Verse: ACD Canon with a few nods to Granada
Characters/Pairings: Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler
Summary: Watson tells us that Sherlock Holmes spent time in Montpellier researching coal tar derivatives. But why? What else did he do there? And what made him decide to leave?
My sincere thanks to my beta . Any remaining mistakes are completely my own.
I settled myself on the bench and leant back, placing my broad-brimmed hat on the seat beside me. Behind me in the distance the twin towers of the great Cathedral de St Pierre reached towards the sky, while in front of me stretched a pleasant prospect of streets and parkland.
After cautiously looking about for followers - old habits die hard - I allowed myself to relax and savour the feel of the early Spring sunlight on my face. London, I thought, would still be wrapped in smog and cold, but here in the South of France, the leaves were tentatively coming out, the sun was warm after a few days of cloud, and most importantly, insofar as I could tell, I had shaken my pursuers off my trail.
For two years now, ever since my disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls, I had been playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game across Europe, into Russia, then up across the top of the world, alternately the pursuer and the pursued. Along the way, one of the remaining members of Moriarty's organisation had lost his life at my hands, another was currently languishing in a Russian prison and unlikely to trouble anyone for some time to come. On the minus side, I had acquired an impressive scar across my ribs and lost the remains of any idealism that I had ever had.
Upon my return to civilisation, I had picked up a copy of the Strand Magazine and read Watson's account of my 'death'. I felt a familiar stab of guilt at deceiving him, but hard on the heels of that thought came the knowledge that in a way, he was right. The Sherlock Holmes he had known was dead. The man I had become was nothing like my former self. I had buried him at the edge of a glacier in Nepal, along with a man I had killed from behind, garroting him with the length of piano wire I always carried in my pocket now.
The old Sherlock Holmes, I thought, would never have agreed to do the work I was doing here in Montpellier at my brother's behest. I was still a fair chemist and the "research into coal tar derivatives" he had requested me to do sounded innocuous enough, but I was studying the more volatile hydrocarbons with an eye to seeing if they could be used as weapons in the war that he saw was coming. ("It may be another ten years, it may be twenty, but come it will, Sherlock, and England must be ready when it does.")
The idea had promise; once liquefied under pressure, the gas could be sealed in steel canisters, then delivered by cannon shot or some other means. The canisters could be made to explode upon impact, releasing the deadly gas. The idea that I could help to develop such a weapon was horrifying, but I justified my research on the grounds that it would save English lives. Still, I knew that the man I had once been would never have done it.
I pushed such thoughts away for the time being. For now, I could bask in the knowledge that my enemies - and there were still agents combing Europe for me - were right off my trail and that no-one, my brother excepting, knew I was here. Here in Montpellier, I was only harmless old Guillaume, a Franciscan lay-brother pottering about the chemistry laboratory of the University .
I had allowed myself to drift in the warm air, and only opened my eyes intending to peer benignly at a group of chattering boys I heard approaching. Instead, when I looked up, I found myself staring directly into the shocked face of Irene Adler. She gasped sharply and went so white that for a moment, I thought she would faint. I found myself gaping up at her, and although I managed to school my expression back to indifference in an instant, it was too late. She had seen my face and knew that I had recognised her. I cursed my carelessness in allowing myself to be surprised, but it was too late for that.
She turned her violent start into a stumble and cried out that she had turned her ankle. I was up in an instant and caught her by the elbow, guiding her solicitously to the seat next to me on the bench. Her act would not have fooled me, although as improvisation, it was reasonably good and it served to convince her companions who clustered round with expressions of concern.
She was dressed much as they were, only her suit was rather nicer and her cloth cap a bit newer. That they were all members of some theatrical troupe, I could see at a glance. She waved them away, rubbing her supposed injury. "Go on, go on," she said in French. "You know how wild Marcel gets when you're late. Tell him I'll be along directly, my ankle's only turned and I'm sure the good priest here will help me out if necessary." This last was accompanied by a surreptitious glare at me.
As they moved off, chattering among themselves as before, one of the lads called back cheekily, "Don't start telling him all your sins, Rene, or you'll never make the rehearsal!" She responded with a huff of laughter and waved them on their way.
She was breathing heavily, obviously still shocked by my sudden appearance and I had no idea what on earth I could say, so we sat in silence, until, "you look very lively for a dead man," she began tightly, still intent on her ankle. "I suppose you have some excellent explanation for this charade? And don’t you think the harmless old cleric act is a little overdone?"
"Miss…Mrs Norton," I began
"It's Rene just now. Rene Dumont. But I believe you were about to tell me why you are here."
Now I began to feel angry in my turn. I had not chased and been chased over two continents in order to be lectured by Irene Norton, or whatever she chose to call herself. "I fail to see why I should explain myself to you," I began.
"Wait," she said. "Please. Wait. I don't mean to quarrel with you. I can't - I can't do this just now." She made as if to put a placating hand on my arm, then realised the gesture was far too familiar for our characters and dropped it to her lap instead. "I can't stay - I must go or I'll be late for my rehearsal. There's no show tomorrow. Please say you'll meet me. I must see you again. I truly want to know why you chose to do this."
"It's better if we don't meet again, " I said stiffly. "Better and safer for us both also."
"Then you are being followed." It was not a question.
"Not at the moment, I think. But I can't afford to attract attention ." I also did not trust her, but I was certainly not going to tell her that.
"I'm not working for anyone." She caught my implication. "No, that's not true. I am here on business of a sort. But I swear, I'm not here in any way connected to you."
"What are you doing here then?" I asked pointedly.
"I can't tell you that, but, please. I swear I'll not betray you. We can talk more tomorrow." She saw me soften and pressed her advantage. "Tomorrow afternoon at the Café Parnasse. You know it?"
I grimaced. "I do. Bad poetry."
"And worse Absinthe." she agreed. "I'll be there. Meet me - won't you?" she pleaded. "I guarantee no one will take the slightest notice of you. Unless, of course, you choose to come dressed in that outfit."
I did not dignify that remark with a response, only replied, "all right. It's against my better judgment, but, all right."
"A demain, then," she said, getting up. She continued, with a little bow, "thank you for your kindness, Brother, then walked off in the same direction the boys had taken, limping slightly at first, as if to test her ankle, then breaking into a little half-jog as she hurried away.
I remained where I was on my bench for a long time, watching through half-closed eyes to see if anyone followed her, but I saw no one, although the hair on the back of my neck prickled at my exposed position. To all appearances, our little exchange had gone completely unremarked, but my peaceful mood of earlier had been shattered and I found myself fingering the knife in my sleeve as I made my way back to my lodgings.
The following afternoon found me in an altogether different guise at the Café Parnasse. It was a noisy place frequented by a Bohemian set: students, poets, actors, and I spotted a group of anarchists huddled together in a far corner.
It was dimly-lit and smoky and seemed to be an ideal place in which to be anonymous. There was a sort of dais at one end of the room where a bushy-headed fellow was declaiming an ode in the classical style. There was the bad poetry I had foreseen. His scansion was so atrocious and his rhyme so forced that I winced and ignored him as best I could.
No one paid the slightest attention to my entrance. After a moment to allow my eyes to adjust, I spotted Irene - Rene - sitting by herself nursing a glass of wine at a table near the rear door. I approved of her choice of location. She had her head down, seemingly intent on drawing circles with her forefinger in the spilled wine on the table top, but she glanced up as I entered and I knew she had seen me. Procuring a glass of wine for myself, I made my way to where she sat. She did not look up as I slid into a seat beside her. Still angry, then.
"He told me you were dead," she said, without looking up. "He said he saw you go over the Falls with Professor Moriarty."
I did not have to ask who she meant. The 'he' could only have been the only other witness to the whole affair, Colonel Moran. She had not just read Watson's story then, she had been directly told that I was dead. No wonder she had been so shocked to see me.
"I suppose he was hardly likely to confess to attempted murder," I said. "I'm not still alive for any lack of trying on his part. He was stationed on the cliff above the Falls, and when he saw Moriarty go over, he fired at me. His shot went wide and I was able to get away before he could get off another. The disadvantage of air-guns."
She looked up at that, finally meeting my eyes. "I see Colonel Moran has kept his own secrets," she said slowly. "I thought there was something odd in his manner when he told me. He must have been watching to see if I knew anything. That must be why he was at your funeral also."
"Moran was at my funeral?" I would kill the man with my bare hands for that.
She huffed a laugh that had very little humour in it. "He was there. He paid particular attention to your Doctor, too. I remember, I thought it was curious at the time - he seemed so intent."
I would kill him with my bare hands slowly, I decided.
But Irene was continuing: "Half Scotland Yard were there. Your landlady. Your brother; at least I suppose that was he; a man who looks like you only larger." She gestured with her hands to indicate how much larger. A band of street urchins. Your Doctor Watson, Mrs Watson…"
I cut her recital off. "Watson? How - how did he look?"
"How did you expect him to look? He looked like the only thing holding him up was his wife."
Well, that was painful, but of course he would rely on Mrs Watson. Who else could he rely on after I had betrayed him and lied to him and let him think I was dead? At least Moran would know that Watson thought I was dead also. "Did anyone see you?"
"They may have seen me, but no-one took any notice. They were meant to think I was a journalist, or perhaps just a hanger-on, come to gawk. I took particular care that Colonel Moran did not recognise me. He was too intent on observing Doctor Watson to notice me in any case."
She looked directly at me, then shook her head and said, "You never thought about it at all, did you? What you did to us all - allowing everyone to think you were dead - it was monstrous. I mourned for you. Everyone did," she hissed.
I was completely taken aback. She was right; I had never given it a thought. Oh, I knew that Watson would be unhappy, but that was as far as my thoughts went. I had simply felt with his wife to console him, he would think he was well rid of his eccentric friend and that was all. I had never considered the effect of my death, not really, on anyone else. I had never thought about my funeral, how others would mourn for me, or any of it.
The idea that Moran had been there, looking over the crowd for signs that anyone knew I was alive…the thought made me sick, but it also made me doubly glad that no one else had known about me but my brother. I well knew that Moran would learn nothing from his demeanour, at least.
It was not necessary for me to explain myself to Irene Adler, but all at once it seemed important that there should be at least one other person who understood the reasons behind my actions. If I was honest with myself, it was important also that she should not think so very ill of me. Now it was my turn to draw circles on the tabletop. It seemed that the urge to fidget when confronted by an awkward situation was universal.
"You understand why I did it, do you not?" I began hotly, then checked myself and lowered my voice again. "You were there, you saw Moran. You know what he is like. He is a hunter. He can read people. Watson has no talent for dissimulation. If he had known I was alive, Moran would have seen it in an instant. What do you think Watson's or Mrs Watson's life would have been worth then? He has had men on my trail for the last two years. He hates me and is determined to bring me down for taking away his means of livelihood."
"More than that, I think," she interrupted. "He worshipped the Professor. It was more than loyalty of a subordinate to his commanding officer. Inasmuch as Moran cared for anyone, he cared for the Professor."
"You seem to know a considerable amount about them," I interposed.
"You already know I had ties to Moriarty's organisation. " She shrugged. "The Professor was a genius. Unfortunately, I came to his notice and he desired my participation. What I desired was quite beside the point. He, or rather, his associates, could be very persuasive." She rubbed her wrist absently, her fingers twisting around it. "There was nothing illegal about what I did. He asked me to identify some art collectors who had money and would not be over scrupulous about the provenance of the pieces they collected. I supplied him with names and he took care of the rest."
"The forged Mona Lisas." I said.
She flashed a half-smile at me. "Well, yes, that one didn't work out so well for him, thanks to you. And from time to time there were other, less well-known articles. "
"The Fairintosh Opals," I supplied helpfully.
She raised her eyebrows. "I didn't know you were aware of those. My role was merely to supply names, you understand. What happened after that was not my concern. " She shivered. "It was never healthy to enquire too closely into things that were not my business."
She laid a hand on my arm. "I do understand. I do. I know what these people are like. I've had a chance to think a bit and I'm not so angry with you any more. I can see now that's it's been no picnic for you. I was angry when I thought you had been living here in the South of France all this time, but I see now that's not been the case. I can see in your eyes that you've done things that…that no English gentleman could do."
"I suppose that's the core of it," I broke in, wearily rubbing my hands over my face. "I'm down at their level now. I've become no better than them. But there are not so many of Moran's men left now and I don't see any way except forward. What can I do?" I shrugged. "I've not spent the last two years lounging on a park bench here in Montpellier. I've been rounding up the remains of Moriarty's organisation and I don't much like what I've become as a result."
I stopped abruptly. I had always thought of myself as a solitary being, largely inured to the desire for human intercourse; but two years in the sole company of those who either actively sought my death or were at best indifferent to my continuing survival had taught me differently. I had never realised how much I missed the friendly word, the shared pipe, and, if I were honest, my Watson's appreciative ear . It was no wonder then that I was babbling to Irene Adler, but I had said too much already.
"I know you feel it's your job to bring the remainder of the Professor's organisation down. But you didn't see the look on your Doctor's face when they buried your empty coffin. I know Moran. I know how he thinks. I could be useful."
I shook my head. "It's no place for a woman," I said. "I can't stop until Moran is brought to justice. Sooner or later, he will make some slip and I'll have him, by God, I'll have him then! I've been here in Montpellier too long already. I see now it's time for Brother Guillaume to disappear. I need to get back to my work."
"Let me help you - please," she said again. "You needn't do this all alone."
"I work better alone," I replied. It wasn't true and we both knew it, but I stubbornly wanted no-one at my side but Watson. We were half arguing, our voices had risen, and I glanced around to see if anyone was listening, just in time to see a bottle come flying through the air to smash against the dais. Evidently someone disliked the poetry even more than I had. In an instant, the room was in an uproar. Men were shouting, the serving maid screamed, and the erstwhile poet leapt down to take a swing at the wrong man, while the bottle-thrower was tackled from behind by yet a third man.
Before the chaos could reach us, I caught Irene's hand and together we dove for the door, slamming it closed behind us. "Now you see why I chose that table," she said with a wry smile. Then she frowned, "are you sure you won't reconsider?"
"Thank you, but no," I said. "I'll keep you in mind if I need anyone."
"Well, that's that, " she said tightly. "Take care of yourself." She offered me her hand to shake like a man would and after a moment, I took it. "Au revoir, then."
"Goodbye," I replied, already turning away. I wondered briefly if she would watch me go, but I did not look back.