Chapter 5: Holmes Returns From Cheltenham

Gareth Williams' flat in Cheltenham
"Good job, Watson! I see you've found the bag!"

Holmes shook me by the shoulder as he spoke, waking me from a deep slumber. "Now get up and go to bed, my friend. We have a busy day tomorrow."

"But Holmes, surely! Don't you want to examine the bag?"

"Indeed I do, Watson," he said. "But it is late and you are tired, and I will need you in the morning. I will tell you all about my visit to Cheltenham, too, but first you must sleep. And so must I."

I couldn't argue with him, especially since he had already disappeared into his bedroom.

But when I awoke the next day, he was sitting on the sofa with the red bag in his lap. "You've made an outstanding catch!" he said.

"Thank you," said I. "It wasn't difficult. Have you examined the bag, Holmes?"

"Have you?" he replied.

"Indeed I have. And the longer I looked at it, the more it looked like a murder weapon," I offered.

"Once locked inside a bag of this kind, no man would stand a chance," said Holmes, and I smiled grimly.

"As I see it, Holmes," I continued, "either Gareth Williams was exceptionally demented, or he was murdered."

"I can tell you how demented he was," Holmes replied. "I've just returned from Cheltenham."

I nodded and Holmes continued, "I went there to meet Jenny Elliot. She was Gareth Williams' landlady, and she's a lovely woman. We spent about an hour together late yesterday afternoon, and she quite charmed me." My friend smiled sheepishly. He wasn't easily charmed, and he knew I knew it.

"She's heartbroken. You can see she loved that young man. She met him eleven years ago when he was just 20, and I suppose he could have been like a son, or even a grandson, to her," Holmes said with an atypical note of tenderness in his voice.

"What else did you learn, Holmes?" I asked, in a rare reversal of roles.

"Some very interesting things. Jenny Elliot told me that in the ten years he lived under her roof, Gareth Williams had no visitors, male or female. He kept to himself and lived very quietly. Remember that, Watson.

"She showed me the flat, as small and spartan as you could imagine. It looked as if she had just made it up for his return. Very lovely, simple digs, Watson. You think we live simply? Hah! You should see where he lived!

"Gareth Williams had told her he was looking forward to coming back to Cheltenham after his year in London, and that he'd be living in the flat again starting September 3rd. Mark that, too. The date may be significant.

"But as for this bag and the question of accident or murder, here's the kicker: Jenny Elliot also told me she used to do his washing and hang it on the line. When his clothes were dry, she would fold them and put them away in his drawers. This went on for ten years, Watson, and in that time she never saw anything 'untoward': no dresses, no wigs, no porn, no bondage gear, no --"

"Just as you'd expect, Holmes," I interjected. "For if a single young man had such lurid secrets to hide, would he allow his landlady to wash his clothes, let alone put them away? Surely a man with a gay double life and a few quid to spend would live elsewhere than in the home of a motherly type who would come into his flat when he was away and open all the drawers!"

"Exactly!" said Holmes. "Which means ... which means ..."

I hadn't seen Holmes stumped in quite some time, and it took me nearly a full second to come to his rescue. "Which means you need a pipe, Holmes," said I, "and some shag tobacco!"

"Thank you, Watson. I was nearly stumped there for a moment. Must be old age creeping up on me," the master detective said quietly. And he turned toward the mantle, where he kept the worst of his tobacco.

"Perhaps two pipes, my friend," I said, thinking it might be more like three or four. But then -- without even having lit a match -- Holmes turned back to me and said, "Pimlico! What do we know about the flat in Pimlico where the police found the body?"

"Ah, yes, 36 Alderney Street. I remember reading about it, Holmes. The papers were more or less evenly divided between those who said it was an MI6 'safe house' and those who said it was owned by a corporation based on an island in the Bahamas whose name means 'mother Russia' in Russian."

"That's a good one!" Holmes laughed, and when I didn't laugh along with him, he explained.

"It's a double joke, Watson. On one hand, it's a throwback to the Cold War. When British intelligence agents brought Soviet defectors to London, they could put them up in safe house whose name meant 'home' to their guests. Cute, no? And on the other hand, if anyone inquired as to who owned the property, the trail would lead to an island far away and a name that looked Russian. Who would ever guess the owner was actually British intelligence?"

"You think so, Holmes?"

"Absolutely, Watson! Whenever MI6 gets a new man, from GCHQ or elsewhere, they need a place for him to live where they can keep him safe -- and where they can keep an eye on him! What could be simpler than offering him a rent-free flat in a 'safe house' within walking distance from work?"

"William Hughes said the crown paid Gareth's rent!"

"Indeed, Watson. And kept him under its wing -- or should I say 'microscope'?"