Watson adjusted his clerical collar, straightened his black cassock, schooled his face to an expression of pious distaste, tucked a well-worn Bible under his arm, and made his way along the filthy cobbles.
Holmes had given him a simple assignment. Stake out this vile little dockside neighborhood disguised as a street missionary, which would give him all the cover he needed to collect information from the whores and drunks on the missing Neville St. Clare, while Holmes ventured into the opium dens himself to talk to his contacts.
Well, that had been the theory.
He approached a knot of haggard street-women eyeing the nearby sailors. "Sisters, I implore you to leave behind this life of sin. Can the opium pipe be far behind–"
"Johnny!" one pockmarked redhead brayed. "I thought I recognized that limp! Nicest shilling I earned that week, last time I saw you!"
Oh. He'd … been here before hadn't he? When he first got back. After he'd had a few too many. Still, to these women, surely one man was much the same as any other, and no doubt "Johnny" was the slang term for all–
"Johnny Watson? Don't tell us you've gone God-botherer on us!" snorted her magnificently-busted brunette friend, half a head taller. "Only time you said the Lord's name was when I wrapped me tits round your pecker!"
A small crowd gathered, clearly amused by a flustered churchman surrounded by a bevy of street-doves who knew him all too well.
Valiantly, Watson kept trying. "Erm. Sisters..."
"We're not nuns, duckie," a short dark-skinned girl said, a gold tooth flashing – ah, she was good at her trade if she could afford some dentistry oh god he was thinking like Holmes now. "Even if we do get on our knees a lot."
Everyone roared with laughter. Well, so much for blending in.
Some of the other women headed over to see if there was trouble for their compatriots and soon there was much exclaiming and greeting.
"If it ain't the Pride of Three Continents hisself!"
"Give my best to the Fusiliers, soldier boy!"
"Whatchoo doin' dressed like that? If you're a priest I'm 'Er Bloody Majesty!"
Sometimes all you can do in the face of overwhelming odds is sound the retreat.
"That," Watson huffed slowly. "was. Absolutely. Humiliating." He was nearly done removing the cassock; his cheeks were still as red as a feverish patient's.
"I confess that I had not anticipated that reaction." Holmes looked a little bemused as he removed his white wig and beard at his table back at 221b. "On the other hand, it was awfully good of you to create a distraction." He grinned like a fox as he pulled away the last stray whisps of crepe hair. "A street woman hailing a well-dressed gentleman may draw a few curious eyes – but it seems that when a positive flock of street women hail a churchman that will empty every alley, tavern, house and den for three blocks. Thanks to you I was able to get upstairs and take a good look at the rooms in the Bar of Gold before resuming my spot without arousing Pradesh's suspicions. I think I'm very close to finding St. Clare, Watson." He began rubbing away the lines and creases in his face – half makeup and half spirit gum – with a wet sponge.
Watson balled up and flung the black cassock, Bible, collar and all across the room, just missing his infuriating partner. "Do you want to do something really useful, Holmes? Then bring that sponge down to the station and give that filthy beggar Boone a bath!"
Sherlock Holmes froze, staring into his mirror, where half of his disguise as an old opium-eater still lay upon his face. He looked at the sponge and back at the mirror. "Watson. You see before you the biggest fool in London."
"I've known that for some t—"
Watson let out a squawk as Holmes seized his elbow as he flew past, still half-costumed.
Holmes flung on his coat, stuffing his hand into the sleeve still holding the sponge. "Into your trousers old man and quickly! You've hit upon the solution! We're going to the station!"