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An Occurrence at St. Bartholomew's Hospital

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I

A man stood upon a ledge in London, looking down at the pavement several stories below. At a short remove, a second man lay in a pool of blood, bone, and gray matter. His eyes were wide and lifeless, and he gripped a gun in his left hand. Besides the two of them, nobody else occupied the rooftop.

Spread out below the man on the ledge were people passing on the pavement, curbside cars and a laundry truck carrying hospital linens, moving vehicles in the street, a low brick building, a parking lot. In the parking lot stood a man. A soldier and a doctor, holding a phone to his ear, looking up.

The man on the ledge also held a phone. He wore a long woolen coat with a broad collar, turned up. A two-toned blue scarf adorned his neck. The curls of his long, dark hair tumbled over his forehead and ears. His clothes were expensive and well-kept. Evidently this was not a man at the end of his resources, planning to jump in order to escape a destitute existence. Yet his expression was troubled, and his gray eyes were filled with tears as they watched the man below.

The man on the rooftop thought of the sniper, unseen, whose gun was fixed on the figure staring up at him. He knew that the presence of that gunman, and two others at a further remove, would force him to fall as effectively as if someone were to remove the ledge beneath his feet. He had previously possessed a certainty that he could make those gunmen stand down by coaxing the proper message from the criminal mastermind who led them. The body lying on the rooftop was evidence of his failure.

He released the phone but spent a moment longer staring at his friend. He wanted to fix the sight of him in his mind, carry it with him as his last thought. As he stared, however, he became conscious of a new disturbance. A loud and repeating sound, like a series of cannons firing. The booming broke through his desired final communion with his closest companion, filling his thoughts. As he awaited the next percussive explosion, he wanted to cover his ears to stop the intolerable pain of the noise. What he heard was his heartbeat.

Through the thundering, he observed the pavement below, cold and hard. He imagined how it would feel to fall upon it, and he imagined his friend witnessing the impact. “If only I could land on something soft,” he thought, “The fall might yet convince the gunmen to put up their weapons. I might then secrete myself somewhere out of sight, and from there make my way home. How happy and safe my friend and I would be, then.”

As these thoughts flashed through his brain, he took a final look at the man below and stepped forward off the ledge.

II

Sherlock Holmes was a consulting detective, operating out of his 221B Baker Street. He was a proud man, sure of his ability to anticipate any event, to solve any problem. He had already prepared the tea when James Moriarty came to visit him at the flat.

He had partly figured out the puzzle at hand, the mystery of the treasures left untouched after Moriarty’s high-profile break-ins. “You took nothing, because you needed nothing,” Holmes said.

“Good,” confirmed the man sitting before him, eating an apple.

“You shall never need to steal anything again.”

Moriarty seemed pleased. “A correct deduction. Can you elaborate?”

“Nothing from any of the illustrious targets of your break-ins... nothing in the Bank of England, the Tower of London or Pentonville Prison ... could possibly match the value of what you already possess. You have the key to all these and more.”

Moriarty was delighted by this reasoning. There was still a missing piece, however. Holmes pondered it as he listened to Moriarty boast of his potential clients and his appeal when adorned with a crown. “If you can already enter any vault,” he asked, “what need have you to make your clients bid for your secret?”

Moriarty smiled. “There is no need. I merely enjoy witnessing their competition. Ordinary people are compelling, are they not? You are aware; you have your Mr. Watson.”

Holmes tried not to bristle at the mention of his friend. He focused on the question at hand. “What is your purpose in all this?”

“I want to solve the problem – our problem. The final problem.” Moriarty’s head dropped forward. “It is going to start very soon, Mr. Holmes,” the consulting criminal continued. “The fall. But don’t be scared. Falling is just like flying, except there is a more permanent destination.”

Holmes knew, then, the vague shape of what was to come.

After Moriarty departed, Holmes began his preparations. He worked to ensure that he and Moriarty would confront one another for the last time in a place of Holmes’s own choosing; a place where they were truly alone. If he could control Moriarty and the circumstances of their next meeting, he felt sure he could outwit him. If he could keep him talking, he could trick him into revealing whatever information was necessary to prevent the final fall.

III

As Sherlock Holmes plummeted downward, time seemed to slow, and his senses to swell. He could see the lives of every person below him, arrayed along the street. The woman who wore three rings, one from each of her children, on her way to the market to fetch her husband’s favorite brand of biscuit. She had been to Africa at age ten, and was dreaming of returning as she walked. The man in the plaid shirt, his ankles covered in the hair of the cats of two separate girlfriends. His third girlfriend would complain tonight that he worked too much. The amateur magician, late for a children’s party, tapping his fingers against his knees in the back of a black cab. He would miss the entire thing due to a traffic accident two streets over. Holmes wished he could stay here in midair forever, reading the past and future of everyone who passed, but he continued his descent.

His eyes found the laundry truck below. It was still parked at the curb. If only he could reach it, it would provide a soft landing. He blinked through teary eyes as the wind tore at his face. He glanced again at the pavement approaching him. “To die,” he thought. “That is not so bad. But to die via self-inflicted violence, in front of one’s dearest friend; that is not fair.”

He was not conscious of any effort to move his limbs, but he became aware that they were gyrating. He was, it almost seemed, swimming through the air. Somehow, he drew closer to the laundry truck. He observed with dispassionate interest, as if an outsider to his own body, as he clawed his way forward. He wondered if he would make it all the way to the vehicle, beyond the threshold of its walls, before he had fallen too far for it to matter. And then -- bravo! He had done it. Just in time, he crossed the boundary.

The linens cushioned his fall more than he expected. They were loosely packed, and he felt every fiber of them sliding against each pore of his skin as he sank into the nest. The wind was not even knocked from his lungs, and he lay breathing, feeling each lobe of his lungs expand and compress as he observed the thousand hues made by the light bouncing off the hospital sheets.

The truck began to move. He shifted, rose up, pushing his head above the sides of the vehicle. The wind blew at his face, so strong that he was forced to squint. A blur of colors flowed past on either side. He stood a bit taller, precariously perching atop a laundry bag, struggling to see.

Suddenly the truck swerved around a sharp corner, and he was thrown from it. He found himself whirling through the air, and then his motion was abruptly arrested by grass. Rolling to a stop, he wove his fingers gratefully through the soft, fragrant strands. They were the most beautiful living things he had ever seen.

All at once, he thought of Watson, inevitably distressed and confused by his fall. He recalled also the gunmen at the ready, and wondered whether his descent had successfully deceived them, or whether they had discharged their weapons. He must return at once to 221B Baker Street. Once Watson left the hospital parking lot -- whether dodging a hail of bullets or otherwise -- he would surely return there, as well. They could regroup and plan.

For miles he traveled, seeking his home on foot. He was in an unfamiliar part of London, the streets small and shabby. They twisted and turned in unexpected ways, and he considered, finally, asking a passerby for assistance. But the streets were unusually empty. He heard whispers and shuffling coming from some of the darker alleys, but he had no desire to pursue those.

He started to shiver; no matter which direction the road carried him, the wind cruelly battered him. His coat suddenly seemed unseasonably thin, and he huddled inside. Despite the discomfort, though, how monotonous, the walking. By nightfall, he was stumbling forward, barely aware of his surroundings. And how exhausted he must have been; he managed almost to sleep as he walked. He became fully alert again only when he found himself leaning against a hard surface.

The door to 221B Baker Street. He had found it, at last. He opened it and walked inside.

Watson stood on the landing of the stairs, awaiting him. His smile was enormous as he welcomed back his friend. He spread his arms wide, and Holmes leaped toward him. But a harsh wind rushed down the hall, keeping him back. He leaned in, struggling against it, fighting to proceed. Just as he reached Watson and fell forward into his embrace, his head jerked back. He heard a thunderous crash, and pain radiated from his forehead out through his entire body, briefly lighting up every nerve fiber within him. His vision was occluded first by light, then dark. The pain ceased.

Sherlock Holmes was dead; his body, with a crushed skull, lay upon the pavement outside St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.