Stealthily, he entered the familiar rooms he occupied at 221B, Baker Street. Even in the dark of night he was careful that no eyes followed him - as they had for most of his recent days - and he took great care to not startle the poor Mrs. Hudson as he slowly made his way up the stairs.
Slowly, he allowed his back to straighten and his walk to become his very own determined stride again. By the time he reached the top of the stairs he had become more than a tired, downtrodden unfortunate, roaming the streets of London. Despite the lingering disguise he was Sherlock Holmes again when he entered his own sanctuary.
He shrugged out of the dirty coat and uncaringly threw it over the back of a chair. Then he lit a lamp and sat himself down in front of a mirror to conclude his transformation back into a man with gaunt features and a sharp hawk like gaze.
The pastes and concoctions he had used on himself to disguise his face before he had left the house were still lined up on the dressing table and he left them there for now. For tonight he was pleased to be himself again.
Three days had brought him to the darkest places of the city's crime infested bowels.
Three days, spent observing and gathering information.
He stepped into the room that had at one time been occupied by Watson and that he had turned into a room of record keeping since. A map of London hung on the wall and a number of neatly cut articles from different papers had been attached to it. Lost cases had become a way to occupy his time when no more challenging problem engaged his always moving mind.
For years he had known that there was an organising power behind the greater crime in the city. He had seen the traces, had recognized a pattern. A not insignificant number of crimes remained undiscovered and the notes he'd made over the years on many case files and old newspaper articles had helped him see the greater picture of the dark web that spread all over London, perhaps all over the country and beyond, a shadowy web of criminal intent and planning that had remained undiscovered for too long.
Tonight he had learned something more about that dark power behind crime that he’d been aware of for some time. Repeatedly, he had told Watson that perhaps it would be preferable for him to retire. The current stream of cases had kept him preoccupied and left him with the means to support himself, to vanish from the public eye and live a quiet comfortable life if he so chose, but now he knew he could never step away from his biggest challenge before he had solved this mystery. The truth was he needed to occupy his mind. His mind needed the tasks. And his nature needed the challenge.
The name of the man responsible hadn’t been spoken and yet Holmes felt he was closer than ever before. The man involved in so many of the cases that had not just remained unsolved, but had as of yet remained undetected by Scotland Yard and even himself, had become more tangible to him tonight.
The signed order he had acquired tonight by pick-pocketing it from the coat pocket of a cunning criminal he’d been following for three days bore nothing but the abbreviated signature.
The note itself left no doubt as to its nature.
A good man was going to lose his life if Holmes couldn’t decipher the details of this case in time.
He wondered at the strong elegance of the letter and the scratchy uncaring slant of the handwriting that made him think of a preoccupied professor. A man of standing and education was behind all this.
Sherlock Holmes felt no surprise at the small revelation.
Whoever had orchestrated the grandiose net of infamy needed a sharpness of wit and clarity of mind not easily found in your fellow man.
Holmes was nothing if not intrigued by the mystery.
No, whoever this M was, he now had his full attention.
* * *
He had returned too late.
He picked up the violin in the evening, improvising a tune to calm his nerves and focus his thoughts. For the two dead men any investigation would be too late, but there was no doubt in his mind that they were just links in a long chain of events and not the last in a line of victims.
With renewed vigor he followed the leads, worked his way through connections and names until finally he arrived at the only possible conclusion.
A brilliant professor with an extraordinary career had resigned his chair at a small university to take up a new life in London. The circumstances of his resignation, the new circumstances of his life were all shrouded in mystery and the darkest of rumours.
His name was James Moriarty.
His current residence was known to Holmes, but he had not yet caught a glimpse of the man himself. For a week, using different disguises to loiter in the street undetected and visiting different clubs in his own guise to find any hint of Moriarty's presence, he tried to find a way to get a better grasp of his adversaries movements, but came up with no more to go on than he'd had before.
It should have been a frustrating experience, to waste so much time on nothing at all. Instead he felt amused. Challenged. A rare occurrence even in his daily life as a consulting detective.
When none of his investigations led to the immediate results he had hoped for, he spent an evening alone at Baker Street to realign his thoughts. His method worked as well as it had always done, but he was dealing with the kind of enemy who was as brilliant in his criminal machinations as Holmes was in his detection of culprits. If he wanted to thwart him, call him out of hiding, he needed to do it by getting in the way of his operation.
* * *
The package contained a copy of "The Dynamics of an Asteroid" delicately wrapped in paper. The new note that came with it read: "My dearest Mr. Holmes, it has come to my attention that you have taken a personal and acute interest in my affairs. I am flattered by the attention. It isn't everyday that I come across someone whose mind shines bright enough to be noticed by someone as busy and preoccupied as myself. I hope to one day meet you in person - for a game of chess perhaps if you so desire. A game with a challenging opponent is not a pleasure I've had in years.
Of course, I can't accept the interference in my own day to day business. It would be a grief for me to lose such an interesting opponent such as yourself before I had the honor of shaking your hand.
With the highest regards,
The threat was as obvious as the compliment. He read the note twice before he let himself fall back into his armchair, laughing.
Over the years he had acquired a number of admirers, not least of all because Watson had turned some of their shared adventures into exaggerated accounts that were more literature than truthful report. Still, this was the first time that a criminal had gone out of his way to express his admiration in this way.
"A game of chess, indeed," Holmes muttered between bouts of laughter. "And such an exciting game it will be."
* * *
"And nobody inside the club saw and heard anything?" It seemed scarcely possible that the body had remained undetected for close to a day, but Holmes carefully walked around the body, took in the hints and signs that gave him insights into the circumstances of the death. A crude knife of considerable length was the most likely weapon and there was nothing close-by that fit the description.
The locked room remained the greatest mystery.
"Thank you," he told Lestrade. "This should serve to be an interesting case."
He extracted the permission to look around the club and talk to members of the club to get an idea of everyone's connection to the dead man. Before he had even rounded up the possible suspects and witnesses he noticed a tall man with a gaunt face, clean shaven and pale sat at a small table in the corner, his face shrouded in half-darkness. His intelligent eyes glittered as they followed Holmes' every move.
Nobody needed to tell him who it was sitting there quietly in the corner.
Long had he waited for a meeting like this.
They stared at each other across the room, then Holmes politely inclined his head in greeting. He had no doubt that there would be no evidence at all pointing at the former Professor as a suspect in his current case. And yet, he already knew who had ordered the crime.
The man stretched out a hand and motioned to the armchair on the other side from the table and Holmes was aware of the eyes of two sturdy men on the other side of the vast room watching him carefully. Moriarty had not come without protection.
"A game of chess?" the man asked in the friendliest tone.
Holmes walked over and sat down slowly. "I might need the exercise," he answered with a nod. "This will not be an easy case."
The man who held all threads of crime in this city gave him an appreciative smile. "I am pleased. It will be quite a treat to see the great consulting detective at work. I've been following your career for years."
"I have no enhanced appreciation for astronomy, but I recently read an interesting study on asteroids. Quite interesting. I believe you are the author?"
The man laughed and the warmth seemed to light up the pale features as the man motioned for him to make the opening move. "I have the advantage in another game," he added. "I'll forfeit this one."
Surprised, by the audacity, Holmes barked out a short amused laugh of his own.
Rarely had he felt like he had truly met a man able to understand him and although the circumstances made the situation regretfully distasteful he felt excited. He couldn't completely disregard the feelings of terrible kinship shared by extraordinary men in a society full of mediocrity. "Next time, please send a coach and don't engage in unnecessary violence."
He moved his pawn.
"And miss the chance of seeing you solve this mystery? Dear Holmes, don't deprive me of the most fun I had in years. Perhaps if you entertain me enough, I will comply with your request in the future."
They stared at each other over the table, as Moriarty reached for his own pawn. Holmes realized that this might not only be the most dangerous game he had every played, but also a web designed to draw him in, dangerous and more complicated than he had foreseen.
"Let's play this game first, before we start another," he cautioned.
"Oh," Moriarty said and licked his lips while Holmes pondered his next move more carefully than necessary, "I think we are both less patient, when we want something."
He nodded and finally made his next move not sure he really wanted to stay ahead. This game was obviously designed to be played by two - the two of them. Moriarty watched him amused and interested, not even bothering to hide it, and Holmes realized with a sudden clarity that he had no intention to end this game prematurely.
And not only because of the challenge.
"Send me a coach next time," he warned, not willing to let more people get hurt because of a personal game he was playing.
"As you wish, my dear Holmes," Moriarty conceded easily. "As you wish."
There would be many more moves in this game.
All his life he might have been waiting for this.