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A Creative-Writing House


Ch. 1    Ch. 2    Ch. 3    Ch. 4    Ch. 5    Ch. 6    Ch. 7    Ch. 8    Ch. 9    Ch. 10    Ch. 11    Ch. 12    Ch. 13    Ch. 14    Ch. 15    Ch. 16    Ch. 17    Ch. 18    Ch. 19    Ch. 20    Epilog


Event Horizon: Chapter 11

by

Carole Manny & Lynn Walker



John was used to seeing the improbably-named Iphigenia Killick, the Countess of Ruffner, on television in the fashionable, expensive dresses she favoured when in public, but when he and Sherlock met her she was wearing faded bootcut jeans, white leather sneakers, and a pink cotton blouse with the hem untucked and the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, while her long, dark brown hair was held away from her face by an unadorned black velvet band. Tall and slim with an unstudied, gracefully athletic bearing and intelligent brown eyes, her good looks matched her famous charisma. Even without makeup she was better-looking in person than in any photo John had ever seen of her, and much less of an icon in her casual clothes than a real person. He liked her immediately.

The details of Lady Ruffner's life were easy enough to come by, as she was a wildly popular target of the tabloid press. Her reputation for genuine charm, insouciance, good humour, and unfailing kindness were legitimately won, but while these days she was an effortlessly proper yet accessible English lady, at one time her youthful behaviour had been such that when people applied the term 'accessible' it was as one of the more polite euphemisms available to describe her morals. Even as a young girl she drew the tabloids' attention as a hellion, but on reaching her teens she became a notorious source of salacious front-page headlines. Few notables helped the press sell as many newspapers as did 'Countess Iffy.' Even her nickname, coined by one of the tabloids when she was fourteen, reflected her indifferent reputation.

Now forty-five years old and happily married with two pretty, accomplished daughters in their late teens, she was beloved by millions across the globe, to say nothing of Britons themselves, who regarded her as a national treasure, the second coming of Princess Diana and a worthy successor to that tragic lady, and she kept herself busy promoting pet spay-and-neuter campaigns world-wide, as well as personally arranging for the re-purposing of retired racehorses.

Sherlock and John were shown in to the front room of Lady Ruffner's Boltons Place home, where she advanced with a bright smile to shake their hands. "Mr. Holmes. Dr. Watson. I'm so glad you've come," she said. "Won't you sit down? Can I get you something to drink? No? I'm sorry you had to come through the back way, but the paparazzi-well, you know how they are. They're an incredible nuisance, but without them our charity work wouldn't get half the publicity or funding that it does, so we have to take the good with the bad."

Sherlock made no reply to this, but John said, "Bit of a love-hate relationship with them?"

"More like a use-use relationship," she said with a smile. "They use me to sell their dirty rags-I think 'click bait' is the modern term-and I use them to bring attention to causes I think are important. In fact I hope to be using them again very soon. Well," she added, getting down to business, "my Aunt Angela-Lady Smallwood-contacted me about your visit with her, and not to keep you in suspense, but I believe I'm your man."

John blinked. "You're willing to help us with Charles Magnussen?"

"Willing and able," she said. "You seem surprised. That's why you've come, isn't it? I'll tell you what: Let me explain how I first met him; if you doubt my sincerity and commitment after that, you will please let me know what else I can do to convince you. Fair?"

"Fair," Sherlock said.

"Well," she began, "if you've not been living under a rock for the last twenty-five years you will know that titles and money notwithstanding, in my teens and early twenties I was not the sort of girl a boy brought home to his mother. In short, I was an idiot. Why I acted out isn't important; the fact is that I did. Oh, I knew how to be discreet, but the truth was that the more shocking the effect I could have on people, the better I liked it. The boys I 'dated' certainly didn't bother with discretion. It was a feather in their caps, you know, to be able to say they'd slept with a peer and an heiress. Even the ones who didn't. There were far more of the latter than the former, but I have a bad reputation to uphold so you will please not mention that outside this room. Of course if the boys used me to build their undeserved reputations, I used them the same way.

"There was one boy, though, who I found absolutely fascinating because he wouldn't have anything to do with me. You know how that is."

Sherlock frowned; he had no idea what she was talking about. "No."

"I'll explain when you're older," John said.

"It made him a challenge," she replied, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I met him in an ethics and world politics class; we were both reading for the social and political science tripos. My parents insisted on it, but it wasn't what I wanted to pursue. One of the reasons behind my idiocy, really."

"Why, what did you want to read for?" John asked.

"The classical tripos," she replied at once. "Latin, Greek, linguistics, philology."

"You speak Latin?" John said, surprised out of his manners.

"Yes, fluently. As well as Greek," she said with a smile. "I was a slut, Dr. Watson, not stupid."

John turned red. "Sorry."

She laughed. "Oh, you are adorable. I haven't seen anyone blush like that in ages." She looked at Sherlock. "Does he do it often?"

"No," Sherlock said. "Just predictably."

"Well," she continued, "I might not be stupid, but because I disliked my studies I wasn't very focused, either, and when you add that to prostrating boredom I was coming uncomfortably close to failing my classes. On the other hand, this boy was acing his, so I asked him for tutoring help. I meant 'tutoring,'" she said, making air quotes with her fingers, "but he took it very literally. Absolutely proper gentleman, never dreamt of suggesting a quid pro quo arrangement, the way most young men would have done. Could not have been more impervious to the most obvious signals. Of course you're thinking well, perhaps he was gay, or perhaps he already had a girlfriend and was being faithful to her, or perhaps he just had a well-developed sense of propriety. Any of those things could have been true, I suppose, but…I'm not sure how it is with men," she said, looking at John, "but women know when a man is interested in them. You might not be able to say how you know, but you know. I think he agreed to help because it would look good on his CV, but I also think that after a time he felt…affection for me. Desire, even. That if he'd known me as something other than what the world thought I was, he might have been a little more…forward?"

While he was wholly indifferent to her title, wealth, and appearance, Sherlock wanted something from the countess now so he curbed his propensity for acerbity-but he wasn't interested in her dating history, either, and tried to move her along. "Lady Ruffner," he began.

"Get on with it?" she said with a smile.

"Essentially," he said.

"Sherlock," John warned.

"Well," she said, still smiling, "I thought you might find the background interesting. You can be the judge of that, of course. In any case, my lifestyle, as people call it, eventually caught up to me. I got pregnant. There was no question of learning who the father was; it could have been either of two candidates, but of course informing either of them would have meant the knowledge becoming public. My mother was born in Greece-in Thessaloniki-and she took me to the Greek islands on the pretext of visiting relatives. Even the paparazzi couldn't pursue the family yacht very successfully. Besides, they hadn't the slightest idea of the real reason for the trip. My daughter was born on board the ship and 'Gena Bonden' listed as the birth mother on the paperwork. Bonden was the surname of my mother's nanny," she added in an aside. "My mother's best friend, Lady Smallwood-Aunt Angela to my brothers and me-flew out, returned home with the baby, and oversaw her adoption by a good family. My mother and I remained in Greece for another month, just for appearances, and then we returned as well."

She sighed. "That was the beginning of the end of my 'wild oats' phase. About two months after I returned to school a man-I'd say gentleman, but that would be an odious lie-came to see me. He knew all about Gena Bonden's baby. Of course I said I had no idea what he was talking about, but he told me not to worry, that he wasn't after anything at all. Something about picking fruit before it's ripe. He just wanted to let me know that he knew."

"Charles Magnussen," Sherlock said.

"Yes." She twisted her wedding ring in the first sign of tension that she'd displayed. "I don't know if either of you has ever tried to keep a secret that important, but it's a very wearing thing. When you're twenty years old it's impossible. The only person I trusted enough to confide in was my tutor. He'd never tried to abuse his position and I knew that he felt affection for me, and I'm horribly ashamed to say that I took advantage of that. He looked into who this Magnussen person was and told me that he'd thought of a way to take his focus off of me and direct it onto himself. In my defence I'd only told him as a way of sharing the burden and the offer was his idea. On the other hand, I neither turned him down nor tried to dissuade him. In fact, I jumped at it." She looked from one to the other. "You don't have to tell me how contemptible that was."

Her candor and refusal to excuse her own behaviour raised her still higher in John's estimation. "What was his offer?"

"He pretended to be the father," Sherlock said, watching the countess carefully.

"Great minds think alike," she said with a smile.

John frowned. "Yeah, sorry, but for the non-great: How did that take the pressure off of you?"

"I'm rich, Dr. Watson," she said. "I'm famous. Popular. Etcetera. What I'm not is politically influential. But even back then my tutor was, and he's much more so now. Twenty-five years ago he was a far bigger prize for a blackmailer than I ever became."

"You were known to meet privately with this man," Sherlock said. "It would be the easiest thing in the world to make Magnussen believe that biology had taken place between you."

"That's exactly what he said, and it was. Magnussen believed it-I want to say implicitly, but that's not true. My tutor was very careful to create a convincing paper trail, I guess you'd call it, so whatever Magnussen did to verify paternity, including DNA testing, he got confirmation."

"An impressively thorough deception," Sherlock admitted. "Bordering on elegant."

"From a technical standpoint I suppose you're right," she said. "Morally, or perhaps I should say spiritually, it's been a disaster."

"How do you mean?" John asked.

"The day I met Charles Augustus Magnussen was the last day of my freedom, Dr. Watson. The knowledge that he could reveal me, my daughter, and my tutor has coloured my life ever since. It's sucked the pleasure out of all the things I should have been able to enjoy without restraint. My husband, my children. Everything has been coloured by fear of exposure by that man. Even my tutor's protection-the very fact that he had to offer it, the fact that I accepted, the fact that I allowed him to assume a burden like that. And it's been a very great burden to him. Lady Smallwood knows how he helped me, and she's told me how much more difficult it's made his position, always having to consider the influence of that toad. I can't bear it any more. There's nothing I'd rather do than finally stand up to Magnussen. I'm tired of despising myself for being afraid of him, and I'm tired of his shadow hanging over my family."

"Then help us," Sherlock said.

"I told you a moment ago that I have a use-use relationship with the press," she said. "I can't think of anything they'd rather bay about than the discovery of my 'love child,' can you?"

"You'd reveal the girl as your daughter?" Sherlock said, surprised.

"I want to get to know her, Mr. Holmes. I want to meet her, if she's willing. Angela's family has been friends with her mother for ages; that's how she arranged the adoption. I've followed her progress all these years, but we've never met. The three of them are meeting tonight and Angela will tell her at least part of the story, but even if she doesn't agree to meet me or to the publicity I know the press will go crazy even for an anonymous Countess Iffy baby."

"Tell me how you'd go about it," Sherlock said.

She shrugged. "It's simple, really. My people call a news network, offer them an exclusive interview with Countess Iffy, and within twenty-four hours they'll breathlessly announce that on New Year's Day they're going to air a live thirty-minute commercial-free broadcast of Countess Iffy's tell-all bombshell. A bombshell which will be viewed by millions around the world and which not coincidentally will include the tearful story of her persecution by the loathsome creep who's been casting a shadow over all her happiness." She smiled at them.

Sherlock grinned wolfishly in reply. "And of course the fact that you'll approach a rival news organization with that story won't hurt."

"I should think they'll donate multiple six-figure sums to a charity of my choosing out of sheer gratitude."

Her airy manner notwithstanding, John knew it would require an uncommon level of fortitude to actually go through with the plan successfully. Sherlock seemed to think the same. "It won't be quite that simple," he said, "but with your example and if you and Lady Smallwood can encourage a few others to come forward as well, it will make a good start."

"What about your tutor?" John asked. "Does he know about this? Has he agreed to it?"

"He doesn't know," she said, "and I'm not going to tell him. Nor am I going to reveal him to the press."

"Aren't you afraid that Magnussen will?" John asked.

"So much the better," Sherlock said. "He's not the real father, so any assertions of Magnussen's part can easily be disproved with a simple DNA test. Followed by another lawsuit. More ammunition with which to destroy Magnussen's credibility."

She shook her head. "I wouldn't count on his participation, Mr. Holmes."

"Why not? Is he an idiot or just a coward?"

"Well, you know him better than I do," she said.

"Why, who is he?" John asked.

"Mycroft Holmes."

They stared at her, stunned entirely, and Sherlock at least was rendered mute.

"Sorry," John said after an eternity. "What?"

"Mycroft Holmes."

"Mycroft," John said. "Mycroft-his brother?" Pointed at Sherlock.

"Yes. He never told even you," Iffy said to Sherlock with a sad smile. "His own brother. You see what I mean? For twenty-five years he's protected me from that bully."

Vaguely Sherlock was aware of John looking anxiously at him, but there was no danger here. Mycroft: Brave, honourable, and caring, according to the countess, three adjectives that Sherlock would not have applied to his brother at gunpoint, but since university Mycroft had been her white knight, absorbing the blackmailer's pressure and his little brother's contempt because he couldn't tell someone else's secret.

More important, Mycroft had cared enough for this woman to knowingly compromise his life's work. Affection. Desire, even. Scorn was Sherlock's instinctive, ingrained response to this realization, as was an obscure sense of betrayal: Caring is not an advantage. How many times had Mycroft recited that incantation in Sherlock's hearing? 'Crap life advice' John always called it, but Sherlock the very little boy idolized his big brother and for a long time he swallowed wholesale everything Mycroft told him.

Underlying Sherlock's sense of the injustice of it all and fighting for primacy against it was a feeling of hopefulness, even elation, on his brother's behalf. The origin of that pleasurable emotion was a mystery to him and he didn't have time just then to examine it, so he set it aside for future consideration. What he was certain of now was Mycroft's original and still prime motive for obstructing his efforts to take down Magnussen. Better yet, he knew that this woman had more influence over his brother than even the blackmailer. Mycroft would not oppose her the way he'd opposed Sherlock, and in any case by the time he heard of it her offensive would be a fait accompli. Lady Ruffner had more influence over the world press and public opinion than Magnussen, his media empire notwithstanding, could ever dream of attaining. The thought This is going to work flashed through Sherlock's brain.

"Lady Ruffner," he said, his face radiant with that confident, self-contained expression that John hadn't seen in months and didn't realize he missed, "do you have any photographs of your daughter?"

ooooo

They were silent throughout the cab ride to Baker Street. John accompanied Sherlock upstairs but kept his coat on; eventually he'd have to go home, although that was something he was reluctant to do. After just three days the deception, assuming that Mary was deceived, already wore sadly on him. Here he could be himself, without self-editing, without the edge of wariness, without artifice. It would have made him feel disloyal, if Mary hadn't already betrayed him.

Sherlock went at once to his fireplace chair, where he sat with his hands steepled under his nose in silent thought. There was every chance he'd remain like that for hours, and John was turning to go when Sherlock broke the silence.

"Magnussen made a mistake," he said.

"Besides admitting that he's a blackmailer without evidence?"

"Yes."

"What?"

"The allele responsible for detached earlobes is dominant, yes?"

The hell did that come from? "Uh…yes," John said. "So?"

"You must have noticed the countess's ear lobes."

"Sherlock, dammit-"

"They're attached. Her daughter: detached."

"Yeah?"

"For God's sake, John," Sherlock said with asperity, "the significance is literally right in front of you."

"Oh-" John said, looking at Sherlock's ears and finally understanding. "Yours are attached. Mycroft?"

"Attached. Our parents: attached. They're homozygous recessive for the trait."

"So…"

"So Magnussen's either not quite as observant as he thinks he is or doesn't know that the shape of a person's ear is at least partly determined by genetics. Twenty-five years ago he completely missed the significance of that fact and obviously never revisited it. He's spent this entire time thinking he's controlling Mycroft, but at least initially Mycroft went on the offensive and got control of him first."

"Keep your enemies close?"

"Exactly."

"Why'd you say 'initially'?" John asked.

"Well, things change over time, obviously. What Mycroft's got at risk now is a little more…complicated."

"You're what he's got at risk now."

"Hm. He's got a few new pieces on his game board. In addition to his little secret about the countess."

"Yeah," John said with a grin. "Your brother and Countess Iffy."

"There's no 'and,'" Sherlock said scornfully. "According to her he never even had the nerve to ask her for coffee."

"He had the nerve to do a lot more than that for her," John said. "He's had to take on a lot of extra strain over the years because of what Magnussen thinks he knows. It's sort of…"

"Pathetic? Yes, I agree."

"Yeah, I was going to say 'touching.'"

"A synonym for pathetic."

"He was afraid of being hurt, you tosser. Offering to intervene with Magnussen was a pretty oblique way of letting her know he was interested, but it was probably the safest route he could think of. He did what he could for her in the only way he was comfortable with. He was trying to avoid pain, just like everyone else does."

"And look how much he caused. That's where his caring and his feelings got him. He's a hypocrite. 'Caring is not an advantage.' He compromised his entire career out of sentiment."

"Are you angry because you listened to him then or because you don't listen to him any more?"

"I-" Sherlock began, then clapped his jaw shut and regarded John with narrowed eyes. John frequently kept him honest this way, but it was rarely a pleasant experience.

"Your brother's a human being," John continued, "and no matter how high his IQ is he can't do anything about that. It's a feature, not a bug. And you're being irrational."

"Me. I'm irrational."

"Yeah. Mycroft, too. It's irrational not to follow the facts. I have that from an expert. You're both suspicious of emotions no matter where they come from, even when they're based on the evidence. Even when they're legitimate. Even when they're the kinds of emotions you can trust."

Sherlock stared at him.

"What?" John said finally.

"My father said something similar once, years ago."

"Well, there you are," John said, pleased.

"Yes," Sherlock replied. "He was wrong, too."


– End Chapter 11 –

Ch. 1    Ch. 2    Ch. 3    Ch. 4    Ch. 5    Ch. 6    Ch. 7    Ch. 8    Ch. 9    Ch. 10    Ch. 11    Ch. 12    Ch. 13    Ch. 14    Ch. 15    Ch. 16    Ch. 17    Ch. 18    Ch. 19    Ch. 20    Epilog



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