Irene Adler lay for a long time in John Watson’s bed, the good doctor stretched out beside her, one of his warm arms flung across her breasts and belly; the hair on his forearms tickled her skin. She would not have thought him someone who slept on his stomach, given his war record, but perhaps recent events had begun to crack even that most ingrained of habits. Certainly she couldn’t find it in her heart to begrudge him when, stirring in his sleep, he murmured a name that was not hers: Mary.
Eventually, however, she heard the clock in the hall chime three: high time to effect her disappearance. She was, as Holmes had said once, quite good at that, and she took a certain bitter pride in her skill.
Conveniently, Watson shifted again, and she took advantage of his movement to slide out from under his arm and then out of the bed entirely. The chill air of the room against her naked flesh was more than enough to chase the last lingering remnants of lassitude from her body, and Irene collected her clothing quickly. She had made sure, while allowing the doctor to strip it from her, that all the items landed in the same general area.
She no longer felt any particular onus to impersonate Holmes, and so she left the binding cloth lying on the floor, donning her undershirt directly over her skin. She tucked her shirt into her trousers and then carefully buttoned the cuffs, folding her collar down before tying her tie outside it. After buttoning her waistcoat and shrugging into her jacket, making sure the points of the collar were arranged correctly against both, she caught her boots and hat up in one hand and padded out the door in her stocking feet, closing it carefully behind her. Watson slept on in the bedroom, and she wished him a sound repose, both for his sake and for her own.
Having been invited into the house by its owner simplified her plan of breaking and entering a great deal. Irene made her way to Watson’s consultation room in semi-darkness, then set her boots and hat on his desk before turning her attention, mostly by feel, to the painting behind it and the safe it concealed. He’d made a grave tactical error not only in revealing the safe’s existence and location, but in opening it in front of her: in the utter stillness of a house in a quiet district of London at a quarter past three in the morning, it took Irene less than ninety seconds’ careful listening and patient turning of the dial before the final tumbler clicked into place and the safe swung open.
She did risk a match then, striking and holding it above the level of her eyes so as to minimize their dazzlement. The little case she wanted was on the top shelf of the safe, tucked in among more of Watson’s notebooks. Irene reached in and flipped it open one-handed. She had just enough time to see the citrine sparkle of the maharajah’s diamond flash into brilliance before the heat of the flame grew too near and she shook the match out lest she burn her fingers.
John Watson didn’t need the money from selling this ring, and the fact that he’d placed it in the safe amongst the relics of his other old life told her all she needed to know about his desire to look upon it henceforth. Irene Adler, on the other hand, was never so secure that she could afford to pass up a potential source of ready cash, and in any case she had her own personal reasons for wanting the diamond back. She had almost never begrudged Watson Holmes’ affections; indeed, seeing the pain the detective’s death had caused the doctor was almost enough to make her glad that her feelings for him had been unrequited.
Almost, but not quite. She had grieved for Holmes too, no less sincerely than Watson; it was not the doctor’s fault that she had put the detective’s death behind her as best she could, while Watson seemed to be going in circles. But she had her pride, and she wanted a little bit of her own back.
Irene closed the case on the ring and pocketed it, then shut the safe and replaced the painting before making her way to the library. Locating the book she wanted took another half-dozen matches, and an uncomfortably long stretch of time, but at last she found it: Paradise Lost, by John Milton, in two slim volumes. These she tucked into the interior pockets of her coat before walking carefully down the stairs, stopping to put on her boots at their foot. There was ample time to clean out her hotel room before catching the 8:32 from Victoria Station to Dover, and thence by packet to Calais.
She purchased her ticket in women’s clothing, and took a seat in the private compartment she’d reserved after making one final purchase at the newsstand between platforms. While the train pulled out of the station, putting first the heart of the city and then London altogether behind it, Adler began slowly making her way through the dense poetry of John Milton. In both style and content Paradise Lost was the total opposite of such poets as Longfellow, whose verse she had memorized and recited as a schoolgirl in New Jersey, a lifetime and a continent distant. But she was surprised to realize, despite having to pause frequently to reread whole passages, that she was enjoying the poem.
The train arrived in Dover in the early afternoon, and Irene transferred to her packet while Satan was beginning his journey up from Hell:
Into this wilde abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
Irene glanced up from the book; in the diminishing light the Channel, wreathed with a thin fog, looked very much like an abyss, purpling into blackness in the east. The weather was with her, however, and her crossing was not wilde. In Calais she transferred to a Paris-bound train, again traveling in a private compartment, and arrived at the Gare du Nord late, just as the Fiend contemplated and then rejected the idea of returning to Heaven. She took a cab directly to a hotel, and slept late the next morning.
Irene lingered in Paris, making pilgrimages to her favorite shops and strolling through the Champs Élysées with the fashionable set, as though she were one of them. In men’s clothing, she visited other haunts in less well-to-do arrondissements, listening for news while guardedly telling a little of her own. In Eden, Michael related to Adam the events of the war in heaven, cautioning him that he should keep this knowledge from Eve, lest she worry her pretty blonde head unduly.
After four days she was satisfied that no pursuers had followed her to the Continent, and she checked out of her hotel and bought a ticket for the morning train to Marseille the next day. After she had settled into her compartment, Satan tempted Eve, who very sensibly chose knowledge over ignorance, and when God discovered their transgression Adam, the worm, tried to blame it all on his wife. God cast them both out of the Garden, and in addition punished Satan’s legions in Hell with an annual transformation into serpents, and no one was happy, though Adam and Eve at least put a brave face on things:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
They had each other, if nothing else, and Irene set the book down, considering whether it could possibly be enough. On the whole, she thought…possibly. When she had asked Holmes to run with her, three years ago, she had done it in the expectation that, between their wits and their charm, they could have lived, if not well, then at least comfortably. In the attenuated light of November 1893, the idea seemed less substantial than the memory of a dream.
In the dining car Irene decided that of all people in the poem she sympathized most with Satan and secondly with Eve, which she very much suspected was not what Milton had believed, unless he had been a Satanist heretic. But then, she herself was not an obedient woman by nature, and in any case, she doubted that John Watson of all people would consider a poem by a Satanist one of the great works of English literature. Still, she thought she took the doctor’s meaning when he’d said that Holmes had had the pride of Lucifer; it had been one of the things she’d found enthralling about the detective.
The only possible explanation she could devise was that Milton had intended his readers to sympathize with the Devil, to enact an unfortunate Fall within themselves. The poem was a trap, and a subtle one; devious, even, as devious as a certain late, unlamented professor of her acquaintance.
The train arrived in Marseille after dark, but Irene had sent a telegram to a prearranged ditection prior to her departure from Paris and was not surprised, when she emerged from the Gare de Saint Charles, to find a hansom awaiting her at the foot of the grand staircase. The sea breeze, tinged liberally with scents more human than saline, was nonetheless refreshing, and the lights of the city twinkling in the evening were picturesque, but Irene had more important concerns. Not allowing either her gait or her countenance to betray any hint of her unease, she strode directly up to the door of the cab, opened it, and climbed inside.
The interior was completely dark; Irene sat down on the bench and waited for her eyes to adjust so that, in what little light there was, she could finally make out the outlines of the form sitting across from her.
“Miss Adler,” it said in a harsh whisper, pitched precisely to avoid betraying any distinguishing characteristic. “Well?”
The encounter was so much like another interview in a carriage, four Novembers prior, that Irene suppressed a shudder. She had hated the professor, and had hated herself for being intimidated by—as well as admiring—him.
The voice had spoken flawless French, without a trace of an accent, and she replied in kind. “I obtained the case notes from Dr. Watson, as you asked. Additionally, we attended a boxing match, and put paid to four thugs who had followed us from the doctor’s house.” She forbore to mention that she had taken Watson to bed afterward, or the contents of their conversations; she could be the very soul of discretion.
“Is that all?”
“London is so very dull this time of year,” Irene replied coolly, begging the question.
If her employer—at any rate she assumed this was he—was perturbed by her equivocation, there was no perceptible sign of it. After a moment, the voice asked, “And the case notes?”
“I have them here,” Irene said, raising one hand slowly to the breast of her jacket, and then several things happened at once.
Her employer leaned forward and seized her wrist in a gloved right hand, but Irene had thought ahead and raised her left hand rather than her right. Rather than try to jerk free, she tugged the man towards her, pulling him off-balance while she whisked her knife free from its hiding place and put its edge to the throat exposed by his open collar. Simultaneously, he’d realized her intention and had shook free from his left sleeve a miniature revolver, into the very fine-caliber barrel of which she abruptly found herself staring. She lifted her eyes from the Moriarty gun and met the dark gaze of Sherlock Holmes.
“I knew it,” Irene breathed.
“Well played, my dear,” said Holmes affably, as if they’d met by chance in Regent’s Park and were not holding each other at knife-edge and gunpoint, respectively, in a hansom outside the main train station of the scruffy port city of Marseille, as if he were not supposed to be two and a half years drowned in Switzerland.
It was a fairly innocuous remark, particularly for Holmes, but rather than being pacified Irene was consumed with rage. “Well, hello, Professor,” she said venomously. “And may I say, you’re looking quite well for a dead man.”
Only the tightening of Holmes’ grip on the gun betrayed that at least part of her shot had found a chink in his armor. “You told me once that the late professor was at least as clever as I am, and infinitely more devious,” he said at length, voice so perfectly bland that she knew it was the product rather of control than truth. Irene remembered abruptly that he still had the gun pointed directly between her eyes. “I have perforce been adopting some of his methods as my own. I believe I may credibly disagree with you, now, as to which of us is in fact craftier.”
“Do please accept my congratulations,” Irene snapped. “All you need is to murder certain people in secret and you will have control of half of London’s criminal element. Or is that what you hired me for? To do your dirty work? And will you get that thing out of my face?”
“If you would be so kind as to remove your knife from my neck, my dear,” Holmes said mildly, but they were still only inches apart, close enough for her to see the spark of anger that flared and died in the dark eyes at her words, close enough that she heard the slight hitch in respirations taken faster and then immediately controlled again.
She’d scored several hits, then, but had telegraphed her follow-through to her opponent. Irene put up her foil for the time being and took the knife away from the detective’s throat, letting it rest on the bench at her side. “I will require the use of my hand,” she said pleasantly after Holmes shook the little gun back into his sleeve.
“Naturally,” he said without missing a beat, and loosed his grip on her wrist. Irene suspected she would have bruises, but didn’t debase herself to check.
“The afterlife suits you,” she remarked instead. “Have you been in Marseille all this time?”
“No,” Holmes said shortly, “and in point of fact I do not reside here, but in Montpellier. How did you deduce that I was alive?”
“If you are asking, does Dr. Watson suspect or know, the answer is that I did not share my suspicions with him,” Irene said, taking a calculated risk. “But really, who else besides you and the doctor and Colonel Moran himself would know that Sherlock Holmes suspected Moran’s involvement in the case in question? And who else would be interested in seeing who would follow someone who looked like Sherlock Holmes in company with John Watson?”
“That is an exceedingly circular sentence, and an exceedingly circular set of deductions,” Holmes observed. “Are you sure you did not merely intuit the fact of my survival, Irene?”
“Damn you, Sherlock,” she snapped. “We can’t all be calculating machines. Do you have any idea, even the slightest scrap of an idea, of what I felt when I heard that you were dead?— to say nothing of the doctor’s feelings.
She had expected Holmes to counter with some witty remark, and was taken aback when the only reply was silence. At length he said coldly, “Quite,” and raised a hand to rap sharply on the roof of the hansom. “I’ve taken the liberty of engaging a suite in a hotel,” he explained as the cab rumbled into motion. “We have dinner reservations at eight-thirty.”
“Thank you for informing me,” Irene said, matching his frigidity with equally cold politeness.
The hansom rattled down the boulevard d’Athènes and then turned onto la canebière while they sat in silence. Irene was chilled, but nor surprised, when they drew to a halt in front of the Hôtel Beauvau, the city’s oldest and grandest. Holmes emerged from the carriage first and, looking back, offered her his arm as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Steeling herself, Irene accepted it, and he whisked her through the lobby and up the stairs to one of the more palatial suites she had seen even in her checkered career. It compared favorably with her habitual room at The Grand in Piccadilly, and she wondered uneasily just where he had gotten the requisite money.
As usual, he parsed the import of her instinctive glance with ease. “I assure you, Irene, no ill-gotten funds shall be used to settle my bill here,” Holmes said, voice dry as gravedust. “Would you care for some wine?” He settled into one of the chairs positioned around a low table near the room’s fireplace, indicating a serving tray with a bottle of burgundy and two cut-crystal glasses perched atop it.
“Certainly.” Irene had already seen that the contents of her bags, which she’d had sent ahead of her the day before she’d left London, had been discreetly unpacked into the room’s closet and wardrobe. “Are you sure we have time before our reservation?”
“I believe so,” said Holmes, picking up the corkscrew in one hand and the bottle in the other. “Though you may want to dress for dinner beforehand.”
This was a clear direction, and Irene bridled at it automatically; she was not Dr. Watson, to take the detective’s orders without question. But she swallowed her resentments; she needed a better grasp of the situation before she could resume her campaign. Instead, not looking at Holmes, she deliberately removed her hat, gloves and duster, tossing all three onto yet another chair, before stepping behind the screen to strip to her underthings. Holmes had already laid out what was evidently his choice for her evening attire, a beaded black dress that she had worn on a rather memorable occasion in London three years ago. Irene eyed the gown and reminded herself that she had been expecting her employer to stab her in the back; the fact that her employer had turned out to be Sherlock Holmes did not materially alter that expectation.
Still, she was not defenseless. “Holmes,” Irene said sweetly when she had finished changing her underthings and stepped into the gown, “would you be so good as to assist me with these buttons?”
“Of course, my dear,” Holmes said, and if she hadn’t known better she would have thought him completely abstracted. He’d lost his coat and jacket at some point while she’d dressed, and was reduced to a black brocade waistcoat and linen shirt, the collar open but the French cuffs fastened with links. She didn’t see the Moriarty gun anywhere, but then, she hadn’t expected to.
But even Holmes’ abstractions were far more observant than most people’s full alertness.
“Is it black tie, then?” Irene asked, turning to present her semi-naked back to him. She heard Holmes rise and approach her, and consciously forced herself not to tense in readiness too obviously.
“It is,” Holmes replied. Even ghosting efficiently up her back, just barely brushing her skin, his hands were warm, and Irene swallowed hard at the sudden spike of desire that suffused her, making her flush and thickening her tongue in her mouth. She knew better than to try to disguise her reaction, but she stood quietly until Holmes said softly, “Finished, my dear.”
“Thank you,” Irene said without glancing back, and stepped over to the valise containing her gloves, selecting a black elbow-length pair and very carefully fitting them over her arms. Before she joined Holmes at the table, she reached into her traveling case and plucked the little jewelry box she’d stolen from Watson’s safe out of it.
The diamond caught the lamplight in a pleasingly ostentatious manner, and Irene made sure, when she sat down on the settee across from Holmes and reached to accept the glass of wine he handed her, that she did so with her left hand; she’d set the ring on her middle finger, both because it did not fit her ring finger on that hand and because she had sworn when she’d signed her divorce papers that she would never marry again, and she would not pretend otherwise even to bait Sherlock Holmes mercilessly.
“What shall we drink to?” Irene asked, since Holmes was staring at the ring, appearing to have forgotten the existence of the wine entirely.
Holmes blinked. “To betrayal,” he said after a moment, and the crystal glasses rang like bells when they knocked them together. Irene didn’t scruple to hide the fact that she watched Holmes drink before sipping her own wine.
But he did, and so she did too. After a moment Irene set down her glass and held her hand out to study the ring, rotating it this way and that. “I’m not sure I approve of the setting,” she mused. “I think I may have it done up in silver.”
She’d wondered whether he’d changed, and when she met his eyes over the wineglasses she knew that he had. The Holmes she’d fought with and against in 1890 would have already had a smile and a witty remark in play; now he simply stared at her, eyes burning in a face that, she noted clinically, was thinner and more lined than three years previous, the touches of silver at his temples grown correspondingly wider.
“That would suit you,” he said at last, with a cutting smile.
“Or I might have it cut down, into two stones,” Irene continued. “We could wear matching pieces.”
Holmes’ simper might itself have been diamond. “Tell me,” he said, sipping the wine, “what is the news from London?”
Irene drank some of her own wine, realizing belatedly that it was quite a fine vintage. “You will have heard that Mary Watson died last month,” she said. “And that The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is selling briskly.” She nodded towards her valise. “I took the liberty of purchasing you a copy.”
“Died?” Holmes repeated. “Died of what?”
Irene shrugged. “Cancer, I believe. It is not…pleasant.”
“Nor is drowning.”
You didn’t drown, Irene thought, but knew better than to say. Instead she drained her glass and rose, gesturing to her companion. “I think it’s about time we went down to dinner, don’t you?”
“If you like,” said Holmes, evidently indifferent. He rose, leaving his wine, and buttoned his waistcoat over his linen shirt before reclaiming and shrugging into his jacket. The Moriarty gun, she noted, went back up his sleeve before he crossed to one of the vanities and dragged a comb through his hair. Irene watched him in the mirror while she freshened her maquillage. She couldn’t remember him ever fastening his cuffs before, let alone combing his hair, but of course the gun necessitated the cuffs, and the establishment the combing.
They went down to dinner, and talked of inconsequential matters until they were nearly finished the bouillabaisse. Irene surprised herself by enjoying the evening. It was a pleasant change to be in Holmes’ company without much thought of what she must try to gain from it, though she would have been mad to let her guard down completely. They knew each other too comprehensively for comfort, given their past animosity.
That was what one did when one loved someone, of course: gave them the weapons and the opportunity to hurt one, in the certain trust that they would not. Watching her companion sip his wine, Irene wondered whether she did still love him. Certainly she had loved Sherlock Holmes; she had divorced her husband based on little more than soul-killing discontentment and the memory of a brief affair with the detective, and she did not regret it. Indeed, she would be forever grateful to Holmes for that: she had nearly, in a moment of weakness, immured herself alive in a tomb. His memory had helped her to escape, and in the nick of time.
It was of her divorce, and of Elizabeth, New Jersey, that Irene was thinking when Holmes looked over at her, an insouciant half-smile on his face. It didn’t reach his eyes; of all the expressions she’d seen him wear heretofore, only anger had. Involuntarily, she felt herself tense, but they were interrupted at that moment by a waiter bearing a telegram on a silver tray.
“Monsieur Wilson?” the man said. “I beg your pardon, sir, but you did say you wished to be interrupted for any messages.”
“Yes, thank you, Francois,” said Holmes carelessly, palming the telegram and slipping the man a few francs in one economical motion.
“Wilson?” Irene repeated ironically when the waiter had vanished. She could tell from Holmes’ anticipatory glance at her that he expected something in the telegram to disturb her, and she was determined to ambush him before that.
“Yes, James Wilson, and you are my devoted wife Amber,” he said, and handed her the telegram.
“Amber?” She could have smacked herself, repeating his words like a trained parrot, but the name slipped out nonetheless.
“You are certainly a semi-precious gem, my dear, as numerous royalty can attest.”
Irene flushed even as she thrust the telegram back at him. “I cannot make head or tail of this, James; do enlighten me.”
Holmes tossed the telegram onto the tablecloth, where it was as out of place as an eagle among pigeons next to the gleaming flatware. “I am reliably informed that another of Moriarty’s lieutenants, in Brussels, has at last met the fate he so richly deserves, in the form of evidence given against him which not even his formidable resources can contradict or subvert.”
“That’s what you’ve been doing,” Irene breathed. “How many parts have you played, Holmes, to get such evidence, in how many countries?”
“I lost count in the summer of ‘92, I admit. Over one hundred.”
“And yet after all this time you have not hacked the Hydra to pieces…” Irene said slowly, not really paying his reply full attention. “Otherwise you would have returned to Britain.” She glanced up, and saw at once that she had unwittingly struck a nerve.
“No,” he said briefly; “too many of Moriarty’s hangers-on still walk free in London, knowing my face and name, as your adventure proved.”
“For which purpose I was sent,” Irene agreed, thinking frantically. “Obtaining the case notes in question from Dr. Watson was a pretext with which to dupe us both, I assume?”
She watched his face very carefully, and for a bare instant saw the mask turned to glass, and the emotions beneath it exposed. Luckily shock robbed her of the ability to move, or otherwise she would have recoiled.
“I should not have disturbed Watson for anything less than the most urgent necessity,” Holmes said after a very slight pause, regaining his self-possession with no perceptible effort. “And having done it, I shall never do so again.”
“Do you mean to say you will never return to London?” Irene asked, frankly dumbfounded.
“Not only do I mean to say it, I mean to live it.”
“I had not thought Montpellier such a fascinating metropole,” Irene remarked, and realized that she was growing angry. “Or perhaps you have found a companion there who suits you better than I or the Doctor could?”
Holmes met her burgeoning fire with his customary lofty disdain. “Hardly,” he drawled while the waiter removed the bouillabaisse dishes. “But solitude does present certain advantages.”
“I really must insist that you enumerate them for me,” Irene returned. “I seem to have failed to learn them entirely.”
Shaved ices were set in front of them; Holmes disregarded both the dishes and the waiter withdrawing. “I cannot credit that, my dear; you did so well at the assignment I gave you, to say nothing of the evidence afforded by your earlier career.” He glanced pointedly at the diamond on her finger, and Irene recalled the file of newspaper clippings she’d seen in Baker Street. She hadn’t the heart to tell him, now or then, that he had missed some of her exploits.
But on the other hand, those he’d overlooked were not ones in which she took any pride.
She picked up her spoon and took a few deliberate bites of the ice. “You are mad not to go back,” she said presently.
“Irene, much as I respect you, deduction is not your area of expertise,” Holmes told her flatly. “You are wrong in every particular.”
“Quite the contrary, Sherlock, you are,” she said, using his given name in a calculated act of impudence; the flicker of annoyance in his eyes bought her time to formulate an argument that would not redound on her. “To throw away such a connection, and for what—for your pride?”
He stared at her, dark and only outwardly calm, and she thought suddenly of Milton:
Darkened so, yet shone
Above them all th’ Archangel: but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows
Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride
In one of those flashes of blinding insight that were the equal and the opposite of Holmes’ chains of deduction, Irene saw suddenly that the pressure of the past two and a half years was killing everything that had made Sherlock Holmes a man, and himself, and that the pace was accelerating. The unrelenting pressure was compressing him into a cabochon diamond, perfect and utterly without light. Soon, she thought, all of his flaws would be gone, and his soul with them.
“Pride has nothing to do with it,” Holmes said calmly, taking methodical bites of his shaved ice. He paused, and Irene saw that he was tired in that bone-deep way she had had the misfortune to experience only twice in her life, but which remained painfully vivid in its unremittingly grey difficulty. “I have been called reckless by many, but in point of fact I do possess a rather well-developed instinct for self-preservation. And I know, instinctually, I should be mad to go back.” He glanced up at her. “Would you willingly give yourself into the hands of a man who had betrayed you?”
Irene felt a chill entirely unconnected to the air currents in the restaurant against her skin; she did not say, I already have. “How were you betrayed?”
“I really must thank you for your thoughtfulness in purchasing a book for me,” he said with an entirely insincere smile, “particularly since you did not know when you did so that I was alive to receive it.”
“In Dover I wondered,” she conceded; “in Calais I was suspicious, and in Paris I was convinced.”
“But I have already read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, and I feel no particular need to subject myself to such gross calumnies again.”
“Do you mean to say that you will not go back to London—will not let Dr. Watson know that you were not drowned, for God’s sake—because of his stories?”
“I am not that man in those books,” Holmes told her, with the slight air of impatience he had while talking to those who couldn't keep up with him. “Do not attempt to prevaricate and tell me that you did not perceive the difference. Were I to return to London I should end either smashed to pieces, Irene, or a calculating machine; I can conform to his expectations, or immolate myself upon them. Either way ends in my destruction.”
“And I believed you were angry because of his marriage,” Irene said thoughtfully. She did not have the words to assuage the bleak look lurking behind his eyes; he would deny everything if pressed.
He waved a dismissive hand. “Had he not loved his wife, he would not have been himself, and I could not wish him otherwise. It perturbed me greatly,” he added, “but it was not a betrayal.”
Irene finished her ice, reconsidering the Holmes stories in light of his speech. When she had read them she had enjoyed them both for the contrast with her memories of the man—he was right; the Holmes on the page was a caricature—and for themselves, as adventure. In a few instances (particularly the story entitled “A Scandal in Bohemia”) her personal knowledge of the events had deepened her amusement. Nor had she taken any especial offense at the manner in which she herself had been portrayed; it was what the public expected. She knew very well some stories would never be told: the Blackwood affair sprang rather forcibly to mind, but there were scores of others.
She had drained her wine while she thought, and the waiter had come over to refill her glass unobtrusively in the interim; she took another absent sip from the glass and decided that her conscience would not let her remain silent, and damn the consequences.
“I think you are doing both him and yourself a great disservice,” Irene said quietly. As usual Holmes was looking anywhere but at his conversation partner, but that did not mean he was not listening closely. “He thinks you are dead, and grief is a great deranger.”
“I believe I said—“
“You should go back,” she interrupted implacably. “It was your right to choose solitude”—and to spurn me—“but the circumstances have altered drastically since Blackwood’s demise.” She hesitated, but she had always been one to be damned in full, and not by halves. “One of us should be happy, if we can.”
Holmes did look at her then, his face a study not in regret but in the desire to feel regret. “Irene—“
“I am not seeking to reopen that subject,” she told him; she spoke selfishly, for her pride left her quite undesirous of hearing what he had to say. “But I saw no evidence that Dr. Watson’s regard for you has changed in any particular.”
Holmes made a show of studying the light in his wineglass. “And did you spend so much time with him? One needs data, after all, to draw a firm conclusion.”
“I could not help but spend time with him,” Irene said coolly, “given that we took each other to bed after we were nearly killed on your errand.”
The wineglass made a pleasingly pitched sound when it shattered on the floor. Their waiter immediately rushed over and, towel in hand, began fussing over the shards of glass and the spilled wine and Holmes’ right hand, which was bleeding from a few minor cuts. Irene kept her gaze on Holmes’ face the entire time, and he stared back at her implacably; he had been livid for an instant, but his features had almost immediately hardened back into the proud mask she hated. She had to wonder whether he hadn’t dropped the glass deliberately.
The waiter was asking Holmes something that Irene hadn’t caught, but she stood before he finished and waited for Holmes to do the same, still staring at him. He waited an appreciable interval before rising. “I believe we are finished for the evening, thank you,” Irene said to the waiter, whose body language in her periphery was all apology, but she did not take her eyes off the detective.
He offered her his arm with a pointedly small bow. Feeling very much that she had never done anything more dangerous, Irene took it, and they left the restaurant in style.
In their room Holmes dropped his mask as he had the wineglass, and with the same violent effect. “Seducing Watson was not in your instructions,” he said, rounding on her; his tone was intense rather than furious, but Irene knew better than to think him anything but angry, and wounded. She registered too the elision of the doctor’s title, and in the back of her mind things began to fall into place.
“You bought my services, Sherlock, not my liberty,” she told him flatly; “and now that you mention it, I will have my pay.”
“You may take your money and be damned,” the detective said; it would have been a snarl but for the lack of passion in his words, and against her better judgment Irene felt her heart twinge in her breast. She no longer loved him, except in the fashion that she always would, and if she wanted him to be happy she would evidently have to do the lioness’s share of the work.
And she would have to lay the tracks beneath the detective before she left him; she was quite certain that when they parted they would not meet again. She did not know whether she would regret that.
Irene Adler was thirty-three years old, though when pressed she owned to twenty-five and let people assume twenty-eight. She was twenty-five years into a life lived on her wits both outside and inside the law, though even as a girl in New Jersey she had not thought her desire for her independence would take her outside of the law on four continents. Nor when her path had first crossed the great consulting detective’s five years ago had she dreamt that affair would bring her here to the suite of an hotel in Marseille, arguing with him when a day ago she had thought him in a watery grave.
But even in New Jersey she had learned to wring the unforeseen for every possible advantage, and doing so for someone else’s sake was no different, functionally speaking, than doing it out of unadulterated self-interest.
So Irene chuckled rather than take offense at his words. “One way or another, Sherlock, I was damned long ago,” she said, and the words came out amused rather than angry. “And I haven’t hung myself from a tree yet.”
She crossed back to the little table and poured herself more wine; in one of the mirrors, she could see Holmes scrutinizing her out of the corner of her eye. After a long moment the detective dropped into the chair across from hers and drained the glass of wine he had left there half-full before dinner.
Holmes set the glass down on the table and sprawled back in the chair, tilting his head to stare at the ceiling. His manner was nothing short of uncertain, the expression on his strong features dazed; when he said hoarsely, “Tell me everything,” Irene sipped her own wine and did as he asked.
This time she left out nothing, and in the midst of her recounting she rose to retrieve Watson’s fair copy of the casenotes from her discarded jacket. Holmes took them without comment, and Irene kept speaking.
When she had finished the detective sat silent for a long time, dark eyes on the walls. This serious Holmes was nothing like the man who laughed quicksilver in her recollection, always just this side of the edge of losing control, reckless and illumined with the danger.
“You ought to read those notes,” Irene said at last, nodding at the papers. “I think you shall find them enlightening.”
“‘Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise,’” said Holmes, and Irene raised an eyebrow.
“I beg your pardon?”
The detective ran a hand over his face and sat up. “Pay me no mind, my dear, I am hardly fit for company these days. I think, Irene, I shall bid you goodnight,” he told her, staring out the nearest window.
What he saw out there was beyond her; the sea, or the city that limned it? “Goodnight?” Irene repeated.
“Yes,” Holmes said, and rose, straightening his waistcoat. “Don’t wait up for me.”
“Of course not,” Irene replied automatically.
Holmes had crossed to the vanity and was applying a false nose to his face with one hand and a liberal coating of grime with the other. In the next breath he had divested himself of waistcoat and neckcloth and disarranged his hair, stripping himself of the presumption of being a gentleman with just that much effort. Irene watched half-turned in her chair, fascinated. Somehow it was a greater intimacy than seeing him nude; there was far more at stake here, she knew, than when an actor dressed for a part.
He noticed her watching him and, catching her eye in the mirror, actually gave her a wink: it was not broad, but there was a glint of real humor in it, and Irene caught her breath on a sudden surge of hope, its pain unmistakable and not wholly welcome. That the hope was not really for herself, she disregarded.
The detective vanished through one of the window casements while Irene was still remonstrating with herself. Alone in the room, she finished the last of the wine and went to bed after a long, extravagant bath in the claw-footed tub, fitted with gold rather than gilt. In the deep watches of the night she rather felt than heard someone playing a cheap violin with thoughtful artistry. Unconsciously reassured, Irene Adler slept.
In the morning she awoke to find Holmes perched on the side of the bed regarding her, his fingers moving on the strings of the violin held in his left hand without sounding any notes, yielding a faint tuneless series of tones at the depths of hearing. The detective was far too bright-eyed for a man who had almost certainly not slept a wink; Irene wagered it was cocaine, not alcohol. He was still wearing last night’s clothes, and had not shaved.
Some transformations were beyond the scope of any mortal force.
“I think you may possibly be on to something, Irene,” Holmes said when she focused on him; he sounded almost cheerful, irritatingly so to a woman who would always prefer to sleep heavily and late.
“Really,” she said, blinking; as repartee went it was pathetic, but Holmes was reading off a script in his head, and there was no need for her to improvise scintillating lines when she merely had to speak in turn.
“Indeed.” A little of his allegro fell away when he said it, but enough remained that she caught his mood and felt hers lift. “You have read the stories, my dear; may I trouble you again for your interpretation of them?”
“Holmes, I am mortal, and require sustenance to function properly,” said Irene, levering herself to a sitting position. “Is there breakfast? Send for some, won’t you?”
He made an annoyed sound in his throat, doubtless intended to express his opinion of people who ate three meals a day without being under duress, but he did rise and flit away, presumably to ring for a maid. Irene took advantage of the opportunity to slide out of the gigantic bed and don her silken kimono and slippers over her nightgown.
When Holmes reappeared he trailed a pair of maids bearing table linens and place settings; a third brought up the rear with coffee and tea on a cart. Irene gave them her best kind smile, acutely conscious that in the natural order of things she could have aspired to no better position. She knew too well the cost of swimming against the current to begrudge those who could not.
In that, perhaps, lay one of her and Holmes’ few significant differences.
“If you do not eat something,” Irene said when she had finished her second croissant, “I shall not tell you anything.”
Holmes’ cup of coffee sat steaming in front of him untouched; his plate was empty. “Miss Adler, this is blackmail,” he told her, eyes as dark as the coffee, and she smiled.
“Precisely, Mr. Holmes. Butter or jam with your croissant?” Only after he had finished one of the pastries entire and made an assay on a second did Irene take a sip of coffee to clear her throat.
“Dr. Watson thinks you are dead,” she said at length, and held up a hand to ward off the detective’s automatic look of scorn. “No, truly, Sherlock, consider what I am saying. The doctor is the only person alive to whom he need answer for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in his stories. You think the Holmes in print is a caricature because your doctor somehow failed to see you clearly all those years. But did you notice how he portrays the character named after himself?”
Holmes looked mutinous even though he was toying, bored, with a coffee spoon and staring into the middle distance. “Quite,” he said, which was no answer at all.
“Exactly!” Irene pounced nonetheless. “You read too many newspapers, Sherlock; they are stories. Tell me, aren’t some secrets better kept than revealed?”
“Secrets destroy people, Irene,” said Holmes. “I vastly prefer hiding in plain sight to skulking.”
“And that is just what the doctor has done.” Irene leaned forward, trying to convey her convictions. “The stories are your monument, Sherlock, but headstones leave no room for complexity.”
Holmes drank his coffee, doubtless to cover some emotion he did not wish to reveal. After a long moment he said, “Even should I want to, Irene, I cannot go back, not now. Moriarty’s men should destroy me before I got within miles of Cavendish Place. That is why I sent you: had Moran not still been manipulating the threads of the professor’s web, you would not have been pursued, nor Watson’s house surveilled at all.”
The words had the air of rehearsal. Irene studied him, looking for any little detail that she could extrapolate into proof of the resolution she wanted from him, thinking what to say. After a long moment it came to her, and she rose and fetched the first volume of Paradise Lost out of her valise. She had marked the page in question when she first read it, and she flipped to it unerringly. Holmes watched her bemusedly from his chair, but she felt his focus on her when she began to read aloud.
“But say I could repent, and could obtain,
By act of grace, my former state; how soon
Would highth recall high thoughts, how soon unsay
What feigned submission swore? Ease would recant
Vows made in pain, as violent and void.”
Irene looked up from the text on the page and met Holmes’ eyes for a deliberate instant before she broke the connection and returned her gaze to the poem.
“For never can true reconcilement grow,
Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep:
Which would but lead me to a worse relapse
And heavier fall: so should I purchase dear
Short intermission bought with double smart.”
She shut the book and placed it on the table next to her plate before resuming her seat, pointedly not looking at Holmes while she adjusted her dressing gown.
"What in God's name was that?" Holmes asked after a moment, sounding bored. "I had no notion you numbered poetry among your amours, Irene."
"It is John Milton, Paradise Lost, as I believe you know, Sherlock."
“You think I am afraid,” he said at length.
“Yes,” she said, “I do.”
Holmes sat up and leaned forward, putting his hands into his hair. “Irene,” he told her, voice slightly muffled by the tablecloth and by his knees, “perhaps you did not understand me when I said that it would be my death. Even if you are right about Watson, Moran is too well-connected, high and low; I should be dead before I had a case against him.”
“You destroyed Blackwood, and Moriarty,” Irene pointed out, “and you are destroying Moriarty’s organization even now. I have confidence that you can deal with Sebastian Moran.”
He laughed, but not happily. “I am flattered, my dear, but not reassured.”
“Sherlock—“ Irene took a deep breath, conscious that what she was about to say could very well be the death of her, but equally conscious that the prospect did not frighten her particularly. She would survive, or not, and she was good at surviving. “Sherlock, if you are not certain you can construct a case against Moran legitimately, you could entrap him. And you need not do it alone."
Holmes raised his hand, disbelief plain on his face; she told herself it was only to be expected, and that consequently it did not hurt in the slightest. “You, Irene?” he asked.
“Me, Sherlock,” she confirmed, feeling a comforting sense of certainty that she was making the right decision, and aware that it gave her an unwarranted air of confidence. “If you cannot catch Tiger Jack inside the law, you shall have to go outside it to do so, and as I have told you before, that is my area of expertise.” She smiled gamely, trying for levity. “Besides, I have always wanted to go tiger-hunting.”
The detective took a sip of his coffee, studying her frankly over the cup, and Irene bore it as well as she could, not looking away from his dark eyes, which flashed brown every so often when the sun in the mirror caught them. At length Holmes said, “Why?”
“I told you, Sherlock: one of us ought to be happy,” Irene answered, telling herself that she owed him honesty while she struggled to contain her rising ire. She had made him a very fraught offer, and he was leaving it lying on the table between them amongst the dishes.
But then, that was the pattern of all their interactions, in the end. Irene refilled her coffee cup, realizing that her frustration was misplaced: she had betrayed herself into expecting a different ending to quite an old story. She hated to feel so naïve, particularly in light of the fact that her intentions were for once noble.
Rather than look at him, she stirred cream into her coffee. If she had failed here it was time to consider her next move, on another chessboard. Ought she return to Paris? Or perhaps one of the imperial cities—Vienna and Prague were enchanting at this time of year, and she had heard great things of Buda-Pesth.
Irene was mentally reviewing the contents of her luggage, approximating which items she ought to sell to a second-hand shop and which ought to come with her, when the sound of Holmes tapping his spoon against his cup caused her to look back at him sharply. He was watching her with the sort of tolerantly bored expression that she normally found infuriating, but which now struck her differently.
“I do not believe we can return to London immediately,” he said without preamble, directly he saw her look at him. “Most likely we shall have to plan our strategy from somewhere on this side of the Channel; I believe Paris will suit admirably. I shall require your assistance, Irene; you will almost certainly have to go to London in disguise in advance of my arrival there.”
“I am at your disposal, Sherlock,” Irene said, enunciating each word carefully. “And I will not betray your trust.”
As a promise, it was perhaps rather thin, but Holmes seemed satisfied; at any rate, he favored her with the confident smirk she remembered so well, and had not yet seen this year. Irene bit her cheek to keep from grinning, and hurriedly drank some coffee to hide it. She had added too much cream; it was bland. “Of course not,” Holmes agreed loftily, as it were blindingly self-evident, and that was that. They were, however slowly and circuitously, bound for London.