A STUDY IN MIDNIGHT
I first learned of the death of the detective Sherlock Holmes upon my return to New Albion from a long stay on the continent. According to the paper I picked up on the street outside of the docks, it had been several days since his death. News traveled slowly in Europe in those days – as, indeed, it always had, although I had noted in the year leading up to my return to my mother country that the spread of news from one nation to the next had diminished, appreciably, from the rate of a steady trickling to that of an especially slow drip – and I had heard nothing of the great detective’s passing in France. In truth, I thought little of the event – I am not a man who has ever had much fondness for the detective class, and even less for the police, and this Holmes fellow had been wrapped up with both. I tossed the paper aside quickly enough. It had been, I would recall later, something about a waterfall in Germany, or Switzerland. I had been to Germany and it had not been to my taste. There is a terror, in Germany, that creeps under the skin and into the bones and the brain. There is a terror there that has done something strange to the people, to the bright sparks of life in their eyes. They have all but gone out.
The Kaiser, on the other hand, fares quite well for himself, but that is the way of our world. They do not speak of it.
In any event, after my brief reading of the article I ceased to think about Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and shifted my attention to the issue of myself and my continued survival. This may, perhaps, sound overly dramatic, but it seemed to me a matter of considerable seriousness at the time. Then, I had no real enemies, and no real friends. I was a small person, and though I knew myself to be living in a very large world – I had, after all, seen much of it – I still, in those days, thought of it as small. I looked considerably different upon my return to New Albion than I had six years previously, when I had left it – I sported what I must say I believe to be a very fetching moustache, and as a result of one particularly unpleasant incident in Vienna about which I shall say nothing further walked with the help of a cane. My face had grown considerably harder and I was a good stone underweight, and then some. I did not recognize myself, certainly, in the mirror. It is a curious thing, to have so lost communication with one’s self that one’s face appears to be an alien thing. I saw nothing that I knew in my own eyes. No matter how unsettling that sensation is – and I can assure you, it is profoundly so – I also found it comforting. I would not be recognized. Of this I was certain.
I introduced myself as one James H. Wilson. I was, I told those curious souls who asked, looking for a room. I said it mildly, and never pressed. Lacking funds, I did not look particularly presentable – events in Normandy had seen to that – but I had learned long before then that acting presentable was worth nearly as much, if not more. All the same, my tentative inquiries yielded little. Again and again, I was told the same thing: Space is scarce these days, Mr. Wilson. I was not particularly surprised. Space in London had never been plentiful, and people in the countryside were growing restless. I had felt it in the air, in France. They wanted to be close to things. They wanted somewhere to hide so that they could do what they wanted, with themselves and with others, and there is nowhere better to hide than London. I had not been back in six years, but I remembered that. I remembered my city well enough. It is a dark place, dark and dirty and depraved and magnificent. It is, I think, an alive place most of all, and that is what has always drawn young men and women away from their homes to its pulsing black light. It had, after all, done the same to me: there I was.
It was utter chance that led me to the theater of the Strand Players. They were not playing anywhere nearly as dignified as the Royal Court Theatre then – and, believe me, I use the word ‘dignified’ with reservation. Then they had taken a semi-permanent residence in one of the most ill-reputed playhouses in the city, one that could hardly be recognized as a theatre from the outside.
I ended up in the alley behind the Theatre Magdalene that grey day without any idea of where I was, but with three men’s wallets tucked inside my jacket. I turned into the alley in order to remove the bills and to dispose of the rest. I was in the process of doing so when I heard someone say, without any warning, “I would be very curious indeed to know how you managed to take wallets off of a barkeep, a prostitute, and a policeman in a single day.”
I readily admit that I jumped at the sound of his voice, and jumped again when I turned and got a look at him. He stood some feet above me on the theater’s back stoop, and was dressed – quite passably, I might add – as Genghis Khan, complete with wig, facial hair, and sword. If I had not just heard him speak in the Queen’s English, and if his eyes had not sparkled quite so keenly, I would perhaps have thought I was in the presence of a very wayward ghost.
As it was, I merely stared at him without saying anything. He was leaning on the sword quite casually, and raised his eyebrows.
“Good god, man,” I finally managed. “I simply don’t know that I can address you properly when faced with that abominable goatee.”
He started, and felt at his chin, and laughed. “Oh dear,” he said, very dryly. “I had forgotten.”
In a matter of moments, the wig, goatee, and moustache had been removed. Nothing remained of Khan except some pale makeup caked on his cheeks and nose and the black lines pulling the corners of his eyes northwards. I was, I must say, more than impressed.
He shrugged in response to the admiring expression gracing my features, but I did not miss the small, smug smile that tugged at his own. “I am an actor,” he explained. “I have had rather a lot of practice.”
“I see,” I murmured.
“Now,” he began. “The barkeep, the prostitute, and the policeman, if you please.”
I looked down at the wallets in my hands. “It is not so interesting as you seem to believe,” I admitted. “I hardly remember the first two men, to be honest with you – I certainly did not know that the first was a barkeep, nor that the second was a prostitute.”
“Ah,” he said, “but you have left out the policeman.”
“Well,” I said mildly. “They are quite good sport.” In fact, it would have been exceptionally foolish for me to pick the pocket of a policeman at that particular juncture in my life. I had run across him in a bar, drunker than he would ever like to admit, and he had been an extraordinarily easy target. Taking his wallet had not appealed to my sense of professionalism, but I was, after all, quite bankrupt.
“Indeed,” the strange man replied, and smiled. It was not a particularly welcoming smile – there was, I remember thinking even then, during those first moments of our acquaintance, something distinctly feline about it – but I did not feel threatened by him. I was merely curious.
“What I am wondering,” I told him, “is how you claim to know the professions of these men with no information except the appearances of their wallets.” I could not help believe what he had said – the third man, after all, had indeed been a policeman, albeit an irresponsible one. But I could not for the life of me fathom how he could have deduced any of it.
He shrugged, and I caught another glimpse of that smug smile. The shrug, I realized, was just a tick to distract from it. I wondered whether or not it was conscious. “Well,” he began. “There are a series of stains on the first that are indicative of nothing but repeated exposure to alcohol, but the wallet itself is not of overwhelmingly low quality, and is furthermore quite full – so, not a drunk. Possibly a gambler, but the gamblers I have known have tended to be either lower or higher in their tastes – there are gamblers, of course, who find extravagance appealing, and then there are gamblers who simply do not win very often, and who would not have the funds to acquire a wallet such as that one. I am, of course, not entirely certain –” I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was – “but I am at least quite confident that the man from whom you stole that wallet runs a bar, and quite a successful one, at that.
“Secondly,” he continued, “the prostitute. Observe the stitching along the flap – it is, as I am sure that you know, not the type of thing a man such as you or I would seek to have put into a wallet; it is much too ornate and, dare I say, effeminate. But of course it does not belong to a woman, this wallet – so, either it belongs to an invert or to a prostitute. Given, again, the amount of money that you were in the process of counting – it looks like quite a considerable sum – I suspect that the man to whom this wallet belongs is in some underhanded profession; otherwise, he would certainly not carry so much on his person. I should add that there seems to be a bite mark in the corner – yes, there, the corner farthest from you. I do not know many inverts – not that I am aware of, in any event – but I believe that any possible circumstances that could have led to that… imprint… would make considerably more sense if a prostitute were involved.”
It was all I could do not to gape at him. As it was, I settled for raising my eyebrows.
“What about the policeman?” I asked.
“That I shall keep secret,” he said, baring his feline smile once again. I considered whether there might be some reason he would not tell me, beyond the obvious, and concluded from the look on his face that the obvious was, in fact, the case: he enjoyed, it was eminently clear, to mystify.
“Now,” he said. “I must ask: why ever are you standing behind this theater to do this? You evidently are not aware of the fact that there is a police station on the corner there.” He gestured north, and I instinctively moved the wallets towards my jacket. “Oh, you have nothing to fear,” he said mildly. “They never pay attention to what is right in front of them, but few realize this.”
I flushed. “I have been out of the city for some time,” I admitted.
He nodded, and said nothing.
“Afghanistan,” I explained, once he had persisted in not saying anything for several long moments. “I was a doctor there, in the war.” I gestured to my leg. “Didn’t quite make it out unscathed. Dreadful bomb it was, that got most of my unit.”
“Curious,” he said, staring at me. “Tell me, do people truly believe you when you tell them you have been there?”
“I –” I started, startled. “Whatever do you mean? I have of course been, and come back, and here I am.”
“You have never stepped foot in Afghanistan,” he said, still staring intently at my face. He did not look into my eyes, exactly, but rather at everything around them. It was most unsettling. “You are underweight, to be sure, but not nearly as underweight as you would be if you had just spent a year at war and come home injured – I would wager that wound a year old, at least – and you are not nearly brown enough. And I have never yet met an army man who volunteers such detail about an injury, especially an injury purportedly sustained in an attack that would have killed several of his comrades.
“I would,” he concluded thoughtfully, “continue to mention the injury – a moment of self-deprecation, here and there, would not be out of character – but nothing more. This will not only make you more convincing, but will also make people wonder about you – and unless you are truly in the business of keeping out of sight of everybody this is not a bad trait to possess.”
I was not surprised to hear him say so. He seemed to have cultivated it quite successfully in himself.
I held out my hand. “James Wilson,” I said.
“Hardly,” he snorted, but his eyes were flashing with something that looked almost like delight. “But please, do not tell me. I would like to figure it out myself.”
“As you wish,” I told him. “But you have not told me your name.”
“Sherry Vernet,” he said after a moment, and reached his hand out to shake mine. “It is a very great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Wilson.”
“Doctor,” I corrected him.
“I think not,” he scoffed, and invited me inside.
Sherry Vernet, I soon learned, was an actor of exceptional ability. His presence in the Strand Players singlehandedly elevated the quality of the company to something approaching respectable. This was a feat. The interior of the Theatre Magdalene was nearly as worn and dirty as the alleyway behind it, and the sorts of plays put on by the Players were truly of the lowest caliber. Only Vernet’s considerable gift saved them from being laughable. It did not seem to matter what he said; everything was in the way he said it. He strode across the stage with more authority than any actor I have ever seen. I do not mean that the characters he played were always confident – on the contrary, he especially excelled at playing the part of the sniveler, the coward, the doubter – but rather that he looked for all the world as though he had been born there, literally born on a stage. I thought he seemed never more at home than he was standing upon the boards.
Though the public did not seem to mind that the soliloquies he delivered were gratingly ineloquent, I did. A small idea began to tickle the back of my brain, and I let it simmer there for a while without paying it much attention. This is, I have found, the best way to approach An Idea. Nothing comes off half as well as the thing you have ignored most.
Vernet, it seemed, was something of a gentleman. At some point during his grand tour of the Magdalene I mentioned – casually – the problematic situation of my current living situation, or lack thereof, and he promptly told me that I was welcome to the theater attic, so long as I did not mind rats as bedfellows.
“Mr. Vernet,” I said, “I have dealt with more than my share of rats
, in my time.”
He laughed a little at that, quietly, and though I had the distinct impression that he was laughing at, and not with, me, I did not mind. There were things about me that I felt quite sure he would never know. I am a man of many secrets. Some of them are exceptional, and some of them less so. But they are mine, or at least they were then. And I sensed, also, that this Vernet imagined himself impenetrable. He thought I could see nothing of him beneath the paint on his face. But I saw much that first day, as he poked his head into each godforsaken, unlit cranny of the Magdalene and gestured at me to follow him blindly into the darkness. I think he thought me exceptionally trustworthy; nothing could be farther from the truth. I did not feel threatened by him. I thought I could kill him if I wanted, even with my bad leg. I had no desire to do so, but the thought gave me a measure of peace.
The attic was, as promised, vile; even so, I had seen worse. I stabbed several of the rats before settling in to sleep and left them littered around to scare off their fellows. In the morning they smelled truly rank, but I had not been bitten in the night, so I counted it a victory.
I stayed in the Theatre Magdalene for the first month of my return to New Albion. Every morning, I woke early and bathed in the actors’ dressing room – if it could really be named such – before they had arrived. They were a mad bunch, the actors of the Strand Players, and I cannot say I cared for any of them especially, except Vernet. They were a good enough sort of people, and I became vaguely fond of them as a group; but individually they simply did not much interest me.
Vernet, on the other hand, became something of an obsession. It was not a kind of obsession that I had ever experienced before – there was nothing to it except a sort of pure curiosity. I was madly fascinated by him. Sometimes I thought him quite insane, and other times the sanest man living. I soon learned that his abilities as an actor transcended the stage: he could slide from persona to persona at an almost dizzying speed, and he did so whenever he was outside of the theatre. I could not say why he did this. Practice, perhaps, I thought at first, but soon disabused myself of this notion. He did not need to practice. Why, then? Eventually I began to suspect that it was merely his particular brand of perverted pleasure. He took enormous enjoyment in it, in the act of so utterly veiling himself that no one knew a thing about him. For a time I entertained the idea that the man he presented to me was equally constructed, just a madman’s mask that might be tossed aside at any moment, but I was soon convinced that this was not the case. No one else would ever have noticed, but I was with him enough that I began to see the fractional increase in tension in his muscles whenever he was being someone else. When he was speaking to me, and only to me, it slid away and he was happily himself again.
It seemed natural to me at the time that our friendship should progress so rapidly and in so dramatic a fashion. We had been strangers one moment, and the next moment we were dining together, and drinking together, and chatting together before and after performances. It was very easy to divine the origin of our immediate connection: I was, after all, pretending to be someone other than myself, and that was Vernet’s specialty. It was not only his specialty; it was his vocation. It was his life’s work. And I – I could understand that, if only a little, if only in fragments.
And I was a puzzle to him. I saw that it drove him mad that he did not know exactly who I was and where I had been, if not in Afghanistan. He always wanted to know everything, and indeed, he frequently seemed to, but he did not know everything about me. He knew, in fact, very little. He was on a quest to figure me out, and I let him have at it. I did not think he would be very successful. He would, certainly, discover the general particulars of my history before my flight to the continent; it would not take a man of exceptional genius to track down the information, if he were so inclined. In my return I had bet on the assumption that nobody would care to do so. The fact that Vernet had taken this task upon himself did not bother me; I had known, from the moment I met him, that he was not the sort of man interested in the law.
And, truly, my troubles with the law had not begun in New Albion, and I knew he would not be able to find any trace of me after my departure.
As the month passed, I began to suffer from a cloying malaise. Here I needed to be more cautious in my thievery, and picking the pockets of the intoxicated was not enough to fill a man’s life with purpose. On the continent it had been different – in every city there had been a thrill of discovery, and of challenge, and I had had other occupations. Now there was nothing except Vernet, and as fascinating as he was he hardly seemed to be a solution to my boredom.
I discovered two cures for this malaise, both on the same day. The incidents were not connected, but they have always felt connected in my memory due to the proximity of their occurrence. The first happened in the morning. I was sitting in the back of the Magdalene, watching the rehearsals, as had become my habit. Everything was going exceptionally poorly, and Vernet appeared particularly exasperated. He had little patience with rehearsals; had he not been such a great talent I think the director would have sent him on his way a week into his tenure as Head Player. The play they were practicing, however, was abominable to the point that it inspired physical pain; my leg injury was excruciating for no apparent reason. I attributed it to the low quality of the drama taking place on the stage.
Wildly enough, I do not remember a thing about the play they had been planning on performing. Not a single detail. I only remember standing up, despite my leg, and shouting to them from the back that I simply could not watch any longer and would write them something new for the next week’s run of performances free of charge if only they would stop.
“The public,” I told them, sounding (I would imagine) immensely long-suffering, “does not need to be subjected to this twaddle.”
The director and actors stared at me as though I were a ghost.
“Have you any experience playwriting, my good fellow?” Vernet asked, rather mildly, all things considered.
“None whatsoever,” I said, and left the auditorium, taking care to let the door slam shut behind me.
Something warm thrummed through my chest. This had, of course, been The Idea: I had not wanted to acknowledge it, had deliberately kept myself from acknowledging it, for fear that it would appear strange and misshapen and ill-advised in the light of day. As I had told my friend, I had utterly no experience writing; it had honestly never before occurred to me to try my hand at it. But I felt
, suddenly , that there were dozens of ideas at my fingertips, waiting to be written – nothing too sophisticated, of course. These ideas would have to appeal to the lowest possible public, but for some reason that made me relish the idea of writing them even more. I could be, I knew, dreadfully sappy when the feeling came over me. This potential occupation I had set up for myself would feed nicely my secret craving for melodrama. I told myself hurriedly that they might have no interest in anything I had to write, that I might be terrible at writing. But I did not really believe it.
Vernet found me in the alleyway out back, smoking a cigarette. He looked impressed.
“My dear fellow,” he said after a moment. “That was quite something.”
“It was really quite bad,” I told him.
“I know,” he laughed, “that is why I made such a mess out of it.”
We stood in companionable silence for a few moments before he began to speak again.
“It is really the most miraculous thing,” he said, thoughtfully. “I have found out, I think, everything about you. Born September 22, 1855, good family. One sibling, respectable parents – all deceased. Good performance in school, sent to Cambridge to study medicine. Sent down from Cambridge, reason undisclosed – common knowledge, however, that you impregnated the young wife of one of the dons, though she lost the child. Left for the continent, returned six years later with an entirely new – and entirely disreputable – trade. Looking for lodgings, but not for a job. There is no record of you on the books. James Wilson died in Afghanistan, where you have never been, and has no family to speak of. He was not a medic, but it does not much matter as his patrol was wiped out in battle. It is really quite a clever little scheme. I must admit that I did not think you especially clever, that first day we met. Interesting, certainly, but not intelligent. I must apologize.
“And yet,” he continued, sounding suddenly impassioned. “And yet, my dear man, I cannot figure out a single thing about you, not a single real thing. You are a mystery to me – and believe me when I say that there is no one whom I cannot read as easily as a book. It comes with the territory, you know – of being an actor, I mean. You are an enigma, John Watson. I do not know what to think of you.”
He was looking at me with a kind of removed admiration. He was not an especially cool man, my friend Vernet, but there was a cold rationality that possessed him in certain moments. I think that kind of brilliance necessarily makes a man somewhat removed from his fellows. It did not bother me. It is what made him fascinating to me. I do not know what about me was fascinating to him. I was a petty thief and a coward and a failure. I did not let myself think this way often, but the knowledge was always at the back of my mind. I could not forget it, not ever. So I was somewhat humbled by his little speech, although he had not been entirely correct in his conclusions (a fact for which I was profoundly grateful), and looked down at the ground when he had finished. He did not seem to mind that I had no response.
That evening, after the play – an old number, to avoid the abomination that had so offended me – we went for dinner at McKenzie’s, which would become one of our old haunts soon enough, and each of us had a little too much to drink. That said, we were not too drunk, making our way back to the theatre – enough to feel that happy bubble of euphoria in your belly, but hardly enough to seriously impair physical coordination or capability.
It was very lucky for us that we had not drunk more, because in an alleyway shortcut we had taken several streets away from the theater we were set upon by three armed men.
I saw them before he did. He was walking several paces in front of me, waxing poetic about Othello. One of them would have gotten him, to be sure, if I had not thought exceptionally quickly. I shouted for him as I reached down my back and felt the knife there, which I extracted and hurled almost without thinking at the man who had raised his pistol at my friend. He collapsed with a curse, far from dead, though my dagger was embedded in his back, but it did not matter. Vernet spun around as fast as I have ever seen a man move and kicked the pistol out of his hand before using my knife to slit his throat. I do not know what followed because I was busy fending off the second of the attackers while he dealt with the third. They were not the highest quality of criminal, I thought rather scornfully once the three of them lay motionless on the ground before us. There was a gibbous moon and it reflected off of the blood that slid slowly away from their bodies and into the darkness. I felt little remorse for them.
My friend was sitting against the wall, breathing heavily. I walked over to him and was grateful to the moonlight for allowing me to see him clearly. I made a quick inspection of his physical condition and found that he was not injured. He was, however, deeply shaken. His skin was a particularly pallid shade of white and any traces of smug pretension had dropped gracelessly from his features.
I do not know exactly how I knew, or when I knew, but I did. Perhaps it was the way he could figure anything out with simple observation, but pointedly did not exhibit this skill in front of anybody but myself. Perhaps it was his magnificently intelligent eyes. I do not know what
, exactly , it was, but: I knew. I had known for quite some time, I realized.
He was looking at something beyond me. He had no intention of speaking, but he would have to speak. I felt I had acquired a second profession in the course of a single day. There would, I was certain, be more of these men. I would soon have considerably more blood on my hands than I had ever had before. It was difficult for me to feel particularly upset about this. I felt that it was a calling, in a way. I could not say how I sensed this, either: it was a frighteningly accurate premonition, in light of all that followed. I simply knew, deep within my soul, that if he had no one to protect him that he would die, and that I could not allow.
“Sherlock Holmes,” I said, “this is twice you have cheated death now.”
He looked at me, startled. His eyes were wide and afraid.
“If you want to continue to do so in the future,” I told him, “I am going to need a pistol.”
Some of the fear faded from his eyes. He was, I think, genuinely mystified. I smiled a little at this strange ability I had to confuse him. It is amusing, the things you can go for years and not know about yourself. I had never thought myself complex.
He licked his lips. “I am in need of a flatmate,” he said.
“What a strange coincidence,” I told him. “I am in need of a flat.”
It began with the woman, as Holmes called her. It was a necessity, this oblique approach of his; she was, in fact, the singular female in our enterprise. We all thought of her this way: the woman. Holmes believed he was unique, however, in thinking only of her out of all womankind, except perhaps Her Royal Majesty. Holmes had little use for the fairer sex, I discovered shortly after our initial acquaintance – but to be fair, he had little use for anybody, except those whom he believed he could trust implicitly. Miss Irene Adler was one such woman.
We had been living together for two years when Miss Adler returned to London from a long voyage on the continent. The similarities of our circumstances did not escape me. I did not believe I had heard of her before, not being a terribly musical man. But there was the ad in the paper, announcing her arrival, and something about her name stirred something at the back of mind, so I casually mentioned her to Holmes in the event that he should be able to place her in a more definitive context within my mind.
The smile that spread across his face when I mentioned her name was wide and genuine. “Irene Adler,” he said, with an almost unprecedented fondness, “of course. We were in competition, once – very long ago, when I was a considerably different man than I am today. She had something that the Prince of Bohemia wanted very much returned to him – something she had stolen, as is her wont – and my old colleagues on the police force called me in to deal with the situation. I bested her,” he told me with considerable pride, “but only just – and, indeed, though I regained the stolen property she escaped easily. She was a formidable opponent. We met once, not long after the affair, and I was not disappointed by her conniving intellect. I let her go, of course.
“I should like very much to see her again,” he said in a very different tone of voice. He sounded harder, and his eyes glittered sharply as he gazed into the distance. Looking back at me, he asked, “Whatever is she doing in the paper?”
“Well,” I told him, “it is odd that you mention that Prince – one Franz Drago, correct?”
“Yes,” he said, and though he imagined that he hid it well I could see that he was perturbed.
“She has come with him,” I said, glancing down at the paper. “As his consort, it seems. She will be performing next week, at the Royal Opera.”
“Just the one performance,” I told him. “The second of April.”
He said nothing more for so long that I thought he had descended back into one of his stupors of thought, but then said, quite sharply, “Well, we shall have to be there.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I imagine tickets will be rather in demand.”
He looked at me, one eyebrow raised in what could only be called a sardonic fashion. “My dear boy,” he said, voice practically dripping with dry humor, “I have every confidence that between the two of us we shall be able to think of something.”
“Indeed,” I agreed.
“It is a pity,” he said. “I had a picture of her once
, that I could have shown you. She is quite a striking woman.”
“Well, I shall see her soon enough, it seems.” He smiled faintly at that, and got up to tap the ash from his pipe into the fireplace. He filled it up once again with shag in what appeared to be the normal way, and I wondered whether I might have been imagining things. On the whole, however, I thought not.
We were at that time living in our third set of rooms. The nature of both our personages had necessitated several moves at the beginning of our acquaintance, but in the past year we had been able to stay in the same place. It had been an extraordinary stroke of luck for us to find it; it was tucked away in a building behind a pub that did a very good – if not entirely reputable – business, and you would never have known our rooms existed if you had not been extremely thorough in your investigation of the place. In order to reach them, one had to make his way through all manner of entirely disreputable clientele, and even then know to look for a door. There was no order to the depravity that surrounded us, but it was limited exclusively to drug-based paraphernalia. Holmes, I think, found himself quite at home there, and I, for my part, had spent time in the very worst quarters of half of the major European capitals; I was no longer phased by mere addicts. I lived with one, after all.
The rooms themselves were small and windowless, but the walls were thick and there was a certain, strange charm to the space. Over the course of the two years we had spent in each other’s company, we had acquired what seemed like an inordinate number of material possessions. Holmes was an incurable slob, so the sitting room was inevitably immensely messy – but as much as I hated to admit that he was right in this particular respect, Holmes was entirely correct when he said that there was a kind of order to the disorder in which he so thrived. As I am, generally speaking, a conscientious soul, the room never devolved into a state of genuine, total unseemliness. Instead it felt comforting, somehow. Holmes’ very essence had sunk into the walls and the floor and the rude table that sat in the center of the room, which was perpetually covered with his papers.
At that point I was still, by and large, ignorant of his other life’s work: I knew, of course, that he had been engaged in general conspiracy against Her Majesty the Queen, and that it was for this reason that he had engineered a kind of pantomime of his own death at Reichenbach Falls. I knew
, and just, and he was forced – we were both forced – into action far before I believe he had anticipated taking up his sword once more.
In any event, we took the necessary measures to secure ourselves two tickets to see Miss Adler perform. As I have said, I am not a musical man: I know nothing of opera. Holmes, on the other hand, was an intensely musical fellow. I remember still the moment I discovered this fact – at the time it was a cause of great surprise to me, although I cannot imagine why. Holmes is an infinitely rational being, of course. There is in him a pure and logical mechanism which the rest of us lack utterly. But neither is he cold, as his tenure on the stage has proven. He understands very well the softer human emotions, and the harder ones, and has even been known to feel them himself, once in a while. But there was something about music that struck me as too purely artistic for him. There is nothing to ground it, after all, in the real world, as there is with the theatre. I soon learned that Holmes was at his most emotional in the face of excellent music. It stirred something in him I had never seen elsewhere in his life. I asked him about it, when I first observed him listening to an orchestra perform
, some eight months into our friendship. “Holmes,” said I, “you seemed particularly moved by the performance tonight.”
“It was superb,” he agreed, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet as we made our way home.
“Have you some history in music?”
He paused for a moment before responding, and before he did an expression of such profound wistfulness passed across his face that I found myself deeply shaken. It was, of course, gone in a moment, but never did I doubt that I had seen it. It was too deeply impressed upon my memory.
“I used to play the violin,” he told me.
“And you do not anymore?”
He shrugged. “I have had to leave much behind, Watson,” he said
, quietly. The flickering lights of the streetlamps illuminated his face with an inhuman orange glow that is quite unique to London among all the cities I have known – it is a dirtier light here, I believe. His eyes were again as unfathomable as ever, and we proceeded back to our lodgings without speaking more of it. But in the months that followed I observed him sometimes moving his fingers as though on the strings of a violin. It was, in truth, the first time that I truly understood what he had given up in order to survive. He was a man extremely invested in his survival – but for reasons, I was soon to understand, much greater than himself.
We were to be masquerading as petty nobles of no consequence, to whom little attention would be paid. All the night’s attention, without doubt, would be focused squarely upon the Prince of Bohemia, who was to be in attendance to celebrate his consort’s talent and achievement. He would be seated in the shadows, but there were many people in the theater who had never properly seen royalty, at least not in such close quarters, myself included. It was extremely unlikely that anyone would realize that we were not, exactly, anybody.
All the same, Holmes insisted – and I did not protest – that we attend in disguise. Over the course of our friendship several assassins had attempted to commit violence against his person, and he had no wish to advertise himself in a room crowded full of the exact people against whom he had worked so assiduously for so long, and against whom he continued to work with his full – if muted – effort. None of them, we were quite sure, was aware that Sherlock Holmes was still living, but there were people who were, and it was they who imperiled him, though they could rarely convince others that they alone knew the truth of what had happened to the great detective in Switzerland. These men had come mostly in the first few months that I knew him; since then, he had been somewhat forgotten. But we were vigilant nevertheless.
I was not, I admit, particularly accustomed to Holmes’ ministrations in the art of disguise; it was only the rare event that necessitated it. But I allowed him to do what he must, obediently, and listened obligingly as he chattered on about one thing or another: the composers whose selections Miss Adler would be performing, about whom I knew nothing, and whose names I have thoroughly forgotten; the merits and demerits of the plot I had suggested as the Strand Players’ next piece; the amusing antics of the addicts who lived outside of our doors. All this time he was remaking me into a red-haired nobleman of low standing. He had an oddly clinging powder which, applied to the hair, stayed for hours without betraying its illegitimacy, and so he combed his hands through my hair to apply it thoroughly, and then brushed some across my moustache, and as a final measure applied some rather excessive sideburns to my cheeks in the same reddish color. He went after himself next, and somehow – I still, I readily admit, do not entirely understand his methods – turned himself into a blonde, mustachioed nobleman in what seemed like mere moments.
“Ah! – wait,” he exclaimed just before we left, decked out in our finest clothes. “There is some on your cheek, my good fellow – it looks quite ridiculous, I must say, and will give you away at once.” He reached up and rubbed a rather insistent thumb over my cheek, several times in each direction, before he seemed satisfied. “Now,” he said, smiling devilishly and setting his top hat upon his blond head, “to the Opera.”
The Opera was, as expected, bursting. Neither of us attracted any undue attention; we were both practiced at acting as though we belonged in places which were in point of fact utterly alien to us, or at least forbidden. Our seats were quite high up, so as not to be conspicuous, and I only caught a brief glimpse of the Prince, with whom I would later be much more closely acquainted: there was, I perceived, a flash of limbs where there should not be, and a strange curve to the back which sent, I am not ashamed to say, a shiver down my spine. The way he moved, too, was entirely unnatural – but soon enough he had gone, and I turned my eyes back to the unoccupied stage. Out of the corner of my eye I had noticed Holmes watching the Prince just as I had. His expression was carefully schooled, and quite blank.
We applauded enthusiastically when Miss Adler was announced, and the first piercing note of her voice cut through the chamber as the curtain began to rise. Immediately I noticed Holmes start violently. He got himself under control quickly enough that no-one else could possibly have noticed anything; but then again I am not merely anyone else when it comes to the detective. He remained utterly stiff next to me, and I must confess that I was far more fascinated by what he was thinking than by the woman singing on stage before us.
Eventually, however, I directed my attention to her, and found her quite beautiful. She had long black hair and what appeared from a great distance to be a very fair face. Her voice, furthermore, seemed to be superb, although I was hardly capable of distinguishing any technical merit – or lack thereof – in it. She performed several pieces, after which the audience shuffled out politely. It had been, all considered, a rather anticlimactic performance, if only as a result of its abbreviated length, but by the time we were leaving the theatre I was entirely focused once again upon my friend. He was utterly distraught, though – once again – no-one else could possibly have known. There was a frenzy in his eyes that I did not recognize at all, and the arm that he put through my own was as stiff and tense as a board of wood. We made our way home in utter silence, both on the street and in the cab, and it was all that I could do to refrain from questioning him before we had reached our rooms and closed the door firmly behind us.
“My dear man,” I said the instant this had occurred. “You must tell me what is the matter – I do not think I have ever seen you so distressed.”
He turned to look at me and the expression on his face had lost all of its panic. It had been replaced instead with a kind of extreme, intense calm that would have inspired fear in any man but myself.
“That,” he said, in a voice like ice, “was not Irene Adler.”
“I – what?” I said, rather stupidly. “Whatever do you mean, that was not Irene Adler?”
“It was not she,” he said, with that infinite logic upon which he relied so heavily.
“But Holmes,” I argued, somewhat flabbergasted, “she was a resident of London for years, was she not? Surely someone would have noticed an impostor.”
“Indeed, someone did,” he agreed, with a very black humor. “That someone happened to be the man standing before you. I can assure you, Watson, that the woman singing tonight was not she. She was a very passable imitation, I will give them that – physically, nearly her double. But that voice was not hers. Trust me, my friend: I would know that voice anywhere. I heard her sing once. She was almost excruciating to listen to, her voice was so immeasurably perfect. That was not she.”
I stared at him; I believed him.
“Well,” I said finally, and for a moment could say nothing more. He sat down, slowly, in his armchair
, and refilled his pipe before lighting it. I could practically see the gears working in his mind as I sat down myself.
“Indeed,” he murmured after a moment. “Well. What do you make of it, Watson?”
I had never been able to tell, exactly, what he meant when he asked for my opinion in that manner. At first I believed him to be toying with me utterly, for he could walk intellectual circles around me with hardly any effort whatsoever. His mind was indeed an extraordinary deductive machine. But over time I began to think that this was not, in fact, the case. Certainly he had a rather poor habit of scoffing at my particularly inane moments of foolishness, but I believe he realized that I have something in me that most men do not, and that is my insight, unfettered by logic. I do not think that it is really so great a trait – compared to his intensely analytical mind it seems rather paltry, at least to me – but it is my own. I am, I think, unusually insightful, and unusually aware. Holmes, for all of his brilliance, was neither. The only times I had been able to tell him things he had not already known were instances when the obvious answers were staring him in the face. He had a habit of looking past that which was too clear. And of course, despite his utter commitment to life, he was often in need of a watchful eye. The addiction, at the least, would have done him in long ago if I had not been there to watch out for his well-being.
I let myself think about the question of Irene Adler for some time, for I sensed instinctively that it was to be of great importance to whatever happened next in our lives. I could not stop thinking about the body of Prince Franz in the opera house. The image of it was burned onto my corneas, and no matter where I looked it came back to me. I thought, and thought.
“As far as I can tell,” I said slowly, “there are only two options: she is dead, or she is alive. If she is dead,” I continued, “then there seems little point in the charade that we witnessed tonight. If she is alive…” I trailed off. “To be honest, I cannot see what can be gained from that scenario, either. If she is alive, then either she is in a condition to perform and did not want to, or she is not in a condition to perform – in which case, why bother with the act? Consorts of royalty have often been quite retiring, private individuals.
“So,” I concluded, still speaking what felt like damnably slow English, “I think that she is probably alive. And that she is probably not in a condition to perform. And that Prince Franz would like very much for the public – the nobility, at least – to believe that this is not the case. But I must tell you, Holmes, that I cannot for the life of me see why.”
His eyes were fairly glowing as he watched me, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
“You cannot see why,” he said, with an incredible intensity, “because you are human, and they are not.”
I stared back at him. I was not sure whether I understood him not at all or utterly, with every fiber of my being. This was my typical predicament with regards to Sherlock Holmes. His eyes faded back to their usual shade of grey, and he slouched back in his seat as he turned toward the fire.
“I wonder if she is perhaps in need of a doctor,” he mused, and puffed on his pipe.
To this day I do not know how he managed it, but a week later I was standing in the entrance hall of the temporary residence of Prince Franz Drago of Bohemia, waiting to be admitted to Miss Irene Adler’s private quarters. The Prince himself was on a day-long expedition with several members of the English royal family. Holmes had assured me that there was no chance of his returning for the duration of my time there.
“You are Doctor William Shading,” Holmes had told me that morning, in the midst of remaking me as a black- and curly-haired man who was some two inches taller and ten pounds heavier than I was naturally, and who sported spectacles and a disfiguring scar across his left cheek. (“A remnant,” Holmes had explained to me, “of your time in Afghanistan.”) “You are a dreadfully boring sort of person, and graduated from the University of Nottingham. You have excellent references from ladies in all quarters of the nobility and the Prince has requested your medical services this afternoon for Miss Adler. Above all things, Doctor, you must not betray the slightest hint of interest in the affairs of the royal family, especially not Miss Adler herself. This is crucial,” he had said, looking as serious as he ever had, and I assured him that I was more than capable of the task.
“Miss Adler is ready to see you now, sir,” the butler said, and led me through a series of winding corridors into a high-ceilinged room furnished luxuriously. But I paid little attention to my surroundings once my eyes had lit upon her: Irene Adler, the contralto.
Holmes had told me that the woman who had sung in her place on the second of April had been her physical double. That woman had been buxom, radiant, healthy. The woman sitting before me on the little settee was none of these things. She was a specter, and nothing more. Her cheekbones, high and refined as they were, plunged outward from her face in a manner that was almost grotesque, and below them her cheeks curved violently inward. Her shoulders were frail and I thought I could have encircled her waist with my two hands and had room to spare. Her thick black hair was lank, even pinned up as it was, but the most horrible thing was her eyes: they were, I saw, a startlingly cool shade of blue, and they seemed to me to be utterly vacant.
“Good afternoon, madam,” I said in my blandly clinical tone. I had remained in school long enough to learn that, at least. In reality, I had remained in school long enough to learn most of what one needs to be a doctor, and I had forgotten little of it. “I am Doctor William Shading. It is my pleasure to be at your service.” And I made a fusty little bow, holding my Gladstone bag stiffly in front of me. She hardly reacted.
“Good afternoon, Doctor,” she replied after an uncomfortably long pause. She was, to my surprise, American. “The Prince, if I understand, has requested your services.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I told her. “I was not given any more details than that, ma’am.”
Her eyes moved slowly to the butler, who was standing inside the door, watching us. “If you wouldn’t mind, Hector,” she said with a voice that sounded like exhaustion, and he turned smartly around
, but did not leave the room.
She looked back at me, and though her eyes were sharper than they had been moments before, there was still something sluggish about her mannerisms. She stood up and reached behind her to unbutton her dress. There was no ladies maid around, but she managed perfectly well on her own. Once she had finished, she pulled the fabric forward and let it fall to the ground without a care for the garment itself. Her undergarments went equally quickly. I was acutely aware of the butler standing behind us. Her breasts were nearly flat and I could see her ribs carved out of her torso individually. Faint blue veins pulsed along her skin. Then she turned around.
I would be lying if I said I did not make a sound when I saw her back. I did: the smallest, quietest gasp. There was a veritable network of scars covering her flesh, but these were not the kind of scars that I had seen before; these held no resemblance to my damaged thigh. They were greenish, and they were scars, but they looked tender and recent. They spread out cruelly from the base of her spine and though I knew abstractly what had put them there, I could not fully imagine or comprehend it. I reached out one slow hand and touched the bottom of one, gently, and she flinched horribly.
She looked at me over her shoulder. “Prince Franz is concerned, Doctor,” she said, voice deadened, “that I might be suffering some level of discomfort.”
I looked into her eyes, and we understood each other.
I snapped open my Gladstone bag and wrote down the name of the strongest soothing cream that I knew. “This should help,” I told her, even though we both knew that it would not. “I have heard it is the commonest recommendation of Stephen Harrington,” I continued, “a physician whom I hold in the highest regard, and who specializes in diagnosing unusual medical conditions. He is, I believe, truly singular in his field, and if I recall correctly it was he who discovered the original formula for this solution. Truly a great mind, has Harrington.”
Her eyes never changed once during my little speech, but her skeletal fingers clutched briefly at my own far healthier digits for a moment when I handed her the slip of paper. “Other than that, I’m afraid,” I told her, “I cannot suggest anything more. They seem to be purely superficial, so any ingested medicine would do little good.”
“I understand, Doctor,” she said. “I will have someone see about this cream you have recommended.” She pulled her underclothes back on, carefully lacing the corset, and I thought of how she had reacted when I touched her and wondered what it must feel like to have the stiff fabric and boning pressed against her back all the day. Once she had buttoned the last button on her dress, she sat back down and held her hand out to me. I bowed over it, stiffly, and turned to the door.
“Hector,” she said, sounding tired. “Here.” She held out the slip of paper, and the butler moved swiftly from the door to take it from her and tuck it into one of the inner pockets of his jacket. “I believe the good doctor has finished his business here today.”
“Ma’am,” I said, nodding at her, and allowed myself to be led out of the room. I looked over my shoulder at her once when we had reached the door, and she seemed tiny in the enormous chamber, an emaciated collection of bones held together with little more than stiff undergarments and animal determination. Then the door closed behind us, and she was gone.
I am proud to say that I made it all the way back to the rooms I shared with Holmes without betraying an ounce of what I felt about what I had seen. Indeed, I had even closed the door behind me and stood there for a moment before I began to shake.
“Watson?” Holmes asked, and vaguely I was aware that his voice sounded unusual, strained, perhaps even worried – I was, I knew, the more stable of the two of us, and not prone to moments of such emotion and shock. But I could not look at him; I could not even hear him properly. I was looking still at the long, grotesque scars on Irene Adler’s back; I was touching them; I was watching the spasm on her face when I did. I became aware, after a few moments, that I had slid to the ground, legs splayed unbecomingly in front of me, and that my injured leg had not appreciated this particular action. Holmes had taken the wig off and was busy unbuttoning my waistcoat to remove the careful layer of padding he had placed therein, but I still was not looking at him. I was looking at the skin stretched like paper over her ribs, and how I imagined I could fit my fingers easily in the gaps between them. “Watson,” Holmes said again, and tilted my head back to look into my eyes. “Good god, man, answer me,” he said, and I detected this time a distinct note of distress in his voice. I blinked
, once, and then twice, and then once more, and he swam slowly into focus.
“Holmes,” I said dumbly.
“Yes, yes,” he replied. “Whatever is it? What have they done to you there?”
I shook my head quickly and took a deep breath. “No – they have done nothing, nothing. It is not that.”
He rocked back on his heels. He was crouched in front of me and did not look reassured.
“I promise you,” I said with a sigh. “I… I saw her, Holmes. Irene Adler. She was…” I trailed off. I did not know what words to use to describe her. “I have never seen anything like it.”
“How did she look?” he asked tensely.
“She looked like she was dying,” I told him, honestly. “She looked like she was beyond the point of dying, in fact. She looked like she died some time ago. She was… her ribs, Holmes, if you had seen her ribs. Or her face. I think there was not a single ounce of fat on her. And her back… she had the most terrible scars. Scars like I have never seen. They were practically festering, I – I do not know – I cannot – I –” I could feel myself losing track of my voice once again, losing track of my mind, and I shuddered convulsively. Holmes put his hand on the back of my neck and pressed me against him, and I breathed in the slightly noxious smell of him (stage makeup, pipe smoke, chemicals I did not recognize) until my heartbeat had returned to its normal speed. It was an unprecedented movement on his part, especially the way that he let his chin rest against my head as I slowly returned to myself, but in fairness my behavior was equally unprecedented. I realized when my breathing steadied that my right hand was fisted in his shirt, and let it go.
“She knows about you,” I said finally, into his chest, and he stiffened. “I could not stop myself from telling her. Do not worry,” I added quickly, for the hand that was still on my neck had begun to grip me quite uncomfortably. “Not in so many words. She is exceptionally clever, that woman.” His hand relaxed, but he was still tense.
“I had to,” I said quietly. “I had to help her, but I did not know how.”
“I know the feeling,” he said.
So it was that we found ourselves on the roof of the Prince of Bohemia’s residence in London several nights later, me keeping watch while Holmes pried open the trapdoor that could conveniently be found there. “Royalty,” he had said with no small measure of distaste. “They have always got a few extra ways out.”
We lowered ourselves silently into the attic, which was as black as pitch. “Now,” Holmes whispered, “the maid says that Miss Adler’s room is on the second floor, on the west side of the house, and that the door is painted blue. But she also assures me that the venerable lady spends no time in that room at night, which means she must be elsewhere in the house.”
“Right here, in fact,” said a hoarse voice, and I nearly swore. Holmes lit a match, and for the moments it burned we were presented with an utterly horrible tableau: Miss Adler’s emaciated, corpse-like body hung upon the wall facing us, fettered with chains. She was wearing nothing more than a dirty, white sheath of fabric, and her black hair hung nearly to her waist. Her hands, chained to the wall on either side of her head, hung limply from their bonds, and her eyes were as dead as they had been the first time I had seen her. The match went out, and we were plunged once again into darkness. Holmes lit another.
“Hello, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “It seems you have acquired a friend since I saw you last.”
“As have you, Miss Adler,” he replied, and she laughed: a hollow, haunting sound.
“I should rather have yours,” she told him, “if we are being forthright.”
“As should I,” he agreed. Her lips twisted into a humorless smile before Holmes’ match burned out a second time.
“It is somewhat comforting, you know,” she said, voice emanating like a nightmare from the darkness. “The knowledge I have now that you, too, are afraid.”
“Anyone in the world with any measure of sense is afraid,” he told her, almost sternly.
“But you are not anyone, Detective,” Adler said. “And neither, would I imagine, is your doctor. Are you a doctor, Mr. Shading? Or are you something else?”
“Something else entirely,” Holmes answered for me. “That I can assure you.”
“You seemed like a doctor,” she said, almost thoughtfully. “I am losing my sense, I see now.”
“I was almost a doctor,” I told her.
“And our mutual friend Sherlock Holmes almost a hero,” she said, voice replete with black humor. “Of course, of course: none of us is exactly what he wishes to be.”
Light flared again. Holmes held up the match to look at her properly.
“There is not much you can do, I am afraid,” she said to him, and her voice was not kind but it was the closest I had heard it come to kindness. “I doubt seriously that even you could liberate me from these chains, and if you did they would merely find me again. My lot in life has been cast. Someday my name will be an inconsequential note in the history books, and no-body shall know the truth of my life. That will be my own little secret.” Her face was hardly human anymore. It saddened me deeply, to the very core of my being, to see it. I imagined her before; I imagined what had been destroyed forever. She would have been a very beautiful woman.
“Now you had better go,” she finished, once the match had burned out again. “I would not be you, here, for very much longer.”
Holmes did not move. “I hope I shall be able to prove you wrong,” he said eventually.
“You have once already,” she told him, “by your very existence. I do not think it shall be twice.”
There was a series of creaks from the floor below that signified someone walking about.
“Go now,” she hissed, “unless you should like to die tonight. I should not think that would be the case.”
Holmes grabbed my elbow rather roughly and turned us back in the direction from whence we had come. There was the faintest trace of starlight falling to the ground from the open door and I raised him up to it. He grabbed the sides and swung himself easily upward before turning around and pulling me up in turn. He was hardly breathing heavily when we closed the trapdoor once again
, and locked it. He looked, instead, as though he could have run the entire perimeter of London. He looked, I thought, more alive than I had ever seen him, and with a deadly sense of purpose in his eyes.
“I think, my boy,” he said to me, “that we had better go home, and that I had better explain some things to you.”
An hour or so later we were back in our digs, and Sherlock Holmes had spread an almost impossibly large map of Prague across the table. On it were small red dots, with black numbers written next to them. There were many of them, these little red markings.
“What do they signify?” I asked. He was fairly buzzing with energy.
“These,” he said, with the distinct air of a dramatist, “are the locations from which women – girls, many of them – have disappeared from the capital of Bohemia in the last five years. For the most part their bodies were never found, but in some cases they were recovered. The details of these cases are, needless to say, hardly common knowledge.” His face was utterly black. “The remnants are… repulsive. There is not a word that I know of in the English language that adequately describes the horror of what the Prince of Bohemia – for now I know as surely as I know my own name that it is he who is responsible for these disappearances, and not one of his brothers, or his father – does to these poor young women. They are made mad, and their bodies are pillaged. Man is a cruel creature, Watson, as I believe you well know; I have little faith in his ability to do good, or choose to sacrifice his own well-being for the moral good. But compared to the creatures that run our countries, we humans are angels.”
“I believe you,” I told him, for I did. “But then – what of Miss Adler? What purpose does she serve? What has he done to her? You did not… you did not see her back,” I said hesitantly. “It was… unlike anything I have seen. Long, twisted scars – but they did not look like any scars I have seen, in all my life. And I was years at medical school.”
He gazed down at the map. “I do not know,” he said honestly. “I believe that she angered him, and that he is even now punishing her. Or perhaps he merely takes pleasure in it. I cannot begin to fathom his mind.”
“Indeed,” I murmured. “But, Holmes – she did not seem mad to me. Not on either occasion that I saw her. Traumatized, certainly, mentally and physically. But hardly mad.”
He paused for a moment. “She is an exceptional woman,” he said simply, and I raised my eyebrows at him. “Oh, do not be ridiculous,” he scoffed. “I hardly know her better than you do, I swear to you. I had only met her once before tonight. But you will agree, I am sure, that her exceptionalism is immediately apparent.”
“I think she has learned to hide it away,” I said, rather sadly, and looked back at the map. “How do you have this, Holmes?” I asked.
He shrugged. “A Bohemian friend of mine left it for me when we were in Vienna last month,” he said, for we had indeed been recently on the continent with the Players. They had played in several cities, cities with which I was largely acquainted, and heads of royalty had supposedly been in attendance at the performances, though I had never caught so much as glimpse of one. They had kept firmly in the shadows, unlike Prince Franz Drago, whose brief seconds in the light of the Royal Opera were still burnt upon my brain. I could not quite decide how it felt to know that Holmes had acquired this utterly without my knowledge. He was watching me as I stared at the little red dots scattered over Prague. I had never been to that city. I was glad.
“What do you plan to do?” I asked him.
He looked somewhat surprised. “How do you know that I plan to do anything?”
I shrugged. “I know you,” I said simply. He wore a guarded look that I was not used to, and I found myself wondering how much of this business he had managed to keep hidden from me the past two years. Upon reflection, I thought it was probably not so very much: there was a difference, after all, in receiving occasional documents and taking concrete action against the monarchy.
He thought for a long minute. “I would like to kill the Prince of Bohemia,” he said eventually. “I am not sure how, yet.”
“How did you become involved in this?” I asked him once I had taken his statement in. I meant the entirety of it, of anarchy.
He shrugged, as if to say, No matter, but I knew that there was something he did not want to tell me. “Someday I would like to know,” I said, and he winced a little. He did not like being found out.
“But first,” I said, and heard in my voice a measure of steel I had never known it to possess, “I would like to help you. And if possible, to put the knife in him myself.”
I did not think I had ever seen Sherlock Holmes so startled. He appeared to be genuinely shocked.
And then he smiled, and it was such a predatory expression that I thought there should be no creature in New Albion or indeed upon the entire earth more fearful for his life than Franz Drago.
In the end it was shockingly easy, but I did not wonder at the fact that no-one had endeavored to do the same earlier. It was, as I said, easy, but it was also deeply, intensely dangerous. I did not allow myself to think of what might happen in the event of our failure. I had no desire to dull my resolve.
The Strand Players, having found themselves in the strange position of possessing a certain cultural cache, extended an invitation to the Prince to attend their Saturday evening performance, which would be followed by a private entertainment. The Players had not lost their distinctly underground flavor, after all. Holmes himself spoke with one of the Prince’s attendants. I believe he even selected a young woman – a real young woman, I mean – who would, he assured them, be waiting for the Prince in a private apartment in Shoreditch.
“Where you,” he told me the night before, for what felt like the hundredth time, eyes dark and frenzied from the cocaine he had injected into his arm twenty minutes previously, “will be waiting to take care of him. I will make George take my part in the final piece, and transform myself into His Royal Highness’ trusty carriage-driver. Alternative entertainment has been provided for his bodyguard – and,” he added, snorting derisively, “I can assure you that they are not of the variety that he would want gracing the front of the evening paper. So: it shall be only the three of us. You have the knives?”
I nodded, and spread them out on the table in front of him. There were four, of varying sizes. I did not think I would need more than the one, but I was nothing if not conscientious.
“Excellent,” he said. “Remember, you must be efficient. But, as far as I am concerned, the more he suffers, the better.”
“I am in complete agreement with you on that point.”
He grinned, almost wildly. He is a rather different man under the influence of his seven-percent solution. I do not know the origins of his addiction, but I suspect that it began in the wake of his staged death, in order to compensate for the person he had lost. Over the years I had grown to understand how thoroughly Sherlock Holmes had died at the falls, how thoroughly he had been forced to eradicate all traces of himself from the person who remained. Had we not chanced upon each other that day, I do not know what he should have done: found somebody else in whom to confide, I suppose, but who knows what kind of man that person would have been. And really, “confide” is the wrong word; he did not confide in me. In fact, he made every effort to keep the details of his life before Reichenbach private, though he had had varying degrees of success in that respect. It was more that he allowed himself to be a detective once more when we were alone. He unfurled his enormous deductive ability and allowed his rationality to take full hold of him whenever he chose. It was, I believe, a great relief for him to do this. I understood: I, too, was hiding something great and terrible about myself, something I could not allow even Holmes to know, and though I had long borne the weight of secrecy
, it never ceased to wear on me. I was glad he did not share such a heavy burden.
The night of the performance I arrived more than early at the Shoreditch bedsit, and there I waited as the darkness of the night became complete
, and the rain increased from an unpleasant drizzle to a veritable torrent. I checked my watch again, and again, and again, and I waited for murder to arrive at my door.
When the knock came, I did not start. I got up calmly and opened the door, smiling amiably at Holmes and the shadow of Franz Drago. “Good evening, gentlemen,” I said mildly
, and closed the door behind them. The Prince stepped into the light.
He was truly monstrous, I thought distantly as I looked at him. The limbs were all wrong, and some of them were even tentacular. His eyes were beady – they reminded me of a rat’s, or perhaps an insect’s – yes, he was much more like an insect – and the entire shape of his body was incorrect. I experienced no feeling of nerves as I walked forward, smiling pleasantly at him, and drove the long knife I had concealed in my jacket into his chest.
He made a horrible noise and lurched forward, as if to retaliate, but before he could complete the movement Holmes was behind him, restraining him – I was glad he was wearing gloves – there was a cold-blooded expression on his face that I imagined was mirrored on my own – and I plunged the knife in again, drawing it upwards this time. Emerald-colored blood spilled liberally from the wound. I looked into his face, which was marred by utter terror, and felt no sympathy. I thought, instead, of the terrible sight of Irene Adler chained to the wall, and of the unsettling scars festering across her back, which I was now certain had been caused by the tentacle-like limbs that sprouted out of him like a strange fungus. I dragged the knife in the other direction and he shrieked with even more agony, and I silently thanked London for being the noisiest city I had yet known, and the one most likely to ignore the cries of a dying man in the night. I thanked, too, the rain. It thundered down upon the roof, and the street, and it would, I knew, wash the blood away from our feet when we left.
Then I drew the blade across his neck, and he was dead.
We were both, I realized as Holmes let him fall the floor, breathing heavily. Blood spread slowly away from the corpse. I appreciated for the first time its unnatural color.
Holmes lit his pipe.
Now that he was dead, I was free to inspect his features at length. I do not wish to describe them in any great detail. They were repulsive. Everything about him, I thought, was repulsive. I could hardly conceive of the existence of so grotesque a being: but here he was. And I had killed him. A small thrill went through me.
Holmes puffed for a few minutes, contemplatively, before tapping the ash into the fireplace. Then he returned to the body, and dipped his finger into the blood before walking back to the wall. He wrote something that I could not decipher from so far away, so I got up and walked over to him. RACHE, it said.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
He looked at his work. “It is the German word for revenge.”
We extinguished the lights and closed the door behind us as we left.
We sat on the banks of the Thames the following morning, smoking as the sun rose over London. Holmes was puffing away at his pipe, as he does, and I had my cigarettes. The Prince’s blood was speckled over our pant legs but, as I had predicted, the rain had washed it off of our shoes. There was mist over the river, and everything stank in the way that only London does in the mornings.
“I am what they call a Restorationist,” Holmes said eventually. “We believe in a human democracy, such has not been seen since ancient Greece. This is the first time in recent memory that we have succeeded in assassinating someone of the blood royal on the soil of New Albion.
“I do not expect you to follow me down this path,” he continued, gazing out over the river. “For you, this was nothing but an act of revenge. There were no politics. For me, it was both. And it will continue to be both, for the rest of my days. This is the task to which I have dedicated my life. For the past two years we have done little, but there is a gathering in the waters. There will be blood, my dear fellow. It is an inevitability. Blood of scarlet and emerald both.” He paused and looked at me. “I will hardly be offended, you know, if you choose the path of complicity. It is one I traveled for many years.”
“I am not leaving you now,” I said. “It is no longer a choice.”
His eyes gleamed strangely for a moment before he looked back at the river. “It relieves me greatly to hear that, my boy,” he said quietly. “I would be nowhere without you, I think.”
“Holmes,” I said a few moments later, “there is… there is just one thing I would like for you to tell me.”
“Anything,” he said, and I thought he meant it.
“I have asked it of you already: I would like to know why you are doing this. Do not say that you do it because you believe it is right. I know this to be true. But men who act politically never start there. They start with acts of simple revenge. They act because they have seen a woman chained up in the attic, waiting to die.”
He looked startled, and I was for a moment reminded powerfully of how he had appeared that first night, when I had saved his life the first time. Any mask he wore had vanished.
“I had a brother,” he said frankly, some minutes later. “His name was Mycroft. He was quite a bit older than I was, six or seven years. He used to introduce me as Sherlock, the only man on earth with a name worse than his own.” He smiled faintly. “I did not appreciate it.
“He was an extraordinarily intelligent man, my brother. He was far more intelligent than I am – no,” he protested
, when I snorted. “I mean that in all seriousness. His mind was as unfathomable to me as my own is to most everyone I know.” I could not help smiling at the glimmers of his arrogance gleaming through his story; it was, truly, an unquenchable force. “He understood quite well what the monarchy was but he did nothing about it; he was not a confrontational being. He wanted to keep to his own business, on the family estate. But he was not cautious enough about speaking his opinion, and his opinions – even without actions – were quite damning. They killed him in… in the most horrific fashion I have seen yet. I will not speak of it. But suffice to say that his body was left on the path leading up to our house, and I – I was only fifteen, then – stumbled upon it the next morning. I had… I had never seen anything like it,” he said quietly. “Never in my life. And from then on I knew that I had two purposes: to dedicate myself to the study of crime, and to eradicate the powers in charge that had made such a heinous act typical.
“For many years, I focused primarily on the former. I was very young; I was afraid. I admit it freely. But the more I learned about this city and about its men and women who make a practice of breaking the law, the more I felt that I could no longer stand idly by. And so I began to subvert the authorities with whom I worked. Eventually they realized, and I knew that my time as Sherlock Holmes was inevitably finished. I went to Germany, and I died, and when I came back I could no longer pursue my first interest and was too terrified to take up arms in service of the second.
“I am not afraid anymore,” he said, and there was steel in his tone. “Now, I am merely determined.”
I thought he was the noblest man I knew. The sun lit into his grey eyes and they almost shone in the morning light. For two years I had known my purpose was to protect him, and not known why; now, I had a reason that his survival was more important than my potential death.
In that moment I wanted very badly to tell him my secret, to reveal to him that one great thing that had forever separated us. But I did not do so. Instead I smiled at him, I think as honestly as I am capable of smiling, and he smiled back at me, fairly blazing in the sunlight.
My friend stood in front of the windows of our lodgings at 221B Baker Street, looking down on the road with his hands clasped behind his back. I was reading the paper, or rather pretending to read the paper, and instead watching him.
It had been some months since the murder of the Prince of Bohemia, and ever since his failure to apprehend the mysterious Sherry Vernet and his accomplice – James Wilson, or was it Watson? – he had been somewhat more mercurial than he had before that incident – although, in fairness, I had not known him for very long at that time. I had, however, assisted him on several cases in the intervening period, and had evidence enough to conclude that he was never incorrect, never bested. His one failure, then, must have worn on him greatly. Indeed, I would have wagered that today was a day marred by thoughts of Vernet: the set of his shoulders was particularly tense, and he looked altogether quite drawn.
I looked down at the article I had been trying to read, which gave some rather insufficient details on the circumstances of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. These were indeed black days, I thought. I was still not fully recovered from my time in Afghanistan – maybe I would never be truly recovered. Senseless violence is repulsive to me. I thought again of Franz Drago’s body on the floor in the Shoreditch bedsit, and shuddered. It seemed these demons in my past would be with me forever, lingering somewhere within me, waiting to emerge at the merest sign. It was a weakness I despised in myself, and the only one over which I had no power.
“An envoy of Her Majesty has arrived for us,” my friend told me, and for once I did not have to ask how he knew – his careful, often condescending explanations never ceased to amaze and fascinate me – for he was already at the window.
Instead, I asked, “Were you expecting them?”
“A guess,” he said. “Nothing more.”
My friend’s guesses were better than most people’s reasoned conclusions.
When the messenger knocked on the door a few moments later, we were both prepared to depart. To his credit, he did little more than blink as my friend walked directly past him. I sent him a rather hopeless smile and followed.
It was, in fact, Prince Albert who had requested our presence, not the Queen herself. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I felt relief at the pronouncement. I knew, of course, that I should not have remained as fearful as I was towards Her Majesty – she had, after all, done much to help me, and I had no evidence of any sort to hold against her character – but I could not quite help myself. She was an intimidating creature. My friend, I knew, shared my apprehensions not at all. Sometimes I thought, rather dryly, that he preferred non-human contact. He was often very fed up with everybody around him. I did not know exactly how I had managed to avoid being classified as one of these trying beings whom he found so frustrating. I was no match for him intellectually, of course, and he made it occasionally very clear that he was aware of this; but in general he did not condescend to me, and seemed to genuinely value my opinion on certain matters. I will not lie and say that I was not flattered by this; on the contrary, his distinction of me flattered me deeply. It served as a frequent reminder that I had a measure of worth in the world. There was little else in my life to suggest that this was the case.
We were shown promptly into the Prince’s study, the opulence of which I do not think I could adequately describe. The Prince himself, as I remembered from our first meeting, was a rather unpleasant sort of chap: once again, he did not bother to greet us
, or shake our hands, choosing instead to merely wave his hand almost dismissively at the two ornate chairs placed across from his desk, in which we were presumably supposed to sit.
“Your Royal Highness,” my friend murmured politely before bowing slightly and then sitting down. I followed suit.
“Now,” he continued, crossing his legs in front of him. “I imagine you have a request to make of us.”
“Of you, Mr. Moriarty,” he said with a slight sneer. I was only moderately offended: after all, between the two of us my friend was clearly the valuable one.
“Ah, but we come as a pair,” he replied calmly. “I can assure you that without the aid of my companion I would be of considerably less use to you.”
Prince Albert and I seemed to share a similar opinion about the veracity of that statement, for he looked as skeptical as I felt.
“Of course,” he answered sarcastically. His German accent was as prominent as ever. “In any event,” he continued, “the reason I have asked you here is the… unfortunate incident in Russia. We are afraid, you see, for Her Majesty’s… safety.”
“Who, if I may presume to ask, is this ‘we’?” my friend inquired, and the Prince shifted uncomfortably.
“Me,” he answered, “and… Her Majesty herself.”
“I see,” said my friend.
“There has been,” he admitted, “a… a restlessness, these past months. Ever since… ever since the last incident you were called upon to resolve, Mr. Moriarty. And now, with the fall of the Tsar… well, you understand that there is some… concern.”
“The people,” Prince Albert said harshly, “can be very stupid about royalty, as I am sure you know.”
“I have observed it,” my friend said seriously, “on several occasions.”
“Yes,” the Prince murmured, looking at something in front of him that did not seem to be physically present.
“The men, you know, who dealt so… unpleasantly… with Franz are still at large,” he pointed out, and I saw my friend physically flinch. “Who knows who else we could have missed – could still miss. You will be our… eyes and ears, that is the expression? Yes. Eyes and ears… on the streets.”
“Of course,” my friend said, and stood up. I did the same. “Have you any more specific instructions?”
“No,” Prince Albert told him. “You have, of course, the entire police force at your disposal.”
“Noted,” said my friend, who made a little bow and turned smartly around to walk out of the room.
“The entirety of the London police force would be of less use to me than a mongrel dog, and quite possibly less reliable,” he snarled when we had returned to the carriage waiting to take us home, and said nothing more for the rest of the drive.
When I awoke the next morning it was immediately clear that my friend had quit our digs at Baker Street, and so I settled down to breakfast alone with the paper. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by his absence; I should have liked to accompany him on whatever errand he had chosen to run. I knew, of course, that there were certain things he did much more efficiently without me present – and, if I were being honest with myself, that in nearly all cases I was not truly helpful, even if I managed not to hinder his efforts. But finding myself alone in Baker Street on a Tuesday morning was nevertheless disappointing.
He returned in the early afternoon in the garb of an elderly mariner, and nodded curtly to me before vanishing into his room. I was still amazed by his ability to so transform himself: when he returned some minutes later looking utterly like himself, I confess I stared a moment before returning to myself.
“Good afternoon, my dear fellow,” he said as he sat down at the table with me, pouring himself a cup of tea. “I have had quite a morning.”
“Really?” I asked, and endeavored not to make my eagerness to hear the details of his excursion too apparent.
From the manner in which his eyes sparkled when he looked back up at me, I saw that I had failed. But I had little time to lament my transparency, for he was soon speaking again.
“Rebellion,” he began, “is a strange and complex thing, my friend: it is not limited to the killing of important personages, as I am sure you are aware. No – rebellion – revolution, they would have it – is a many-layered thing. One cannot take the hour hand off of a clock and expect the entire mechanism to stop running. It will be, admittedly, very difficult to continue to keep time using the thing; but the point is, it is not entirely dismantled. If the men who call themselves Restorationists wish to accomplish true revolt they cannot merely kill the Prince of Bohemia, or even Her Majesty the Queen. They cannot be the outliers of society. Do you understand? They must have some measure of public support, and preferably a strong one.”
“I see what you mean,” I said. “But what has that got to do with whatever you were doing this morning?”
He reached into his waistcoat and pulled out what looked like a penny newspaper with a distinctly dramatic flair. “Have a look,” he told me, and handed it over.
THE LONDON EYE, announced the masthead. There was a rather sensational drawing of an unsettling creature splashed across the top of the page.
“Whatever is it?” I asked.
“The official journal of the rebellion,” he said. “You will find all manner of drivel in those pages, I assure you. I have read through it and there is little indication of the men behind it – but it is certain that they are connected to the men who are responsible for Prince Franz’s death, if not those men themselves. It will take considerable time to find them – of that I am sure – but, my boy, I do believe that this is the first step.” He smiled at me quite sincerely, and set into his now very cold breakfast with a vengeance.
That afternoon my friend was largely occupied with a jewel heist, though he did not need to leave our digs to solve it. Normally this circumstance was of utmost annoyance to him, but not today. He was still, I perceived, somewhat flush from his victory of the morning. I, too, dwelled on what I had read in the paper he had brought home with him: The London Eye. There had been atrocities described therein, as well as passionate declarations of the importance of liberty
, and equality for all men. It was indeed seditionary nonsense, to use one of my friend’s turns of phrase. But I could not quite let it out of my mind: it lingered there, at the corners of my thoughts, and in the pit of my stomach.
“What do you plan to do?” I asked him that evening. We were sitting in front of the fire, which crackled and popped cheerfully.
He did not respond for a long moment. “I am not entirely sure,” he said eventually. “They are exceedingly clever, these men. They have left nearly no trace behind them to follow; and, as you know, there is no one more adept than I at finding traces lost in the darkness. I have over the past several months made what feels like an infinite number of inquiries into that Sherry Vernet, but there appears to be no trace of him anywhere. It is as though he does not exist, has never existed. And yet I know this to be false.
“Where,” he murmured, and I knew that he was talking entirely to himself then, “where does a person come from, who does not exist? And where does he go?” He said nothing more for several minutes, and though I wished I could say something helpful I had little idea of what it was he meant.
“But in any case,” he announced eventually, “all is far from lost. We have this, after all,” he said, holding up the copy he had found of The London Eye. “And it, I imagine, will be helpful indeed.”
“I hope so,” I told him sincerely, and we did not speak any more of it that evening.
“A revolution,” Holmes was explaining to me, rather wildly as he made his manic way through the makeshift print shop he had had set up, “often starts with an assassination – but trust me, my dear boy, it can hardly continue on death alone. Hope is essential, I have found, for men of any condition, but especially to those engaged in treason. Otherwise, they have little motivation to commit treason in the first place, barring purely self-destructive tendencies. It is good to have a few men like that lying around, I must tell you – but they do not do at all for the majority.” I peered at the test sheet that Matheson had printed – Matheson was the brother of one of the Strand Players with whom Holmes had been friendly for some time, and whose skill with the printing press was very nearly invaluable – and could not help but be impressed. The page itself was gibberish, but the quality was very good. It was passable, I thought, as a real paper: and, I supposed, it would be. The idea was somewhat staggering.
“Yes,” Holmes mused, mostly to himself. “I do not shy away from violence, Watson – as you know – but violence is not all. Man, after all, is an intellectual creature at his core.”
“Well,” I said after a moment, looking around. “It is certainly very impressive, Holmes. How often will it circulate?”
“Once a week,” he said promptly. “Sundays, I believe. The police force is horrifically lazy on Sundays – more so than usual, I mean.”
“What shall it be called?”
“Ah,” he said, and smiled. “That I have not yet decided.”
“It should have London in the name,” I told him. “That will lend it an air of legitimacy.”
“Yes,” he mused, “I quite agree. The London… something, I should think.”
“The London Watch?” I suggested. “It is, after all, the purported purpose of the paper – is it not? To watch for things that the authorities do not want seen.”
He remained silent for a moment, thinking hard. Then it came to him. “The London Eye,” he said definitively. “It shall be called The London Eye.”
“And Matheson will be running all of this?”
“Matheson and Grey,” Holmes told me. “Grey is an old friend. I have done my research on him; he seems trustworthy.”
“Well,” I said. “It is really very impressive. I applaud you.”
“It is Matheson’s doing, not my own,” he said. My friend Sherlock Holmes was not modest but he very pointedly never took credit for things for which he did not feel wholly responsible. I supposed that Matheson must have put in quite a lot of work to make the studio possible: but I also knew that the germ of the idea had been Holmes’. It always was.
“Who shall write the articles?” I asked, and looked over at him. He had an expression on his face that had only ever appeared before on the face of a cat that had just eaten a canary.
“You do not mean that,” I protested before he had even said anything.
“Oh, do not be ridiculous, Watson,” he scoffed. “You, my boy, are thoroughly out of a job, and have exhibited a flair for sensationalism that is, quite frankly, overpowering at times. There is, as you well know, nothing the public likes more than the sensational. This paper is meant to be as largely factually accurate as possible, but to be perfectly frank with you that is not its ultimate goal. Its ultimate goal is to convince the largely ignorant masses that they are living in a kind of hellish prison. They know this already, of course, even if they do not admit it to themselves: it will be your job, my friend, to reveal to them that which they already know.”
“Holmes,” I protested weakly. “I have no experience with journalism whatsoever. I have no idea where I would even begin.”
“Begin,” he told me very seriously, “at the beginning. That is usually what I recommend.”
“That is patently unhelpful,” I told him rather churlishly.
“It is perfectly helpful,” he snapped. “The beginning is where all good stories commence. And do not act so self-deprecating all of the time, Watson; it is not flattering. You had no prior experience writing drama before two years ago, and everything you put down on paper – even the most wildly sensational drivel – was infinitely superior to everything we had been performing prior to your arrival. You know perfectly well that you are more than capable of doing this, and I will not hear a word otherwise.”
I stared at his back, for he had turned angrily around the instant he finished his little monologue
, and was stalking around the machinery. I had been perfectly honest with him; I really did not think I would have any skill for it, for newspaper writing. But I supposed I would have to develop some, and develop it quickly, for the printing press was ready and waiting , and Holmes would not take no for an answer.
Holmes, I thought with a long-suffering sigh, never took no for an answer.
Over the course of the next several weeks I sat nearly unmoving in our sitting room, writing furiously. Holmes went out every morning and came home every evening with more stories for me, and as much detail as he could manage. It made me nauseous, knowing that he was spending so much time alone in the London underbelly; he was hardly a stupid man, or an unobservant one – he was, in fact, the least stupid and least unobservant man I had ever had the good fortune of knowing – but his lack of concern for his own well-being was, frankly, staggering. On the occasions that I had saved his life in the past, the circumstances had almost always resulted from the man’s utter incapacity to look out for himself. It was an exhausting occupation, but I found that I preferred it greatly to the alternative, which was letting him run around by himself without my watchful eye.
The Saturday before the first distribution we stayed up most of the night printing. There were five of us: Matheson and Grey and another acquaintance of theirs, a man named Holland whose sister had vanished the previous year, and of course Holmes and myself. Holland had a gift for illustration and had contributed all of the drawings along with designing the masthead. I was exhausted by the time we had finished, and immensely proud, for I had written every word inside. I did not allow myself to consider the fact that the next day I would have to start all over again.
But I did, and so the cycle continued
, for week after week. I never slept so little as I did those first weeks of the Eye’s existence. I knew nothing of its distribution – that was the business of Matheson and Grey. Holmes occupied himself thoroughly with uncovering even the smallest detail of the crimes committed by members of the blood royal or their close associates. It was a mordant picture we were painting: never before had I truly understood the pervasive nature of death in London. Men killed each other, of course – this, I knew, was the way of the world – but I came to understand that far more men were killed by people, or creatures, intimately connected with the royal line. These deaths were never explicitly connected to Prince Albert, or the Queen, or any of their many underlings, but neither were they particularly well-disguised. Certainly, with someone like Holmes – and, really, Holmes was a singular being – looking into them, the lazy facades constructed to explain away murder crumbled instantly.
Then there were the missing women.
Suffice to say, the Prince of Bohemia was hardly the only member of the extended royal family whose proclivities were less than suitable for polite society. They were not even suited for impolite society; I had spent more time than I cared to admit in the company of those whom I had believed comprised the lowest of the low in cities across the continent, and even they would have been horrified by the kind of horrors perpetrated by the princes of the blood royal. Holmes had traced most of the incidents back to Prince Leopold, the most retiring of all of the Queen’s issue. I had practically forgotten his existence until Holmes reminded me. From what we could divine, he was not quite in the same league as his late cousin, but he was not far behind. We made this fact explicitly clear in our paper.
The articles focused on crime were balanced out by editorials explaining the basic inhumanity and inequality of the monarchy. I did not write these – no, they were all Holmes’ doing. His eloquence was sometimes staggering. There were far fewer of these than of my sensationalist crime pieces, but they were the real centerpieces of the Eye. They explained, after all, why it existed.
As the weeks passed I found myself believing more and more fervently in the cause in which I had found myself accidentally wrapped up. But the fever of rebellion never took me quite as it had taken Holmes so many years before. I knew, somewhere deep within me, that my motivation was more firmly rooted in my dedication to Holmes himself than in any kind of revolutionary fire. This did not bother me. One of us, after all, had to remain at least a little sane: and that, I knew perfectly well, would never be Holmes. I rolled my eyes at him when he expounded upon the various ways in which his brain was superior to the average man’s, but in truth it was different. Not, I thought, superior, but different.
Five weeks after the first printing of the Eye, we were rewarded with proof of its influence in the form of two new members of our circle.
The first came by way of Holland. Holland was the youngest of us at only twenty-four, had little to no money to call his own, and kept the company of rebels and anarchists both. Within a week and a half of our first printing, he told us, acquaintances of his were reading copies and sending them along to their friends. He never said much about it, though he was careful not to remain silent, either. He had, he assured us, been as unsuspicious as he believed himself capable.
Nevertheless, after some weeks one of his closer friends confronted him with the most recent edition, told him he knew perfectly well who was responsible for the drawings, and demanded to be brought to the next meeting.
Holland was responsible, and said no, but brought the name along to Holmes in case he wanted to investigate the situation further.
“Roderick Maclean,” Holmes said after he told us, testing it out. “And you’re quite sure you weren’t followed here?”
“Positive,” Holland told him. “He’s right clever, but I was paying extra attention.”
“You are a bright young man,” Holmes told him, “but I am afraid that either you are less observant than I had previously believed or your friend is rather cleverer than you give him credit for, because he has his ear pressed against the door at this very moment. He has been listening, I believe, for the past two minutes or so.”
I tried not to smile at the look on Holland’s face in the wake of this pronouncement.
“Mr. Maclean,” Holmes called out. “You are free to enter, if you so choose.”
“The door’s locked, sir,” a voice said through the wood.
“I will be considerably unimpressed with your ability if you are incapable of getting past that problem,” Holmes told him, and indeed, two minutes later the lock clicked open
, and the door swung forward.
“Welcome to the offices of The London Eye,” he said congenially as the young man walked in.
His appearance was quite startling: his hair was coal-black and curled gently against his brow, his eyes were a rare shade of green, and his features had that strange balance that makes a face truly beautiful. Holmes raised his eyebrows fractionally.
“Hello, then,” Maclean said casually. “You seem to know who I am already.”
“Indeed,” Holmes said, and crossed his arms.
“Well I suppose I had better tell you about myself, then,” he began calmly. “There’s not much to say. I come from Cardiff, as I’m sure you can tell, and I haven’t got any family left. I work for a gunsmith and I’m the best shot you’ll ever meet, I can guarantee you that much. I’d like to help you with whatever it is you’re doing here.”
“Why?” Holmes asked. His eyes were narrowed now, watching Maclean declare himself.
“Because I’ve been to the New World,” he said in the same monotonous tone, “and I’ve seen what it’s like there. It’s not like here. It doesn’t matter, you know, that they’re a protectorate of ours – and it doesn’t matter that there are monsters there, too. They haven’t got a queen like we do; they haven’t got princes, or kings. Do you know everybody in London is always afraid? I mean it – everybody. They’re not afraid over there. They take what they want and they can have it. I want to live like that.”
“Interesting,” was all that Holmes said, but something must have convinced him that the young man was trustworthy, for he did not send him away.
“Holmes,” I told him later that night, once we had gone home, “I do believe that boy was the most emotionless person I have ever met.”
“And here I thought you thought me cold,” he said lightly, but there was a strange undercurrent to his tone. I frowned.
“You are exceptionally rational,” I said, “sometimes to the point of folly. But my god, man, that Maclean fellow – he was like a machine. It was damned unsettling.”
“I know,” Holmes agreed. “I think he may be that rare person who acts purely out of belief, and not out of emotion. You, I know, do not believe in these people; I do – they are simply very rare. Roderick Maclean, I believe, is one.”
“Let us hope so,” I said with a sigh, “or else we are quite doomed.”
Late the next evening, while I was busy composing an article on a fifteen-year-old girl who had gone missing several days previously and Holmes was collapsed in a cocaine-induced fugue in his armchair, sleeve rolled up to display the sickening purple bruise that had blossomed in the crook of his arm, there was a knock at the door.
I startled so violently that I upended the little pot of ink that had been balanced on my writing board, spilling it all over my leg and the floor. Nobody had ever knocked on our door before. Holmes did not appear to have noticed anything. I reached under the chair and grabbed the loaded pistol that I kept hidden on the bottom of the seat. The person knocked again, and I decided in an instant that I would have to open the door. I walked slowly toward it, weapon ready, and cracked it open ever so slightly. I do not know what I was expecting, but it was not what I discovered.
“Hello, Mr. Shading,” Irene Adler said coolly. “May I come in?”
I must confess that I stared at her for at least a full minute before opening the door father, I was so surprised. In the light she looked moderately less emaciated than she had the last time we had met, but she was still little more than skin and bones. None of what I imagined had been her old beauty had returned to her; I suspected that it never would.
She drew off her little cape and lay it down carefully on the table, and went to stand before Holmes, who had still not noticed her presence. She waited patiently for several minutes for him to realize that there was for the first time a woman in his sitting room. Eventually he flopped his head around, and nearly jumped out of his seat when he saw her standing there, as still and silent as a shadow.
“Hello, Sherlock,” she said.
He said nothing for a moment, staring at her. I imagined taking his little bottles of seven-percent solution and dumping them ceremoniously into the Thames.
“Irene Adler,” he managed eventually.
“The very same,” she said. “I must confess that I am rather impressed you managed to recognize me.”
“You do not look so different from when I saw you last,” he said, with no small measure of confusion.
“I was referring more to your current mental state.”
“Ah,” he said. “I can understand that.”
She pursed her lips as she looked down at him, and then turned back to me. “I think, my dear doctor, that it would be perhaps more beneficial for me to speak to you at the moment.”
“I’m afraid I agree with you,” I told her.
“However did you find us?” Holmes asked from behind her. He had still not gotten out of his chair.
“I still do not know your name,” she said.
“John Watson,” I told her, and she reached out to shake my hand. It was a decidedly unwomanly action, which I found both surprising and refreshing. There was a cool masculinity to her entire person that distinguished her utterly from the rest of her sex, and though I have never had anything against women I found it appealing. She seemed to say exactly what she meant, as though her life had beaten decorum out of her. I supposed it had.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “I feel I was not at my best the past two times we encountered each other.”
“Nor I, I assure you.”
She snapped open her bag and held out the latest copy of the Eye to me. “I assume that the two of you are behind this.”
“Not exclusively,” I demurred. “But, yes.”
She glanced down at the paper. “If you wouldn’t mind indulging my curiosity – who is it writing the articles?”
“For the most part, me,” I told her. “Well, Holmes writes most of the pieces that are more… philosophical in nature.” I glanced over at him to see whether he was still conscious, and was relieved to see that he was merely staring intently at the back of Miss Adler’s head.
“There are several errors in the description of the Greenwood murder,” she said, turning to the appropriate page. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that she disappeared on the fifth, and not the sixth, and that there were some fairly incriminating footprints on the scene that the police were kind enough to deal with before the recording of any evidence.”
“How on earth do you know that?” Holmes asked, and she turned around to raise her eyebrows at him. I grit my teeth and thought perhaps that dumping his cocaine in the Thames would not be nearly severe enough an action. Dumping him in, perhaps, would be a more efficient solution to the problem.
“Your sense of decorum clearly suffers under the influence of whatever drug it is that you are taking,” she said coolly. “I begin to understand the company you keep. – Not you, Mr. Watson; I was referring to the… questionable element outside.”
“No harm done,” I told her.
“Gentlemen,” Miss Adler said, “I have come to you with a proposition. As I am sure you know,” she told us, extremely dryly, “Prince Franz is dead. As such, my station is… somewhat changed, as evidenced by my presence here tonight. I am currently living, however, in the royal residence.” Her lips twisted unpleasantly. “I believe that I have… seen too much, if you take my meaning, to be let utterly free.
“As you can see,” she continued, “I could easily escape them entirely if I were so inclined. However, I think I could be of considerably more use to you both if I refrain from doing so for the time being. I, gentlemen, am a woman: never was there a weaker creature, if you believe everything you hear, and I assure you, the royalty does that. Curious, is it not, that even under the reign of a female monarch – the most powerful monarch, indeed, in the world – we are still viewed with such derision? My point, in any event, is this: they do not think me capable of duplicity. I think they think me somewhat destroyed, in my mind. After all, all of Franz’s other conquests suffered that fate. But I am not typical of my race, gentlemen. And I would like to help you in any way that I can.”
Holmes’ eyes were narrowed and he seemed to be recovered slightly from the influence of the drug, although he was still slouched in his chair.
“I think,” he said eventually, very clearly, “that we will enjoy working together very much, Miss Adler.”
“Please,” she said with a predatory smile, “call me Irene.”
The November air was unseasonably cold as it whipped against our cheeks. We were staked out on a rooftop, watching people come and go from Prince Leopold’s residence. It mystified me still that Holmes seemed to have access to most of the rooftops in London, given the fact that his social network was severely limited. Being dead can do that to a person.
He was surprisingly calm today. In the past year he had slept so little I thought his very existence was almost impossible. The cocaine, of course, helped. He was doing the work of several capable men by himself, and I did not like it. But he did not trust other men to do what he did, and there were only seven of us whom he could trust. I thanked god that we were at least done with the Strand Players. If he had had to maintain being Sherry Vernet on top of all of the rest of it, I really do think he would have run himself to the edge of his existence.
The shining sun was doing nothing to abate the cold, but it at least meant that I could look out over London. The city seemed at once closer to and farther away from me than it ever had before: I felt that I was in some way protecting her by writing half of the articles in the Eye (Grey, thankfully, had picked up some of the slack) and by protecting Holmes, who was of course her great defender. But at the same time she seemed like only a specter, I saw so little of her. I spent my days cooped up in our digs, writing frantically, and when I did get outside I had nobody with whom to socialize save my conspirators; and with the exception of Holmes I endeavored not to be seen with them in public. They all had their lies to maintain. Only the two of us lived exclusively in the cause of rebellion. Nobody would miss us if we were gone, except each other.
“It is bloody cold today, Holmes,” I said eventually, just to say something.
“Indeed,” he agreed, burrowing his chin into his scarf. I thought for a moment of Vernet, as I had first met him: he had seemed immensely impressive to me then, and intimidating. I was always impressed by Holmes, and doubted that would ever change; I was no longer remotely intimidated by him. I had seen him at his worst.
His eyes glinted when they looked at me. He was sober, and that made me glad. I did not think I would have been capable of dealing with him otherwise, not today. Today was a black day. Today was the day my life had changed, so many years ago. I could not imagine what it would have been if it had continued on the path I had planned. I knew, objectively, the things I would have done: probably I would really have gone to Afghanistan; I would have had a practice if I had survived; I would perhaps have married out of necessity. But that was not my life. I could not see it. My life was Holmes now: writing seditious literature and trying to keep either of us from dying. We ran a very real risk, and I never forgot it.
“You know,” Holmes said, startling me out of my reverie, “you have never told me much of your youth.”
I shrugged. “There is not much to tell,” I admitted. “My childhood was utterly typical. My parents were unremarkable. They died when I was on the continent. Until my expulsion from Cambridge there was, I am afraid to tell you, nothing much about my life worth recounting.”
“So recount that,” he said.
“That was not so very interesting, either,” I told him. “I went to Europe because I was ashamed
, and because my father had disowned me, and I stayed there until I could not bear it any longer. My life was petty there: I learned how to steal – as you know – and became quite good at it, even. I got to know the vilest types of men, such as I had never had cause to know before. Nothing distinguishes those years from each other. They are like a vacuum in my memory, if you must know. I have endeavored to forget them.”
“Tell me of your childhood, then,” he said. “There must be some anecdote you can recall to relate to me.”
I blinked. “Well, you know I had a brother,” I said eventually. “He was older than I was – he was a terrible drunk. He drank himself to death, in fact, when he was only twenty-two. My childhood consisted mostly of him harassing me, and my father punishing him, and my mother comforting him after my father had punished him, and peace reigning for another day or so until he was at it again. It was never anything serious – he was not malicious, just attention-seeking. I was glad when he left home to go to Eton.”
“You have never, I suppose, desired children of your own,” he commented as he shoved his hands even further into his coat.
I laughed out loud. “No,” I told him, still chuckling; “no, I have never wanted children.”
He raised an eyebrow. “It is not so ludicrous a question, my dear fellow,” he pointed out, sounding vaguely amused.
“No,” I agreed. “It is not. But all the same: I have never had any desire to be a father.”
“Nor I,” he concurred, and I smiled.
“I could have guessed that, Holmes.”
His lips twitched. “I possess no qualities that make me an appropriate candidate for fatherhood. You, on the other hand, have every trait that a young woman should look for when selecting a father for her children.”
“Except,” I pointed out, “that I have murdered many men in cold blood, and live the life of an outlaw, cooped up in my little black room with a madman who is attempting to dismantle the entire government.”
“Trifles,” he scoffed, and I laughed again. I had utterly forgotten the cold.
“We are going to murder Prince Leopold,” Holmes, ever the dramatist, told me one evening the next week when we had returned from dinner and were sitting in our chairs by the fireplace. I knew Holmes better than anyone, had spent all my time in the past weeks observing the Prince’s every move, and was utterly prepared for the announcement.
“There is to be a birthday celebration for His Highness next Saturday,” he explained. “It will be quite the affair, from what I understand. Irene has done us the favor of procuring an invitation to the occasion.”
“And you plan to go,” I said quietly.
“Yes,” he told me.
“No,” I replied, very calmly, and went back to my newspaper. There was a fraught pause.
“Watson,” he said eventually. “I’m terribly sorry, my dear boy, but – there is nothing you could do to stop me. This – this creature – he is a blight on the landscape of New Albion. He is the greatest menace to the people of this country’s security outside of the Queen herself, and I do not think that we are quite ready to go after her just yet. Watson – this must be done.”
“I agree,” I told him. “Send Holland; he’s a clever enough fellow and an excellent shot to boot, if I understand correctly.”
“There is no sense,” he said, sounding somewhat clipped, “in endangering the life of someone else when I am perfectly capable of executing the task myself.”
“There is plenty of sense in sending somebody else in your stead,” I told him, trying to keep my anger and my fear out of my voice. I put down the newspaper and looked at my friend in the flickering firelight. He needed a shave, and mostly he looked worried. I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose for a moment before speaking.
“Holmes,” I said, as gently as I could manage. “You are in no state to assassinate anybody at the moment, especially not alone. No! – let me finish. You are exhausted, my dear, even if you will not admit it – you have not been sleeping. I cannot tell if the fatigue is a result of the cocaine or if the cocaine is a result of the fatigue. You have become obsessed with this, Holmes, obsessed beyond the point of rationality. And you know as well as I that rationality is all if we have any chance at actually pulling this off. And frankly, Holmes, you have had me at your back these two-and-a-half years. Yes, you have been out investigating without me – I should say I am still not terribly pleased about that – but investigation and assassination are two very different things. You are simply not used to orchestrating and carrying out something of this magnitude by yourself. Holland is a very fine fellow, and will mix well with the nobility – he has that look of the genteel about him. If you advise him of the potential perils of the situation before the night of the event, I am certain that – barring unforeseen circumstances – it will turn out all right.”
(I did not say what I meant – though all of what I said was true. What I meant was: Do not go without me. Do not leave me here alone in the darkness. Do not die. I could not bear it if you died. I have no interest in this bleak world if you are not in it. I hoped he had understood. I had always wanted him to know intuitively that which I could not say aloud.)
He had drawn further into himself, his knees pulled up to his chest not unlike a child’s, and was gazing into the fire.
I got up to retire, and walked over to him where he sat. Before I could stop myself I touched his cheek, rough with stubble, and turned his face upward, so that he was looking at me with his eyes like silver.
“We could not do it without you, anyway,” I told him as I let my hand slip away, and left him to brood alone.
The man’s visage was a horrifying sight to behold: it was a most unnatural shade of bluish-purple, and an expression of exquisite agony stretched across his features. His neck was one long, circular bruise. The rest of his body was untouched – the disparity between the various parts of him was almost the most grotesque thing. He could have been such a normal man, but here he was, lying on the ground in a private room of Prince Leopold’s, strangled to death.
I coughed in an attempt to disguise the shudder that went through me at the thought.
“The London police force,” my friend said in tones of utter disgust. “Someday, when I lose all my faith in humanity, it will be, I am afraid, mostly due to them. Imbeciles, the lot.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said with a sigh. “We were told only that nobody would know him, and that he would be carrying a gun. I don’t believe our source had more information, and certainly did not volunteer anything else. Very few people are foolish enough to think that carrying a loaded gun – a gun of any kind, in fact – into the residence of a member of the blood royal is a good idea, so I imagine the task of tracking him down was not difficult
, once they knew what they were looking for. They do at least have functioning eyes. But I am afraid that, in their typical zeal, they went rather too far.
“For far too long, the policy of the police has been that death is the best policy. I could not disagree more strongly. Think of the information we could have gotten from him – my God! – it could have been their undoing. But now we have nothing except his body, and precious little good it will do us, I suspect.
“Well,” he sighed, standing up. “Let us see what we can find out about him, at least.”
The mysterious, would-be-assassin had, several hours’ worth of questioning the Prince’s guest told us, danced very politely with several women of advanced age, all of whom had found him to be singularly charming. He had chatted amiably with several of the young men in attendance about all manner of subjects, from hunting to opera, but had apparently not hidden his pistol sufficiently well in his trousers, and when the two plainclothes police offers asked him into the next room it was really all finished for him.
“Need I explain to you,” my friend told the officers in clipped tones, “the extraordinary nature of your stupidity? It is, I assure you, phenomenal. Had I not been long acquainted with the London police force I would, I am sure, be in utter disbelief at the moment. As it happens, I am unfortunately very well acquainted with their practice, so I am merely disappointed. Still: this is an impressive display.”
Neither of the men looked particularly remorseful.
“You weren’t there,” one said. “He was going to take us both out. You see that bullet hole in the wall over there? That’s from his gun. Nearly killed Reardon, he did. I managed to get the cord from the curtain around his neck, and next thing he was dead.”
“Did it not occur to you,” my friend said through gritted teeth, “that perhaps knocking him unconscious would have been a more logical course of action?”
The one who had spoken shrugged. “He’s just a bloody rebel anyway, isn’t he?”
“London’s finest,” said my friend, sounding strangled himself.
Several days later, when no progress had been made, my friend brought home the newest edition of the Eye. I did not know where he acquired them, but I suspected it antagonized him greatly that he knew where to find copies of the paper without knowing how they had gotten there. Had he known that, we would not have been sitting idly at Baker Street.
“Look at this,” he said, passing it over to me. “There is not a single illustration, not in the entire thing.”
“How curious,” I murmured as I flipped through it. He was indeed correct.
“I suspect that the dead man from the Prince’s celebration was their illustrator,” he said. “In fact, I am nearly certain that it is so. There is little other explanation: all the other editions of the Eye that I have seen – and I believe I have seen all of them – have been replete with illustrations. Now, the week that this mysterious Restorationist is killed, they are suddenly missing their drawings. Ah, if we only had his name! The whole thing would be so immensely easier.”
“Indeed it would be,” I said. “How strange, that no-body should report a disappearance. I should think that at least some acquaintance of his would have been unaware of his criminal activity, and be wondering about his whereabouts.”
“There has been nothing of the sort,” my friend sighed. “It is damnably frustrating, the whole business.”
I knew, of course, the large part of his frustration. He had hoped to find that Vernet or his companion the limping doctor had come himself. But the man we had seen had been very clearly neither of those men: he had not been disguised, and so we knew he could not be Vernet, and the coroner had assured us that he had no major physical defects or maladies that would have led to a limp. He was, then, an associate of theirs – or, I thought, working entirely independently of them. If half of what they printed in the Eye was true, I thought very privately indeed, it would not be much of a surprise to find that there were multiple groups of people interested in murdering the Prince.
But, I corrected myself hurriedly, that was really no excuse for such flagrant law-breaking.
All the same, the dead man’s visage haunted me in my dreams. I had seen many men killed in Afghanistan, but I had never before seen a man strangled. It was uncanny, I thought, how disfiguring it was despite the fact that the body was not at all broken or punctured. All one had to do to kill someone was to put something around his neck and squeeze. When I went to bed I found myself staring at the bloated, blue face of the man in my dreams, and it never moved. I would have thought the most terrifying thing would be seeing it move: but the terrible stillness, I began to think, was even worse. I wished I knew his name. Who had he been, this young man? Quite charming, it seemed; everybody who had interacted with him on the night of his death save the two police officers had nothing but pleasant things to say about him, and I imagined that he must have been quite good-looking, though the strangulation made it difficult to say. How had he come to be the illustrator for a seditious newspaper? What had happened in his life that had led him there?
Had, I thought in my bed that night, he known someone who had disappeared, like so many of the stories in the Eye described? Had he a sister, a wife, who had vanished in the night? These were treacherous thoughts, but I could not banish them, not entirely. I wished that I knew his name. I wished that I knew what his voice had sounded like.
But his voice, I thought sadly, had been extinguished, as easily as one extinguishes a candle-flame.
Holmes did not speak to me two weeks after the reports of Holland’s death. It was a dark time: not, I knew, the worst two weeks of my life, but certainly among their ranks. At first I was glad that he did not seem to be depending overmuch on the cocaine, but it became rapidly evident that he had merely substituted impossibly long reconnaissance expeditions for the drug. He was gone for days sometimes, and I tried to tell myself that nothing would happen to him, that he would return as he always had. I wondered if what I felt now had been his life before me: the long, lonely stretches, empty of meaningful human interaction. I did not think he could have been nearly as sick in his soul as I was. I thought of Holland whenever I let my mind wander, and found myself glad that I had not seen his body.
Maclean had it worse than any of us. We had thought him a machine, Holmes and I, and he was indeed frighteningly like one: but now I knew that he, like everyone, had a heart beating within his breast. He became almost wraithlike. There was something dead in his blue eyes. Something had gone missing from them that I had not known existed before. In its absence it was more noticeable than ever.
I found him in the little printing press we had set up for the Eye one afternoon. I had been looking for Matheson or Grey, to give them the article I had finished, but neither was present: only Maclean, standing in-between the large metal machinery, gazing around him like a lost boy. I had rarely gone there in the day-time, and found the rays of light punctuating the presses almost mesmerizing. Dust motes floated lazily through them and it looked for all the world like an abandoned studio that we had come back to inspect years and years after our departure. Time seemed fluid to me then. I could not remember the last time I had slept well.
He started when I closed the door behind me.
“Maclean,” I said tentatively, and he tried to smile, but it looked more like a strange grimace pulling awkwardly at his features.
“Jack,” he said, for that was the name by which he knew me. “What are you doing here?”
I held up the pages I had just drawn from my breast pocket. “I’m leaving what I’ve done so far for Matheson and Grey.”
He nodded absently and ran his hand gently over the lever next to him.
“We need to find somebody to do the illustrations,” he said.
“Eventually,” I agreed.
“They still don’t know who he is,” he told me. “They’re keeping his body because… because nobody has come to claim it.”
He tried to laugh and failed. “It’s ridiculous,” he said finally. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Death is always ridiculous,” I said quietly.
“They do not teach you that,” he murmured. “They teach you something else, don’t they – all of those angels and urns on the tombs, and the mourning black, and the bloody stupid saccharine poems in the journal.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“I’ve never known anybody who’s died before,” he admitted.
“We all go to it, in the end,” I told him. “But after a while the knowledge of it will fade away, little by little, and you will forget. Believe me.”
“Would you?” he asked, and he did not need to specify to whom he was referring.
“I have survived horrors,” I said eventually, but it was not an answer to his question.
He nodded, though, and looked at his feet.
“I would like to be the next,” he said finally, when he looked back up at me. “I would like to be the next to go. I am a crackshot, you know.”
I scrutinized him for a long moment. He had nothing left to live for, except this.
“I’ll tell him,” I said, and left him and the article alone in the silence of the room.
That night Holmes returned at something like three in the morning – I was not keeping particularly close track of the time – and was, evidently, quite shocked to find me awake. He looked haggard and even thinner than he had been two weeks before, and I thought his hands were shaking when he took off his hat. I wondered if he had gotten any sleep at all in the time since Holland had died.
“Holmes,” I said, and he deliberately ignored me as he began to walk, unsteadily, to his room. “Holmes,” I repeated when he disappeared, and got up to follow him.
He was sitting on his bed, facing away from me. The lamp on the nightstand was the only thing illuminating the room, and it cast weird shadows along the walls. “Holmes,” I said once more, and as I moved closer to him I saw that he was trembling. I stood behind him for a moment, unsure of myself. When I realized that his shoulders were shaking violently I walked slowly around the bed to look at his face.
He was not crying. I thought it would have been better if he were. Instead, he was merely shaking. I knelt before him and reached out, slowly, to roll up his sleeve. The only bruises there were old, yellow splotches, and I realized in part what he had been doing. I rubbed my fingers over the bruises and their tiny puncture marks for a moment before pulling the sleeve back down over them.
“It is not your fault,” I told him quietly. “And it is not mine.”
He said nothing.
“Holmes,” I repeated. “It is the fault of the men who killed him. And that is all.” I held his trembling hands between my own to make them steady. “You said it yourself, Holmes: there was always going to be blood in this venture.”
Finally, he met my eyes. I had, I realized then, been thoroughly duped by him for a very long time. I had thought him in control of himself, even in his moments of lenience. There was, I reflected suddenly, no man less in control of himself than Sherlock Holmes, no man whose actions were more dictated by the harsh intensity of his moral character. He acted out of a kind of compulsion to do what he believed was necessary, what was right, all of the time. The Strand Players, I realized, had been an outlet for this: he could be somebody other than himself for a while. Detecting must have served the same purpose. But now his brain had nothing to focus on except this terrible, intricate web of deception and violence that had been wrought on our country by those who swore to protect it at all costs, and it was destroying him, slowly, in body and soul.
“I imagined,” he said slowly, “that it would be my own.”
“Oh, Holmes,” I said quietly, sadly, and stood up. He was shaking more violently now, and I managed to persuade him with my hands – which had never really stopped being a doctor’s hands, no matter what had happened to me since being sent down from Cambridge – to lie down, to rest his head in my lap, like a child. Still he did not cry. I threaded my hand through his hair and wrapped my arm around the thin cavity of his chest to keep him still, and I waited for his heart to stop beating so furiously quickly.
“You have not taken any, have you,” I murmured. “The past week, I think.”
“No,” he whispered.
“It will pass, you know,” I told him as I stroked his hair. “It will pass.”
“Could you speak to me?” he managed. One of his hands was now clutched violently around my leg.
“Do you remember when we first met?” I asked him, and he let out a weak little laugh, but it was full of his typical arrogance, and the sound warmed my heart.
“Do not ask ridiculous questions, Watson,” he muttered.
“I still don’t know how I knew you were you,” I murmured. “I did not know then – I mean later, when you were almost killed by those men. You must have made a lot of enemies, my dear fellow, to warrant so many would-be-assassins.”
“I have,” he mumbled.
“But in any event, I knew you,” I said quietly. “I knew who you were – but I think I knew you, somehow. I knew… I knew you had a great mind, and I knew I had to protect you. I did not even have to figure it out; it just presented itself to me as the absolute truth.”
“I do not need protecting,” he told me churlishly, and I laughed softly at him, curled up on my lap.
“Of course you do,” I told him fondly, and he squeezed my leg a little harder before drifting slowly to sleep.
Some two weeks after the attempted assassination of Prince Leopold, my friend had been forced to admit temporary defeat. There was simply no evidence pointing anywhere, nothing whatever to go on. But he did not seem nearly as discontented as he might have.
“We will have news of their next move soon enough,” he said calmly, and the telegram that came the ten days later did not prove him wrong.
Holmes stood at the table behind the printing press, examining the most recent copy of the Eye. It was the third we had put out since Holland’s death, and there were still no illustrations to be found inside. He was smoking his pipe and looked quite grim indeed. Grey and Matheson were operating the press while Maclean tended to the fire, which was threatening to go out.
We were printing more than double the number of papers than we had when we had begun a year before. It was very dangerous indeed to be seen with a copy of our paper, and yet it flourished. Last week a young woman had disappeared from the East End and though the papers did not dare report on it, the girl’s name was on the lips of what seemed like every man, woman, and child in London. The details of her disappearance differed wildly depending on the source of gossip, but on one point everybody was agreed: sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Boer was gone. Her possessions had remained untouched. Even her shoes were lined up at the foot of her bed as they always were before she went to sleep.
(Holmes and I went and spoke to her mother. There were footprints in the alley behind the building where Elizabeth had lived that nobody had noticed, footprints that all matched despite varying in size. “Standard police-issue boots,” he muttered to me darkly before we returned inside.
The only other trace of evidence, according to Holmes, was to be found on her pillow. He picked it up and sniffed it for no more than an instant before putting it back in its place on the bed. “Chloroform,” he said.)
The account I wrote of Holmes’ findings was as cruelly sensational as ever. My words, I knew, would overcome the petty gossip about the girl’s whereabouts that was spreading through London like fire. The evidence itself was far too damning for the public to ignore, and I had crafted the story in the midst of a bout of black fury. I had described in deliberately painstaking detail what she must have seen before slipping into unconsciousness: so many officers of the London police force above her, smothering her. I had painted a hauntingly gothic portrait of these same men carrying her limp body away. I had left her fate to the public: whatever their imagination dreamed up would be worse by far than anything I myself could conceive.
“The Queen is traveling to Windsor in two weeks’ time,” Holmes murmured, and all activity in the room came to an immediate halt.
He looked up at all of us. His eyes were glowing.
“How the devil do you know that?” Grey asked.
He shrugged, not so modestly. “I have my sources,” he said simply.
“She will take a train,” he continued. “It will look like a regular passenger train but all of the blinds will be drawn, and no passengers will be allowed on except for the Queen herself
, and her attendants. The train will depart from Paddington Station at midnight, and Her Majesty will be in the second car. It will be, I am afraid, quite impossible to infiltrate. But there are alternatives, of course.”
“I’ll do it,” Maclean said.
“My dear boy,” Holmes told him, with only a touch of condescension in his tone, “you do not even know what it is.”
“Not in detail, no,” Maclean replied calmly. “But it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
Holmes appeared almost bemused.
“Mr. Henry,” Maclean began, for that was Holmes’ name to him, “we all know you’re the smartest of all of us here. But there’s only so much you can know about explosives, sir, without having worked in a gunsmith’s. I’ve been exploding things ever since I became an apprentice at Mr. Murphy’s ten years ago, and I can promise you that nobody does it better than I do.
“Plus,” he finished, with a glint in his eye that told all of us that he knew he had won, “I’ve got an old friend who works at Paddington. He’ll be happy enough to let me on the tracks – he’s not much one for rules and regulations, especially since he started reading our paper every week.”
“Henry,” I said quietly a minute later, when he had still not responded. “You know he’s right.”
He looked at me a strangely for just an instant before turning back to Maclean.
“Very well,” he said, sounding a little pained. I hoped more for his sake than for Maclean’s that Maclean at least made it out alive, even if he did not succeed.
We left them there not long after, slamming the printing press down over and over again, all in the service of the men and women of our mad, bleak city. I hoped that Elizabeth Boer’s end had been swift, that she was not still out there somewhere, living the same moment that I was. Then I tried to put her out of my mind as Holmes linked his arm through mine and we walked home through fine, misty rain and under the flickering orange streetlamps, pretending we were not peering into every shadow in search of the villain we both expected would one day be the end of us.
The next day we returned to the office in the early hours of the morning to pick up copies of the Eye to distribute throughout the city.
The press had been destroyed. Every broken piece lay scattered across the ground, and the papers had been burned in the fireplace. I pulled a ripped sheet out from the wreckage before tossing it back to the ground. The words I had been so proud of would do no good now.
Holmes stood over it all, an unreadable expression on his face. “There were only two men taken,” he said finally, eyes taking in the details of the scene. “They only took two.”
At that moment the door opened behind us
, and we both started and spun around, but it was only Maclean, across whose face an expression of utter shock unfurled like a flag. “Christ,” he whispered.
“Indeed,” Holmes said, and the tone of his voice made me shudder.
Two members of the police pulled off the black hoods that had been covering their prisoners’ faces at the same moment. They blinked blearily in the light of the torches placed in the sconces along the wall.
I had not known that these rooms existed, deep beneath the Tower, these small chambers designed expressly for the purpose of interrogation, but I was learning quickly that there was much about London I did not know, much about New Albion and about the blood royal about which I had been quite thoroughly in the dark.
Neither of the men looked especially afraid. They had, I supposed, had some time to get used to the idea of their being prisoners of the state. They did appear to be rather uncomfortable, however: their hands had been tied quite harshly behind their backs, and they had undergone a severe beating. The one on the right, who was somewhat shorter than his fellow, had a split lip, the blood from which was smeared across his face, and the other had two spectacular black eyes blossoming.
“Hello, gentlemen,” my friend said, hands clasped neatly behind his back. I stood behind him, against the wall. I did not know precisely why I was present, but then, neither did I understand my presence in my friend’s business in the first place. “You are in the business of sedition, and – I must tell you – this has not made you particularly popular with Her Majesty and her associates.”
The taller one on the left looked skeptical. “I think,” he said, “that’s rather the idea, isn’t it?”
My friend smiled insincerely. “You are Matheson, correct?” he asked, and the man simply shrugged. “You see I have done my research on both of you – and neither of you, it would seem, keep nearly the low profile that you should. Your brother, if I am not mistaken, is in the employ of the Strand Players?” Matheson made no move to respond. I thought he looked, more bored than anything.
“I would imagine,” my friend continued, and now he had begun to pace back and forth across the chamber in front of them, “that he was an acquaintance of a man by the name of Sherry Vernet, who played with them until around a year ago.”
“I don’t know anybody named Matheson,” Matheson said, patently false. He did not seem to care what my friend said. I thought that he was unlikely to say anything of any use. I had seen men like him in Afghanistan – I had been one of them myself – he could not be moved.
“Indeed,” said my friend. “I am sure you do not. You, on the other hand, have no connection to the man known as Sherry Vernet,” he added, now addressing the shorter of the two prisoners. “You are known as Grey, am I correct?” Grey – if that was his name – looked contemplatively at the ceiling and ignored him. “You, I admit, I know less about.
“You fascinate me,” he continued a minute later when neither of them had responded to him. “You truly do fascinate me, the both of you. What mystifies me,” he told them, sitting himself down in the chair placed opposite them, “is your insistence upon attempting to take down the system that has done so much to serve you both throughout your lives. It is, frankly, mind-boggling. I cannot conceive of it. Think of the good that the Queen herself has done for you – let alone her family, and the entire government – from your infancy.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” Matheson said, sounding anything but, and I must confess I started at the sound of his voice, “but I’d love if you could tell me what any of those things are, because I’m afraid I don’t know any of them.” He spoke calmly and with great surety, and I could not help but admire the determined set of his eyes and face.
My friend paused. “It is quite simple,” he said, very coldly. “Every single institution in this country with which you are familiar, and, I am sure, many with which you are not – from the educational system, to the banks, to the law – is a byproduct of monarchial rule. I am sure that this is a difficult thing for you to conceive of, but you, Allan Matheson, are not the highest level of intelligence and depth. Even those men who are exemplars of their race – and, I assure you, you are not among them – simply do not have the capacity to reason, and invent, on the level of Her Majesty and the others of her race. I know it is a difficult thing to admit your inferiority, but it is something we all must do in order to live a satisfactory and fulfilling life.”
Matheson leaned forward, arms pulled tighter behind him the father away he stretched himself from the back of the chair. There was a fierce gleam in his eyes. “I’m not an educated man. And I don’t know if what you say is true, though I have a difficult time believing it. But see, the way I look at it, it doesn’t much matter what the Queen and her kin have done for us, if they’ve done anything at all. Because they’re killing us, sir. They kill people they think might be dangerous to them, and they don’t think about it. They rape girls. They rape fifteen-year-olds – and you know they do, because I can tell you’re not stupid. So I say, those laws must not be working very well, if they allow for that. And I say, we might be lesser than them but we could probably come up with a better government than the one we have now, if the one we have now is made up of monsters who rape our girls and kill them. And you can kill me for that if you want, sir, because I think it’ll keep you up at night for the rest of your life, knowing that you did that.”
“I see I cannot reason with you,” my friend told them, and I thought that, if I were they, I would have cowered at the tone of his voice. “I shall turn you over to Prince Arthur, then. In case you are not aware, he is a military fellow. I do not think you shall much enjoy his company.” He got up and looked over his shoulder at me as he made his way to the door. “However unlikely the occurrence, please make sure they do not do something exceptionally clever,” he told me before slamming the door behind him.
They looked at each other and then at me once he had gone. The silence stretched out uncomfortably.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” I began, I admit rather nervously, “I have just one question – it is, it is a private matter,” I added hurriedly, and they looked skeptical. “I was wondering – what had motivated you. To do what you have done, I mean.”
They looked at me with some measure of surprise. Clearly they had expected something quite different. Grey, who had not spoken a word the entire time my friend had questioned them, appeared to be considering his response.
“Because we had to,” he said simply, and the sound of footsteps could be heard outside.
“I am so terribly sorry,” I told them without thinking before the police entered to take them to their deaths.
My friend watched them go with a particularly ugly expression on his face. “Every time, I think perhaps we are one step closer to him – to Vernet – I know he is the mind behind all of this. Rache, he calls himself. Hah! Ludicrous.
“But still, he evades my grasp. I am merely circling, and circling, but everything is obscured by shadow, and I cannot see the way before me. Damn him! I am tired of this business. I wish it to be done with. But I am afraid he is too clever for that. He is cleverer than I am, even. But I shall get him in the end. I have no doubt of that.”
There was a week left until the Queen departed London for Windsor. In the week that had passed since the destruction of our printing press, Holmes had not left my sight, and I confess I was grateful for it. We lived a dangerous half-life, the two of us: we were not in hiding, but it felt as though we were. On this particular evening, we were sitting in our digs, him smoking his pipe and me my cigarettes. He was gazing at me contemplatively, and I confess I was made somewhat uncomfortable by the scrutiny.
“What is it, Holmes?”
“Nothing, Watson,” he said quietly. “I am just thinking back over our acquaintance.”
“My dear fellow,” I said, with some surprise, “why?”
He shrugged a little in his seat, one leg hanging over the arm of the chair. “I was reflecting,” he said, “on your remarkable ability to surprise me at every turn.”
I may have flushed a little at that. “I can’t imagine that you have not worked out all the nuances of my personality by now, Holmes. It has been quite some time, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” he told me. “And yet I can never quite figure you out. You are an exceptionally decent man – I do not know that you know this. I have seen you weep over the death of a woman you have never met on more than one occasion, and you have put your life on the line for me countless times – which is indeed miraculous, for I assure you I am not worth dying for.
“And yet you have also killed men – many men – with little thought for the morality of your actions. I do not condemn these choices – I, too, am guilty of taking many a life
, in my time – but I must confess to you that I find it somewhat baffling that you seem to have no compunction whatever about murdering men about whom you know very little indeed. I do not refer, of course, to the late Prince of Bohemia – hardly. I mean the men who have threatened us in alleyways. It would have been very easy, I think, for you to leave those men unconscious. But instead you have killed them, every one.” He cocked his head to the side as he gazed at me. “It is a remarkable paradox.”
I did not say what I thought – I have never been much good at that – I did not say, I have done what I have done for you, because you are a madman who has no consideration for your own safety, and I have been powerless to refuse you ever since that day in the alley when I first met you. I did not tell him that the life I had lived before meeting him had been unyielding, and that I had had little choice outside of a life of crime; I did not tell him that the idea of letting a man who wanted to kill him live to come back and try again was repulsive to me; I did not tell him the satisfying feeling I experienced when they choked for air and died before me; I did not tell him any of these things because I was afraid, and had always been afraid. I did not tell him because I was a coward.
“I suppose,” I said finally, “one does what one must.”
He pursed his lips for a moment and then smiled at me, as sadly as I had ever see him smile. “Yes,” he agreed. “One does.”
The rest of the evening he seemed to make a concerted attempt to be as charming as he possibly could – and, I can assure you, when Sherlock Holmes puts his mind to it he can be the most charming fellow in the world. He seemed to desire nothing more strongly than that I should be constantly laughing. I could not remember the last time I had laughed. It seemed like a very long time ago.
At some point, much later, when we were both – I freely admit it – somewhat drowsy with drink and exhaustion, someone knocked on the door. I stood up to open it and found Irene waiting outside. This was not surprising: after all, she was the only person who knew where we lived.
I thought it sad that she looked the same as she had the year before. She would never, it seemed, recover from those most hellish years of her life. The late Prince of Bohemia had left his mark on her in more ways than one.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said as she swept into the room. Holmes smiled at her and offered her a glass of wine, which she declined.
“I just wanted to let you know,” she said, “that the Queen’s plans are moving forward as scheduled. Saturday night, at midnight, at Paddington Station. You have made arrangements, I take it?”
“Indeed,” Holmes said. “Or really, I should give credit to Maclean, for it was entirely his design.”
“Maclean is one of your associates at the Eye, I take it,” she said dryly.
“Oh,” Holmes murmured. “I suppose you did not know that.”
“I did not.”
“Well,” he said, taking another long sip of his wine. “Things move forward. Watson and I are going to the opera tomorrow, you know. I imagine no-body will be on your level, of course, but that can hardly be helped.”
“We are?” I asked.
“Indeed,” he said casually. “Have I not mentioned the tickets?”
“Not remotely, my dear man,” I said, irrationally pleased.
“Yes, well, I cannot sing anymore,” she said quietly, and smiled a little, but the expression did not reach her eyes.
“Would you like to see it?” I asked. “You could go in my stead.”
“You are far too kind,” she told me. “You must go with Sherlock. It pains me to hear music, now that I cannot sing it. It is best that I stay away from the Royal Opera House, I fear.”
“Very well,” I said. “We shall think of you, anyway.”
“That is very kind,” she replied. “Do let me know if there is anything you need, Sherlock. I have little else to occupy my time these days, apart from revenge.”
A woman appeared at the door of 221B Baker Street. I had never seen her before, but let her in with a polite smile; my friend’s clients were rarely known to me before their arrivals.
“Mr. Moriarty is in his room,” I told her. “I will fetch him for you.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m much obliged.”
“Ah,” my friend said when we returned. “I am afraid I have not previously had the pleasure of your acquaintance?”
“You are James Moriarty,” she said without preamble. She was a frighteningly slender woman, almost skeletal, and her eyes were impossibly cold. “You are in charge of investigating The London Eye and subversive plots against the blood royal. Please, let me know if I am mistaken.”
“Not at all,” my friend said mildly, but I could feel that his curiosity had been piqued.
“My name is Irene Adler,” she told him. “You receive information from a Captain Lestrade, I think, from me. I am the source.”
“Indeed,” he said noncommittally.
“I know the whereabouts of Sherry Vernet and his associate – I believe you have named him the Limping Doctor, Mr. Moriarty. They are at the Royal Opera House as we speak, watching the performance. If you are very, very quick, you might just catch them.”
“I have just one question,” my friend asked, folding his arms in front of him. “From all reports your relationship with the late Prince of Bohemia was… less than ideal, shall we say. I must confess, madam, that I find myself wondering why you should be inclined to give us information on the whereabouts of the very criminals who are responsible for his death.”
The expression on her face as she looked at my friend can be described as no less than contemptuous.
“Do not imagine, Mr. Moriarty,” she said, even more coldly, “that you understand the minds and motivations of all men and women. You are by my estimation a small, pathetic man: you have been on the trail of Sherry Vernet and his associates for over a year, and without my help you would have made no progress whatsoever. You fancy yourself a detective. I, in my time, have known a detective who deserved the title, and I can assure you that you hardly compare. The clock is ticking, gentlemen. I suggest you make good use of the time you have remaining.”
My friend’s pride, though formidable, did not stop him from making his way swiftly to the door. I followed.
The next day was as grey and unpleasant as ever, but Holmes insisted we take a cab to the Opera House. He was in something of a manic mood, but as far as I could tell he had not relapsed and returned to the cocaine bottle. We had not, I reasoned, been out of our rooms in several days except to eat, and Sherlock Holmes was a naturally restless fellow. I did not think much of his apparent case of nerves.
The opera itself was, insofar as I could tell, excellent. It was especially dramatic, full of doomed lovers and death of all kinds. I appreciated the falsity of it, the spectacle: it could hardly be mistaken for real life. The fantasy was freeing.
Before the last act, Holmes pulled me aside. “The acoustics are infinitely superior upstairs,” he whispered into my ear, and I laughed aloud at his peculiarities.
We climbed as many stairs as I think there are in the Royal Opera House, and found ourselves in an attic storage room, from which – to his credit – you could hear the music quite perfectly.
“Holmes,” I said, grinning, “you are truly mad –”
And then, as the music burst into the act’s first crescendo, Sherlock Holmes pulled out his pistol, and pointed it straight at my chest.
We made our hurtling way to the Opera House in one of Lestrade’s police cabs. Never have I passed through the streets of London at so rapid a pace. I must confess that I feared somewhat for my life. My friend had a look of near-mania on his face, and I feared for what would happen if we did not apprehend the men after whom he had been chasing all of these months.
When we arrived at the Opera, we immediately perceived our difficulty. There were hundreds of people in the audience, and it was dark, and they were all dressed more or less the same. Vernet, we knew, was a master of disguise. He could have been any of them. My friend let out a wordless cry of anguish at the back of the theatre and was shushed loudly by several people in the audience.
“We’ll station guards at the entrances,” Lestrade murmured. “Nobody gets out.”
“Damn him,” my friend whispered. “Damn him.”
“Holmes,” I heard myself say, reaching my arms out to him. “Good god, Holmes –”
“Do not speak,” he said coldly. “I am not here to bargain with you. You know as well as I why we are here – you have been giving information to the authorities about our activities and whereabouts for this past year, and I am afraid I simply cannot let it go on any longer.”
“Holmes,” I said again, dumbfounded. “What on earth are you talking –”
“I believe I told you not to speak,” he enunciated very calmly indeed. His grey eyes were like flint. He had taken none of his seven percent solution tonight, and I realized he had not even partaken of the champagne. “It is obvious that someone in our crew is involved with the enemy. How else could they have known about Holland – or, indeed, about the location of our print shop? Very few people, Watson, are in possession of that information. One of them is dead, two presumed dead. That leaves Irene, and Maclean, and the two of us. Since I know that I am not responsible, it must have been one of the three of you.”
“I – Holmes,” I spluttered, hands held in the air. “Good god, Holmes, think –”
“Watson, I have thought,” he cried, and his calm veneer shattered before me, and it was then that I knew that nothing I said could persuade him, that he was decided. The tenor was performing an aria, and his voice leaped emotively around us. Though the language foreign to me, he was singing, I knew, about death.
My friend paced anxiously in the lobby of the theatre.
“What if,” I heard myself say, “they are not in the audience at all?”
Everybody stared at me.
“Why should they not be in the audience?” my friend demanded.
“I have no idea,” I told him. “That is exactly the point. We have not known, at any point, why this man does anything that he does. We do not understand him at all.”
His eyes widened.
“All of you imbeciles, stay down here,” he snapped at the police. “You take that stair, I will take this one. I think they should eventually meet, at the top. Make haste, my friend. Make haste. We are close now. I can taste blood in the air.”
It was, I confess, a strangely freeing feeling. “I have thought, damn it, and there is no other explanation. Maclean and Irene have unquestionable motivations for their hatred of the blood royal. You have nothing except your supposed sense of justice. And god damn it, I have never been able to understand you. You are the only one – the only one who spent six years traipsing through Europe, free to mingle with anybody you chose – the list of countries you visited is quite suspicious. Germany, Austria, France, Russia – the bastions of the monarchy that is spread across Europe. You have never told me anything of these years, Watson. What were you doing there? I cannot truly know. I have been forced to admit to myself that you are the only one who could have done this. God damn it, Watson, I have thought excessively!” His face was twisted with anguish, and it pained me to see it so deformed. “I have done what I have always done – I have thought, and observed, and I have deduced.”
I watched as the agony that had wrenched its face out of its usual steely mask was smoothed away, and before my eyes he became once more Sherlock Holmes, patron criminal of this great city that had sheltered us in its underbelly for the past three years. I felt the comforting weight of the miniature pistol I had strapped to my arm beneath my sleeve in case of an emergency, and I knew as I watched his cold grey eyes grow even colder that I would never use it. I could not. His finger tightened on the trigger of his revolver and I do believe it was at that point that I began to smile at him. The world faded away and for a moment he was all that I could see, and I felt more than anything a great peace, deep within my soul. I was glad, in those final moments of my life, that I had experienced such an exquisite, painful love during my time on earth; it was not a love most men could ever hope to understand but I cherished it all the more for it, held it to my breast like a small, flickering flame. It would come with me, I knew, into the great abyss of darkness that appeared before me now, the chasm of death that was opening its great jaws to welcome me and my love for the man standing across the room from me with the pistol pointed at my chest. My love would never leave me now and I took comfort in its presence; I looked at Holmes and lowered my arms, and smiled as he pulled the trigger.
In an instant it was done. A pool of scarlet blood spread out from his crumpled body on the floor. I turned, and fled.
The distorted sounds of the opera followed me as I ran up the stairs. There was no sign of either Vernet or his accomplice, and I began to think that my moment of revelation had been nothing more than an illusion, a dream. I was beginning to grow exhausted when finally the stairs came to their end, and I was presented with a doorway. I pushed it open and stepped inside.
My eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness when I heard his moan, and a shiver thrilled down my spine. I squinted, and then I saw him there: he was collapsed awkwardly on the floor, surrounded by blood. I imagined that in better circumstances he would have made quite a striking figure: his figures were refined, and pleasing, and he seemed to be well dressed. His hat had fallen off his head and rested on its side some distance from him.
And then his eyes alighted upon me.
Never had I seen a man more afraid, not even in all my time in Afghanistan. He stared at me – for how long, I could not say. Time seemed to stop. He looked down at his stomach, at the wound there, and then at the crimson blood on his hand. He let out a strangled little cry and pressed that hand over the hole in his waistcoat.
“You – you must tell him,” he croaked at me, from his prone position on the ground, panting slightly. His eyes, I saw now, were glassy and unfocused, though he was staring desperately at my face. “You must tell Holmes – you must tell him it was not I. I – you must, you must,” he gasped, eyes roving wildly around the room now.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I whispered. “I – Holmes? What – about whom are you speaking? I do not – Holmes?”
“Yes, yes, Holmes,” he interrupted before he began to cough. Spatters of blood sprayed across the floor in front of him. “Tell him,” he whispered. “Tell him – tell him – Humphrey Knox,” he mumbled. “I had not wanted – but I – Knox. He must go… to Knox.”
“I still do not understand,” I told him desperately, “where – where is this Holmes?”
“Behind the lion,” he mumbled, eyes sliding shut.
At that moment a door I had not noticed on the other side of the attic slammed open
, and my friend surged in. He let out a little cry of triumph when he saw the unconscious man on the floor before me.
“But where is the other?” he asked. “This – this must be that limping doctor of his – James Wilson, was it? Watson? Where is Vernet?”
“I do not know,” I found myself saying. “He is dead, I believe. Wilson, I mean.”
My friend knelt down before him and placed his ear near the man’s mouth. “He is still breathing a little,” he said briskly. “Run down and get the police up here, would you? I will make sure Vernet is not hidden in here somewhere.”
“If he is not dead, he will certainly be dead shortly,” I said, rather dully. My friend frowned at me as he stood up. “I’m terribly sorry, my dear fellow,” I told him, passing my hand over my eyes. “It is merely – the blood,” I murmured. “It is… it is rather reminiscent of Afghanistan, that is all.”
My friend’s face softened into an expression of understanding. “Of course, my boy,” he said gently. “This is a great step forward.”
“But – what can you expect to get out of him?” I asked as he poked behind old, musty props and in trunks full of costumes, looking at the unconscious man on the ground. “I do not think he shall see the light of day again.”
My friend let out a black little laugh. “Oh, that may be true,” he said darkly, “but he shall not die – not if I have anything to say about it. Now, the police, if you please. This should be right up their alley – brute force.”
I ran down the many stairs to the front of the entrance of the theatre. “Upstairs,” I told the officers curtly. “There is a man badly injured, and it is imperative to Mr. Moriarty that he survive. He would like some of you to go upstairs – to transport him, I presume.” Three of them – strapping young fellows – took the stairs two at a time, and I leaned against one of the marble columns in the lobby and wiped my brow.
I had not, I realized, said anything to my friend about the man’s cryptic remarks. Who was this Humphrey Knox? And Holmes… Holmes, I realized, was Vernet. Rache. Holmes… but the only Holmes I had ever heard of was Sherlock Holmes, and he was some years dead.
Unless, a small voice at the back of my mind told me, Holmes was not dead at all. It would explain many of the past year’s events, chiefly my friend’s inability to make any progress in his investigation of Vernet’s underground operation. And had not Miss Adler been somehow involved in one of Holmes’ cases, some six years past? I thought I remembered the article in the paper – it had been shortly before my deployment.
But I did not believe I had ever heard the name Humphrey Knox before. I wracked my brains, but it was in vain. I would have to make inquiries. I was aware, vaguely, that it was not possible to confide these details in my friend. I made an effort not to think too closely about why this was. Instead, I found myself fixating on the doctor’s face as awareness slipped away from him, about his hand pressing desperately over the wound in his stomach. I could not see how he would be able to survive it, no matter my friend’s belief to the contrary.
My friend and the policemen I had sent to find him reappeared some minutes later
, with the doctor’s body in tow. He was sweating but the pallor of his skin under its bright sheen was ashen. My friend gave curt orders to the remaining policemen to make a thorough investigation of the rest of the theatre for Vernet – they were not to let a single man or woman out without ensuring that he or she was not, in fact, the criminal in disguise – but he told me as we were levering the doctor’s prone body into the cab that he had discovered a third stairway at the back of the attic room where we had found the doctor, and he was fairly certain that Vernet had escaped that way. “There are not many men, after all,” he told me, “who would stay long at the site of the murder they had just committed, especially not the murder of a longtime collaborator. No, he is, I think, long gone. But we are close to him, now,” he breathed, and there was something uncomfortably predatory – carnivorous – in his eyes. “We are very close indeed.” He held the doctor up next to him and held a wad of fabric against the wound in his stomach, and I watched as the unconscious man’s limbs jolted spasmodically with the bumps in the carriage ride and thumped back down onto the seat.
When the cab came to a halt and the doors swung open, I realized we had arrived at Buckingham. I swallowed
, and asked no questions as we were ushered hurriedly forward, through ornate halls and down into the depths of the Palace. Eventually I began to recognize things: paintings on the walls, elaborate vases perched on mahogany cabinets. And then we were at the grand doors I remembered well, though I had only seen them once. One of the palace attendants knocked and ducked inside for a moment before returning, swinging both of doors open. We entered.
I was not holding the body – that had been the responsibility of the two policemen who had come with us. My friend directed them forward, and murmured something I could not make out to the Queen, whose enormous bulk and terrifying aura were unchanged from the year before. I could not stop staring at her – she was a mesmerizing creature, and awe-inspiring. I lingered near the door with the palace attendant; I felt, as I always did around my friend during his operations, distinctly out of place.
They had placed him on the floor in front of her, this mysterious doctor, and ripped his shirt and waistcoat open so that his torso was bare. After my friend had finished speaking and had stepped several paces back, I saw the same tentacular limb that had once touched my shoulder and made it anew reach toward the body out of the shadow. In the light of the lantern it looked strangely unreal, impossible, and at the same time terrifyingly solid. It touched the man’s torso carefully, just where the wound was, and his back arched unconsciously upward
, into her healing touch, and something released in the pit of my stomach.
“We had best leave now,” the attendant whispered in my ear, and I nodded, although I was confused. I turned and looked at my friend once over my shoulder before the doors closed behind us. The expression on his face was as grim as any I have ever seen. The attendant turned a key in the lock and stationed himself in front of the doors so I stood a few feet away, leaning on the wall opposite.
Not a moment later, it began: the most horrifying sound I have ever heard a man make. I had thought that I had observed the worst of human pain and suffering in Afghanistan; I thought that I myself had experienced that pain. But I knew now that my life had been trivial, petty, small. Those creatures had been nothing in the face of Gloriana. What had been done to me in the deep dark of Afghanistan was nothing anymore: it was nothing compared to the keening, desperate wail emanating from the Queen’s chamber behind the doors. I stared at them in horror. The attendant’s face did not change: he looked composed, poised. He looked empty. I thought, I could leave now – turn down the hall and walk away.
But I did not. I stayed, and listened for what felt like hours to the torture of James Wilson, or Watson, or whatever his name was – it did not matter who he was. It did not matter at all. What mattered was that when I had seen him first, he had been a man, and that the longer he screamed the less he knew of humanity. And oh, how he screamed. How he screamed, the whole night long. The sounds of his agony worked themselves into my blood that night, and I did not think I would ever be able to get them out. I would never forget them. They were a part of me now.
I did not realize for a long time that my hand had come up to grip the now-healed wound in my shoulder. It clutched unconsciously at the fabric and would not let go.
And still I stood, throughout the long night, listening to the sound of a man’s soul being wrenched forcibly from his body, and not once did I close my eyes.
My friend knocked, finally, and the attendant unlocked the door for him. When he emerged he looked exactly as he had upon entering, except that he was perhaps a little more fatigued.
“He’s a stubborn fellow, anyway,” he sighed. “Come, now, let us go. It has been a long night for both of us.”
“He is not dead?” I asked.
My friend shook his head. “Indeed not,” he said, somewhat dismissively. “They will take him to the Tower presently, and he shall rot there, as far as I am concerned, unless he undergoes a change of heart. He said nothing the entire time – not one thing.”
“I know,” I said. “I could hear.”
He sighed again. “Blasted revolutionaries,” he muttered.
We sat in silence on the cab ride back to Baker Street. I watched my friend stare broodingly out the window, and murmured a quiet good night to him once we arrived home (though it was nearly morning) before closing the door to my room behind me.
Tomorrow, I thought dully, I shall search for Humphrey Knox.
When I awoke it was nearly noon, and my friend had quit our digs. I ate some toast and drank a cup of tea for breakfast and luncheon together, and nothing more. I was not hungry. I did not read the paper; I knew there would be nothing of use in it. As soon as I could I left
, and began my search.
There were, it seemed, very few Humphrey Knox’s in London. My search in the directories at City Hall yielded only three listings.
“Here,” I asked the clerk, once I had come to the third. “There is no address listed.”
He peered at it through his little half-moon spectacles and frowned. “One second, sir,” he murmured, and pulled two large volumes off of the shelf.
“Ah,” he said after he had spent several minutes inspecting the first. “That’d be why, sir – he’s a convict.”
“Is he really,” I commented mildly.
“Indeed he is, sir,” the clerk told me. “Wandsworth.”
“I am much obliged,” I told him before leaving.
Though it was against my nature, I crumpled the piece of paper upon which I had written the addresses of the other two Humphrey Knox’s. I did not imagine that I would be needing it.
Wandsworth Prison, I discovered to my utter lack of surprise, was a black place – dank, and foul, and smelling of unspeakable things. The guards were extremely skeptical when I presented myself and requested to speak with a Mr. Humphrey Knox.
“Never had a visitor, if I can remember,” one of them muttered as he led me through the endless maze of corridors lined with prison cells populated by criminals and degenerates. “Here you go, sir,” he said unceremoniously when we had reached the end of the last corridor. “He’s all yours.”
“Mr. Knox?” I asked tentatively to the shadowy figure in the corner of the cell at the end of the hall. He started, and stepped into the weak London sunlight that illuminated the cellblock from above, draping himself across the bars.
“That’s me,” he drawled through his thick Cockney accent.
I imagined as I scrutinized him that he must have been an exceptionally beautiful man, long ago; he still was, in a strange way, although the years of prison had clearly taken their toll. He was little more than skin and bones, but he seemed to possess a kind of corruptive vitality that coursed through him and gave him a spark that most of the men I had passed on my way down the hall had lacked utterly. His eyes were sharp and fierce and unwelcoming, and an unnatural shade of pale blue. They were almost colorless.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked.
I blinked. “My name is Sebastian Moran,” I told him. “I was told to contact a man named Humphrey Knox by a severely wounded man, and I believe you are the man to whom he referred me, although I must tell you that I have as little idea why as you do.”
He looked as though he could not have been less interested in my errand. “Well, what’s his name, then?” he asked, in a long-suffering tone.
“James Wilson, I believe.”
He shrugged and flicked something off of one of the bars of his cell
, through which he had laced his scrawny arms. “Never heard of him.”
“I believe he also goes by the name Watson.”
He grinned a little, darkly, revealing a set of severely decayed teeth. “John Watson, then. It’s John, not James.”
“He is rather tall,” I said, “and wears a mustache now, although I do not know for how long. He has rather striking blue eyes and – middling brown hair, I should say.”
He nodded, chewing at a thumbnail. “That’s John, all right,” he said, and smiled wickedly. “That was a long time ago.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I began, “I have no desire to pry – but perhaps you know something that Mr. Watson would have liked for you to tell me? I am afraid I am really in the dark about all of this, and –”
He burst into a fit of manic laughter. “John Watson,” he wheezed. “Fucking Christ. I’ll tell you about Mr. Watson, all right. I don’t know why he’d want you knowing this, but fuck, I’ll tell you. I got no fucking shame.
“John Watson,” he hissed, pressing his face against the bars, “is a great bloody invert.”
“I’m sorry?” I spluttered.
“He likes to take fucking cock up the ass,” Knox spat out, grinning like a madman. “He’s bleeding queer. I should know; sticking it in him was what got me in this fucking hole. The first time, anyway.
“Oh, yes,” he continued, and I thought I could feel him relishing what I imagined was the expression of shock spread across my features. “I knew Johnny boy when he was at university – fucking Cambridge – and we saw each other a few times, you know. And then some bloody prick walked in on us, and that was the end of that. John fucking Watson gets sent down from Cambridge and they spread some cockamamie story about him fucking the wife of one of the dons and getting her – you know. And I’ve got no money, right, so I get shipped off to prison and they leave me to rot. I’m not from some posh family, maybe you’ve noticed. Not like Johnny. Amazing what it can do for you, knowing the right people. Fucking incredible. They disowned him, of course, disowned him right quick. But they gave him enough money for the boat fare.
“So he takes off for Europe or whatever, never says another word to me, and I’m in there a couple of years, and excepting a couple of months here and there I’ve been in this goddamn hole ever since.
“See,” he continued, nearly hissing as he pressed himself closer to the bars, “I keep getting caught for the same thing. And now they’re never going to let me go. Every time I get out they’re going to catch me again, and again, and again. People used to tell me to just stop, you know,” he said, desperate and defiant all at once, “but I can’t. So this is what I’m going to see the rest of my life, this hallway.
“You can tell John Watson to go fuck himself,” he spat. “Why don’t you do that. Tell him to fuck himself, and tell Europe to go fuck itself, because I didn’t have the money to leave my life behind me and do whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted.” He paused.
“I just got fucked.”
I left him there, shouting at me from his cell as I walked briskly to the end of the hallway and was escorted off the premises by the guards. The gates slammed closed behind me and I shuddered as I hurried away from that place.
Before I returned to Baker Street I scrubbed all of the mud off of my shoes, and took a long walk in St. James Park, and lunched at a smoke-filled pub, and hoped that I would find my friend too distracted to notice any details that indicated my whereabouts for the first part of the day.
So the doctor was named John Watson, and he was not a doctor at all, for he had been sent down from Cambridge, and he was an invert. I could not see what any of this information had to do with Sherlock Holmes – presuming that the Holmes to which he had referred was in fact the supposedly late detective. I had learned long ago, however, that the particulars of the affairs of great men were not always apparent to lowly people such as myself. The message that I was to relay to Holmes must have been important enough, if Mr. Watson had – in what he certainly must have believed to be the final moments of his life – conveyed it to me.
That part of my errand had been simple enough. It was the second part that presented a considerably more significant challenge. Behind the lion. There were, I imagined, countless images of lions in London. I quite despaired, in fact, of ever finding the location of Mr. Holmes.
As I had never been one to give up easily, however, I took it upon myself to wander the streets of London in search of lions that might lead me to the man I sought. I passed four days in this fashion, and it was only due to my friend’s immense preoccupation with his case that I managed it undetected. By the end of the fourth day, having had no luck to speak of, I was becoming quite discouraged when I found myself, by pure chance, standing in front of a pub called The Golden Lion. There was a wooden sign swinging in the breeze, across which the lion himself was blazoned in red and gold.
I must admit I stared at it for a very long time. I could not say what it was, exactly, about this particular sign that had sent a chill down my spine; I had come across several images of lions in the past two days and only after investigation had I been forced to admit that there was no sign of Holmes. There was nothing different about this particular lion – nothing at all.
And yet I found my heart beating especially fast as I swung the door open. It was an unremarkable place, and after making some inquiries and staring closely at the patrons I exited. I remembered Sherry Vernet’s face distinctly, but I could not be certain that I had not missed him: he was, after all, a master of disguise. The shops on either side of the pub yielded no results. But what had he said, the doctor: Behind the lion. Behind the lion.
I peered down the alleyway that led past the pub and into the darkness, and found my feet leading me forward. There was a door, I saw, into a building that looked eminently disreputable, and I hesitated for a moment before pushing it open and stepping inside.
It was dark, and dank, and it stank to high heaven of unwashed man. It seemed to be merely a large open space crowded with crates and barrels and the depraved. I fumbled in my pocket for the little box of matches I carried with me to light my cigarettes and struck one. It cast a weird shadow around me as I surveyed the men huddled in corners and in crates. They had scraps of blankets wrapped around them and none of them seemed to be exactly conscious, except those whose hands moved like ghosts to pull pipes slowly towards their lips. It was the most depraved, most sparsely-furnished opium den I had ever seen, and it made my skin crawl.
“You there,” said a voice, but my match burned out before I could turn to look at his face. I lit another as he stepped forward. One conscious, I amended – there was at least one.
He needed badly to shave, and his stringy hair looked as though it had been months since his last bath. He had a high, sloping forehead made higher by his receding hairline, and his yellowing, decayed teeth protruded from his mouth to rest on his lower lip. He was as repulsive a creature as I had ever seen, but there was something conniving and utterly present about his eyes: they were a muddled brown color, but reminded me of nothing so strongly as the beady black eyes of a rat.
“What do you want?” he hissed, spittle flicking out of his deformed mouth. “Not often we get your type here, but we make no… judgments.” He smiled, and I readily confess I shivered at the sight.
“I’m looking for a man who once went by the name of Sherry Vernet,” I said. “He is about so high, and has a full head of brown hair, and the most striking grey eyes you’ve ever seen.”
He shrugged, and the match went out. I hurried to light another. “Never heard of him,” he whispered in the darkness, and when the match flared to life he was gone.
I made my tentative way through the bodies on the floor towards the staircase at the back of the room. I could not see where it led, if indeed it led anywhere at all.
Some minutes later, having climbed two staircases and wandered down three narrow, unlit hallways, I found myself at a door. I stared at it for a long moment. So long as I stood here, in front of the closed door, there was nothing behind it. Whatever lay beyond the door – be it Holmes, or merely another addict, or nothing at all – did not yet exist.
But I knew that what lies beyond a door cannot be erased simply by closing it away. So I tried the handle, and found it unlocked, and swung it open without knocking. I stepped inside.
There was a fire burning weakly in the grate, and a candle burning on the table, and a man who was himself burning into nothing. So this was Holmes: I recognized him, vaguely, from our previous encounter, but I knew that I was seeing him as he was for the first time. He was nearly as disheveled as some of the men outside, though not nearly as dirty, and his pupils were dilated beyond measure, like theirs. His left sleeve was rolled up and a wild pattern of fresh bruises covered the inside of his arm, punctuated by small scabs from where he had stuck himself with the hypodermic needle that lay unceremoniously on the table. I stood for a moment, taking him in – his rumpled hair, his stubble, his untucked shirt, his air of exquisite anguish – before he realized the gravity of the situation and reached gracelessly but with great speed behind his back to produce a revolver, which he held pointed at me with a shaking hand. I held up my hands tentatively and he scowled blackly at me, but the hand holding the gun grew no steadier.
“You are Sherlock Holmes,” I said slowly, quietly, as one might speak to a spooked horse.
“What of it?” he asked, and I detected faint traces of haughtiness in his tone. I imagined he was a very different man when he was not under the influence of this drug. “I do not like the name, I can assure you. I especially do not like it today.”
“I have a message for you,” I told him, still employing to the best of my ability that old, soothing tone. “I have a message for you from John Watson.”
His fingers clutched more desperately at the gun, and I forced myself to stay where I was.
“Please,” I said quietly, “put your pistol down.”
“You cannot have a message from John Watson,” he said without looking quite at me, but rather at something over my left shoulder. “John Watson is dead.”
“I can assure you that he is not.”
He stared at me for a moment before he threw his head back and laughed. It was as deranged a laugh as I have ever heard, but there was in it an undercurrent of genuine sorrow. He lowered the gun and tossed it on the table.
“You are nothing but a shade,” he told me, eyes wild, “nothing but a vision I have dreamed up in my mind. My dear sir – let me enumerate for you the ways in which John Watson is very thoroughly deceased. I know he is dead because I shot him. I,” he announced to the room at large with an unsteady flourish of his arms, empty except for the two of us, “shot him! I shot him in the chest and he bled all over the floor. I shot him in such a way, o foul specter, that the entirety of human medicine could not have kept him alive, even if I had not left him to rot in the attic of the Royal Opera House. When do you suppose they found him, my Ariel? You are, I must tell you, nothing like Ariel – I am disappointed in my imagination. What use is it if it does not provide me with appropriate companionship in my time of grief? I see now – yes, I am Prospero standing alone on my little island, except that I have no daughter to call my own. I can call up you spirits, you demons of my mind – but in the end I have nothing but rocks and sand and this infernal cave where I shall live out the rest of my life in solitude. I should have liked an Ariel. I should have liked a sprite! A sprite would have at least lent poetry to my misery. Instead I have you in your coat and your top hat. You are a disappointment – my mind is a disappointment. And what have I, hmm, but my mind, now? I am alone with it in the darkness.”
His face was exaggerated in its anger, and pain, and misery, and I remembered he had been years upon the stage. “My good man,” I said quietly. “I am not a figment of your imagination. I assure you that I stand here before you with a message from your friend – it is a message, I admit, that is well beyond my comprehension, but it is a message nevertheless.”
He snorted. “I am sure,” he replied, in tones that betrayed his great skepticism.
“Sir,” I told him, “I met you once, a year ago and some, at the Royal Court Theatre on Drury Lane. You were introduced as Sherry Vernet. I was with a man who called himself Henry Camberlay but who is in fact named James Moriarty. You sent him a letter that concluded the affair. It was signed Rache.”
He blinked blearily at me and took a step backward, sniffing a little. “That means little enough. I remember every face I see – I have no idea why my mind has dredged you up, but it is hardly for me to explain why it has chosen you over any number of people.”
“Mr. Moriarty and I have been on your trail this past year,” I told him. “We were sent to the Royal Opera House in search of you, and we found your friend Mr. Watson in the attic. He is alive, sir. He was conscious when I found him, and he told me I had to tell you something. He said to tell you Humphrey Knox.”
Holmes blinked at me. His eyes were red and watery and he looked completely uncomprehending. “Who the devil is Humphrey Knox?” he asked, baffled.
“I took the liberty of finding that out for myself,” I admitted. “He is a convict, locked up at Wandsworth. He knew John Watson in his university years, and he claimed he knew why Mr. Watson was sent down and why he left the country.”
Holmes waved a dismissive hand at me, pressing the other against the table. “That is hardly news, sir – he impregnated the wife of one of the dons and then left in a hurry, and spent six years on the continent – making acquaintances with all the wrong sorts of people, I would imagine. I believe it was there that he became involved with the royal cause… it was a long con he pulled on me, John Watson,” he mumbled, looking utterly dejected. “He has been feeding information to that rat Moriarty for months now. Perhaps longer.”
“Sir,” I told him, for I was somewhat afraid he had forgotten my presence entirely. “He did not impregnate anybody at Cambridge, and he has never given information about you to the police. I have proof to the contrary on each account.”
He looked back at me, finally. His expression was guarded – he would not, I knew, let himself hope, not yet. But I would make him, if it were the last thing I did. “Well, the easier thing – the person leaking your information is a woman by the name of Irene Adler.”
“Impossible,” he scoffed immediately.
“She was in my sitting room yesterday,” I countered. “She is a frighteningly emaciated woman, and wore a sapphire ring on the fourth finger of her right hand.”
He rubbed at his bruises compulsively, shoulders still hunched defensively. “That does not explain,” he said tightly, “his activities in Europe.”
“That I know very little about,” I admitted. “This is the cryptic part, I am afraid – but I know, in any case, that he impregnated nobody. He is – he is an invert. Humphrey Knox was his partner at the time, and when they were discovered he was sent to prison while Mr. Watson was merely sent down from Cambridge. He was disowned by his family and left for the continent. I am afraid I do not know what he did there.”
I do not know that I possess the words to adequately describe the expression on Sherlock Holmes’ face in the moments that followed this pronouncement. It was a perfect combination of utterly magnificent horror and the purest, most unadulterated joy I believe I have ever seen.
“My dear fellow,” I said quietly. “He is not dead.”
“That is not possible,” Holmes whispered. His hands were shaking violently now, and I was glad he no longer held the revolver.
“My – Mr. Moriarty had him taken to the Queen,” I told him. “She has… unusual capabilities.”
The joy drained from his face. “They took him to the Queen,” he whispered. He was white as a sheet and there was a new clarity in his eyes. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”
“He told them nothing,” I murmured. “Not one word. He is in the Tower now.”
“Oh god,” he repeated, and I thought for a moment he might faint, but he held himself up with the table. “Oh Christ.” He stumbled to one of the two armchairs in the room and collapsed into. “I have… I have…” He turned his face back to me. “You are quite certain you exist?”
He ran a hand through his already disheveled hair. “I must think,” he muttered to himself, and got up again to pace back and forth across the room. “I must think,” he repeated. “The Tower, the Tower… do you know where exactly he is being held?”
“No,” I told him. “I’m afraid not.”
“Damn it,” he muttered. He paused suddenly, and turned to gaze at me with a piercing stare that could not have been more different from the drug-addled haze that had clouded his eyes only minutes before.
“Who are you?” he asked me. There was a hint of suspicion in his tone, but simple curiosity dominated. “You have said you are an associate of James Moriarty – but if that is so then what on earth are you doing here with a message from John Watson? I know how you received the message,” he amended, waving a hand to dismiss my protestation. “I am more interested in what motivated you to convey it to me.”
I thought about this for a moment. “I had to,” I said finally. “I just had to.”
He cocked his head to one side and scrutinized me for a moment longer.
“You will have to remind me what your friend Moriarty looks like,” he told me, smiling a madman’s smile.
It was all a morass, it seemed: my life. The space around me. The fragile, flickering thoughts dancing across my skull. I was nowhere. I was in my mind. I saw nothing in the darkness, heard nothing. Silence bore down upon me. Long ago I had lived in a city where the sun had shone, sometimes. I could not conceive of a sun. I could only conceive of this darkness around me. I was stranded at midnight.
Who had I been, before? What sort of a man? I believed I was still a man but I had no conception of men. I hoped I was a good man, although I could not think of what that might mean.
And then I could feel my body again – I could feel my self – I could feel a hand on my forehead, and fingers stroking the hair at my temples, gently. And without thinking I opened my mouth – my lips were dry and stung when they pulled apart – and whispered, hoarsely, “Holmes?”
The hand stilled, and for a moment it was gone, and the thought crossed my panic-stricken brain that I had imagined him before I felt him taking my hand in both of his own. With an immense effort I managed to open my eyes, and blinked blearily at him. He was in disguise but I knew him. I saw now that he was shaking, although the hands pressed around my own were steady enough. His expression would have looked merely fond to a stranger but to me, who knew him best, it was a fragile and trembling thing: he was holding himself together with all of his self-possession but a great weight of guilt lurked behind his eyes. It only made me love him more. I know you, I thought, again and again. I know things about you that even you do not know.
“Yes,” he murmured.
“It is very good to see you,” I managed, even though my mouth felt like sandpaper, and that was all it took to undo every fragment of control he had worked into his being. It all came tumbling down, and he shook violently, clutching to my hand as if it were a lifeline, trying desperately not to shed the tears that shone brightly in his eyes.
“I cannot imagine why,” he choked out. “My – my dear, dear boy. I think I have perhaps dreamed you, for I am quite certain that men so loyal do not exist.”
“I have never expected you to be anything other than what you are,” I told him, hoarsely. “You are hardly to be faulted for it, Holmes.”
“I assure you,” he told me, acerbically, “I find no difficulty whatsoever in faulting myself for all manner of things, not least my character. It is wholly repellant to me.”
“Do not speak like that,” I chided him. “I do not blame you for it, you know. I could have – well. Things could have ended quite differently, but they did not, and now you are here, and so I am content. That is all that matters.”
He looked at me for a long moment, and then said, “Someday, John Watson, I am going to make you tell me all of your secrets, even the ones I already know. But today, unfortunately, is not that day. Today we have to get you out of this infernal cell, and back home – in one piece, preferably.” He placed my hand gently by my side, reaching up to pull the coarse blanket that had, I saw, been covering me away from my body, and slipped one of his arms around my shoulders to heave me up.
For the first time, I took in the room around us. It was small, and dark, and the walls were made entirely of stone. There was a bucket in the corner and a little stool next to the bed where I supposed I had been laying. My legs trembled beneath me when he levered me into a standing position, but he held me upright. “Here,” he said, reaching to the foot of the bed, where he had laid out a top hat and coat of mine. They covered me well enough, in my tattered clothes, although I was barefoot. “Bugger,” he muttered, looking at my feet. “Nothing to be done about it, I suppose.”
“Holmes,” I said, somewhat dazed, “where are we?”
“The Tower of London, old chap,” he muttered as he led me haltingly to the door.
“And who are you supposed to be?”
“That – detective – Moriarty,” he spat out, derisively. “We are using you for bait, just so you know, to attract Sherry Vernet. It seems,” he said, in a tone of voice that was suffused with uncharacteristic warmth, “that the authorities were unable to extract any shred of information from you about his whereabouts. Drastic measures must be taken,” he added mildly, but I could see the corner of his mouth turning up. He had made himself a little taller somehow, and looked much more refined – well-kempt, really – than I was used to, and his hair was a somewhat paler shade of brown, but otherwise he looked like himself.
“Has nobody realized you are not he?” I asked, somewhat impressed.
“Not a one,” he said cheerfully as he turned the door handle. “It seems we are not so dissimilar, he and I – not on the surface, anyway,” he amended seriously, and opened the door.
“Thank you, sir,” Holmes said brusquely to the guard standing in the hallway, arm still wrapped around my shoulders. “Moran, if you would?”
The man who had been leaning against the wall opposite the door to my cell came forward to add his arm to Holmes’. He seemed to be an unremarkable sort of chap: unassuming, bland-looking. He was, I thought, exactly the sort of person whom everybody forgot immediately. It was a useful trait to possess, and I wondered whether he knew it, and whether he used it to his advantage.
Still, he seemed strangely familiar to me. I could not quite put my finger on it, but instead let my head fall limply down to my chest, even as I exerted all of my strength to keep myself upright.
Soon I had no thoughts except for the next step, and the one after, and the one after that. It seemed an impossibly long journey back into the world from the perpetual night of the Tower, and I found myself hoping desperately that it would be day when we emerged, and that the sun would be shining. When we eventually reached the last door and a guarded opened it for us, I nearly collapsed at the sight of falling snow streaming into the hallway out of the darkness outside. It was night. I wondered what time it was. It felt, at least, like midnight.
“Yes,” Holmes said, “that one, there.” And so I was shuffled inside the cab, bare feet freezing in the thin layer of snow that had accumulated on the ground, and we departed from the prison that was the Tower of London without difficulty. I could hardly believe it. It seemed like such a phenomenal impossibility, and yet there I was.
“Extraordinary,” Holmes said, fairly laughing at the absurdity of it all.
“The London police force,” the man called Moran said mildly from the other side of the cab. “Imbeciles, the lot.” He was smiling faintly, and there was a calm about his features that indicated a state of supreme enlightenment. I decided, impulsively, that I liked him – not only because he had helped me, but also because he seemed to be a decent soul, a kind soul, and Lord only knew we had few enough of those in London. We needed more of them, I thought. One was a start.
Holmes must have known the cab driver somehow, or else had bribed him into silence, because he dropped us at the Hotel Luxembourg – which was, really, something of a dive – and drove away without a word. The two of them helped me into the building
, and up the stairs to the room Holmes had apparently booked, which was small but which faced the street and had a long window. I collapsed onto the bed and let my limbs recover. Holmes stood at the window for a moment, looking at the few passersby below, before disappearing into the bathroom to divest himself of his disguise. When he reappeared he was Sherlock Holmes once more, as I had always known him, and the sight of his familiar face unmarred by powders and paints was a relief. He had even, I noticed with some amusement, mussed up his hair from its formerly pristine condition. His sharp grey eyes flickered around the room, taking everything in, and I wondered what grand scheme he could possibly be thinking of now.
“What will you do about this man Moriarty?” I asked once he had begun to pace. “I take it he knows the location of our lodgings, or else we would not be here.”
“Irene will have told him, I am certain,” he murmured, and I confess I almost did not believe my ears. “She has strung him along thus far but I do not doubt that – in light of recent events – she will have been forced to play her final card.”
“Irene?” I asked dumbly. “Whatever has she to do with any of this?”
Holmes sent me a terse little smile as he paced. “It seems Miss Adler has had one over us, old boy. She has apparently been feeding information to this man Moriarty for some time now.”
“But why?” I cried, deeply agitated. “I cannot think of anything that would possibly motivate her to do such a thing. Of all of us, she was the most wronged by the blood royal. I simply cannot conceive of it – and besides,” I added, frowning, “why would she not have brought them to our door months ago?”
“Well,” Holmes said grimly, “whatever the reason, she has done it.” My hands, I realized, were trembling, and I fisted them in the coverlet. Holmes rounded on the man – Moran, I reminded myself – standing in the other corner of the room and said, “I need hardly point out that you know him better than we. What will be his next move, do you think?”
Moran thought this over for a minute or more, and I found myself intensely curious about him
, and why he was standing here in front of us not as an enemy as a but friend.
“He will go,” he said slowly, “he will go, I think… to your digs, the instant Miss Adler has relayed to him their location. He is very reliant upon the police, although he tries to masquerade this… he has very little respect for them, you see. Usually he takes them with him nevertheless, but tonight… tonight, I cannot say what he will do.
“He is quite obsessed, you know, with your ability to evade him,” he added quietly. “And the insistent refusal of your coconspirators to let slip anything that might give you away.”
The barest shadow of a memory flashed before me for a moment, and I shuddered. But he had said that I had not said anything that would endanger him. I did not remember speaking at all.
Holmes stopped his pacing and gazed once again out the window, although I knew he did not really see the falling snowflakes or any of the men and women brave enough to be walking on the street below at such a late hour, or even the buildings that faced ours across the way. He was thinking.
“I only know what I would do,” he murmured, and did not elaborate for another long minute. Moran and I merely watched him, waiting. It is the fate of men who associate with geniuses to do a lot of waiting; I had grown accustomed to it years before. Moran looked equally acquainted with the practice. Finally, Holmes spoke.
“He will go alone,” he pronounced. “Or very nearly. I cannot imagine that he will bring the police with him. He will be too eager. Yes,” he murmured
, to himself, though we could still hear him, “yes, that is how I shall get him.”
“What do you plan to do?” I asked.
“I shall return to our lodgings,” he said, with an air of finality. “I shall wait for him, and I shall deal with him once and for all when he arrives.”
“Holmes,” I protested, “that is utter madness – supposing he does bring the police? You will be utterly done for, and for no good reason.”
“Defeating him is reason enough,” he said darkly.
“Let me accompany you,” I said. “You are not used to being alone.”
“Do not be absurd,” he snapped dismissively. “You are in no state to do any such thing.”
“Well I can hardly let you –” I began, aggrieved, when Moran – about whom, I must admit, I had completely forgotten – interrupted the argument.
“I will go,” he said quietly. He looked a trifle pale, but he seemed determined enough. “Two is better than one, and that way Mr. Watson can stay here and rest.
“Besides,” he added, “I know him better than either of you.”
I could hardly argue with him. He had logic on his side. Still, his resolution was admirable. I wondered again how he had ended up in this little hotel room with two of the most wanted criminals in London. He seemed an utterly reputable fellow. An enigma, to be sure.
Holmes, I could tell, wanted to go alone, but even he could not disagree with the man’s reasoning. “Very well,” he sighed, resigned. “We should go as soon as possible. They will be soon in coming, I think. If you wouldn’t mind running down and securing us a cab, I would be much obliged. I will follow you shortly.”
Moran nodded, gave a little bow, and left. Holmes stared absently at the door through which he had passed for a moment before seeming to remember himself
, and turning back to me. He did not seem to know what to say, however, and merely gazed at me, in the way that he has of not looking directly into a person’s eyes but rather at all of the features that surround them.
“Holmes,” I asked suddenly. “What day is it?”
“Saturday the eighteenth,” he murmured absently, and I went cold.
“What of Maclean?” I asked. “Irene – she will have –”
“Yes,” he said, very quietly, finally turning his eyes to mine.
“But then,” I gasped, “you must – you must –”
He shook his head, just a little, and I began to realize the magnitude of the decision he had made. “It is too late,” he told me, gently enough. “It is past the midnight stroke, I am afraid. I do not know what has happened to him.”
“Good God,” I breathed. “Holmes. Why did you not – why did you not stop him before coming for me?”
He smiled faintly, and it made him look haunted, or hunted, maybe. “I did what I had to,” he whispered, and then turned promptly and vanished from my sight before I could reply.
It had stopped snowing. The streetlamp next to The Golden Lion cast a strange, circular light down the alleyway and into the street. I could not see Holmes in the shadows that lingered around its edges, but I knew he was there. He had ordered me to stand on the other side of the street, and under my cover of night I watched the road
, and the sidewalks, and waited for my friend – for Moriarty to arrive.
I had before then made a concentrated effort to avoid self-analysis. I had not thought at all about what I was doing, for I knew that if I allowed myself to think I would panic, and the thin thread of courage to which I clung so desperately would crumble away into nothing. But now, standing alone in the dark, waiting for him to arrive, the man with whom I had lived this past year and who had never shown me anything but kindness, the sweat began to gather at the back of my neck in spite of the cold. I was, I realized distantly, afraid.
(“Stay in the shadows,” Holmes had instructed me. “Do not shoot unless he has the gum pointed at you, or at me.” I tightened my gloved fingers on the pistol in my pocket and waited.)
I do not know how long we stood there, in the snow. Nothing changed: the light was steady, the darkness constant, and the inch or so of snow covering the ground unblemished except for wheel-marks on the road and our two sets of footprints. I hoped he did not see them, as they, too, were hidden by the night.
I heard him before I saw him – or, I should say, heard them. They were walking quickly. A few moments later the two of them appeared in the streetlight’s glow, and I strained to hear their conversation.
“Let me go,” hissed the woman, Miss Irene Adler. She was as gaunt as I remembered, a quality that was exaggerated by the tense set of her jaw and harsh line of her shoulders. He had his left hand gripped tightly around her upper arm and his right held a revolver. His hair swooped wildly around his head and he looked as though he was in desperate need of a shave: all in all, the picture he presented was a far cry from his typically immaculate appearance. His face was twisted with anger and it made him look ugly.
“I am not letting you go until I have Sherry Vernet in my hands,” he snarled, “alive or dead, it matters not to me. Until then…” He turned and scanned the surrounding darkness, looking straight at me for a moment before he continued on. I realized that he had not seen me and allowed myself to exhale, just a little.
“Well, get on with it,” he said to her, shaking her a little. “Which one is it?”
But before she could answer, Holmes replied himself. “My dear man,” he said, calm and cold, “I don’t believe that shall be necessary.” He had done something to his voice, thrown it away from himself like a ventriloquist. He had, I remembered suddenly, been an actor. Even if I had I not known this, the modulation of his voice would have given it away. It was clear without being excessively loud and sounded as though it were coming from the alley. My friend turned quickly towards the echo, tugging Irene with him. His footprints marred the clean white snow coating the sidewalk.
“Miss Adler,” Holmes continued, “if you would step to the side, please. Let go of her, detective,” he added a moment later, after she had tried and been pulled back by the viselike grasp of my friend’s hand around her arm. It sounded as though the voice was coming from behind them now. My friend let her go and she drew back into herself, arms wrapped around her torso, but she was not foolish enough to try to run away. Instead she stood as still as a stone at the edge of where the light met the surrounding darkness, eyes flicking one way and then the next, trying to divine Holmes’ location.
“Now,” said Holmes, and my friend spun around once more, pistol raised. “I believe we have some unfinished business, Mr. Moriarty.”
“Indeed,” my friend replied, scowling. “You seem quite bent upon flagrantly violating the law, and getting other people killed for it.”
“Every man has a calling, detective,” Holmes told him, sounding almost amused. “It is simply unfortunate for you that I was not called to be a criminal – no, indeed. I was called to be a detective – the first independent consulting detective, in fact. You have aped my practice quite abysmally, I have to tell you, although you started off with some promise.”
I did not believe I had ever seen my friend look so utterly confused. “What on earth are you talking about?” he asked finally.
“My name is Sherlock Holmes,” Holmes pronounced. His voice was spinning dizzily around us, so that even I could not longer pinpoint exactly where he stood. “You probably remember the name, though it has been some years since I shed it.” The blood drained from my friend’s face, and I saw his arm begin to shake. “You see, detective, I was not by nature a criminal man – no, indeed. As a young man I wished more than anything to solve crimes, to put those men who perpetrate them behind bars.
“But this is a strange world we live in, Mr. Moriarty. Everything is upside down. In order to pursue my calling – which I like to call justice – I have been forced outside of the law, and it has become my purpose to do war against it, for the law, as you know, is merely an extension of the Queen and her progeny. And of all the creatures in this nation, and this city, they are, I have found, the most criminal.
“Do you know,” he added, contemplatively, “I think that if things had been different for you, and for me, that this entire play we have made for ourselves would have gone quite differently. Can you imagine it? I think you would have been a criminal yourself, in a different time and place, and I the detective hunting you down. How do you think it would end? I imagine we would destroy each other. That much, at least, would be the same.”
My friend’s eyes were opened wide and I saw that my fear was negligible next to his. His fear, I realized suddenly, burdened for a moment by the weight of epiphany, was immense – unending. His life, I knew now, was a construct of his fear, of his cowardice; he did nothing that did not lead directly back to that great, black force eating away at him from the inside. I found myself repelled by him.
“You are mad,” he said flatly, voice quivering just slightly, and in the briefest instant he straightened the arm that held the pistol, pointing it at the space where I thought Holmes was hiding. But before he could pull the trigger I heard a shot, and he stopped, distracted. The gun was heavy in my hand – I realized I had fired it. He looked down at his chest, where red blood was beginning to well, and at the splotched stain on his white chest. He turned and looked directly at me.
“There you are,” he said, and I did not know whether he meant Holmes or me. He was swaying slightly, and I expected him to collapse at any moment.
But first he raised his revolver once more.
For a moment after the gunshots I could not hear anything. There was a horrible jangling in my ears as I watched Moriarty bleed to death on the ground before me. I could not quite gather the energy to help him. He was a dead man no matter what I did.
I did walk cautiously to the shadowy figure collapsed in the direction he had shot. I stepped into the darkness and levered him over before taking a few, hurried paces backwards. It was the other man I had met at Baker Street some weeks before, and he was dead. There was a bullet hole in his forehead and he, too, had bled all over the snow.
“My dear Irene,” Holmes said from behind me, voice cold. “We are not finished.”
I turned in time to see him step into the streetlamp’s light. His hat cast a dark shadow over his face but I did not need to see it to feel the anger radiating off of him.
“He’s dead,” I said shortly, straightening my back as much as I could. A brief spasm of pain shot through the muscles around the base of my spine, but I ignored it.
“A pity,” he said as I stepped back into the light. “He seemed like a good man.”
I shrugged. “Who can tell a good man from a bad one?” I asked
, flippantly. He would not like the question, I knew. I could not bring myself to care. I felt my death coming upon me and I raised my chin to welcome it.
“I can,” he replied, and I laughed a little, bleakly.
“You cannot,” I told him. “You would not have shot your dear Watson, else wise.”
He had nothing to say to that, as I had known he would not. He merely stepped forward once again, hands clasped behind him. I wondered where his revolver was. I knew he had one on him. I could feel it.
“For a moment,” he said eventually, looking at the corpse sprawled gracelessly in front of us, “I could not begin to imagine why you had done it. And then I thought, and I realized that there is always something that men more powerful than we can hold over us to convince us to do things that we despise.
“They have somebody of yours,” he continued when I remained silent. “Held somewhere, I would imagine.”
“Yes,” I said miserably, for he had discovered my secret. “I was supposed to marry him,” I murmured. “I was supposed to marry him years ago. And then they took him away from me, because Franz decided… anyway they did not kill him. I do not know why. Perhaps they knew he would be useful one day.”
He was watching me now, but I did not look at him. I gazed instead at the soiled snow, and the deep night that lay beyond our little illuminated space. “I told them I seduced you,” I said flatly, “and that I would hand over your secrets if they would only give him back to me.
“But they said no,” I whispered. I could not stop my tale: it rushed out of me unbidden, like a river suddenly rushed to flood. “They said they would let me see him once for every piece of information I gave them. And they did. So I pretended you were only telling me little things, dragged it out for as long as I could… and I hoped that once they had you, that they would finally let him go.
“But they wouldn’t.” I knew that now. I knew that he was gone from me forever.
“I met him in Paris,” I told him. I did not care who he was, I did not care whether or not he wanted to hear my story. It was the only one I had just for myself, and I knew that if I died without telling it, then nobody would have known me, nobody at all. “He was very charming, and a musician. He was not interested in me at first, but I got him to go to the opera and I sang like I had never sung before, because he was there, and then he came to me, and he was mine, for a little while.
“Then we traveled to Prague,” I said, and laughed miserably, desperately. I said no more: I did not need to.
He sighed. “I would have broken him out, you know,” he told me dully.
I smiled a little, joylessly. “You didn’t manage to do it for me,” I said, and he flinched. “You killed Franz, but you left me with the rest of them.”
“I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“Are you going to shoot me now?” I asked, raising my chin again.
“No,” he said. I stared at him for a moment, scrutinizing, and then decided not to question my good fortune.
“In that case, goodbye,” I replied, and held out my hand for him to shake. I always shook hands like that, like men did. He clasped it firmly in his own. “I hope we do not see each other for a long time, Sherlock.”
“Likewise,” he murmured, and for the first time that evening I realized how exhausted he looked. He was almost shaking. “I will see what I can do about him,” he told me as I turned to leave him there. “If you tell me his name.”
I looked at him over my shoulder. “Godfrey,” I said finally. “Godfrey Norton.”
He nodded, and I disappeared into the darkness of London, my terrible city, and prepared to let it consume me once more.
I left the bodies on the road. Someone would find them and the police would puzzle endlessly over the strange circumstances without ever coming to a conclusion. For now, the sun was rising.
Once or twice I think someone has recognized me here – it is an inexplicable thing, really, nothing more than a drawn-out glance from somebody walking past me on the street. I have learned to ignore them and walk serenely on past. It has been years since I lived in Paris, and as far as I can recall I sported no mustache then. There is no real danger, none that I have found so far at any rate, but when you have done what I have done, and seen what I have seen, traces of the past always remain. And so I feel their eyes on me, the Parisians whom I pass on my walks, and I know I always will. It is a part of me now, the same way that my leg injury has become a part of me.
Holmes, it turns out, speaks a precise and perfect French. I do not know why this should surprise me, but it does. I suppose I had thought of him as persistently Albionic. I asked him, shortly after our arrival, why he had never demonstrated this particular skill before, even in our previous, brief visit to the city as part of the Strand Players; he shrugged, and answered evasively. I did not pursue my question further. There are things we do not say to each other – he does not ask, for instance, what happened to my leg – but they are trifles.
Paris is like London, in many ways, especially our squalid arrondissement, but it would be impossible to mistake the one for the other. Paris is no calmer than London but it pretends as though it is, so the discovery of its raging, underground depravities is at first glance a surprise. They quickly become ordinary.
We came to Paris so that my health could be restored. It is not a very sensible place to recuperate from a serious injury, but I do not particularly care. We are not very sensible people. Lord only knows that months at the shore would do nothing but drive both of us mad, Holmes especially. He is not an exceptionally patient man, and he hates to be idle. Here he has enmeshed himself in la Restauration, as they call it. It pains me somewhat to know that he is traipsing about and putting himself in danger without me, but some things cannot be helped. For several months I could not leave our digs. Now I am up and walking, but I am not quite myself. I doubt, sometimes, that I shall ever be quite myself again. It will take some time to adjust to the idea, but I believe I am on the right path. The fact that I am even alive is blessing enough.
Maclean’s trial began last week. I have read about it in the papers but have not discussed it with Holmes. It does not bear discussing. He is pleading insanity. They have no evidence to the contrary, nothing to tangibly link him to our destroyed printing press. He is, to the people of New Albion, nothing more than a madman. He will hang for it nevertheless. Her Majesty’s courts are not particularly forgiving of assassins, even those who have failed, even those who are insane.
Each night, before I go to sleep, I look at the strange silver scar on my abdomen. It is fading. I do not know whether it will be gone entirely one day. The paler it becomes, the closer we are to returning to New Albion. I know this. It will kill us, probably, but we will go. Holmes cannot stay here, no matter how much he likes the people, or the city, or the language; no matter how involved he becomes with their own revolution. He will always be drawn back to his city, as will I. It is calling us, even now, from across the water, calling us home. She is waiting for us, Victoria Regina: she is as powerful as ever.
And we will try to kill her again. And again, and again, until we have succeeded. Because we have to. Because we have no choice. I expect to die in the attempt. It will not be a bad way to go.
It will not have been a bad life.
It is September again when Holmes insists we must take a weekend in the country. “You will see why,” is all he will tell me, so I roll my eyes and pack an overnight bag and we get on a train.
It is a quaint little town that he has brought me to, and still he will not explain
, until the second evening, when he suggests we take a walk in the night. I agree – with Holmes, this is often the only choice.
We walk for a few miles before he stops to lean against the fence along the side of the road. “Look,” he says, and points upward.
A streak of white light is blazoned across the sky, blocking out some of the stars. I am not ashamed to admit that I gasp a little, and lean against the fence myself.
“It is beautiful,” I murmur.
“It is indeed,” Holmes says quietly, and we both watch it for a while as it charts its blazing, slow path through the sky. It looks frozen in space up there but I know that it is moving, as we are. “What is out there, I wonder. What more.”
I do not answer him. It is not the type of question that needs answering.
“Watson,” he says, several minutes later, still staring up at the comet. “I do not know how much you remember, of…” He trails off, but I know what he means.
“Not very much,” I tell him. “Enough, I think.”
“Hmm,” he hums, and I think he seems a little agitated, although he is doing his best to hide it. “You told Moran to tell me to find a man by the name of Humphrey Knox.”
“Did I?” I ask, and am forced to reevaluate my position on the movement of the planet: it is indeed spinning, frightfully quickly, and I can feel every inch.
“Yes,” he murmurs. “He found him, in fact.”
“Did he,” I say, and the blood is hammering in my ears now, and I cannot tell whether I am afraid or whether I am feeling something entirely different, something I cannot put a name to, something far from fear.
“My dear Watson,” he says, voice breaking on my name, “I am afraid we have both been exceptionally stupid.”
I glance over at him, and he is gazing at me with his silver eyes all ablaze; they are brighter than the comet above us; brighter than the brightest light that has ever burned on this earth, and I know; I know; I know everything that is worth knowing, suddenly; it is beyond logic, this feeling, it is entirely different; and then as I kiss him like a bruise I feel my heart and my soul and everything I know about myself flowing into him; it is his now, and everything that makes him Sherlock Holmes is mine: his brilliance, his arrogance, his seven percent solution, his madness, his dedication to justice, which he has somehow abandoned for a while, for me; I know this from the feeling of his hand clutching desperately at the back of my waistcoat, and the other pulling insistently at my hair, and the soft sounds he is making in his throat, and the awkward impact of his teeth against mine as we push desperately closer, and closer. I close my eyes, and welcome the darkness.