The post arrived at 221b Baker Street as it did every afternoon. Usually it was filled with letters for my sometimes friend and lately stranger, Sherlock Holmes, as he corresponded with a great many acquaintances all around the world with whom he shared his latest accomplishments, occasionally his admiration for others' accomplishments, and very occasionally, recipes. Today, however, a letter arrived for me.
"To a Doctor John Watson who resides at 221b Baker Street, whichever one first receives this: Your presence is requested at a meeting of The Watson League, a collection of Watsons who meet on the first of each month to discuss the news of the day. If you are interested in joining our group, please send word to the address on this letter, and we will contact you again with more information. Understand that we are a select group of Watsons and operate under some secrecy, which is why we cannot divulge more information in this note. Sincerely, Doctor John Watson"
I thought this something of a joke and, under usual circumstances, would have crumpled it up and then thought no more of it. However, the last few months had been fraught with a rather curious influx of Watsons. I grabbed my cane from its place next to my door and made my way down the stairs to Holmes' rooms. Though his presence recently had been less than ubiquitous and his time spread rather thin, I figured that he was still my best hope at getting to the bottom of this mystery.
Holmes was not in, though another Watson was already in there waiting for him.
"Blast," I muttered under my breath. There had been five Watsons total in the past two months, not counting myself, and though I'd met them all with some annoyance, this one by far tested my patience the most.
"A clue!" exclaimed Stupid Watson in greeting.
I rubbed my hand over my eyes. "It's not a clue," I said without even looking at him. "It's probably just another jar of jam. Have you gotten your hand stuck again?"
Stupid Watson waddled over to me, the top of his bowler hat just barely reaching my chest. I still didn't understand why this one needed to be short and fat and stupid. It seemed like a rather poor distribution of riches.
It was then that I bothered looking at what he was holding in his hands. Instead of his fist stuck inside a sticky jar, he was tightly clutching a piece of paper. He thrust it out at me.
"A clue?" he said hopefully.
I took the paper and examined it, dismayed to realize it was an invitation matching my own. "The Watson League," I murmured.
"Watsons... together?" Stupid Watson suggested.
"It certainly looks that way," I said, handing back Stupid Watson's invitation. "Will you be attending?"
Stupid Watson clapped his hands together delightedly. "A party! A party!" he said whilst twirling in a circle. "Watson loves parties."
"Yes, I'm sure you do." I resisted an overwhelming urge to sigh and instead took another look around Holmes' rooms. "Where did our friend get off to?"
"Watson... friend?" Stupid Watson replied, and I felt as though I was losing my own intelligence simply standing in the room with him.
"Holmes," I clarified impatiently.
"Oh! Holmes is out."
"That much is obvious."
"Out... holding hands?"
At that, I crumpled up my own Watson League invitation. Damn it all! Gay Watson again.
"Very well," I said, straightening my lapels. "If our resident sleuth would rather gallivant about than do his duty, then I will have to take on this sleuthing by myself."
"A clue!" Stupid Watson exclaimed.
"Yes," I replied. "Quite."
I replied to my invitation immediately and was surprised to receive information about the Watson League's meeting within a day. The end of the month was upon us, so the meeting was to occur on the next evening at eight o'clock, and though that seemed on the up-and-up, the location was rather peculiar. Instead of someone's home or a place of business, it was to be held at an abandoned factory not far from Holmes' offices. I had to admit that only piqued my curiosity further, so on the evening of the meet, I was ready to go with plenty of time to spare and hurried out the door as quickly as I could, given my leg, with only a hasty word of good-bye for Mrs. Hudson and Holmes. For all I knew, Holmes might not have even been at home, as his door had been shut tight the whole day.
The location was as rundown as I remembered, and even shabbier on the inside. Straightaway, a cold chill ran down my spine, not unlike the feeling of an egg cracking atop my head with the insides trickling down the back of my neck. In other words, I had a bad feeling about this.
I tried to make myself inconspicuous as I proceeded inside. There was no one in the large main room of the factory floor, so I skulked along the wall, wondering is this was all a set-up. I didn't much feel like being kidnapped that night. But just then I observed light creeping out from under a door toward the back of the room and when I put my ear to it, I heard voices inside. Just then, someone shoved into me, pinning me to the door and my heart leapt into my throat. By instinct, I shoved back.
"Ouch," cried a familiar voice sadly. When I turned around, Stupid Watson was sitting on the dusty floor looking wounded. "My bottom hurts," he informed me.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, and I'm ashamed to admit, I couldn't quite hide the impatience from my voice.
He waved around the blasted crumpled invitation. "Watsons!" he exclaimed, shaking his head as though I was the stupid one. And I supposed he had a point.
"Right," I said, offering my hand and helping him back to his feet. "Apologies for knocking you down. I was startled."
"No," I lied. "Let's get inside."
I opened the door and pushed Stupid Watson in ahead of me, but once I stepped through the threshold, I had a bit of an out-of-body experience. For I was simply surrounded by myself as though staring at a hundred warped looking glasses. There were Watsons of all sizes, tall ones and short ones, fat ones and ones as thin as rails. There were Watsons with every hair color and type of mustache. Some walked with more pronounced limps than mine, others only seemed to have canes as fashion accessories. All of the Watsons were wearing a variation of something from my own wardrobe, and if the tailoring had been right, I would have sworn that my closet had been raided. It was, to put it lightly, bizarre.
"Come now, Watsons," announced a Watson with a broad chest and a particularly booming voice. Ninety-nine nearly identical heads turned his way. "It's time to begin."
We all shuffled to find our seats at the round tables that had been set up for the event, while the Watson who'd made the announcement walked to the front of the room. Steaming teacups were ready at each place setting, and when I took a sip, I was astonished to realize it was already exactly to my liking. Suspiciously, I eyed the other Watsons at my table and the surrounding tables, and got several suspicious looks back.
"All right then," began Leader Watson. "I see some new Watsons tonight. Nice to have you here. Welcome to the fifth gathering of the Watson League." At that, my teacup clattered to the table.
"Wait," I exclaimed, unable to hold my tongue, "you've had four other meetings and this is the first time you thought to invite the real John Watson?" The very idea.
Leader Watson let out a very un-Watson like guffaw. "The real Watson?" he said. "No, good sir, I think you'll find that the only real Watson here is me. Why else would I have started this society if not to gather my copies in one place? If you found out you had multiple versions of yourself, you'd want to keep an eye on them, wouldn't you?"
On closer examination, Leader Watson did resemble me physically more than most of the other Watsons in the room, but our personalities were clearly a mismatch. There was no way I could ever be so brash and, well, annoying.
"I'll have you know that I have been keeping tabs on the Watsons I knew about," I told him, bristling. "There have only been a handful who have been by my rooms at 221b Baker Street, my residence, which I share with Sherlock Holmes."
"Oh, a handful of Watsons?" Leader Watson scoffed. "Well, how to explain the other several dozen of us?"
I rose from my chair as though to make my way toward the front when a delicate hand wrapped around my wrist, holding me back. I whirled around and found myself with a familiar -- well, relatively speaking, given the circumstances -- face.
"It's not worth it," Gay Watson told me. He'd been Holmes' favorite for a time a few months back and it was a rather confusing time for me, though not so confusing as it was for Stupid Watson. However, I imagine much of Stupid Watson's time is mired in confusion. Gay Watson patted my shoulder apologetically. "We all think we're the real Watson at first -- you should have seen the first meeting, goodness gracious. It almost erupted in fisticuffs across the entire room. Luckily, Cowardly Watson was willing to hide under a table with me and the two of us avoided most of the fracas." Gay Watson pointed and a Watson ducking his head and twisting his hat in a worried sort of way nodded at me. "For doctors, we Watsons can certainly be quick to anger. Some of us, I mean."
"I am the real Watson," I insisted.
"In some ways you are," he agreed, smoothing down the front of my jacket, his hands perhaps lingering there over-long. "In some ways we all are. But who's to say who's right and who's wrong?"
"This is far too existential for me, Dr. Watson," I said.
Gay Watson patted my cheek and led me back to my seat. "You'll get used to it," he said, pushing me back down into my chair. "Just sit down and enjoy yourself, and you can worry about philosophical quandaries later on."
Leader Watson gave me a long look as a I settled back into my seat, finally looking away to clear his throat. "All right, with that nasty business behind us, let's get the meeting underway. Does anyone have anything they'd like to report?"
One of the stout Watsons stood up at that and in a posh accent said, "Last time we mentioned Holmes's rather unfortunate need to have his ego stroked. Does he think of us as a partner or as a handy way to keep up a constant stream of compliments? No doubt he's a brilliant man, but --"
"-- he always needs us to tell him so!" another Watson chimed in. Several heads bobbed up and down in agreement, my own, to my surprise, joining them. "Oh, and the violin playing at three in the morning. No doubt he's a very talented musician, but --"
"-- it's not as though he makes his livelihood from it," a handsome Watson continued, standing and straightening his lapels. "Doesn't he know that men need to get a good night's rest? That's not even mentioning poor Mrs. Hudson. And speaking of Mrs. Hudson --"
"-- isn't it annoying when he runs out in the middle of meals she's prepared to solve cases?" wondered a fat Watson. "It's not as though he'd ever leave his 'vice' halfway through and we all know the Yard will wait forever for Holmes to finish his thinking. It's not as though they have any brilliant minds in their regular employ."
On and on continued the Watsons, nearly every one standing in turn to air their personal grievances about Sherlock Holmes. So this is what the Watson League was about! I had to admit it was rather cathartic, especially having been shoved over for several other Watsons in the last few months. I confessed as much when it was my turn to offer my own criticism.
"At least he's taken you out of the box," one young Watson told me. "I've been waiting around for months simply to be acknowledged as a Watson worthy of him."
I clapped the poor boy on the shoulder. "There, there," I said. "Just give it time."
Nearly two hours passed before Leader Watson called the League's end. "I hope to see you all next month," he announced, banging a gavel on the head table. "The meeting has concluded."
As we filed out of the meeting room and back through the ramshackle ruins of the factory's front room, I caught Gay Watson by the elbow. "So you do this every month? Exactly this?"
He nodded. "Don't get me wrong, Watson; I'm fond of Sherlock. Very fond. But he's a complicated man and rather infuriating at times, especially when you realize there's so much competition at just being yourself. Makes you feel rather light on your feet afterward, doesn't it?"
I nodded and let Gay Watson hurry ahead of me. Perhaps a league of Watsons wasn't the worst idea of all time.
It was rather late by the time I made it back to Baker Street, but light still filtered from under Holmes's door. I wondered if perhaps Stupid Watson had fallen asleep in there after forgetting how to operate the lamps again.
I knocked and the door was yanked open immediately. To my surprise, Holmes was the one to answer the door.
"Doctor," he greeted me.
"Mr. Holmes," I replied, taking off my hat. "I'd almost forgotten you'd resided here."
He didn't answer, instead whirling on his heel and disappearing into his rooms, though he did leave the door open so I could follow him inside. When I shut the door behind me and turned around, he was seated at his table, his fingers steepled together under his chin and a look of supreme annoyance on his face.
"So," he said without even offering me a seat, "did you have fun at your league meeting?"
"How did you know?" I asked before I could stop myself. That was Holmes's favorite question and I braced myself for the deduction that was sure to follow. Usually, I rather enjoyed this game, but it was rarely directed at me. I didn't enjoy that nearly as much. But the answer was not the one I expected.
"My dear Watson, the Watson League was purely my invention." Anger must have flashed across my face. When I opened my mouth to speak, Holmes simply held up one finger. "Actually, this operation has been underway for a long time. I've been hiring and incorporating Watsons for months now."
"And Gay Watson?"
"A very fine actor as well."
"To what end, Holmes?" I asked, livid. My leg began to throb and I took the seat that hadn't been offered to me, social niceties be damned. Holmes didn't deserve them.
To my surprise, Holmes simply shrugged. "I just wanted to be appreciated. I was testing your loyalty, and yet every Watson was met with annoyance."
"Oh, I wonder why," I said, tiredly rubbing my forehead.
"And now after I took the trouble to choose suitable Watson after Watson to get your league together, I hear that you spent the entirety of the night complaining about me!"
"They started it," I retorted, sounding rather like a schoolboy. "You knew what I was going to complain about -- every gripe was one yanked out of my own head."
Holmes made a pitiable noise and I chanced to look up. To my surprise, he looked rather sad. "I thought you might come to my defense."
"When surrounded by a hundred lookalikes in an elaborate set-up devised by you to test my loyalty?"
"Yes, and?" Holmes said, not appearing as though he even began to understand how ridiculous that sounded.
I sighed deeply. "Holmes, you need not test my loyalty again. I assure you, I'm loyal. I accompany you on every case, I write your memoirs even over your thin protests to the contrary, I've never showed the slightest interest in taking myself elsewhere, which I could do. I am still a medical doctor, you know."
"I don't understand."
Only decorum stopped me from grabbing Holmes by his shoulders and shaking him. "I'm saying that since I've demonstrated loyalty in every possible way since the day we met, of course you'd need to hire a hundred actors in an elaborate ruse in order to test that!"
A flicker of a smile passed over Holmes's features. "I'm glad you see it my way."
At that, I let out a noise of exasperation, spun on my heel and walked out of Holmes's rooms.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I'm off to get 'Sherlock Holmes is an insane person with a gigantic ego and ridiculously over-the-top plans' added to the agenda of next month's meeting of the Watson League!"
"Watson," Holmes began.
I turned around again. "Get rid of the others and we'll start fresh in the morning, all right?"
Holmes proffered his hand and I took it, shaking on our new agreement. "Good," I told him. "I've rather missed our regular routine."
"And me?" Holmes asked. I thought I detected a note of hope laced into his tone.
"And you," I agreed.
Thus ended the first, last, and only actual gathering of The Watson League, though to keep it between my readers and me, I still find the time to complain about Sherlock Holmes and his infuriating idiosyncrasies at least once a month.