|Just as he began to sign his name ...|
"I don't care what you believe," replied the Minister. "I know for a fact that he wasn't."
"And how do you know that?" asked the detective.
"I've probably said too much," said the Minister. "Why should I tell you anything that you don't already know?"
"And yet," replied my friend, "why not? As you rightly pointed out, Dr. Watson and I are mere figments of a writer's imagination. If you know something we don't, why not tell us? How else can we get our story straight? If I've accused you unfairly, I'll want to make amends. So why not talk to us?"
"It would be highly irregular," said the Minister.
"What harm could come of it?" asked Holmes. "We'll keep your secrets as well as anyone ever could."
"You must promise not to tell a soul," said the Minister.
"You have my word," replied the detective.
"Mine, too," I added. But not Slate's, I thought.
The Minister took a deep breath. "It is quite difficult to explain," he said.
"We have the entire evening," answered my friend. "Take all the time you need."
"Do you mind if I smoke?" asked the Minister. I nearly fell off my chair.
"So long as we can join you," replied Sherlock Holmes. "May I offer you a cigar?"
"I prefer cigarettes," said the Minister, "but please don't let me stop you." Holmes filled a pipe. Fortunately the windows were already open.
"I don't know whether you two get out much," said the Minister between puffs, "and I don't see a television or a computer anywhere. So it's possible, I suppose, that you don't know we're in the midst of a war."
"Multiple wars, at that," said Holmes. "We do read the papers, Minister."
"Treason during wartime is punishable by death," said the Minister. "And the punishment is considered justice, not murder."
"Without a trial?" exclaimed Holmes. "Without a charge? Without so much as a hearing? Without giving him a chance to defend himself? What sort of justice is that?"
"We couldn't allow a trial," replied the Minister, "or even a hearing. For reasons of national security, a trial in this case would have been severely detrimental."
"Was that for you to decide?" asked my friend.
"There was also the matter of self-defence," answered the Minister. "When an asset becomes a liability in the middle of a war, what other choice is there?
"I ask you, what would you have us do? Would you prefer to see us go the way of the idiot Americans with their treacherous little rat, Bradley Manning? Should we have let him leak all manner of damaging material, then held him indefinitely, so a handful of other treacherous little rats could gather around and make an issue of it?"
"Why couldn't you have allowed a trial?" asked Holmes. "Because he would have been the only one telling the truth?"
"The truth, Mr. Holmes," answered the Minister, "is that he had been living on the Queen's shilling for a decade. Who did he think he was? What did he think he was doing? Whose information did he think he was looking at every day? Where would we be if every man's personal vision of 'truth' could trump his duty to Crown and Country?
"We're in the middle of a war," he continued. "In any war, truth is the first casualty. Can you not see that, Mr. Holmes? Could he not see it?"
"Can you deny," asked Holmes, "that Gareth Williams was killed because he was challenging lies that supported the war effort better than the truth would have done?"
"I am saying," replied the Minister, "that the difference between truth and lies is irrelevant in time of war. True or false? Right or wrong? These questions are immaterial now. It's all down to loyalty. Are you with us or against us? Surely you can see that, Mr. Holmes."
"And anyone who isn't with you --" said Holmes.
"-- is with the terrorists, and must be eliminated!" said the Minister.
"What if Dr. Watson and I were to insist on telling the truth about this case," asked Holmes, "even if it meant disparaging Crown and Country?"
"Well then, we'd have a big problem, Mr. Holmes," said the Minister. "In fact, we already do. I can't deny I'd love to see you silenced. I would have done it as soon as you started digging into this case. But, as you say, you are a figment of a writer's imagination.
"I can't kill you, Mr. Holmes," he said. "Nobody can."
"But you would if you could?" asked Holmes.
"In a heartbeat," replied the Minister.
"Whether you know it or not," said my friend, "you have just earned admittance into a very exclusive club: The Society Of Exalted Men Who Wanted To Kill Sherlock Holmes. The malignant Professor Moriarty was a founding member, of course. His henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran, was another. Then there was Count Silvius, a truly evil man, and the vile Baron Gruner, who would have wrung my neck with his bare hands if he could have.
"I have no doubt you'd do the same, Minister. But, as you say, it's no use. There have been many others, some ham-fisted, some brilliant. Even the great Doyle himself couldn't kill me, although he made a valiant effort. Where's that collage?"
Holmes had risen from his chair and was shuffling through the drawers of his desk. "I started making a work of art," he continued, "using the signatures of all the men who wanted to kill me but couldn't. I can't lay my hands on it at the moment. That's too bad. I was going to invite you to sign it."
"Too bad indeed," replied the Minister. "It would have been a pleasure."
"I don't suppose you'd autograph a blank sheet of paper," said Holmes, "so I can add your name to the others when I find them."
"It would be highly irregular," replied the Minister, "but what harm could come of it?"
"Don't get up," said Holmes. "I'll bring you a pen and some paper. I suppose you'll need a clipboard, too."
Holmes handed these items to the Minister, who placed the clipboard on his lap and took the pen in hand. Just as he began to sign his name, Holmes stepped behind the couch, reached around with both arms, and snapped the cuffs onto the unsuspecting man's wrists.
"What is the meaning of this?" bellowed the Minister.
"You've just confessed to one murder," replied Holmes, "and threatened another. I'd be negligent if I didn't try to stop you leaving."
"You'll never get away with this!" the Minister raged. "Never! I'll admit nothing! I'll deny everything! It'll be your word against mine!"
"Not exactly," replied Holmes. "Bucky, are you still awake in there? Why don't you come out and meet the Foreign Minister?"
The Minister's face turned ashen as the bedroom door swung open and Slate emerged wearing a headset. "I caught every word, loud and clear, sir," he said. "Robinson heard it all too. We've got a good recording as well."
"Who is this?" asked the Minister, finally understanding his predicament and starting to struggle.
"Watson," said Holmes, "show the Minister your revolver, will you?"
Then, to his prisoner, he said, "Settle down, man. Don't get yourself shot. You're in enough trouble already."
The Minister took a deep breath and appeared to relax.
"My name is Buckingham Slate," came the belated reply, "I am a homicide detective with Metro Police. And you, sir, are under arrest."