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Case 61: The Adventure Of The Innocent Murderer (1887)

Chapter Text

Of the many cases that Sherlock and I undertook there were were many where his resolution did not precisely adhere to the letter of English law (by a large distance in some cases!). But as he himself so often said, he was an agent of justice first and the law second and if the two clashed he would always choose justice. Few cases demonstrated this thinking better than that of Mr. Albert Stevens, a man who went to the gallows for a crime that he did not commit yet was surely as guilty as sin. Naturally I could not publish this case at the time for as the actions of Sherlock (and to an extent myself) were technically unlawful. I only ask that the reader empathizes with us and considers what they would have done in a similarly impossible situation. Justice and the law are not always bedfellows and the country needs agents of both to keep it true and righteous.

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It was October and I was feeling depressed by the grey autumn weather. Our adventure in Reigate (yes the one that had resulted in a certain photograph that a certain bacon-stealing detective still had on his writing-desk, damn him!) was being published in the 'Strand' magazine; to my annoyance I had had to do a whole lot of extra work on it the previous month after the magazine editor's replacement while he was on holiday sent me a 'corrected' copy with so many basic spelling and grammatical errors that I had had to all but rewrite the whole thing. Education these days had a lot to answer for!

It was Sergeant Henriksen who brought the Stevens Affair to our notice, albeit reluctantly. He had called round to report on a minor case that Sherlock had advised him on but had seemed unusually preoccupied.

“Something is troubling you, Henriksen”, Sherlock observed.

The dark-skinned policeman looked up ruefully from his coffee.

“That obvious?” he grunted.

I only narrowly bit back the remark that he had barely looked at the delicious sponge cream cake that Mrs. Harvelle just happened to have been baking on this day. Even a non-detective like myself could put two and two together and make....

Damnation, Sherlock was looking at me again!

“It's the Stevens case”, the policeman sighed. “The fellow goes to the gallows on Friday and.... damn and blast my gut says he's innocent even though I know he's guilty!”

Sherlock cut the sergeant a large slice of cake and placed it on the table next to him. He did not immediately start devouring it. Lord above, this was serious!

“I think that you had better start at the beginning”, my friend smiled. “Watson read the article to me from yesterday's paper but I dare say that viewing it without the distorting prism of the average London journalist will throw a whole new light on the affair.”

Henriksen sighed heavily. I had expected him to be tired as I knew that his son Valentine had returned to London to visit him and brought his son, Victor's first grandson the four-year-old Virbius, to see him, but our friend genuinely looked depressed.

“It goes back several months to the case of Major Paddy Stevens”, he began. “He was in the Buffs serving out in Malaya. There was an attack by some local rebels and he was one of the fellows captured. His men got him back but there was a suggestion, fanned by a claim from one of the captured rebels, that he had gone willingly and even been instrumental in arranging the attack.”

“Desertion?” I asked horrified. “Why would he do such a thing? And why would they believe his abductor anyway?”

“It made no sense”, Henriksen said. “He had a good track record, he was coming up to retirement and the regiment was almost at the end of its service there; besides which army rules meant that he could not be sent out to that part of the world again or abroad for that matter before he left. The fellow who made the allegations against him was one of his own men, a Sergeant Sean Mallow. Stevens was court-martialed, found guilty – to the surprise of many in the Army it might be added - and dishonourably discharged. It ruined him because that meant no pension; he blew his brains out on the ship home.”

“I take it that there is more?” Sherlock asked. Henriksen nodded.

“It later came out that the court may have been less than fair”, he said. “One of the three judges or whatever they call them was Colonel Seamus Mallow the accuser's father; he really should have signed himself off or something. It also emerged that Sean Mallow was up for promotion against Major Stevens' own son Albert, a sergeant in the same regiment. Bit of a conflict of interest there, all things considered. The conviction ruined Albert Stevens as you might have guessed; he resigned from the army and accompanied his father home. He was the one that found the body, poor sod. He was interviewed by a paper when he got back to England and he told the reporter that 'justice would be done one way or another'.”

I swallowed. This sounded ominous.

“Apart from Colonel Mallow the two other judges were also colonels, Eustace Morris and William Fairfax. Morris had a good reputation in the army while Fairfax was seen as having been promoted to get him away from the front line as he was just an idiot. The Buffs got back two weeks ago, September the twentieth, and two days after that Colonel Mallow was shot dead in his own house in Surrey. No-one linked it to the court-martial at the time – until two days later when Colonel Morris was shot too. In both cases a sprig of lavender, the symbol of the Buffs, was left next to the dead body.”

“That seems odd”, Sherlock said. “Almost as if Mr. Albert Stevens was proclaiming his guilt.”

Henriksen nodded.

“Naturally we suspected the fellow but getting a case against him proved all but impossible. He didn't have alibis for the times of the two murders but he'd been clever; no-one had seen him enter or leave the buildings and although we checked all the guns at his house none had been fired recently. We tried to get evidence of his going to Morris' place but he must have got there some roundabout way or other, so no joy there.”

“Then last Saturday, the thirtieth, we got lucky”, Henriksen continued. “Or luckier than Colonel Fairfax who went the same way as his fellow judges. Again the lavender but this time we found something else – a button underneath the dead body. Better still the colonel's house is almost opposite the local pub and two of the area's coppers were outside having lunch. They saw someone come out of the grounds next door acting suspicious but when they went and questioned the owners they said that no-one had called.”

“Why next door?” I wondered.

“There's only a low wall dividing the two properties”, Henriksen explained, “plus there is a gate in it. Stevens must have used that way in in case he was spotted entering the colonel's house. No footprints worse luck; all this dry weather meant the ground was as hard as rock but we were lucky we had some men on the spot.”

Sherlock thought for a moment.

“Was Stevens questioned over the first two murders?” he asked.

“He was”, Henriksen said. “Mallow's house is in the same street at his fellow colonel's and it was one of the constables who found the body who questioned him. Smith his name is and the other one is Turlow. Morris lives in Essex by the way, not far from London.”

I wondered at that. Why not kill the two colonels living next to each other at the same time, and instead go all the way to Essex and back?

“A button and a distant sighting do not seem much to hang a man by”, Sherlock observed. Henriksen grinned.

“When they took him in for questioning a second time Stevens had a button missing from his shirt”, he said. “Not only that but the buttons had been tailored with the design of a sprig of lavender. They were regimental issue, very rare. And again he had no alibi. Saturday was the day he always went fishing alone down the canal and no-one saw him.”

Sherlock frowned.

“I do not see the problem”, he said. Henriksen sighed.

“Three things”, he said. “First, Stevens denies murdering Fairfax despite the evidence. I've been in the game long enough to have a sense of when someone's lying and my gut says that despite all we know he's telling the truth on this one, though I also think he's guilty of the first two. Then there's the daughter.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Penelope Fairfax, the colonel's daughter”, he explained. “She came to me on Sunday and told me that her father had wanted to find Stevens innocent but had been outvoted. Courts-martial do not say whether the decisions they reach are unanimous or majority but her father wrote to him immediately after the hearing to tell him. The letter never reached him; it was sent on to England for his arrival. I challenged Stevens on this when I met him and he not only admitted that he had received the letter but told me where the key to the drawer in his father's writing-desk was kept so I could see it for myself. I did and there it was.”

I saw what that meant. Stevens would had had no motive to kill the third member of the court, yet the man had still been killed.

“What is your third issue?” Sherlock asked.

“Change of method”, Henriksen said. “The first two deaths were long-distance shootings across a room; in both cases there was no-one in the house close enough to hear the shots. But Fairfax was shot close-up, the gun held right against his chest. Now the house had servants and people in it not that far away but the difference between the two methods... it worries me.”

“Who benefits from the three deaths?” I asked.

“You're thinking killing two to conceal a third murder, aren't you?” Henriksen said. “Hiding a leaf in a forest; it's an oldie but it does happen. Mallow owned a considerable estate which should have gone to his son Sean. I do not doubt that Stevens would have targeted him sooner rather than later but he never got the chance. The fellow had to return home when his wife petitioned for a divorce once the hearing was done – of course the gossips said that she 'knew something' – and he went home to sort it all out. Unfortunately his ship stopped off in Alexandria and he sampled the 'delights' of the port a little too much. He contracted syphilis and died the day before his ship made London. Karma's a bitch at times. The money all went to his brother Seamus instead, although I understand he insisted on paying the wife something.”

“Colonel Morris had no children so his estate was divided equally amongst charities and five distant cousins; the most any of them got was a couple of hundred. Fairfax is the most interesting and I only know this because the solicitor contacted the local police as soon as he saw what had happened. The colonel made a will dividing his property equally between his son Devon and his daughter. Thing is neither of them knew that; they both thought it would all go to the son but the solicitor said the colonel did not trust him to look after his sister so made her a co-heir or whatever they call it. Plus Mr. Devon Fairfax is a bit of a rake and has huge debts which he probably expects to be able to clear with all that money he'll only be getting half of now.”

“Is the estate large?” Sherlock asked.

“Even if he had inherited the lot, probably not enough to support him for more than a few years with his record”, Henriksen sniffed. “This is all off the record of course. Miss Fairfax does not know yet and will not until the will is officially read and published; the solicitor could only tell me because it has to be in the papers and he felt it might be important in the investigation. I wish I was at the reading to see their faces!”

“You can rely on our discretion”, Sherlock said. “The case seems quite straightforward.”

Henriksen stared at him.

“You think that Stevens did kill the third colonel?” he asked.

“I think that your gut feeling is as so often accurate”, Sherlock smiled. “But we have less than seventy-two hours until Mr. Stevens meets his Maker and has to account for his actions in the one court that can never be rigged. We must move quickly. Doctor, can you be free this afternoon?”

I had been supposed to go into work that afternoon but clearly this was more pressing. The surgery had been pleased with the publicity surrounding my latest works and had as a result granted me an even greater degree of flexibility provided I made up for any absences later.

“If I can send a telegram to work to let them know then yes”, I said, not missing the way that my friend's eyes lit up at that.

“In that case”, he smiled, “you should meet back up with us again tomorrow afternoon Henriksen. Hopefully we shall have something to tell you. Besides”, he added mischievously, “I am sure we can keep a slice of this cake until then!”

Henriksen looked at him mournfully.

“Or wrap it so you can take it with you”, my friend smiled.

I thought wryly that all local criminals would have to do was to leave a handily-placed slice of cake around to distract any pursuit and....

Sherlock was looking at me again! Damnation!

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Chapter Text

Unfortunately the surgery, while willing to let me have the afternoon off, asked that I come in to attend to one of their richest (and fussiest) clients Lady Drinkwater. I was annoyed as the 'Strand' magazine had just been delivered to the house and I had looked forward to re-checking the final instalment of the Reigate case for any last-minute inaccuracies that may have crept back in again. I left Sherlock reading it – he had of course checked the original draft before the editor's mauling – and told him that I would get lunch while out and be back by one at the latest.

In fact I made it back by half-past twelve only to find that my friend had for some reason gone out. However Mrs. Harvelle assured me that he would be back soon as he had only gone out for a walk. I poured myself a coffee and sat down to wait for him.

The moment he came through the door I knew that something was wrong.

“What is up?” I asked. He looked at me darkly.

“I read your latest story”, he said looking at me severely. “You called me 'little man'.”

I tried to remember, hoping that it had been just another error by that damnable replacement editor but no such luck. I had used those words when I had rewritten the piece and had been so keen to get the dratted work published that I had not shown them to him. Oops?

“You are not that little”, I said defensively. Sherlock was a couple of inches shorter than me but he always carried himself like a much smaller man. He did not however like his stature having attention drawn to it. “I will make sure that the book publishers correct it before they out it into print.”

“A lot of people read that magazine, Watson”, he said plaintively. “A lot of people. I am not pleased.”

He went into his room and shut the door behind him. I felt awful!

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He was still annoyed with me later that day when we took a cab to the scene of the first and third murders, the small Surrey town of Mortlake. The two colonels had lived in a quieter part of the town where the houses were notably larger. The pub in the area appeared to be doing a roaring trade although the recent shower had cleared the outside benches.

Sherlock went inside and ordered lunch – I could trust him to do that whereas Sammy would always try to order us both salad! - and thankfully the shower had passed and the skies were blue so we ensconced ourselves on an outside table with food and beer.

“I wondered at one thing”, I said wishing that he would forgive my moment of literary stupidity.

“What?” he asked.

“Why did Stevens kill here, then go all the way to Essex, then come back and kill here again?” I said. He could have dispatched the Essex target and then struck at both targets here before fleeing the country. We passed the other colonel's house only up the street.”

He looked at me.

“That is a most excellent observation”, he said.

I preened.

“Little man!” he muttered.

I scowled.

We had finished our food when two police constables passed us and went into the pub, then came out with their own meals and drinks. One was blond and reedy while the other was dark, shorter and frowned a lot. The blond policeman had his right arm in a sling which made eating difficult, I noted.

Sherlock said nothing until we had finished our drinks and did not seem inclined to leave. Eventually the two policemen finished and left, and the barmaid came out to clear their table.

“One of your local policemen is injured, I see”, Sherlock said conversationally.

She turned and eyed him and I felt a surge of protectiveness towards my friend. She was at least ten years older than him (and getting on for twice the body weight) but she was still eyeing him like he would make a tasty meal.

“That's Mark Turlow”, she said. “He got that dealing with a burglary last month; fell down a fire-exit would you believe? Should be out of it by next week though.”

“All in the line of duty”, Sherlock smiled.

“You just down here for the day?” she asked. “'Cause we have... rooms.”

She was quite clearly offering much more than just a room. I snapped.

“We are heading back now”, I said a little too forcibly as I stood up. Sherlock looked surprised but followed me away from the pub even as I all but ran to the roadside to hail a cab.

“Are we done here, doctor?” he asked quietly. I blushed.

“I just wanted to get away from her and those come-hither eyes”, I said not at all petulantly. “Her sort are only after one thing!”

The knowing smile on his face only served to increase my discomfiture. Fortunately he changed the subject.

“I have all I need to complete the case”, he said although he sounded almost rueful. “Though as so often delivering justice will be.... difficult.”

“I have faith in you”, I said before I could stop myself.

I wondered if I should open my mouth wider so I could get the other foot in while I was at it. He smiled at me and hailed a passing cab for us. The ride back to Baker Street was silent but it was a strangely comfortable silence.

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Chapter Text

The following day Henriksen called round as expected. Clearly either he was still feeling off-colour or he was eager to find out what if anything Sherlock had learned for the slice of sponge cake by his tea went almost untouched.

Almost. This was Henriksen after all.

“What did you find out?” he asked eagerly. Sherlock hesitated.

“I would like to ask you a question”, he said slowly. “What is your personal opinion of the two constables who found the body, Smith and Turlow? Be assured that it will not be repeated outside these four walls.”

Henriksen was clearly surprised at the question and had to think for a moment.

“Only what Wooler, their own sergeant told me about them”, he said. “Turlow is ambitious and wants promotion while Smith is he suspects marking time until something better comes along. Their beats are next to each other and Turlow got his injury during a burglary recently. He went and fell down a fire-exit while chasing the villain; so much for a safety feature!”

Sherlock smiled at that.

“And your gut feeling still says that Mr. Albert Stevens did not kill Colonel Fairfax?” he said.

Henriksen nodded.

“Was Stevens searched when he was questioned at the station in Mortlake?” Sherlock asked.

“Both times”, Henriksen smiled. “Of course his lawyer got all uptight about it but then they always do.”

“Who searched him?” Sherlock asked.

Henriksen had to consult his case notes which Sherlock had asked him to bring.

“Turlow and Smith did the first time”, he said. “Stevens lives just over the river in Chiswick. They found nothing. The second time the lawyer was there and he insisted that Wooler examine the clothes in his presence. He took them into another room and looked them over in the lawyer's presence but he found nothing as well.”

“Did you check as to whether Mr. Devon Fairfax had an alibi?” I asked. Henriksen nodded.

“Not for the first murder – he was at home all day – but for the second he was visiting a friend in Barnet and they swear that he did not leave until well after the murder”, he said ruefully. “Not a reliable fellow but unfortunately the local vicar called round while he was there and I can hardly question the Word of God. Mr. Fairfax was actually at home when his father was murdered but in the outside greenhouse and says he heard nothing. Wooler does not like him but he admits that he may be telling the truth there; the house backs right onto the river and he says that when he went there he could not have heard anyone inside the place, let alone in the study which is right round the other side. And the gun was fired close in so there was little noise.”

Sherlock sighed heavily and, to my surprise, looked at me.

“I do not think that the good doctor will be happy with what may result from what I about to tell you”, he said, “but your gut feeling was as I said quite correct. Mr. Albert Stevens did not kill Colonel Fairfax.”

“But the lavender!” I objected.

“It was that particular herb which suggested the identity of the real murderers”, Sherlock said.

“More than one?” Henriksen asked.

“Constables Smith and Turlow.”

There was a stunned silence before Henriksen found his voice.

“Impossible!” he snorted. Sherlock leaned forward.

“When the two constables took Stevens in for questioning the first time”, he began, “they already knew the fundamentals of the case against him. He had as they saw it motive to kill three men for their cruel and malicious misjudgement of his father. After the first death anyone would assume that he would move on to kill the other two colonels; I also find it instructive that they did not warn either man as they most certainly should have done. They could not know of the letter showing that Colonel Fairfax had demurred at the sentence, which fact you yourself told us only came to light some time later. It also explains Watson's point as to why the Essex murder took place between two in the same Surrey street; because Stevens did not intend to commit a second murder in Surrey. And nor did he.”

“Stevens kills Mallow, the father of the man who ruined his own father, on the fourteenth and naturally he is brought in for questioning. I think that Turlow was the driving-force behind this and his friend went along with it because that after all is the police way – protect each other at all costs. Turlow guessed that Stevens would strike at the other two colonels soon but he also knew that the man was at the end of the day a trained killer. It was highly unlikely that he would be caught.”

“Turlow laid his plans. During the search of Stevens' clothes at Mortlake Police Station he spots the distinctive buttons and most likely removes the spare one for use later. He is fortunate that the house of Colonel Fairfax is on his beat so he keeps an eye on it for when the attack happens, expecting naturally enough that it will be the next attack.”

“But instead Stevens kills Morris up in Essex. This doubtless worries Turlow; surely Stevens would strike at the two men close together one after the other. Why has he gone all the way to Essex when one of his remaining targets is close at hand? He frets but he can only wait for the fellow's return and the third murder, which he will solve to his credit.”

“He is to be disappointed, for because of that letter Stevens does not strike at the third member of the court-martial. Time drags on and it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, Colonel Fairfax is to be spared. That does not suit Turlow at all; his future promotion prospects hinge on a successful arrest of a guilty killer on his patch. The colonel must die.”

I stared in shock. Killing an innocent man just for a promotion? Sherlock continued with his tale.

“He gets hold of Stevens' statement from the second murder and sees an opening. The man had no alibi because he always goes fishing in a quiet spot by the canal near his house every weekend. So he will have no alibi for the coming weekend. The long delay between the second and 'third' murder is irritating but he hopes that it will go unnoticed. Larger things have when the police are being pushed to achieve a result.”

“On the Saturday Turlow and Smith go to Montacute House and are of course admitted. Smith shoots the colonel with the same type of gun that they know Stevens possesses, a sprig of lavender is again left and the button is placed underneath the body. The lack of noise and the scorch marks showed as you surmised that the colonel allowed the killer to get close to them, and that would have only happened if it had been either family or someone deemed trustworthy. Like say a policeman.”

Henriksen shook his head in disbelief.

“How do you know that Smith shot him?” he asked.

“Turlow has that arm injury”, Sherlock explained, “and from the way he was struggling when we observed him it was clearly his principal arm.”

I slid a glass of whisky next to Henriksen's tea and he downed it gratefully. Then he looked at us, his eyes hardening.

“What you are saying”, he said quietly, “is that Mr. Albert Stevens is going to the gallows for a crime that he did not commit.”

Sherlock looked meaningfully at me. I wondered why.

“True”, he said, “but the alternative is that he evades going to the gallows for two crimes that we know that he did commit. And there is always the possibility that he confesses at the last.”

Henriksen was looking at me too, now.

“What?” I asked, shifting uncomfortably.

“You are the English conscience”, Sherlock said quietly. “If you say that this must go forward then a murderer will walk free. If you decide to say nothing then he will be hung for a crime he did not commit. The difference between justice and the law is sometimes a wide one, my friend.”

“You are putting this on me?” I exclaimed.

“He trusts your judgement”, Henriksen said. “As do I.”

I sighed and reached for the decanter. It was not just Henriksen who needed a stiff drink.

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Mr. Albert Edward Stevens went to the gallows at nine o'clock on a breezy Friday morning. There was no last-minute appeal or reprieve but he did leave a signed letter admitting to the first two murders while repeating his denials as to the third. Based on the information Sherlock had provided Constables Turlow and Smith were subsequently charged with gross misconduct in a public office – Henriksen grudgingly conceded that there was little chance of their being convicted of murder – and were forced to quit the service. Turlow left the country for Canada while Smith sank into London's low-life and was not heard from ever again.

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