The brandy was excellent, and so, surprisingly, were the cigars. The doctor might never convince Mr. Holmes to give up the poisonous blend that he smoked in his pipe, but Lestrade felt Watson's influence on the cigars, and appreciated it.
He'd never have guessed, a decade ago, that the three of them could spend an evening in such quiet contentedness. There had been too much in the way then-- awe, and eagerness, and the bullheaded vanity of young men. They still had pride, of course, and it still caused trouble every now and then. But in these elder days their pride came from the knowledge of good work done well, rather than a feeling that the world was at one's feet, and this new variety only improved with sharing.
And the waterfall hadn't hurt. It's easier to know what you value when it's died, or when you have.
For some time they had smoked and sipped in silence. With his flawless social instincts, Watson waited until exactly the right time-- the very moment when perfection would have passed into awkwardness-- and then said lazily, "I've always meant to ask: how did the two of you meet? There must have been a case involved, I'm sure..."
The room suddenly woke up. Lestrade's grin reflected Holmes' grimace, and the inspector's laugh became the detective's groan. Holmes began to puff very quickly at his cigar, as though he could hide from the past in the cloud of its smoke. Lestrade turned to Watson, beaming with gratitude for the opportunity. "Would you believe, Doctor, that I saved him drowning in the Thames?"
Watson's eyebrows shot up. He had hoped for a tale, but this was far beyond his expectations.
"Now really, Lestrade, that is laying it on thick," Holmes grumbled. "I had no intention of allowing myself to drown."
"Most people as drown don't, Mr. Holmes," Lestrade responded, his smile growing cheekier.
"And I am not 'most people,'" replied Holmes, with frigid dignity.
"Go on then, Lestrade, tell me the story," urged Watson, his friendly eagerness doubled by authorial instinct. "He'll sulk all night, if we let him, and I'll never get to hear about it."
Holmes scowled at this remark, but went, for once, entirely ignored.
"It was, let's see, the summer of '78. I was just starting out at the Yard. I had heard some of the other inspectors talking about a young man who'd been hanging around the place, trying to convince anyone who'd listen that his assistance could be of use, but I didn't spare much thought for it at the time. I was on my first murder investigation, and I had other things on my mind.
"It ought to have been a simple case. Rich old man, Breckenridge by name, found with his head bashed in. Bloody cricket bat on the ground beside him. Bat belonged to his son, who was widely reputed to be a hot-tempered fellow, none too bright, and burdened with an overabundance of debt and an underabundance of filial affection. They only gave the case to the new chap because it seemed too obvious to botch, you understand. So far as the higher-ups were concerned, all I needed to do was to collar the son, and any lawyer with a scrap of brains could see to it that he was put away.
"The old man had kept a reasonably sized household superintended by his valet, a man called Tayor. This Taylor had had his ankle badly broken in a household accident some years back, and was obliged to walk with a crutch, but otherwise was a model servant and kept the place admirably well-run. I interviewed him, and the other servants, as a matter of form--any of them could have committed the crime-- but never had any serious doubts that young Breckenridge, who had gone missing, was my man. As I was conducting my interviews, however, there was a disturbance in the house. Apparently the constable on guard outside the door of the murder room had heard a noise inside and opened the door to make sure it was more than just a trick of his ears. He found the window open, and a tall, young, black-haired man bent over the ground and studying it as though the secret of life was writ there for him to see-- I think you know how I mean. As soon as the door opened, though, the man bolted for the window, and as he was a fleet sort of fellow with a bit of a head start there was no chance of catching him."
"MacPherson never could run worth a damn," remarked Holmes in an undertone.
"And it's a good thing for you that he can't," was Lestrade's amiable reply to this interruption. "You'd have had the devil's own time explaining what you were doing there." Turning back to Watson with a smile, he went on, "As you've probably guessed by now, the case wasn't as simple as it looked. The real murderer might have fooled the rest of the world, but of course he knew that the one person he couldn't get to believe Breckenridge's guilt was Breckenridge himself. The killer was counting on his scapegoat's reputation for stupidity, and it threw off his plans when it turned out that the young man wasn't quite as dim as had been supposed. Young Breckenridge realized the moment he heard of the murder that the case against him was very black. He set about to evade capture long enough to prove his own innocence. Knowing the one thing we didn't-- that the criminal must be someone else-- he had very little trouble in solving the crime. Of course, as you've probably also guessed, he wasn't the only one to do so.
"I'm not sure how Breckenridge managed to get in contact with the murderer, but he arranged a meeting in the very early hours of the morning after the crime was committed. Breckenridge must have convinced the killer that he had some serious piece of evidence; otherwise, the murderer's wisest course of action would, of course, have been to inform the police of where they could catch their man. As it was, though, Taylor hobbled his way to Battersea Bridge (the old bridge, deathtrap that it was) at four-thirty in the morning with the intention of finishing Breckenridge off as quietly as he could, not realizing that he was being followed by Mr. Holmes. And Breckenridge slunk his way from the other direction, equally ignorant that I and a few constables-- who had managed to pick up his scent-- were hot on his trail. Unfortunately, both groups of pursuers were too far away to prevent the tragedy; it happened too fast. The sound of Taylor's crutch connecting with Breckenridge's skull isn't one I've forgotten in all my years with the force. Just after it happened one of my lads let out a yelp, and Taylor dived for the river with the crutch still in his hand. Mr. Holmes had started to run the moment Taylor lifted his arm, though, and was only a few moments behind him off the bridge.
"I can't pretend to have helped with the struggle in the river, though I went dashing down to the bank (pulling off my shoes and my jacket the while) as quick as my feet could carry me. Mr. Holmes took care of Taylor, right enough-- he had the rascal out cold before they'd been ten seconds in the Thames. No, it was his own stubbornness that'd have had him in the depths, for by God, he'd not have let go of murderer, or murder weapon or, I should add, his hat, to have saved his own life. He was barely above water by the time I reached him and began to drag the whole unweildly party back to the shore. But we got our man, and escaped with our skins, so it was all right enough, in the end. And Mr. Holmes found someone in the force willing to believe he knew a murderer when he saw one." Lestrade settled back against the sofa cushions, worn out with narration, and tossed his cigar-end into the fire.
"Bravo, Lestrade!" laughed Watson, clapping the Inspector on the shoulder, and then turned. "And you too, Holmes! How did you know that Taylor was the murderer?"
Holmes was still trying to be affronted, but, as always, yielded before Watson's praise. "My dear Watson, it was simplicity itself. The rest of the world had failed to remark that the man's crutch was made not, as it at first appeared, of tin, but of aluminium. Things have changed somewhat since the discoveries of Hall and Héroult in '88, but at the time, that crutch was worth nearly its weight in gold. There was no sensible reason to own such a thing, except as a method of concealing ill-gotten gain in plain sight. I was sure that Taylor had been stealing, and liberally, from his employer, which in itself was suspicious. Add to that the pattern of the bloodstains, which clearly indicated disturbance after death (during the process of bedaubbing the innocent cricket bat) and the thing really could not have been more obvious. Not that the case was by any means a complete success-- I have reproached myself many times for failing to prevent the death of the son-- but as a way of introducing myself to the Yard, it seemed to do the job creditably enough."
"So it did," said Lestrade, with an earnestness that made both of his companions look up with surprise. Blushing a bit, he raised his glass, and tilted it in Holmes' direction. "It's been twenty years since then, Mr. Holmes, and I'm not ashamed to say I consider that day's work one of the best I ever did. So here's to..." he considered for a moment, and then concluded, "to joint investigations."
Holmes hesitated for a moment, and then, lifting his own glass, replied solemnly, "To joint investigations."
"Hear hear," added Watson. Holmes, his eyes still on Lestrade's, lifted his glass to his lips, and, as the last of the excellent brandy slid down his throat, he smiled.