how precisely?” Holmes asked, his head tilting to one side as it always did when he was puzzled.

“In the past year three of his neighbours just left without telling anyone”, Henriksen said. “And the odd thing, they were nearly all young single fellows. The only one that wasn't was Ben; he was just sixteen and his father told Eddy that he'd been offered a job at the Tankerville Club and cheap rent nearby. The house was all sold and everything proper but Eddy says that wasn't like him. But Eddy went and asked around the area – you know how rare black men are in that neck of the woods – and no-one had seen hide nor hair of him.”

“Someone is kidnapping black men from the East End?” I said dubiously. “To what end?”

“That's the weird thing”, Henriksen said scratching his gleaming bald pate (seriously, did he actually polish it?). “When I heard about you going there I thought I would take the chance to talk to Mr. Holmes about it because I felt he might take it better that the boss.”

I could sympathize with him over that. I could not imagine it being easy to explain such a nebulous matter to his boss Inspector Fraser Macdonald. Especially as it involved those weird objects that the latter regarded as utterly incomprehensible, namely human beings.

“What is the problem exactly?” Holmes asked our friend.

“Eddy was told by the local lads at Chelsea station that it was something peculiar”, the sergeant said. “For some reason they aren't allowed the place inside even if a crime has been reported there. They have to get permission first.”

“Ah”, Holmes said knowingly. I glared at him.

“Please explain”, I said not at all testily. He chuckled.

“The Tankerville Club must be the 'peculiar' that I once read existed in West London”, he said. “It is normally a church term but here it refers to a part of England that is not legally England.”

Well that cleared things up - not! He smiled at my obvious annoyance as did The Great Cake-Detector Of Old London Town.

“The Tankerville Club was founded in honour of the family of the same name”, Holmes explained. “The current earl, a Mr. Charles Bennet to give him his proper name, is descended from a family who before the Conquest used to hold lands in Tancarville which is in Normandy. Obviously at some time in the past the land where the club stands was made a possession of the family as vassals of someone other than the King of England. Their charter must never have been revoked so therefore it is legally not part of England.”

“So a part of Chelsea is French?” I asked, surprised.

“Maybe”, he said. “Its questionable legal status means that the police have to tread warily, especially given the difficult situation in France just now.”

That was all too true. It was less than a decade since enemy troops had marched through Paris and the once-mighty French nation utterly humiliated by the new power of Bismarck's Germany, losing the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to them. And the recent British purchase of a large stake in the Suez Canal in an area of the world that Paris had once considered its own had not exactly helped Anglo-French relations either.

“You think the nob himself is involved?” Henriksen asked. He had I knew a low opinion of the nobility, regarding them as merely criminals who knew how to operate above the law (in which belief he was all too right in my opinion). Holmes shook his head.

“A member of the Privy Council and a most honourable gentleman”, he said. “No, whatever is going on at the club that bears his name I am sure that he himself has no part of it. But he may be important to remedying matters if they can be remedied. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Henriksen. I shall look into it.”

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Unfortunately it was one of Those Days. Henriksen had barely left when we had a second visitor. A far less welcome one.

“Bacchus”, Holmes said coolly. “To what do we owe the 'pleasure'?”

His tone clearly implied that 'pleasure' was not involved. The lounge-lizard did not even take a seat and stared haughtily down his nose at his younger brother.

“You are making inquiries into the Tankerville Club”, he said.

“I shall be”, Holmes said.

“You must cease them.”

“Why should I?”

The sadist in me enjoyed moments like these. Mr. Bacchus Holmes was clearly used to being obeyed in everything he demanded of the people around him, and someone not jumping to do what he wanted within sixty seconds was clearly incomprehensible to him. Good.

“Two gentlemen in the Cabinet are members of that club”, he said, “as well as several Important People. You should not stick your nose in where it is not wanted.”

“I dare say that the criminals that I have helped secure convictions against felt much the same way”, Holmes said coolly. “Try again.”

“It is none of your concern”, his brother said loftily. Holmes smiled knowingly.

“Ah but you must be wrong there, my dear brother”, he said. “You would not be here so swiftly if there was not something highly irregular occurring at that establishment. And now.... I am even more curious!”

Mr. Bacchus Holmes scowled at him, then at me for some reason before huffing and making a dignified exit.

“He would not try anything against you?” I asked worriedly. Holmes shook his head.

“He would like to”, he said. “But he knows that if anything happened to me and it was over a matter that could in any way be traced back to him, then the wrath of God would be as nothing compared to the wrath of Mother!”

I smiled at that.

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I was not totally surprised when, the next day, Holmes said that he was going round to visit his mother and father. He generally avoided his family as and where possible and usually spent some days before each visit looking glum and depressed (and usually a further set of days after looking much the same, more of his mother had made him listen to one of her dreadful stories). This time however the visit came unannounced although I had wondered whether his unwelcome fraternal visit from the day before may have been behind it. He looked worried enough however and I decided that it was not my place to ask.

Holmes of course knew what I was thinking.

“You are wondering about my having to go and see Father”, he said over supper that evening.”

“It is family”, I said. “You have obligations, I suppose.”

He looked at me a little warily. He knew full well that while I missed my dear late mother, my father was both gone and (as much as was possible) best forgotten and I suppose he felt a little guilty that he still had his parents. Even if one of them was the frankly terrifying Lady Rebecca Holmes. She had, Holmes had told me, insisted on a full check of both our current and first establishments (and their landladies!) by a private investigations agency. He had not said as much but I guessed that she had had me thoroughly checked out as well. I presumed that I had been deemed 'acceptable'

“I thought that I may need Father's help in resolving this affair at the Tankerville Club”, he said. “He has certain contacts that are quite useful at times like this. He told me that the club is run by one Mr. Simeon Bennett, second cousin to Earl Charles. Mr. Simeon is not a pleasant character by all accounts.”

“A criminal?” I asked. Holmes shook his head.

“As Henriksen says, cynically if accurately, nobility like him are too wily to do what is actually criminal”, he said sounding rather sorrowful. “No, he skates around the edges of the law but does not fall in.”

“Sounds like he needs a good push!” I said trying to lighten the mood. Holmes stared at me.

“Yes”, he said slowly. “Maybe he does.”

I had the distinct impression that I had said something important, which was inevitably followed by the distinct impression that any chance of my knowing just what was so important was about as remote as the Dog Star. Again, no change there.

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Chapter Text

A couple of weeks passed and Holmes marked his thirty-fifth birthday. It was a generally cheerless time; that summer had been the wettest ever on record and the poor weather had continued as we approached autumn. I did not get to spend the day with my friend as his formidable mother had wanted him to accompany her to see a friend down in Devonshire. His hang-dog expression and the telegrams bemoaning his fate were cheering however and I welcomed him back after a two-day absence by doing something that I had known he had long had planned, having his violin-case refurbished. He joked that he was so grateful that he would not torment me my playing although I mostly found his music soothing enough. Except when he was unhappy when it almost took on a life of its own in its utter misery and despair.

Despite his break Holmes did not seem to be doing much as regards the Tankerville Club. I was therefore surprised when shortly after his return we had a visitor, one Mr. Simeon Bennett. He was a tall, balding fellow in his fifties and, like the oleaginous Mr. Bacchus Holmes, clearly someone used to getting his own way in life by the disdainful manner in which he looked at first me and then our rooms.

I suppressed a smile. This was going to be interesting.

“They say that you are a private detective”, our visitor said sounding dubious as to that fact.

“I am”, Holmes said equably. “In what capacity may I be of service, sir?”

There was the faintest hint of our visitor's own disdain in my friend's tone and from his surprised expression Mr. Bennett was clearly unused to getting his own attitude thrown back at him. He scowled but continued.

“I am being followed”, he said. “I went to the police but they said that they could not spare an officer to monitor me twenty-four hours of the day. Apparently I must be attacked and done to death first before they will actually lift a finger to help! So I came to you.”

“Has your life been threatened?” Holmes asked.

“No”, the man admitted, “but there is a man following me wherever I go.”

“Can you describe this 'man'?” Holmes asked.

“It is a different darkie every time”, our visitor said. “They all look alike to me.”

I winced inwardly. The man had done himself no favours at all with that slur, in the eyes of us both.

“So a different person is following you each time and the only connection is that they are a.... the colour of their skin?” Holmes asked. “It does not exactly sound threatening, sir. In a city of a million or more people the odds on someone of that skin colour being in the same areas as yourself are quite high.”

“Maybe if I lived in the East End perhaps”, our visitor said. “But I can tell you the number of darkies around Chelsea is bloody damn few. Yet suddenly they are all after me!”

Holmes frowned.

“Have you perchance done something that might warrant such a sudden interest?” he asked.

“Of course not!”

There had been the briefest of pauses before he had answered, but it was definitely there. Holmes shook his head.

“I serve clients from all levels of society”, he said, “but the one thing I expect from them is absolute honesty. You would not call on the services of Watson here, tell him only half your symptoms and then expect an accurate diagnosis. Unless you are completely honest with me sir, you are wasting my time as well as your own.”

“I can see that!” our visitor said testily. “You have not heard the last of this, Mr. Holmes!”

With a curl of the lip he was gone. I stared after him, worried.

“Can he do anything against you?” I asked. Holmes shook his head.

“He is all bluster”, he said. “He is only in charge of the Club because his noble cousin in a rare moment of ill-judgement wanted to give him something to do. His timing today was unfortunate as I do not quite have everything in place to remedy matters. I shall regrettably have to call on the offices of Mr. Khrushnic as only he can obtain what I need.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“A body!”

I blinked in surprise.

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Holmes looked even more tired than usual over breakfast that morning and I did not hesitate before forking over all my rashers of bacon onto his plate. The look of undying gratitude that I received in return made me feel so mushy that it was frankly a surprise I did not drip right off the chair.

“Are you going into the surgery today?” he asked.

“I am not scheduled to”, I said, “although I may get a call if they are short-handed. Why?”

“I am expecting someone here at around mid-day”, he said. He seemed oddly unsure which unnerved me somewhat. “I would be grateful if you could be here to treat him.”

“Do you know what is wrong with him?” I asked.

He thought for a moment before answering.

“Only that he will be in exceptionally poor physical condition”, he said. “I believe that his mental needs may match or even outweigh his physical ones, but the latter can be treated more quickly. I have secured a place for him to go to recover from the former but he will need some attention today.”

“I shall be here when he comes”, I promised.

He smiled that grateful smile at me again and I nearly let him have the rest of my breakfast as well!

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My patient arrived later than expected and it was not until just after two o'clock that there was a knock at the door. Holmes went to open it and outside stood two men, a tall black man and a shorter white one. Holmes handed a coin to the white man who thanked him and left, then ushered the other fellow into the room. It was only when he came into the light of the window that I saw his true state.

I nearly retched. Little wonder that Holmes had placed a drink ready right next to me. I downed it in one go.

“This is Mr. Benjamin Hope”, Holmes said quietly. “Do what you can for him, doctor. Henriksen and his friend Mr. Edward Bell will be here in about an hour or so.”

I fought down my nausea and ushered the man over to the screen, bidding him disrobe. Even clothed it was clear that he had suffered severe physical torture of the worst type imaginable. While he was getting ready I downed a second drink and followed it with a third. My hands were still shaking but I pulled myself together and began.

I shall not disturb the reader by graphically describing the poor fellow's broken body, save to say that he must have been subjected to almost every physical abuse possible. How his frame, which in normal times must have been quite impressive, had not broken under such stress I did not know. Holmes had pointedly absented himself in his room but he had left the door open so that we both knew that he was there; I noted how my patient jumped at any sudden noise from the street and was shuddering throughout my examination of him. I was able to cleanse and make a start on healing his wounds but he would indeed require many weeks away from civilization – a civilization that had allowed this to befall him - to even begin to recover from his ordeal. What chilled me almost as much as his physical condition was the utter lifelessness in his eyes as if he no longer cared about life.

The time passed much quicker that I thought and I was still applying ointment to some minor cuts on the man's face when there was a second knock at the door. Henriksen appeared with what was presumably his and my patient's friend Mr. Edward Bell. The latter blundered into the room and saw Mr. Hope's broken body.

I hope never again to see two grown men cry.

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“But how did you manage it?” I asked as the three of us drove in a cab down to the Chelsea. Mr. Bell and Mr. Hope had gone to the hospital that Holmes had organized, out in the Essex countryside near the Epping Forest where the latter would have the time he needed to recover.

“It seemed clear that for some reason someone at the Tankerville Club was abducting young and mostly single black men”, Holmes said. “I told Mr. Khrushnic that I needed Mr. Hope to be removed from the club for a case that I was working on reasoning that Mr. Simeon Bennett, while he himself eschewed any open criminality, would know whom not to annoy. He must have calculated that Mr. Hope had committed some faux pas that had upset the crime lord in some way and would soon be taking a terminal dip in the Thames. Instead he and all his friends will soon be recovering at their own pace from their terrible ordeal.”

“Friends?” Henriksen asked. Holmes nodded, grim-faced.

“I am afraid that it is not just your friend Eddy's road”, he said darkly. “The Tankerville Club has in the past two years extracted at least sixteen black men from the East End for the sole purpose of torturing and abusing them.”

“But why?” I asked mystified. “What could have driven them to such a foul set of acts?”

“You are forgetting that for some of these men the slave trade was abolished in their living memory”, Holmes said. “And as we see from many Mohammedan countries around the world people there still see the act of demeaning and abusing those of a different skin complexion as some sort of God-given right. But for the vile scum at the Tankerville Club that 'right' ends right here!”

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I do not think that I have seen as many policemen on one street since the relatively modest celebrations some two years back to mark Her Majesty's fortieth year on the throne. The burly doorman at the Club was brushed aside and the matter was over in minutes. I found myself with Holmes, Henriksen, a dark-skinned fellow (suited and in very good condition) and a very angry Mr. Simeon Bennett in the latter's plus offices.

“This is an invasion of my rights!” Mr. Bennett stormed. “The English police service have no right to enter foreign soil. I shall be communicating with the French government over this.”

Holmes sighed.

“It is a most fortunate thing that you are as ignorant historically as you are ideologically”, he sighed. “The French government has no jurisdiction here. Given the somewhat irregular circumstances they were informed earlier today of the planned sequence of events and they have given their consent to our actions. Not that we needed it but it was politic to ask.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Bennet demanded.

“Well”, Holmes said, “the 'peculiar' status of the land on which this club stands was confirmed in a charter issued by King Henry the Sixth – or at least his guardians – in the year 1435.”

“So?”

“So”, Holmes said patiently as if he were instructing a slow schoolboy, “the wording of the charter states that the land becomes the property not of the King of France but the titular Duke of Normandy. At that moment in history Normandy had - briefly as it turned out - been returned to English rule. And as we all know that title is current held by the queen as ruler of the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey. She has graciously granted her permission for your cousin the earl to sell this land and to use the money for somewhat more humane causes. You and Mr. Blake here will be shortly enjoying somewhat less salubrious accommodation courtesy of the local gaol.”

“We did nothing wrong”, the black man scowled.

“Deliberately luring away innocent young black men so that you could abuse them in this foul way?” Holmes asked dryly.

“Do you think an English court would believe the word of a black man over a white one, Mr. Holmes?” Mr. Blake sneered.

Holmes sat back and smiled. I knew that look. He had something.

“Does the name Mr. Joseph Lake ring any bells?”

Henriksen and I both looked as confused as we felt but Mr. Blake and Mr. Bennett looked as if they had been pole-axed. Holmes turned to us.

“As Mr. Blake so rightly says, proof is a difficult thing”, he said. “So for the past couple of weeks the Tankerville Club has enjoyed the free services of a budding young photographer who had been providing its members with pictorial evidence of their 'achievements'. And for every photograph there is always a negative.”

Mr. Blake moved to strike my friend but Henriksen moved faster than I would have thought possible with his bulk and floored the fellow with a single punch to the jaw.

“That felt good!” he said. “Even if I may have broken a few bones.”

“Doctor?” Holmes smiled.

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I am pleased to say that all the men rescued from the Tankerville Club which the earl did indeed close down all made full recoveries. Indeed some of them were to later be instrumental in further cases of ours when they were able to repay both Holmes' and Henriksen's kindness by..... but I am getting ahead of myself. The government was rocked by the resignations of two of its members but as they were generally disliked anyway it was able to ride out the storm, while several other people in high society disappeared from the social pages for some considerable time.

Not of course that I ever read the social pages. And someone had better bloody well not smirk!

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