It was with great amusement that I read Watson's account in February 1904 of the Peter Carey affair, which he so fancifully titled The Adventure of Black Peter. I had retired the previous summer and had given permission to my erstwhile Boswell to resume publications of our cases together. He did so with relish, promptly bringing me back to life and weaving fanciful tales that often hardly resembled what really occurred.
The time immediately after I had returned from my three years abroad had been rather productive ones professionally and he took to telling those tales almost immediately. That time was also a period of significant personal happiness - Watson had returned to Baker Street and we had fallen back into the comfortable routine that had marked our days prior to his marriage. And, I had found a steady lover, something I had not enjoyed since my school days.
After reading the opening sentence of that month's story in Collier's while standing in the lobby of the post office I had dashed off a quick telegram that simply read, MY BLUSHES, WATSON.
When I settled in that evening before my warm fire, wrapped in a cozy dressing gown against the chill of a wet February night I knew immediately that Watson had written this story to tease me with his pawky sense of humor. There it was, as clear as ever, that while Watson was telling his - he would argue, my - adoring public the alarming tale of Peter Carey, he was in fact reminding me of an altogether different case of mine that I had solved merely weeks before Peter Carey's murder - that of the arrest of Joe Wilson, the East London canary-trainer.
It was a beautiful early June evening in 1895, our windows were thrown open and I had found myself to be in an excellent humor, cheerfully humming snatches of concertos, sonatas, and fugues, flitting about between experiments, pasting newspaper clippings into my indexes, and teasing Watson about simply everything that day. He was in good humor as well, laughing all the while.
I could tell quite clearly that he had found himself an assignation, most likely a discreet widow, although he didn't mention a thing and I was happy for him as he seemed to finally shake off the last of the depression that had lingered over him since his Mary's passing and my own long absence. He had taken to walking to and from the hospital when he could, more than once arriving home sopping wet after having been caught out in a late spring shower, but not even a little rain could dampen his mood.
And as for myself, a young police inspector had managed to charm his way into my bed that spring and remain there for a few years. Between the plethora of cases to keep my mind active, Watson's easy and comfortable presence in our home, and Stanley Hopkins's rather passionate embraces, I was quite possibly the happiest I had ever been in my life.
Watson accused me of having a clockwork heart more than once. Iit was a measure of Watson's thankfully generous nature and own kind heart that his discovery that Sherlock Holmes did indeed know how to love did not result in two years' hard labor. Here I am now, a decade later, trading sarcastic telegrams and hidden messages in the pages of Collier's with quite possibly the most understanding man in existence.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
On that June evening in 1895 I had seen Stanley out about an hour before I heard Watson clattering up the stairs. In our heady rush of new discovery and my quenching of certain thirsts that had not been quenched on any sort of regular basis for years, I had taken a great risk in bringing Stanley to Baker street for our rendezvous even when I knew Watson was to be gone for the day. But it was worth it, I thought as I stretched out on the sofa, feeling lazy and sated.
Watson greeted me with a flurry of energy, chattering on about his day, Mrs. Hudson's plans for supper, and his own ideas about my current caseload. He never writes of it, often portraying me as this sort of isolated deducting machine, but in reality our relationship was truly much more of a partnership. I often found my solutions in things that he said, drawing conscious conclusions from the facts where he had drawn unconscious ones and then merely stated them in a disconnected manner aloud. I encouraged it, knowing the value of his own observations, and we often discussed cases late into the night.
That evening, however, he was full of information about his own work. His furious publishing during the years after my disappearance in in Switzerland had made him financially comfortable and he had sold his practice and returned with me to Baker Street. During my time away, he had formed a solid friendship with Lestrade and had been known to help Scotland Yard at times as a police surgeon on particularly challenging cases often enough that the various police inspectors we encountered in my work often greeted him cheerily and personally. I was only vaguely half-listening, still relaxed and easy after my afternoon exercise when the tenor of his voice changed and altered me that this topic was not only of great importance to him, but was also causing him some distress.
He had just begun to tell me of two younger patients that had been in to a clinic in the East End that he volunteered his services at that showed signs of exceptional abuse, not merely the kind brought on by the life of desperate poverty, but rather the kind dealt by hands that felt such children were playthings to be used and discarded. I murmured something soothing and he huffed in frustration.
"No, Holmes, there is something going on, something different."
"Canaries," I replied.
"Canaries." I sat up and leaned over the back of the sofa to look at him lounging in the desk chair beside the open window. "They're called canaries."
"Who? Holmes, I'm referring to children, not birds."
"So am I," I replied. "In certain circles of sin and depravity that cater to such abhorrent tastes, they are called canaries. Children, boys and girls really, young and just beginning to show the signs of physical adulthood who are conditioned and trained to be the playthings of those who receive sexual gratification from gross bodily harm."
Watson curled his lip in disgust.
"Yes, because they sing so prettily."
Watson cursed under his breath, the mood had grown dark and depressed. The very idea of what we were discussing was abhorrently repulsive to me, but there were many who would not hesitate to also consider what I had been busy doing that afternoon with another grown man to be of the same sort.
I knew that if I were to continue to carry on with Stanley, Watson would eventually find out, he was too clever and observant not to. I had once solved a minor puzzle for my acquaintance Edward Carpenter in 1886 and had dragged Watson off to Sheffield with me when I took the case as an excuse to visit Carpenter. There had been little doubt as to the nature of his relationship with his companion George, but Watson had blithely ignored it. On the train home he had seemed more amused by Carpenter's passionate socialism and bothered by his choice in footwear than he was by his companion. I was fairly confident that Watson would not expose me publicly, but not being willing to publicly and legally condemn my activities and comfortably remaining close friends and collegues with an invert were two entirely separate things.
Having been absorbed by my own thoughts I was startled by a clatter of feet on our stairs. The sitting room door opened and a small dirty face peeked around the it before Mrs. Hudson pushed past the small gathering on the landing and opened it fully with a disapproving look. I hid a smile.
"Do come in," I said, rising to my feet and gesturing broadly to the room.
Four young boys shuffled in, wiping their faces hurriedly on dirty sleeves. Watson half rose from his chair and looked at me questioningly.
"You wish to engage my services?" I asked as the boys lined up together and started not-so-subtly elbowing each other to speak.
"Yes sir, begging your pardon sir, we do sir."
The smallest one thrust out a fistfull of mismatched coins in the smallest denominations in my direction. I glanced at Watson in order to have a moment to school my features and hide the smile that was threatening. Watson met my look with a raised eyebrow. Far less than my usual fee, but a small fortune for these street children. I held up a hand.
"I don't negotiate my fees until I have decided whether or not I shall take the case. Watson, please ring Mrs. Hudson for some refreshments for our guests while I hear these young gentlemen out."
Watson rose and stepped onto the landing with a quick indulgent smile tossed my way out of sight from the boys. He returned a few minutes later bearing a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and six small glasses followed by an annoyed looking Mrs. Hudson carrying a tray laden with what must have been half her pantry. I smiled at Watson as he set his burden on the table and shooed Mrs. Hudson back out.
"Tea!" I exclaimed, leaping from the sofa and bounding over to the table. The boys followed my movements with wide eyes. "Come, come," I said, gesturing them over. It wasn't quite tea, and it certainly was more than anything we had ever served potential clients before, but hospitality through food on the table was universal to young and old, rich and poor alike and engaging in such rituals would put my young clients at ease.
"Now," I said as four little boys crowded around the table, reaching for the meats and bread and cheese, "tell me it exactly what you wish to hire me for, leave out no detail, and explain everything."
All at once the formerly shy and silent little boys were clammering over each other to speak. Finally I held up a hand. The oldest one took a deep breath and nodded.
"You see here, Mr. Holmes, it's like this. Jimmy here's ma was in need of the drink and a man came 'round and offered her a fiver for his sister. He said she was to go into service, for a good family, and perhaps learn a bit of reading and writing. So Jimmy's ma sends her on her way." I nodded, and exchanged a glance with Watson who pressed his lips together in concertation. It wasn't unusual for girls to be sold in this manner, but it wasn't likely for them to end up as housemaids.
"But she's gone sir!" Jimmy piped up.
"In order, please," I said in a gentle admonishment. Watson kicked me under the table, so perhaps I wasn't as gentle as I intended.
"So's word got 'round that this gentleman was offering five quid for girls to go into domestic an' so Oliver here's mum offered up his sister next time we sees this man, but he told her no, he needed a strapping young lad this time 'round. So they send his brother."
"I see, and how many have gone with this man now?"
"We reckon about six now, sir. But here's the funny thing, sir. Even maids in them fancy places get days off, and we here know Jimmy's sister. She has been taking care of the young 'uns for ages and she wouldn't just leave 'em, not if she had a few coin in her pocket from good honest work and a half day off. But she hasn't been back since. An' neither has Oliver's brother."
"None of them, sir!" Jimmy said again.
"None?" I asked.
"No, Maggie we'd understand, her ma is always drunk and her da beat her that bad, but Andrew and Billy, their family is all right and they would see their ma if they could."
I steepled my fingers against my lips and fell silent as the boys all blinked up at me with wide eyes and mouths stuffed full of food. I let them chew for a bit.
"My usual fees are," I paused to estimate the total value of the coins they had thrust at me earlier, "a half-crown and I work until the case is solved." The boys all nodded solemnly. Watson looked at me and I silenced him with a slight shake of my head. My usual fees were much higher plus expenses or I often worked for nothing when I was merely intrigued by the problem, but these boys had raised a small fortune to pay me and I was not going to to insult them by refusing it. Instead I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few pennies.
"You may go now, but I need a favor before you do." I pressed the pennies into their hands and moved over to the desk and wrote out a number of telegrams. Their recipients would be confused by them, but the small fee I would pay to ensure their delivery to the telegraph office at the hands of these boys would ensure that their bellies would be full for at least the next few nights.
Watson also urged them to stuff their pockets with food and we ushered them out the door with all the dignity we would have afforded a more illustrious client.
I settled myself into my chair. Watson sat across from me hands pressed together between his knees and eyes somber.
"Any ideas?" he asked, softly.
"Canaries. Specifically Wilson, a canary trainer and plague spot on the East End. He is known to be working the neighborhoods these boys are from recently for new wares to meet a higher demand from the continent. I would not be surprised in the least if some of your patients you mentioned earlier were not in fact one of these missing children."
He sighed and shook his head. The question and answer had been rhetorical, we both knew what this meant.
I took my pipe and began stuffing it carefully, needing the familiarity of the routine of preparing and smoking my pipe to focus my mind. Watson sat and read for a bit on the sofa before he retired with a quiet goodnight.
Although I had forbidden Watson to write of my return in his silly little fictions - or to write any more at all until I was retired - word of my return had spread quickly and I found myself simply inundated with clients and, much to my shock and horror, recognizable on the streets. I became overly fond of disguises in general and Captain Basil in particular during those years as they allowed me to ramble about my beloved London unmolested. I had affected a series of disguises to spend some time in Wilson's East End neighborhood and gather information about him and his operation.
Watson, in his stories, often makes it seem as if I leap to conclusions and solve cases from my armchair, but what works well for the pages of The Strand and Harper's does not always work well for true detective work. My cases were most often solved simply by asking enough questions of enough people to winkle out the truth.
I had haunted an opium den in order to determine the location of Wilson's establishment and had shown up on his back steps as a drunk to enquire about selling my child, but had been rudely rebuffed at the back door. It appeared that Wilson approached those he wished to acquire from and not the other way around. It was a safety measure, I realized, after catching sight of a poorly disguised newspaper man nosing around for a story involving the supposed depravity of London's poorest poor.
Disguised as a dockworker, I had spent payday with some local men in a dingy basement bar eating offal stew and drinking watered down beer - I dared not to try the gin - and asking about the families the boys had mentioned. I had asked after my own children, worrying about the mouths to feed, another one on the way, and a daughter that was pretty and clean enough for service and was recommended to a few reputable contacts, but not to Wilson.
In fact, every time I had mentioned Wilson I had found the conversation quickly turned. I understood why a few nights later when two pug-nosed men with cauliflowered ears dragged me by my collar about into an alleyway to inform me I had best stop asking questions if I knew what was best for me. I managed to escape that encounter with a split lip, a cut on my cheek, bloody knuckles, and bruised ribs. I never said my methods were perfect.
I dropped in on my doctor, who was working at a clinic nearby, while still in my disguise. It always amused me how long it could take him to realize that it is me. Sometimes recognition is immediate, others, especially if he is distracted or focused on something else, it can take him some little while.
This time, it wasn't until he caught my jaw in his hand and tipped my head towards his light to see my cut cheek before he started and exclaimed, "good lord, Holmes!"
I chuckled and he rolled his eyes and huffed in annoyance.
He handed me a clean rag and basin of hot water and stood back as I cleaned my own wounds.
"Is this really necessary?" he asked.
"Of course it is, Sherlock Holmes can hardly be wandering around the gin joints of East London asking about-"
"No, I meant this," he waved his hand around the clinic's consulting room. "This disguise and seeing me here. You don't require stitches or dislocated shoulders to be set, I could have easily patched you up at Baker street."
I stopped cleaning my wounds and set the supplies carefully down on the exam table beside me, rising to my feet. I had not realized that my presence would be unwelcome.
"Holmes," he said softly, coming forward and placing a hand on my arm. "Stop. I didn't mean it. That was my temper speaking. Sit back down. I'll clean you up and then you can tell me all about it while we head home together."
Watson cleaned my face with gentle hands and I wondered if he would be so free with his gestures if he knew that the man sitting on the exam table in front of him was an invert. Like many across three continents, I would have happily accepted if Watson had made an offer to me - you didn't turn down a man of his bearing, good humor, and ridiculously good looks when given the opportunity - but while I loved my friend deeply, it was that friendship that I valued above all else in my life and I would not change that for the world.
We elected to walk home that night, although it was a bit far, as I told him about what I had discovered about Wilson. Namely, that he was cautious and suspicious, protected his business interests and efforts with muscle, and that while the neighborhood certainly feared him, desperation had made them tolerant of his practices thus far.
We had a spirited discussion regarding the motivations of the desperately poor and how poverty, desperation, addiction, and starvation could easily drive mothers and fathers to sell their children before we moved on to the topic of the types of men who bought "canaries".
He told me about a rather peculiar Afghan custom regarding the training of young boys to dance for men and about the young girls often bartered for marriage in India. I countered with our own not-to-distant European practice of childhood betrothal.
"Wealth affords those with such tastes the ability to satiate them through paying others to do the dirty work, if you will," I said after a lull in our conversation.
He made a noise of agreement.
"It also allows one to be separated from the worst criminal aspect of it."
"Are you saying you do not consider the men who partake of the 'canaries' criminals?"
"Hardly, my good man. But the criminal penalty for what they do is less than the criminal penalty for what Wilson, and even the families themselves do. Wealth also affords a certain lessening of legal consequences."
"Wealth hasn't protected Wilde," Watson rejioned mildly.
I stumbled in surprise.
"Do you equate Wilde's affair with Douglas to be the same as the men who buy canaries?" I asked in shock.
Watson turned and looked at me with surprise.
"I think you know quite well that I do not, Holmes. Nor do you. I have often seen you excuse the men whose acts may be criminal in letter but not in spirit - claiming to work for your client and not the police as you do so."
He seemed almost angry at my question.
I stood there, brow furrowed. Wondering if there was another point to his bringing Wilde into the discussion.
He sighed and ran his hand over his face, looking about us.
"Wealth doesn't necessarily protect the men who patronize the likes of Wilson. Sin and depravity exist everywhere, Holmes, and the public loves nothing more than to tear someone apart for it - wealthy or not. People like Wilson exist because wealthy men are willing to pay him. In this case at least, wealth enables these crimes, but won't protect those that commit them."
He turned smartly and stalked all the way back to our house and up the stairs into the sitting room before his temper cooled enough for him to speak again. I waved away his apology and changed the subject. Nothing more needed to be said, we were clearly in agreement even if we looked at the problem differently.
"What can be done, Holmes? It sounds as if Wilson is too careful to have the police investigate and arrest him."
"I was hired to merely discover what happened to my clients' siblings, Watson, not to shutter Wilson's business."
"Damnit, Holmes. Just how are you going to explain to children that their siblings have been sold into sexual slavery? Don't pretend you have done your job now and can be done. You and I both know something must be done. I have seen what those men do to those children and I don't care what we have to do to stop it, but we will."
I sighed, moving to the desk where I kept my cocaine bottle.
"And don't you dare do that either," Watson said low and dangerous behind me.
I whirled to face him, sharp and angry, something cruel and cutting on the tip of my tongue. But he was looking at me with a troubled expression.
"What is wrong?" He asked, calmly. "Something other than this case. You are not yourself, Holmes."
I made a small noise of protest and collapsed into the desk chair. I was allowing worry over Watson discovering my affair with Stanley to affect my ability to concentrate on this case. Watson was right, I was not myself. I waved him away and the blessed man left me with a stern look. I settled in with my indexes, looking the whiffs of scandals that might hint at exactly who Wilson's clients were. Watson settled in to read the latest medical literature and keep an eye on me before eventually taking himself off to bed well past midnight.
The next morning, over a rather late breakfast, Watson asked if I had a plan. I replied that I did not. Which was not entirely true. My plan was to go and speak to Stanley Hopkins.
Watson smiled at me brightly and assured me that I'd think of something sooner rather than later before announcing his plans to be gone for the remainder of the day and for Mrs. Hudson not to keep dinner for him.
I was off to Hopkins's East London beat soon after Watson left for the day in order to catch him at the end of his shift. He seemed happy to see me if the quickly hidden, but nonetheless brilliant, smile was was anything to go by.
"What can the Met do for you, Mr. Holmes?" he said, a trifle too loudly as he ushered me into a seat in front of his desk and called for tea. The tea was delivered by a constable that looked so young I hardly thought him capable of having hair on his chest let alone wearing the uniform of the Metropolitan Police.
"I don't suppose you are aware of a man named Wilson?"
"A plague on our streets, yes, we have heard of him."
"I have been engaged to find some persons on behalf of a client. I believed these missing persons to be victims of Wilson's."
"My client did not implicate Wilson, but given the nature of the disappearances I have reason to believe that is nonetheless where they ended up, but I cannot get close enough to find out for certain."
"And you would like our help? I surely needn't tell you, Mr. Holmes that without proof there is little we can do no matter how much we'd all like to. I have more than one constable who wouldn't mind seeing to the matter personally if given half the chance. But we have nothing - he's too good for that."
I sighed and rubbed my brow wearily. I was not surprised in the least by the answer, but it was disappointing all the same. Stanley's gaze softened, but he didn't say anything.
"Perhaps I am going about this the wrong way," I said.
I curled my lip in disgust and shook my head. I sat for a moment in silence wondering how to best phrase my next, more personal, request.
"If that is all, Mr. Holmes, I do have a report to make for the next shift, but perhaps if I learn of anything I shall call at Baker Street?"
I smiled at him.
He returned my smile before glancing quickly out his door and sobering again.
"This afternoon then," he said and I nodded.
It was only just noon so I stopped in at the Diogenes Club on the way home to speak to my brother Mycroft about my case. I was not yet ready to entertain the idea that perhaps the easiest way to Wilson was not through the work clothes of the East End, but rather the silk hats of the West. I sat down to luncheon with him in a quiet corner of the Strangers Room.
"Sherlock my dear boy, you look well." He raised an eyebrow and I blushed. He was now quite aware of why I looked well and I inwardly cursed my inability to school my features. He tsked at me and admonished me well that while my Doctor was certainly thrilled to have me returned, that good will I currently enjoyed from him might not extend to such matters. I rolled my eyes and waved away his concern.
I told him about my clients and Wilson.
"Interesting. You know quite well where their siblings have disappeared to, thus solving the mystery. They have not hired you to stop the man, Sherlock."
"He is a plague spot on the East End."
"Indeed. And I do know that you will not stop until you rid London of the man. Very well. If you have come to me for assistance, Sherlock, you only have to ask."
Mycroft gave me a cross look. "You have been unsuccessful thus far approaching this man as a member of the lower class. What makes you think yet another attempt will suddenly mean your success?"
I rubbed my brow wearily.
"You hoped that your police inspector friend can provide some assistance," he said as he sat back and studied me carefully. "It is possible, I suppose, for you have always liked the clever ones, but I would prepare yourself, Sherlock, for what we both know must be the inevitable method to reach a satisfactory conclusion."
I thanked him before taking my leave.
I had hoped Mycroft might have been able to present a solution that I had not yet thought of and was disappointed he had reached the same conclusion I had. The thought of having to go through the motions to procure one of Wilson's canaries in order to bring the man to justice bothered me. While a little minor housebreaking, subterfuge, or misdirection was more than acceptable in the pursuit of justice, becoming a man, even if only to stop Wilson, who would purchase a child in order to abuse it left me feeling unclean and broken inside.
The day was warm and sunny and the sitting room cheery and inviting. Mrs. Hudson was gone for the afternoon and I did not expect Watson back until well after dark if he stuck to both his routine and plans for the day. I heard the door open downstairs, and then a pause to lock it before a tread of the stair that was growing more familiar by the day.
Stanley let himself up and turned the lock in the sitting room door as well. Anticipating that he would not have stopped to eat before coming here, I had laid out a simple early tea for him and we both partook before quickly shrugging off any pretense of social niceties and quickly retiring to my bedroom behind yet a third locked door.
I suppose the three locked doors and my dependence on Watson's current routine of savoring the warm spring afternoons and evenings after a long winter made me over-confident. Perhaps too it was the play of Stanley's lips and fingers over my skin, the way his tongue made me gasp and moan, and the absolutely delicious way he would toss his head back and curl his toes when I pressed into him. I was tasting his collarbone as I counted my thrusts in an effort to calm my mind and keep this particular coupling going for as long as possible, Stanley could be heavenly when he was like this, when I heard something that sounded vaguely like the sitting room door opening and closing. But I dismissed the noise because Watson wasn't due home for hours, Mrs. Hudson was gone out calling and wouldn't be home until nearly supper time, and no one else had a key.
I could not, however, dismiss the firm knock at my door and Watson calling my name. At quite possibly the worst possible moment. Having what was promising to be a truly spectacular mutual orgasm only seconds away suddenly interrupted by your fine upstanding example of British maleness best friend who had absolutely no clue that you sodomized police inspectors in your shared rooms was simultaneously the most chilling and frustrating thing I have ever experienced in my life. I slapped a hand over Stanley's mouth as he cried out in shock and frustration and we lay there gasping and shaking with terror and unreleased orgasm. I could hear Watson about in the sitting room, well aware I was at home and content to wait until I emerged from my bedroom. I was not in what he so distressingly called a "black mood" nor did I have any other credible excuse to ignore him until he left and I could bundle Stanley out the door and away.
I rose and placed a finger on Stanley's lips.
"Stay here," I whispered close to his ear. His eyes were wide with fear, as I am sure mine were. His cock still hard and red against his belly. I shook my head and pulled a blanket over him.
"Get dressed quietly, no noise, I'll work out what to do." He nodded and pressed his lips into a thin line. My own erection finally subsided as I dressed carefully. I couldn't do anything for my flushed cheeks or too-bright eyes. My doctor was not stupid and was well-versed in human emotions, I feared he would know immediately. I smoothed my hair as best I could and slipped out of the room to face him.
"There you are!" he said brightly as I strode into the room with an affected bad mood. It wasn't much of a reach, I was rather perturbed at being interrupted at exactly the moment I had. "I had thought you might enjoy a turn in the park with me on this beautiful afternoon."
I didn't answer as I lit a cigarette with a shaking hand. It would only be a moment before Watson's mind would catch up with the suspiciously locked doors and evidence of another's presence strewn all about the sitting room.
Damnit and blast, I really had no idea how to go about this. I had no experience. Getting caught with Trevor had merely led to laughing off a boy's folly played too late in life. Mycroft had come looking for me when I was three days into a rather lovely morphine and cocaine binge and had only raised an eyebrow at the young man asleep naked in my bed on Montague street before issuing his ultimatums regarding my behavior and leaving.
I whirled around, "No, no Watson, I don't think I shall. This case you see."
His eyes narrowed. "What."
I raised my eyebrows in shock and gestured to myself as if to ask, who me?
He looked me up and down carefully, then about the room. I tightened the belt on my dressing gown. Then I saw it a moment before he did, Stanley's hat on the hat stand.
He took two strides over to it, then spotted Stanley's coat draped across the back of the chair and the remains of our half-eaten lunch. No, my Watson was not stupid. I was only surprised that he had not reached the now obvious conclusion immediately. I closed my eyes and sucked desperately at my cigarette.
"Holmes?" he said, confused and suspicious.
I opened my eyes. He didn't look angry, not yet, but given his quick temper, I knew it'd only be a matter of moments before he was shouting. I shook my head once, in a futile effort arrest it.
He looked back at my bedroom door which I had so obviously slunk out of not a few moments before. Then he made a rather exaggerated effort to look all about the sitting room. Although we both knew that what, or rather who, he was looking for was in my bedroom and the why was quite clear from the three locked doors, my guilty countenance and the fact that it was the middle of the afternoon.
"I am going to shout at you," he said in that controlled voice he uses when he is very, very angry. "You may choose to either usher your guest out before I do so, or you may wait until I am done and he has heard everything."
He stood by his desk at the window and crossed his arms. I briefly considered telling him no, ordering him to his room, and then dealing with this myself. But I was well aware that while I might win a knock-down drag-out fight with Watson, I wouldn't not walk away from one cleanly. Nor would he allow it to rest with that. I nodded and crossed to my door and slipped inside.
Stanley sat on my bed, white as a sheet, fully dressed except his coat and hat. I smiled wanly at him. Watson would not turn us in, of that I was confident, but beyond that I had no idea what to expect.
"You need not fear exposure from him, he wouldn't do that to me and he wouldn't do that to you. He is a good man and does not believe people like us to be criminals."
Stanley noded, jerkily.
"I do think it is best if you leave now, though. I am very sorry and if you wish not to see me again after this, I understand." I said this to my shoes, unwilling to look him in the eye. I truly did like him and in that moment wished with everything I had that I had not put him in this position. He stood and came over to me, cupping my face in his palms.
"It will be all right," he said softly. I nodded and took in a shaky breath. He pressed a gentle kiss to my lips and I couldn't help but smile at him. We walked to the door together and I held it open for him as he stepped through.
"Doctor," he said softly in greeting. It was a brave thing to do, to look Watson right in his glowering face and acknowledge him in such circumstances. He collected his hat and coat and nodded once to me before he let himself out. I turned to face Watson who was staring after Stanley.
"Are you mad? Are you completely totally and utterly mad? Sherlock Holmes, are you insane? Have you lost your bloody mind?"
I stood there silently. In this moment I wasn't sure if the answer was, in fact, yes.
Watson threw up his hands in exasperation and then settled them on his hips.
"I want to make one thing quite clear, Holmes. I have no objection to your nature. What I do have objection to is you carrying on in our shared rooms, with a police inspector of all people, in the middle of the day, in my home, to which I have only just returned. You may be a bohemian and quite capable of fleeing to France to escape your fate should you be caught. But me? And Hopkins? It would ruin us. You are a selfish man, Sherlock Holmes, and until today I did not realize how selfish."
I opened my mouth to object, but he held up a finger to forestall me.
"For once in your life you will wait until I am finished."
I decided it wasn't prudent to remind him that he had been allowed to finish more than once before I countered in our arguments in the past.
"There are clubs for the likes of you. You are a discreet man capable of many disguises with bolt-holes in this city. You could've gone there. You could have chosen someone with perhaps had less to lose. And you could have, at the very least, told me so that I might have at least not scared the poor man half out of his mind."
I wasn't sure I could even put into words what I felt in that moment. That the simple reason that Stanley was here in my rooms is that I wanted him to be. I, Sherlock Holmes, wanted to kiss my lover in my own home.
Watson sighed and ran his hand over his face before giving me a sad look.
"I won't apologize for being angry, Holmes. At the very least you could have warned me. And I won't stop being angry at the danger you placed me in. Or him. Hopkins is a good man, well liked by his fellow inspectors and respected by his constables. The danger..."
He looked around our sitting room, "I think I need to leave for a few days."
"No, Holmes. I really do think I need to leave for a few days," he said with much more determination. He strode out and I stood there immobilized. I had known all along that our friendship would very likely change over this revelation, but when faced with the reality of it, I found myself nearly sick with the prospect of losing it entirely. He came clattering back down the stairs a few minutes later with a packed bag.
"I will be at my club should you have a break in the case, otherwise…"
I stood there frozen until I heard the door slam below. I sank down in my basket chair before the fire and buried my face in my hands. I had not felt this low in quite some time, my lover run out of my room because of my own stupidity, my best friend gone, and a case I could solve but offer no real conclusion for.
I sat there, feeling very low and staring at my cocaine vial for quite some time. I was vaguely aware of Mrs. Hudson tutting about me, of a blanket being dropped over my shoulders and a cup of tea being pressed into my hands. I must have fallen asleep at some point, curled up in my chair as I was, for judging by the pile of papers on the table, it was quite clearly a day later when I finally roused myself enough to wash and change my clothes.
I was sitting down to dry toast and tea when I heard the thud of a pair of practical boots and less practical leather-soled shoes on the step. Mrs. Hudson had been clearly keeping clients away, so while it was apparent just who was climbing my seventeen steps, I couldn't quite believe it until both Watson and Stanley Hopkins walked in together.
Watson immediately tsked at me and bellowed down to Mrs. Hudson for a "proper" tea for three. Stanley settled in beside me with a nervous smile and a pat on my leg, discreetly, under the tablecloth. Mrs. Hudson appeared and then fussed around before shoving an over-laden plate at me. I almost shoved it back before I was arrested by a rather stern look from Watson.
"Inspector Hopkins and I have an idea about Wilson," Watson said abruptly as soon as our landlady left. I looked between them, confused.
"It's alright," Stanley said softly. Watson nodded once in agreement, but looked slightly uncomfortable nonetheless.
"You will need to go as one of his clients, Holmes, and attempt to purchase one of his wares."
I shook my head.
Watson stopped me with a forbidding look.
"Yes. You will. It is the only way. Inspector Hopkins here will be operating on an anonymous tip with his constables and will intervene at your signal to catch him red handed. I will play your bodyguard in order to protect you."
I looked between them. It was clear that they had already set this plan in motion in order to deny me the opportunity to refuse.
"I don't like it."
"You don't have to like it. It is the only way."
"It is not the only way, Watson, it is merely the most expedient way. All right. I agree. I will need to make some contacts before I will be ready. Tomorrow night?"
Hopkins and Watson both agreed. We ate a polite amount of Mrs. Hudson's food before Hopkins rose, thanked us both and left to make arrangements with the force for the operation tomorrow night. Before he left he pressed a firm hand to my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze in full view of Watson who merely ignored it. After the door closed behind him I looked at Watson with a raised brow. Here merely shook his head and picked up the paper. I rose and disappeared into my rooms to change into my best clothes. It was time to call upon my brother again. He would have some bit of information that would persuade someone who knew Wilson's clientele to provide the necessary introduction to arrange my own 'purchase'.
The next night I sat in a private unmarked carriage in front of a modest middle-class dwelling off Whitechapel High St. that served as the respectable front for Wilson's business. I was dressed in my finest coat and tails, Watson sat up top next to the driver, a man whose discretion was promised by Mycroft and ensured by the coin in my own pocket. I steepled my hands and raised my eyebrow at the dark empty seat across from me, emptying my mind of the man named Sherlock Holmes and filling it instead with Lucian Crawford, the persona I had adopted for the evening.
I was admitted by the butler after giving the rather complicated passcode and found myself in rather ostentatiously decorated set of rooms. There were a few gentlemen who wandered about as well as I drifted in and out of the rooms. Wilson sidled up to me before too long and started pointing out various children, watching me closely for my reactions in order to judge what, or rather whom, I might wish to purchase this evening. I could barely look at them, but it did not help me, every feature was committed to my memory. I would be having nightmares featuring these children for months to come. I finally, miserably, selected two, when I knew enough time had passed for Hopkins to be in position. Our signal was to be me to call Watson to the door to assist me out once my purchase had been made.
I negotiated the price, collected my purchases and rather haughtily demanded that my man from my carriage be fetched. Wilson's servant disappeared and a moment later the front door was opened and in stepped Watson.
We could not have timed it more perfectly. Merely seconds after he stepped inside he was pushed from behind and he neatly fell into me, arm tight around my shoulders as he shoved my head low and down so that I wouldn't be recognized. I had no desire to end up like W T Stead, arrested for unlawful investigative methods by a reluctant Hopkins in front of a force of shocked constables. I would be brought to trial by a mob in the midst of a moral panic stirred up by irresponsible journalists declaring, "Sherlock Holmes Just Returned From the Dead - Caught in a Den of Depravity Violating Virgins". It would be The Maiden Tribute of Babylon, part II.
Hopkins was leading the charge in the front door to buy me a previous few seconds to get away unrecognized and I pressed the two children into his arms as Watson ducked down and pushed me passed a confused constable, over the railing on the stoop, and then helped me up out of the dirt at the bottom of one of the front windows.
He wrapped a tweed coat around my shoulders and slammed a flat cap down on my head as we sprinted past a few confused policemen and down the street. The carriage was gone, the driver dispatched as soon as Watson approached the door. We darted in and out of the alleys I had studied during the day until we found ourselves half a mile away and clutching our sides gasping for breath.
"Are you quite all right, old man?" I asked him with a smile.
Watson rolled his eyes at me, but didn't waste his breath attempting to reply. I tugged at his arm and we walked half a few streets over over to a busier thoroughfare where we could hail a cab back to Baker Street. Hopkins was on strict orders to come as soon as he was able.
It was nearly four in the morning before he stumbled exhaustedly into our sitting room. Watson stoked the fire and I poured him a cup of tea and settled him into my chair.
"I believe that is yet one more that Scotland Yard is in your debt for, Mr. Holmes. The papers will no doubt have the story tomorrow and we have rid East London of the plague that is Wilson, the notorious canary trainer."
"And the children?"
Hopkins looked sad for a moment. "A few have families who will be anxious for their return. A few that don't are still young enough for the workhouse or perhaps a charitable society will take them in. But there is a reason that the likes of Wilson are not stopped sooner, and that is that he preys on those that have no one to look after them."
We all sat around the fire in a tired stupor as the clatter and bustle on the street increased and the dawn light slowly creeped in. We managed to rouse ourselves a bit when we heard what sounded like a small herd of elephants charge of the stairs. Our door was thrown open and five dirty faces peered in. I smiled at the boys.
They all solemnly moved forward and one by one approached me and very seriously shook my hand. The last one held a palm full of small coins.
"Thank you, Mr. Holmes. Although the coppers won't say it, we knows it was you."
"You should thank Inspector Hopkins, for he led the raid."
The boys turned in unison and chorused a thank you. The inspector nodded. And then they all filed out much more quietly than they had arrived.
"It's done then?" Watson asked after many long moments of silence.
"For now," I answered.
I looked over at Hopkins, sprawled on our sofa and smiled. I glanced up though and caught Watson watching me carefully. He looked at Hopkins and then at me again.
"I think a bit of warning would be nice, next time," he said mildly. Hopkins startled and then blushed when he caught his meaning. I smothered a grin.
"How much warning do you require?" I asked in the same tone of voice.
"Oh for god's sake, Holmes, at least let me get upstairs first!" he said.
I burst out laughing and Stanley looked absolutely appalled. Watson joined me with a few chuckles of his own before he rose and bid us both goodnight.