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Sherlock Holmes and the Soutane of Scarlet

Chapter Text

  

 

City of Londinum, present day

 

It’s a dull, damp day in very early spring when the black, three-wheeler cab glides to a stop at the curb in Baker Street. The cab driver climbs down from the steering seat, his terrier daemon leaping alongside him. The driver lowers the curbside step into position and raises the curbside door, then he goes to the back of the cab to unstrap the single leather bag and tin traveling box from the luggage shelf.

The cab passenger descends slowly to the sidewalk, leaning on a cane of gleaming, striated brown and golden wood. He is somewhat above average height, and so thin that the sharp corners of his shoulders and elbows show clearly inside the loose folds of his black overcoat. His cropped hair is sun lightened, and his face is sun darkened. At a glance, he might be taken for a man in his later life – a little stooped, a little unsteady – but his deep blue eyes are very clear and sharp.

The cab driver deposits the bag and box at the streetdoor of number two hundred and twenty-one, and raps the doorknocker. The cab shifts on its springs as something weighty gathers itself in the dimness of the interior and emerges into the watery daylight – a massive lioness, raw boned and rope muscled, tawny pale, with a long prominent profile, tufted chin, and small tilted eyes of greenish yellow.

The cab passenger hands a coin to the driver, who touches his hat brim respectfully. The streetdoor of number two hundred and twenty-one is opened by a slight, middle aged women in a dark purple dress and a plain white cap with a small calico cat peeping around her skirts.

“Father John Watson,” John says. “I’m expected.”

“Indeed you are, Father,” the woman says warmly. “Come in – I have your room all ready for you.”

“That’s very kind - ” John says, stepping into the narrow hallway with the lioness pressed to his side “ – Sister, is it?”

“Oh goodness no,” the woman says, fluttering her hands. “I’m Missus Hudson – I’m a widow. I expect the bishop thought that was more appropriate, with both of you being so young.”

“Both of us?” John echoes. “There’s another priest living here?”

The lioness lowers her head; the calico cat sniffs tentatively at her hot breath.

“Monsignor Holmes,” Missus Hudson says. “He arrived yesterday – not that you’d credit it, to see the state of the place. I’ve had tenants ten years that didn’t make such a mess. I can’t imagine where you’ll put your things, when they come.”

“These are my things,” John says, gesturing to the bag and box on the doorstep. “There isn’t any more to come.”

“Oh well in that case you may fit in around the edges,” Missus Hudson says. “Let me show you upstairs, Father. Billy!”

A russet haired, heavily freckled youth of strikingly elegant features and figure emerges from the farther reaches of the hallway, with a silver ferret rippling around his feet.

“Fetch Father Watson’s things in,” Missus Hudson instructs.

She leads the way up the steep, narrow staircase, the calico cat scampering alongside her. John follows laboriously, one hand on his cane and the other on the stairwall to steady himself; the lioness hangs back until she can take the entire flight of stairs in two loose bounds.

The sitting room is filled with leather-bound airship trunks, wicker game hampers, and rough wooden shippers’ crates, all disgorging their contents across every available surface – books, parchments and loose pages, silver mass vessels, brass navigational instruments and steel surgical tools, willow fishing rods, bamboo shinai and ebony staffs all jumbled together without regard. The only objects arranged with any congruity are the music stand, score pages and violin case in front of the nearer window.

“Monsignor Holmes is obviously a man of wide interests,” John says.

“Monsignor Holmes is a Jesuit, so there’s no saying what he might not be interested in,” Missus Hudson says tartly. “Monsignor!”

Something moves right outside the farther window – something jet black and man tall. John instinctively reaches for the scratched and dented steel custodia hanging inside his coat; the lioness’s lips twitch back from the tips of her fangs.

Holmes shoulders the window sash up from outside, flicks his cigarette butt away, and steps down into the sitting room from the narrow iron-railed balcony.

He’s a little taller than John, and a very little heavier, but his thinness vibrates with vigor. He’s dressed in a jet black cassock – narrow shouldered, slender waisted and full skirted – unrelieved by even a white collar, silver crucifix, or so much as the gleam of a jet button. His thick dark hair is combed straight back from his high, narrow forehead and breaks into disorderly curls around his ears and nape. He has deep olive skin, straight black brows over clear gray eyes, a long aquiline nose – a face as archaic and austere as a kouros, except for the complex curves of his mouth.

“Monsignor, this is Father Watson,” Missus Hudson says.

“How do you do, Monsignor,” John says, releasing his custodia and extending his hand.

“Antigone, don’t just wander off,” Holmes says severely, staring out of the open window.

A jet black carrion crow swoops under the raised window sash and flaps down onto the back of one armchair. The lioness lifts her head curiously, but Antigone turns her back and begins to preen, drawing each already gleaming black feather between the thick blades of her beak.

“Father Watson is taking the room upstairs,” Missus Hudson persists.

“Well that’s dusted inconvenient,” Holmes says, stepping up onto and down off of an intervening footstool as he crosses to the adjoining dining room. “I had intended to move my experiments up there. I suppose they’ll have to stay where they are.”

John follows him as far as the doorway.

The dining table, sideboard and china cabinet are all filled with books and scrolls, star charts and anatomical diagrams, jars of withered vegetation and desiccated animal parts. In the midst of the table, a silver-mounted microscope stands next to a gold-mounted armillary sphere. 

“You’re doing metaphysical experiments – forensic metaphysics,” John says.

Antigone stops preening and swivels her head to bring one bright black eye to bear on the lioness, who has already turned away to move closer to John.

“You are familiar with The Work,” Holmes says.

“Oh – I – no,” John says hastily. “My ministry did not lend itself to experimentation or contemplation, but – I’ve read what I can. It’s fascinating stuff.”

“Monsignor, you can’t expect Father Watson to take his dinner on a tray every evening,” Missus Hudson says.

“I should think,” Holmes says, looking at John, “that having survived shayateen, siege and starvation in Babylonia, Father Watson is not the man to be undone by dinner on a tray.”

“I – how do you know?” John says, the lioness laying her head to his hip.

“It’s quite obvious,” Holmes says quickly. “Your hair, your coat, tell me you belong to the Church Militant, and you’re addressed as Father – you’re an Army Chaplain. You’re brown as a nut – you’ve clearly been abroad in the Imperium. You carry a cane of rare African snakewood, a sovereign charm against the poison of great serpents and shayateen. You came in a cab – you clearly aren’t rich enough to acquire such a cane for yourself, and the Magisterium doesn’t award such a rich prize for killing great serpents. You’ve been fighting shayateen, and in some significant action – such as those fought in Babylonia Supraganges this autumn past. You’re thin as a lathe, but your clothes were made for a powerfully built man – you’ve lost a great deal of weight recently. I suppose the shaitan’s poison might have done that, but the newspapers this winter have been full of the siege of Qandahar and the privations of the besieged – including the survivors of the battle against the shayateen at Maywand. I have no doubt I could take down the Magisterium Registry from the shelf and find that the chaplain of the Sixty-sixth Berkshire Regiment of Friars this past autumn was … one Father Watson.”

“I – you – that is remarkable,” John says.

Antigone’s wings quiver to the tips of her feathers.

An abrupt metallic clicking begins beneath the spread charts and diagrams on the sideboard. Holmes turns from John and sweeps the covering documents aside, revealing a brass ticker-machine, its brown paper tape unspooling inside its glass dome. Holmes lifts the dome and examines the tape.

“Deacon Inspector Lestrade requests my ministry,” he says aloud.

“If it’s not too bold of me to ask, Monsignor, what exactly is your ministry?” John says.

“I’m a consulting metaphysicist,” Holmes says, his chin lifting. “Or rather, I’m the consulting metaphyicist. There isn’t another.”

John shakes his head in confusion.

“I attempt the practical application of – all this,” Holmes says, his gesture including the dining room and the sitting room beyond.

“Father Watson, let me take your coat,” Missus Hudson says. “And Monsignor, I’ll fetch yours, if you’re going out.”

“Yes – no,” Holmes says. “Father Watson, will you come with me? My ministry is easier to understand than to explain.”

“If I wouldn’t be in the way,” John says at once.

“Not at all – you must have seen a great many strange things between Babylonia and Londinum,” Holmes says.

“And many more between Great Zimbabwe and New Denmark,” John says.

“Then I would be very glad of your company, and the benefit of your wide experience,” Holmes says, offering his hand. “Sherlock Holmes. How do you do.”

“John Watson,” John says, his thin fingers clasping Holmes’s. “Pleased to meet you.”

 

Chapter Text

  

 

The house at Lauriston Gardens is set back from the road, behind a high brick way and two gateless gateposts enclosing a square of rank grass and several stunted conifers. A uniformed priest constable and his badger daemon stand guard between the gateposts, barring access to the dirt driveway leading to the house.

Holmes dismisses the cab at the corner; he and John approach on foot, the lioness at John’s side and Antigone swooping from railing to tree branch to gatepost.

“Monsignor Holmes,” the priest sergeant says. “Deacon Inspector Lestrade waits for you inside.”

Holmes nods his acknowledgement, but puts his hand out to stop John stepping onto the driveway.

“Let us glean what we can here, first,” Holmes says.

He crouches down, throwing the skirts of his cassock and coat back to expose thin legs and sharp knees in narrow black pants. Antigone drops from the gatepost, lands in the grass beside the driveway, and begins picking at the soft earth with her beak tip.

“Lestrade and his sergeants have made most of this unreadable,” Sherlock says, “but see here, the prints of a man’s street-shoes   and a woman’s button-boots going towards the house, side by side – or arm in arm, I should say, they are so close.”

“I see them,” John says, looking intently.

“And overlaid, the prints of a workman’s rough clogs, also pointing toward the house – running hard. See how deep the impressions are, how long the stride?”

“Indeed,” John says.

Holmes stands up again. They start towards the house, walking slowly, with Holmes studying the ground intently.

“I see no track of them returning from the house,” he announces when they reach the gravel terrace. “Let us go in, then, and see what Mister Street-shoes and Mistress Button-boots and good Clogs have to say for themselves.”

Antigone flaps up to perch on Holmes’s shoulder.

The house itself is unremarkable – graceless and charmless, but no more so than its neighbors – with several ‘For Rent’ signs fading behind the grubby windows. The front door is open, with another priest constable standing in the hallway, his black dog daemon stretched out on the bare floorboards.

Inside, the house is in an uncertain state between vacancy and abandonment: a few dour pieces of furniture, some dusty drapes, and a few framed prints still hanging on walls in need of plaster and paint. At the priest sergeant’s direction, they go up the wide staircase and along the landing, passing several more priests – Antigone caws loudly at their daemons as she rides by on Holmes’s shoulder.

A man, shorter than John but strongly built, wearing a crumpled gray cassock and a black biretta on the thick, gray-streaked waves of his hair, is standing in front of a closed door at the end of the hallway. His daemon stands alert at his side: a lightly built she-wolf, with brindled fur, and the samel bright brown eyes as her human.

“Monsignor Holmes, thank you for coming,” he says, relief breaking in his otherwise distressed expression.

“Father Watson, this is Inspector Deacon Lestrade,” Holmes says rapidly. “Lestrade, this is Father Watson. He’ll be assisting me.”

“As you will, Monsignor,” Lestrade says. “Father Watson, I’m glad to have you, too. I’ve never seen such a thing, and hope to never see again.”

Holmes glances at John, his eyes alight. John, however, looks warier, and the lioness twitches her lips back from the tips of her fangs. Lestrade opens the door.

At first glance, the entire room – walls and floor and ceiling, the plain armoire that is the only furniture, even the undraped window-glass, seems to be coated with a thick, red lacquer. The smell makes all clear, however – the stench of blood and open bowels, the stench of an abattoir or a battlefield. John grips the fur at the lioness nape, and her breathe thickens into a soft growl low in her throat.

In the middle of the floor lies the body of a young woman, face down, her yellow hair, pale arms and legs, and her pink chemise untouched by the red all around.

“Merciful Majesty,” John says softly.

Holmes strides fearlessly into the room, drawing a handkerchief from inside his coat and using it to turn the handle on the armoire. Inside, protected from gore, hangs a man’s suit and shirt, and a woman’s walking costume of bright rose-colored cloth. Below, a pair of man’s street shoes stand next to a pair of woman’s button boots, of the same bright rose color, and a wilting posy of flowers that could be bought in the street for a few pennies.

“This is Mistress Button-boots,” he says, glancing at the body on the floor, “and this, I fear - ” his eyes sweeping around the red room, “ – is Mister Street-shoes. Where is Clogs? Lestrade, there’s someone else still in the house.”

Dust there is,” Lestrade exclaims.

He thrusts his head out of the doorway, the she-wolf giving a stifled yelp of excitement.

“You men,” Lestrade snaps. “Search the house, there’s someone hiding here!”

Holmes crouches down beside the body. He slips his black gloved hands beneath one shoulder and hip, lifts, and spills the corpse over onto its back. There’s a dull metallic clatter – something that lay beneath the body being displaced. Holmes picks it up: a thick, lustrous wedding band of unusually reddish gold.

John stares down at the corpse. The dead woman is very young, thin, with small, hard-edged features. Holmes passes the ring to him; it strikes John as unexpectedly heavy.

“There’s no wound, no sign of violence,” Holmes murmurs, “no discoloration of the lips to suggest poison … ”

He takes up the white left hand, his gloved hand almost engulfing it.

“Look here,” he says, angling the hand for John’s convenience. “Her finger is deeply grooved from wearing the ring.”

“How is that possible?” John asks, bending down to look. “I’ve seen such a thing on old women, but she was little more than a girl. She can’t have been married long enough for her wedding ring to wear so on flesh and skin.”

Holmes lifts his head to smile full into John’s face.

“My thoughts exactly,” he says.

He plucks the ring from John’s cupped palm and slips it onto the corpse’s finger, where it fits into the worn groove perfectly.

“Lestrade, have the mortus sent over to Saint Bartholomew’s,” Holmes says, rising to his feet. “Have you found the other man?”

“I’m afraid not,” Lestrade grimaces, “though they’ve gone from the rafters to the cellars twice over.”

Holmes barges past, Antigone flapping her wings even as she digs her claws into his coat.

“Search again,” he orders the priests. “Knock on the walls, and the wainscoting. There’s a secret place big enough to hold a man. Find it – find him.”

They go all through the house, rapping on walls and stamping on floors. Dog daemons snuffle along the wainscoting, and several rats scurry up and down the stairs.

Holmes produces a folding knife with hook-tipped blade, and begins to test the joinery of the mantles and book-shelves, searching for any trace of trickery.

Eventually, he is forced to admit defeat. There is no secret hiding place.

“He isn’t in the house, he’d have no reason to scale the high walls with the gateway unbarred, and he left no tracks after those pointing towards the house,” Holmes says, as he and John step out from the house again, the lioness at John’s side and Antigone sulking on Holmes’s shoulder. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.”

“That you are confounded?” John says with a slight smile.

“That the clog-tracks pointing toward the house were made by his going away from the house,” Holmes says archly.

John’s expression – dismissive amusement for a one second – sudden shifts to dawning realization.

“An Abarimon,” he says. “They live in the high passes of Himalaya – they have the shape of men, but their feet are backward – they leave such tracks, pointing one way, yet going the other.”

“Father Watson, you are a pearl beyond price,” Holmes beams.

“No – wait, no,” John says hurriedly. “It can’t be – they’re wild and swift as hares, and stay far away from real people. One cannot be in Londinum.”

“On the contrary,” Holmes says, “Londinum is where the disowned of all the Imperium come to rest.”

“I know,” John says, wryly.

“We must consult with Billy,” Holmes says, and calls to the priest constable at the end of the driveway, “stop a cab!”

“The foot-boy?” John says in confusion.

“And the sergeant of my foot-soldiers,” Holmes says, as they hurry to the street.