"Mr Holmes, if you'll forgive the question - is Doctor Watson safe?"
It was Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard who asked me, toward the end of my campaign against Professor Moriarty and his gang, in which endeavour the official forces had joined me but recently. In those last days before all the pieces were aligned and arrests could be made, the criminal gang Moriarty had sponsored and fostered and turned into a finely honed law-breaking machine had turned its full efforts against me.
"I have made arrangements for his safety," I assured Lestrade, which was not an answer to the question he was truly posing: why Moriarty's men attempted my life at every turn, yet had made no move against either my friend and closest associate, or my brother.
The latter question was, by far, the easier: My brother was not exactly vulnerable, being accustomed to the protection afforded by his unofficial and unorthodox role in the British government, and it was to him I had turned for Watson's protection. Even so, I was far from certain our precautions were sufficient.
Lestrade was, as I have had occasion to mention, one of the best the Yard had to offer, and though the competition was not exactly daunting, he on occasion managed to rise to a level of competence even I could not criticise. His current perspicacity, however, was most inopportune. For once, I lacked an answer, and therefore was forced to brush him off by answering him in letter, rather than in spirit.
He allowed himself to be distracted, and did not bring the subject up again. Yet the question remained.
I could see with greater clarity than ever the strands of the web through which I was about to slice, the threads my opponent must tread on as he retreated and the ways I could cut them under his feet. The trap was sprung; Moriarty must fall.
Yet a mind equal to mine must surely see my blade coming. I had no doubt of it. If Moriarty had honed my mind to its finest, surely the threat of Sherlock Holmes had whetted his just as keenly.
Therefore his next move should have been obvious, if perhaps obscure to the less perceptive eye. I waited daily for news of the attempt to reach me. It did not. Finally I had to admit to being, as they say, at a loss.
Why, then, had Moriarty not acted, nor even threatened to do so?
He had visited me in my rooms, had offered me the unwanted chance to change my stance against him, and then, unsurprised by my answer, had left. He had never attempted threats against my associates. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, had he attempted to blackmail any of them into turning against me. It might have been possible, with the correct leverage, for such a strategy to succeed. Not that it was a ploy without risk - but not without the potential for success, either. For a man in the increasingly desperate straits in which Moriarty had found himself by then, as my long-honed blade cut short his web at every turn, threatening my allies should have been an obvious move. If it failed, what had he to lose?
Yet he did not attempt it, and I did not understand.
When Watson took it upon himself to chronicle - and embellish - my work for the sake of the public, he quite rightly found it more congenial to dwell on my successes rather than my failures, and on the dramatic presentation of the answer rather than the many hours, days, nay, often weeks or months spent asking questions, many of which would never be answered to the detective's satisfaction. I fear he may have given something of a false impression of my work.
Even so, of all the unanswered questions I had collected over the course of my career, ranging from the simple to the complex, from mere minutiae with no bearing on the outcome of the investigation to truths of the highest international importance, none weighed upon me as much as that posed by the inexplicable inaction of Professor Moriarty.
By the time things came to a head between us, I was certain that my understanding of him was as complete as it could be. His actions, his thoughts, his inclinations - by the end all these were entirely transparent to me, each as clear and obvious as if it had originated in my own mind.
Yet what he did not do, the action he did not take, remained a mystery to me for years.
What decided me was the constant awareness that Moriarty had not acted in accordance with my expectations. At least, not yet, my instincts insisted - but my instincts had been wrong about this before. That, more than anything, worried me. I wanted my own eyes upon my friend. I would not leave him behind and find myself helpless to interfere.
There was another reason, of course, but I would hardly have allowed my own desire for company to influence me, had it not been for the other, prime motivator. I will admit Watson has, upon occasion, been ill used at my hand, but I would not treat him so cavalierly as to disregard the danger into which his association with me had put - and was putting - him.
Therefore, take him with me I would.
It was not long until Moriarty himself arrived. I had expected it, of course. But I had expected other things from Moriarty, and he had not complied. Once again I found myself waiting for the threat I was sure he must attempt, but for all his detail in explaining that his evasion of the police and his hunt upon my trail, the words I expected never came.
Hesitant to press the matter, to mention the name Moriarty had not brought up, I nonetheless requested permission to leave a note for my friend. He allowed it, gracious and unperturbed, not in the least distracted from his purpose.
Our purpose. Inevitable destruction: it was entirely mutual, by then.
I wrote quickly, pencil on paper, knowing what awaited me afterwards. But there was still the question that lacked an answer. As I stood there by the Reichenbach Falls, water roaring into the abyss mere steps away, my mind would not let it be.
I secured the note for Watson with my cigarette-case and turned to Moriarty. "A question, if you please."
Moriarty's eyebrows rose, and his head moved in that strange, lizard-like undulation characteristic of him. "I was not aware any questions remained open."
Whatever the answer, then, he thought I already knew it. The sting of failure, and the urge to rise to the challenge, burned briefly. But no answers presented themselves.
"Your attempts to remove me have been repeated and insistent," I began. "My destruction has been and remains your goal."
"As mine has been and remains yours."
I acknowledged the truth of it with a nod and continued. "Your determination cannot be in question. Yet there is an approach you have not taken." My eyes flickered toward the path, where Watson had left only minutes ago with the boy Moriarty had sent. Then I met Moriarty's eyes again. "Even now, you have not. Opportunities have abounded, and I cannot allow the possibility that such a course of action never occurred."
A brief smile flickered over his lips. "You have dismissed, then, the theory that I have not done so because I do not believe it would alter your response?"
I took his meaning immediately, and felt my chin tighten. "You judge me by your own standards, as I do you. We have little other measure, that is true. But whether or not you are capable of such sentiment yourself, I cannot doubt you are aware that I have risked my own life for less."
"Capable?" His eyes wandered up the sheer cliff face beside us, almost melancholically. "No, you're quite right, of course. I am aware. And yes - I do judge you by my own standards."
That was all he said before he rushed me. A moment later we were grappling for life or death at the edge of the chasm, until finally I watched him fall into the abyss, my question unanswered.
The trap I had set for Colonel Moran, the last of Moriarty's men still at large, had sprung.
"You fiend!" Moran repeated, sounding almost broken now that his revenge against me, the cause of Moriarty's demise, had obviously failed. He no longer lunged for me in futile fury, yet his speech ran on, unchecked. "You cunning, cunning fiend!"
A man of his background, experience and proclivities surely had stronger words at his disposal, yet "fiend" was all he could seem to keep muttering. I had to reassess my opinions of him, I realised then. I'd known Moran had not been reduced to cheating at whist for a living due to a lack of other abilities; his faculties were considerable. But his single-minded focus on revenge was not, it seemed, due to his violent and vindictive nature. He hadn't had the will to turn to other pursuits; vengeance was all he'd clung to.
However criminal and repulsive both these men might have been, there had obviously been genuine fondness between Moran and Moriarty. And that was why.
Suddenly, I understood.
Had his friend been threatened or attacked as a strike at Moriarty himself, Moriarty must have known what his own reaction would be. Once I thought of it, it was obvious and clear: his determination would only have increased tenfold, a hundredfold. His wrath would have been unstoppable.
Judging me by his own standard, he therefore had not attempted such a strategy.
I did not allow my reaction to show. Moran was a murderer, and a criminal mind of a vileness second only to Moriarty himself, and yet for a moment I could not help the feeling of sympathy that stirred in my chest, the kindred feeling of a man who had been graced with such devoted friendship.
I put it aside firmly, along with the shameful admission of posthumous defeat.
For in that moment I had to admit, if only to myself, that in at least one sense, Professor Moriarty had understood friendship better than I. Where I had seen a weakness to exploit, he had recognised a force he knew better than to provoke.