|"You still have the keys!"|
"Not entirely, Watson," he replied. "But it might help to account for the errors in my calculations."
"What are you talking about, Holmes?" I asked.
"What have we failed to take into consideration?" he replied.
"I don't know," I said. "I'm sorry. I can hardly think straight. Who's that? Are you expecting anyone?"
We had both heard footsteps upon the stair. "No," said Holmes, moving toward the door, "but we will learn the identity of our visitor presently."
Saying these words, he opened the door -- just as Buckingham Slate was about to knock on it. "Come on in, Bucky," he said. "What brings you here again this evening?" Holmes caught my eye and shot a quick glance heavenward.
"We forgot something important," replied Slate, "and we had almost reached the station before we noticed. But we decided it would be best to turn back. I hope I'm not interrupting anything, sir."
"Not at all," said Holmes. "I am happy to see you. Is the Minister still in the van with Robinson and your colleagues?"
"Why, yes, sir," said Slate. "He's not going anywhere."
"Is he giving you any trouble?" asked Holmes.
"Not especially," said Slate. "He fell quiet as soon as we got him moving, sir."
"Good," said Holmes, "Now what did you forget?"
"Well, sir," said Slate with a chuckle, "we left the suitcase and our disguises behind, along with the microphones and the recording gear."
"Was there some urgency about any of that?" asked Holmes.
"No, sir," replied Slate. "All those things could have waited. Scott recorded the audio on a memory card, and he has it in his pocket, so that's not a problem. But the cuffs you slapped on the Minister? You still have the keys!"
"It's a good thing you decided to turn back," said Holmes with a chuckle. "It would have been embarrassing to arrive with a handcuffed prisoner and no keys to the cuffs. Please sit down for a minute, will you, Bucky?"
"It's fine, sir," replied Slate. "I've been sitting all night. If you'll just give me the keys, I'll get out of your hair."
"I am asking you to sit and talk with me for a minute," said my friend.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir," said Slate, "I didn't, um, what is it?" he said, as he sat down on the couch.
"I forgot something too, Bucky," replied Holmes. "I think I made a bad mistake. But maybe it's not too late to fix it."
"What's that, sir?" asked Slate. "What did you forget?"
"Sometimes," replied Holmes, "the thrill of the hunt intoxicates the hunter, clouding his judgment and inducing errors he would normally avoid. It's been quite a hunt, and I was too eager to make an arrest. I allowed it to cloud my judgment."
"In what way, Mr. Holmes?" asked our guest.
"I forgot to take into account," replied my friend, "the fact that the 'operational direction' handed down to MI6 by the Foreign Office, and normally attributed to the Foreign Minister, is backed by some of the most powerful and ruthless men in the land. Do we really want to cross these people? And what result can we reasonably expect?
"The Minister raves like an utter lunatic," Holmes continued, "but in many respects, he's absolutely correct. For example, nobody wants to prosecute him. It might be the worst career move any Crown attorney could make.
"And nobody wants to admit it, but the government does own the law. The Prime Minister can make sure, through fair means or foul, that none of his friends will ever serve prison time, even if they somehow manage to get themselves convicted.
"The moment you drag the Minister into the station, the propaganda machine will shift into full spin. You and Robinson will be torn up in the press. Your reputations will be smeared endlessly. Your careers will be over. Your prospects will be worthless. Your lives will be threatened. And the Minister will walk.
"Not only that, but nothing about any of it will get into the papers. That's the last thing the government wants to see! A cabinet minister in a murder scandal? Are you kidding? There's no chance anyone would print that!
"So what's to be gained?
"In the long run, it might be better if you slapped him across the head a few times, unlocked the cuffs, and told him to get lost. Or maybe you should take him for a ride first -- a long, crazy ride, all over the city -- and drop him about a block from his home. Then deny everything in the morning."
"Are you serious, sir?" asked Slate. "Are you really asking us to turn him loose?"
"I'm not asking you to do anything," said Holmes. "Or on second thought, maybe I am.
"I carelessly allowed you and Robinson to put yourselves in danger," Holmes continued. "You in particular, Bucky! You were taken off the case, and you had the impression police leadership didn't want the case to be solved. What would they think if you made a breakthrough now? What would they think if you tried to book a cabinet Minister?"
"I think I see what you mean, sir," said Buckingham Slate, obviously unhappy with the turn of events.
"If you let him go, Bucky," said my friend, "you may possibly regret it later. But if you take him in, you most certainly risk horrible retribution. I can't make the decision for you. I can only ask you to think about it, and to visualise the course of events very clearly before you act -- as I, to my regret, have failed to do."
Slate sat quietly for a minute or two before responding.
"Well, Mr. Holmes," he said, "I'm not much of a one for trying to turn back the clock. Most of the time, I reckon what's done is done, and that's that. In this particular instance, well, sir ..."
Slate's voice trailed off, but Holmes persisted.
"What is it, Bucky?" he said. "Please speak freely."
"You see," Slate replied, "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation with the Minister. And the thing is, sir, Robinson and I are fictional characters, too. I don't think they can kill us, either."
"In that case," said Holmes, holding up a set of keys, "I may as well throw these out the window! Let the Minister squirm a bit longer, no?"
Slate looked horrified, and Holmes laughed. "Take these now," he said, tossing the keys to Bucky, "and come back for the rest of your things whenever you can."
"Right, sir," said Slate. "Thank you. Good night, Mr. Holmes. Good night, Dr. Watson."
"Well, what do you think, Holmes?" I asked when Slate had departed. "Is he right? Are he and Robinson as indestructible as you and I seem to be?"
"I don't know," replied my friend. "But I won't be surprised if we find out very soon."