To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. He did not feel anything akin to love for her, for to admit the intrusion of emotion into such a mind as his, a mind that had constantly to be watchful and merciless in order to carry our chosen and necessary work, would have been a fatal disaster. He always spoke of the softer passions with a gibe and a sneer, dismissing them as the luxury of those who would live under dominion, those who refused to shake off the shackles long since placed on us by the fiends from beyond the Pit. Not until the world was restored could Holmes permit himself to think of such things. Yet she has earned forever the honorable title of the woman.
When first we made her acquaintance in the rookery of St. Giles, after the affair of Prince Franz Drago in which we first came to the attention of Moriarty and the Queen, Holmes was impressed merely by the quickness of her hands and her palpable viciousness when she spoke of her prey. Yet there was something of grace and kindliness in her manner, I saw, something not yet wiped away by her years of battle with the things that should not be.
Holmes fell into easy conversation with her as I worked, watching her just as keenly and carefully as he watched the rest of the world. "You have been in one of the German principalities, I see," he said to her, his eyes glinting as she started at this perfectly typical demonstration of his powers of observation. "Bavaria? No, no; Bohemia, of course." Unlike most people who had made Holmes's acquaintance, the woman was not perfectly astonished at his deductive abilities. She merely started for a moment, then smiled. "You are wise indeed, sir," she said. "I see you have noticed the mannerisms and style of dress I picked up while I was abroad."
"Indeed," Holmes said, inclining his head towards her, "though the size and placement of yours bespeak even more clearly that you have encountered the royalty of that region. I must ask, at the risk of impertinence: how did you come by those scars?"
The woman was silent for a long moment, and I was afraid that Holmes's natural frankness had cost us another friend in the offing. But she told her tale then, told it as if she were grateful to be putting words to it at last.
Mere months earlier ("in my wasted youth," she said with a slight and failed attempt at an airy tone), she had consorted with Count von Ormstein, hereditary King of Bohemia, falling like so many others before her under the influence of his enormous piscine eyes and the guttural hiss in his voice. Other women had seen too late the hunger in his eyes and the terrible, ravenous motions of his toothless mouths. But the woman, as he began to undress her, realized that he meant to devour her in the end, and acted swiftly. With nothing but her bare hands and the Count's own hat pin, she had left the room verdant with his life's blood, fleeing quietly to London and swearing revenge on every other creature that would suck the life from humanity.
But her scars would never leave her, nor allow her true rest or relief. She claimed they no longer hurt her and granted me permission to examine them, yet I felt her flinch and heard the intake of breath; any contact with the suction marks across her back, in particular, caused her no little pain. When I applied a salve of my own devising to the damaged tissue, her manner and her hard smile seemed to ease slightly, if only for moments at a time.
It would be inaccurate to say that the three of us strolled together through the rookery after dark. We skulked, in point of fact, for even in that place, where the police would not go except by the dozen, we were not safe. But we had quite pleasant conversations on the finer points of killing the infernal creatures, and compared the relative merit of the precise surgical method which I used to her own more splashy and haphazard technique. It was a somewhat idle conversation, given that both of our methods had their only possible end in the death of the accursed royal personage, but I must admit that I was intrigued by her descriptions of the weak points in the bones of certain monsters, which make it possible to pull their rib cages out with a few well-placed stabs and one good, solid pull on the sternum. It was an ingenious maneuver, one that I have not yet had an opportunity to attempt myself. I mean to do it one day in her name.
She would sometimes disappear for days at a time. Unlike ourselves, she was known to the police only by her handiwork, not by her appearance: she could blend in with London crowds and learn the names of the most fashionable places to catch a glimpse of royalty. When she returned, Holmes and I would quietly search the tabloids for news of another royal murder. Her exploits with Count von Ormstein were known and spoken of in horrified tones, so that with each new killing, London would be abuzz with speculation over whether it was the work of the butchers of Prince Franz Drago or the "terror from Bohemia." Holmes and I, having killed nothing but flies since our flight to St. Giles, told the woman that we were flattered to have our modest encounter compared with her ongoing struggles against the things from the depths.
Alas, those days in the rookery, as close to an idyll as lives such as ours could ever get, would not last. Holmes saw the agents of the Queen as they began to close around us, those men beyond help or solace, their minds sucked dry and their bodies beyond their own control, entirely in thrall to her. They were easily recognized, even for someone of so common an understanding myself, and they had begun to cast a wide net. Holmes and I talked this over and debated many plans of action, but action was always precisely the thing we discussed. We were Londoners, through and through, and it was in London that we would stand our ground, though we could long since have fled. Rumors began to circulate that the police would arrive in force within the week to clean out the rookery of St. Giles and finally bring to justice those disturbed souls who meant harm to their benefactors at Buckingham Palace and around the world.
So we stalked the streets one more time, picking out those alleys and buildings where we would meet with the most success in fighting or hiding. I cleaned and sharpened each of my knives, unused since our arrival in the rookery, feeling their comfortable, perfectly balanced weight in my hand. The woman, too, talked of standing her ground and confronting the beasts one last time, but she became quiet and seemed to look inward when Holmes and I described the coming conflict as likely to be the last and finest moment of our lives.
We dined with her one night late in October, knowing that with each passing day it was likelier and likelier that the next day would be our last. She spoke brightly to Holmes of her fondnesses for violin music and horseback riding, but I caught again that edge of introspection in her voice and face. I was sure Holmes and observed it too, and made up my mind to bring it up with him after we left.
My next clear thought came to me as I awoke to the rapid motion of a carriage in which Holmes and I lay sprawled together in the seat. My noises of surprise awoke him, and he seemed as surprised as I. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded after pounding the ceiling of the cab and summoning the driver. "Where are we?"
"Devonshire, sir," said the driver, taken aback by our evident anger. "Your kind friend, the lady in the foreign dress, she asked that I drive you here as quick as possible, sir. Paid handsomely, she did." And then, as Holmes seemed to rear up like a cobra in his anger, "She asked me to give you this, sir. She said you're to read it before you did anything hasty. That's just what she said, sir."
Holmes snatched the letter and read the following to me:
"My Dear Mister Sherlock Holmes,
"I fear you shall be very angry on the receipt of this letter, and I apologize for my subterfuge. As you must have surmised by the time you wake up and read this message, I added an extra ingredient to your friend's food and yours last night, which should keep you in a quite pleasant, dreamless sleep well into the afternoon. I have instructed the driver of this carriage to take you all the way to Baskerville Hall, a large, secluded estate out in the country. You may in your haste choose to leave the cab before you arrive, but I implore you not to. Sir Henry Baskerville is a dear friend of mine and a staunch Restorationist, and he will be glad to provide you with shelter.
"You will wonder at what I have done. I can only explain by saying that yours is the most ingenious mind I have ever known, and Doctor Watson is an assassin whose skills rival even my own. Between you, you represent the best hope I have ever known that England may be free again. I have been heartsick these many weeks, knowing that you would both throw your lives away, no matter how nobly, in this terrible place. You must live, Mister Holmes: live to be more than a mere thorn in the Queen's side and an object of tabloid fascination. You must kill more of them, kill until your actions and the Doctor's grow into legend, that future generations may see that humanity need not bend before the creatures that lay claim to us. That is your destiny.
"My destiny, I fear, is still unknown to me. The police may be here in a matter of hours, looking only for you. I must provide some distraction so that the discovery of your absence and the race to find where you have gone are delayed until you are safely away. Do not consider yourselves 'safely away' until you reach the moors and bogs of Devonshire. I know not how this night; but if I should fall in the morning, I will know in death that my memory is safe in your keeping.
And so I remain, Mister Sherlock Holmes, very truly yours."
Holmes ran a finger along her signature very briefly, then handed me the note and fell into deep concentration. He would not speak to me again until we reached our destination.
That was the end of our acquaintance with the woman. We could not know what befell her after we took our flight. If she survived, there would be no safe way for her to locate us and tell us so. I am not one to linger on what might have been, but I must wonder what more she and Holmes could have meant to each other in a world not ruled by the cruel and unnatural gods that still devour the human race. Perhaps, if we all three live to see such a world again, we may yet find out. Holmes can no longer bare to speak her name aloud, and so she is now simply the woman, though for my part her name still rings through my mind: Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory, her fate unknown to us.