Sherlock Holmes,
Consulting Diplomat

by Manus Hand,
Master Aenigmatist

The Dead-Letters Affair

My friend Sherlock Holmes and I were reclining in the quarters at Baker Street. Holmes had just finished trimming the ferns that he tends so meticulously -- a weekly duty that interests me but very little. He had taken a pipe from the stand and a book from the shelf when the bell rang. Lord Fortescue, the Foreign Secretary, was announced and at once Holmes and I sprang to our feet; I in deference to the man and his high office, and Holmes in smiling expectation of a task we both suspected was to be laid for him.

We had realised from the calendar that the clever Diplomacy player, the Sultan of Suwat, was overdue in demanding the annual payment to extend the lease on the oil-rich port of Suwat. Those readers who have been following my humble writings are aware that Holmes had already -- by cleverly unraveling the Sultan's cryptic payment terms -- secured and once extended this lease for the British government.

Stepping quickly in, Lord Fortescue wasted no time in confirming our fears. It was indeed a packet delivered by the Suwati ambassador that had caused the Foreign Secretary to seek out my friend so hurriedly. Laying papers from the packet onto the table, Lord Fortescue explained that one of the documents -- the official lease extension -- came direct from the Suwati capital, but that the others came from the mysterious Sultan himself, who is apparently travelling abroad. With the air of a beaten man, Fortescue said that the Sultan's terms of payment amounted to an impossible chore. Not only this, but the documents required that the chore be accomplished very quickly, with the penalty being that the lease on the Port of Suwat would otherwise be revoked.

We bent over the table and read silently. Holmes occasionally paused to stand erect and work at getting his pipe properly lit, and this enabled me to finish reading the documents roughly simultaneous with him. The first of the documents -- a letter addressed from the Sultan to the very sovereign of our nation -- read:

Your Majesty:

Enclosed you will find the official Suwati state document that will extend the lease held by Your Majesty's government on the facilities at Port Suwat. Before this extension can take effect and before your payment therefor can be received into my treasury, however, the extension document must be signed by myself and by two of my ministers, each of whom is currently visiting one of the many facilities that my government maintains around the world.

According to the lease agreement jointly negotiated by our two governments, I am required to set the terms for annual payment on the lease. Therefore, I request and require that your agents should deliver the unsigned lease document to me, and that they deliver to my ministers the letters I have enclosed for them. These letters, as you see, instruct my ministers to join me here for the purposes of signing the document. Once the three signatures are affixed thereto, the lease will be declared extended.

With the greatest esteem for Your Royal Majesty and your subjects, I remain,

The Sultan of Suwat

The state document that was contained in the packet was exactly as described. It was quite a dry piece of work, with the obvious marks of having been subjected to revision after revision by Great-Britain's best and most verbose negotiators. A page appended to the main document described the extension of the lease presently due, and this specified a date -- only a fortnight hence! -- by which the extension document must have obtained all three required signatures, or the lease would be considered void. The three signature lines were marked for use by the Suwati Territorial Minister, the Minister of the Treasury of the Sultanate of Suwat, and the Sultan himself.

The final two documents from the packet also bore the official seal of the Sultanate, and these proved to be the letters that the Sultan had wished to have delivered to his two ministers. The two letters were identical to one another in every respect, and they ran as follows:

To the Ministers of Territory and of the Treasury:

As you are aware, the extension of the lease entitling the kingdom of Great-Britain to the use of the oil facilities at the Port of Suwat requires your signatures and my own before it can take effect. I therefore instruct that you both join me by the most immediate possible route, and together we shall give the document our separate marks of approval.

As is customary for official business, all travel should only be undertaken with the benefit of military escort. I am notified that at each of your locations stands the same type of military unit, ready and available for your use. Since peace yet reigns -- no mobilization of forces has been reported -- I am confident that you both can be fully accommodated for travel.

I had considered directing that the signing take place at one of your two offices rather than here at my own location. Despite the fact that one of you could indeed reach me faster than he could reach the other minister, it is true that it will take more time for the pair of you to join me here than would be necessary for you two to meet without me at one of your two offices. However, because my own signature is also required and since I cannot reach either of your offices more quickly than you can come here, no time could be saved over holding our meeting at my location.

So in the end -- although I myself am also attended here by a capable escort -- I have decided to direct that you both should make the journey to my location. I am happy to know that you should arrive simultaneously, so that neither of you will be bothered awaiting the other.

The Sultan of Suwat

"Ludicrous!" I burst out, when I finished reading. "The Sultan has indeed set an impossible task this time, Holmes! How can anyone possibly be expected to deliver two letters without knowing where either of the recipients are located?"

"Not two, Doctor, but three!" Lord Fortescue exclaimed, "You see, we have no information as to the whereabouts of the Sultan himself! You are perfectly echoing the thoughts of the government. From Whitehall to Downing Street, we all stand completely perplexed. The sentiment is overwhelming that Mr. Holmes is once again the only hope for securing the extension of the lease."

Holmes calmly lifted his eyes from his pipe-bowl (which was stubbornly refusing his attempts to light it). "Tut tut. You give me far too much credit for what are, in fact, simple feats of observation and deduction. Why, it is inconceivable to me that I am the only person in England who can so plainly see where the Sultan and his two ministers are located."

Fortescue and I were astounded. "What so, old man?!" Fortescue asked, aghast and excited. "You know where they are?"

"But of course, milord." Holmes paused and chuckled. "Clever chap, that Sultan," he said, more to himself than to we who were now hanging on his every word. While Fortescue and I stood speechless, a smiling Holmes worked on his pipe. When it finally lit, he drew on it strongly a few times before telling Lord Fortescue: "I should imagine you would be anxious to heed the Sultan's instructions and send these documents straightaway to...."

Where are the Sultan's two ministers and where will they join the Sultan to sign the lease extension? How did Holmes know? Send your answers to The Pouch.

Lord Fortescue was in such a rush to dispatch royal messengers with the Sultan's documents that, after sputtering a genuine expression of gratitude to Holmes, he left without even asking the great detective how he had arrived at his conclusions.

(I am sure I need not record here the well-known fact that Holmes' advice was, of course, correct, and that the all-important lease was extended with the three signatures, exactly as prescribed by the Sultan.)

So it was that the Foreign Secretary left me alone in the company of my friend, where I stood completely befuddled. Holmes was reluctant to explain his feat completely without Lord Fortescue's presence, but I was able to get him to explain some of the initial points of the puzzle to me. This resulted in my spending the remainder of the evening staring at the Diplomacy board, with fountain pen and paper, busily listing routes from one space to another. All the while, Holmes read silently and every so often paused to smilingly inquire how I was doing.

Are you, like Watson, completely befuddled? If you've honestly given it a good try first, and are still needing a bit of assistance, Dr. Watson has transcribed the hints he received from Holmes.

I felt that I was finally beginning to make some progress when I was suddenly called away -- to attend to the unfortunate victim of an overturned hansom cab -- so I too had to wait to conclude the adventure until the morrow broke.

Early the next morning, Fortescue returned to Baker Street. He reported that he had been unable to find sleep, so consumed was he with curiosity as regards Holmes' methods. Thereupon, Holmes satisfied us both with a lucid explanation of his reasoning. Someday soon I intend to find occasion to chronicle his fascinating exposition in these very pages.

-- Dr. John H. Watson

via Manus Hand

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