The message came just as I was finishing a late supper, so generously provided by our landlady, Mrs. Hudson. She was very kind about seeing to the needs of her two bachelor tenants, especially given our irregular hours. I was most grateful for the hot meal she had sent to our rooms shortly after my return earlier that evening, and I was just turning away from the gasogene, glass in hand, when I heard the bell ring.
I smothered a sound of dismay. The weather had been foul for days; air was dank and hard to breathe. By early afternoon, the greasy, yellow sunlight could no longer penetrate the fog and faded into a damp, suffocating darkness. I had been out for most of the day and was cold to the bone; I wanted nothing more than to settle in for the evening in front of the fire with my paper and my whiskey and soda.
My roommate, Sherlock Holmes, was on his feet in a flash at the sound of the bell, pacing impatiently as we heard the sound of the door and the ponderous footsteps mounting the stairs to our rooms. It was as though Holmes had been feverishly anticipating the arrival of the messenger, as well he might. I glanced at the window, where beyond the heavy blinds I knew lay the oppressive, dark streets of London. The night was perfect for crime; I was certain the killer we hunted had struck again.
I sat down anyway. Perhaps I was wrong. Morosely, I took a sip from my glass.
At the tap on the door, Holmes sprang forward to open it, revealing one of Lestrade's men.
"If you please, Mr. Holmes," the constable said, with a short nod in my direction. "Inspector Lestrade says you must come at once. It's 'im." Excitement or fear made the policeman lapse into his native Cockney. His eyes were round and black under the dripping brim of his helmet. He handed Holmes a folded notepaper.
We all knew who 'him' was.
Holmes couldn't have been more pleased. He read the note avidly before pocketing it as he spoke. "Right you are, Hawkins. We will meet you downstairs."
As he shut the door behind the constable, Holmes turned to me, all but rubbing his hands together with glee at the prospect of heading out on a dismal evening to another gruesome killing. "Come, Watson, grab your bag. We might ascertain something of importance this time, as the case is fresh."
It took but a moment's hesitation on my part for Holmes to turn his discerning gaze upon me. "Unless, of course, you'd rather sit at home and nurse your drink?" His voice was withering.
I rose and moved towards the sideboard to deposit my glass, still regrettably full. "Pardon me," I said in a voice as stiff as my leg, aching from its old war wound in the miserable weather, "if I seem less than enthusiastic about heading out again when I've just come in."
"Well, perhaps," Holmes said in a tone that could have etched glass, "if you hadn't eaten so much at dinner..."
I took a determined swallow and set my tumbler down with a thump. I turned to look at my longtime friend and fellow lodger. His expression softened immediately.
"I can see by your limp that your leg wound has been bothering you. It's more than that, however, isn't it? I know it is not your patient, Mrs. Argabrite, which concerns you, despite the fact that you spent the better part of the afternoon attending to her today. Nor is it the impending changes in your financial situation due to your upcoming marriage." As Holmes spoke, he wound a muffler around his neck and slid his arms into a overcoat. "I cannot even put it down to a tendency toward sluggishness on your part, despite the postprandial somnolence that surely must be setting in after the meal you so voraciously attacked on your return this evening." Holmes paused here, a twinkle in his eye as he picked up his walking stick and hat from beside the door.
I couldn't help it; I laughed. "Very well, then. I give you the visit to Mrs. Argabrite; you obviously noted the return tram ticket in my pocket from today and you know that she has difficulty breathing in this weather. I do wish I could persuade her to retire to the country. Never mind; how is it you know that she is not the cause behind my current disinterest in going out again tonight? And the finances? Pray tell me what not only brought that to mind but caused you to dismiss it as well?"
"When you are preoccupied with a medical case, you seldom eat with the heartiness that you exhibited tonight. Really, your tendency to view your cases as personal failures if they do not go well is self-defeating, if admirable." I rolled my eyes at his assessment, but he continued as though I had not done so. "You glanced more than once during your meal at the locked drawer where I keep your bank book and yet you did not ask for it. I concluded that while you had your concerns about establishing your own household in the near future, this was not the primary problem weighing on your mind tonight. Indeed, you seemed well-disposed to sit down for an evening of light reading until Hawkins arrived." The smugness in his tone quickly died out when he realized he'd openly referred to my imminent departure from these rooms; a subject that he'd refused to acknowledge in the past.
My heart went out to my friend. Holmes at best was a prickly sort, but we'd managed to rub together after a fashion and I knew, though he'd be loathe to admit it, that he would miss me when I set up my own establishment with my betrothed, Mary. In all the time that I had known him, he'd only admitted to having one other friend, a schoolmate by the name of Victor Trevor. I knew that he was taking my defection hard, by the very manner in which he pretended it was not taking place.
"It's this case," I said, by way of changing the subject to one in which we were both more comfortable. "There is something terrible about it."
Holmes nodded. His expression grew serious as he considered my words.
I couldn't help but expand upon my thoughts. "Nothing about it makes sense. The bodies appear mummified, though there is no way in this environment that mummification could reasonably take place." I indicated the humid atmosphere of the city with a sweep of my hand towards the windows. "The degree of desiccation is advanced to the point of appearing centuries old and yet, in almost every case, we've been able to identify the bodies through their belongings as people missing only a short period of time."
"Go on." Holmes placed his hat on his head and looked at me in the manner of a college don, questioning me during one of my lessons.
I shrugged, unwilling to put my uneasiness into words. "We've worked some strange and bizarre cases together, Holmes. Cases where circumstances seemed mystical or supernatural yet, in the end, we've always discovered a perfectly plausible explanation. This case is different. It reeks of evil." I glanced away from his solemn expression, taking in our surroundings: the cheerful fire in the grate, the untidy stacks of books and papers, and the silk dressing gown that Holmes had tossed aside. Little things that spoke of comfort and safety. The thought of going out again was not only unappealing; every instinct cried out to stay home.
"All the more reason to get to the bottom of it, Watson." Holmes spoke in a manner that was completely unlike his sardonic tone before. "I need your input on this one, my friend. Your unique perspective on things."
My bag was by the door; it required but a moment to open a drawer and place my firearm within my pocket. I raised an eyebrow at his uncharacteristic compliment but joined him by the coat rack just the same.
"Don't let it go to your head," Holmes said in his more usual manner, handing me my coat.
The atmosphere outside was every bit as unpleasant as I had feared. To my relief, however, Hawkins had engaged a hansom cab for our use. I glanced at Holmes, who merely said, "Lestrade is insistent we come with all possible speed. I believe he is just as disturbed about this case as you are, Watson."
He thanked Hawkins and climbed into the cab. The cab would certainly transport us with greater speed than a police wagon, but that meant there was only room for Holmes and me. I followed Holmes into the cab, looking back to see the unhappy Hawkins on the sidewalk, glancing uneasily at the thick fog all around. I couldn't blame him; I'd rather not be out walking on a night such as this myself. I suppressed shudder at the thought of what strange manner of things that might be lurking in the fog. Even a policeman wasn't safe from the predations of a group of thugs, intent on thievery. I felt reasonably confident that Holmes and I could handle the average cutthroat or pickpocket. In the past, we'd garnered the notice of some of the more notorious criminals in London, making a target of ourselves. Always before, we'd managed to thwart any attack on our persons. However, this monstrous murderer we hunted now... that was a different kind of quarry altogether. I had the disturbing sensation that we were all his prey.
Holmes rapped on the top of the cab with his walking stick and the jarvey pulled out into the nearly empty street with a clattering of hooves on the slick cobblestones. The ringing of the horse's hooves in the fog sounded unnaturally loud to me and I thought I was becoming just a bit too affected by the atmosphere. I strove to shake off the sense of melancholy that stalked me.
That became easier when I realized that we were not headed toward Whitechapel, as I had expected. Most of the previous victims had been found in the East End of town, but we were going in the wrong direction. I turned to Holmes inquiringly.
He had sunk into his muffler, like a turtle in its shell, gazing out into the nothingness that surrounded us on all sides. It took him a moment to acknowledge me. He lifted his chin enough to speak. "I know what you're thinking, Watson, and yes; the crime scene is different this time. Not the in one of the poorest districts of town, where a crime might not be reported immediately. No, this time the scene will be fresh and nearly undisturbed. The victim is an actor, living near the Strand. Perhaps you've heard of him, Aubrey James?"
"Good heavens! Aubrey James! Why, I just read a favorable review of his new playhouse last week. Surely you recall my mentioning it to you?"
Holmes made a dismissive gesture with his fingers. "I assure you; in death he is more interesting to me than he was in life. You know I care little for the popular entertainment of the day."
How well I knew. A night at the opera was much more to his tastes than the frothy plays so lightly performed in Drury Lane these days. I'd argued before that with the nature of work we both performed there was a time and place for mindless entertainment. Before I could state as much again, Holmes interrupted me.
"Not that I haven't found the works of Shaw, or even that fellow Wilde, edifying as well as amusing. It takes a deft hand to mock your audience and make them enjoy it at the same time."
I opened my mouth to comment, but with his usual mercurial change of mood, he returned to the subject of the crime.
"No back alley this time, Watson. Tonight our killer struck in the theater itself, after the rehearsal was over for the evening. James was found by the night watchman. Lestrade's note says that the watchman was in such a state that he ran screaming out of the theater into the night."
"That would indicate a marked change in modus operandi," I said. "Is Lestrade sure that it is the work of the same killer?"
The look that Holmes shot in my direction was so full of disdain that I realized at once the error I'd made in making it.
"Very well, it is not likely there are two mummy-makers in all of London," I conceded crossly, before he could skewer me with a cutting reply. "But what could have justified such a change on the part of the killer?"
"You know it is a capital mistake to theorize without data," Holmes said in that oh-so-bored tone of his.
"Spoken like someone who doesn't have a clue as to why the killer has changed tactics and wants to be all superior and knowing about it," I retorted.
To my delight, Holmes laughed. "A hit! A palpable hit. Touché, Watson." He inclined his head in my direction. In the darkness of the cab, I could still sense the wideness of his grin.
I remembered all over again why I put up with him.
It seemed we were expected, nay, eagerly anticipated, at the crime scene. No sooner than our cab pulled up in front of the Dolphin Theater, than an officer stepped to the curb holding a police lantern to guide us into the building. A small crowd of people had gathered around the entranceway to the theater; I guessed that a good many of them were journalists, as well as other actors from the district on their way home for the evening. Inside the building, the lighting had been turned up in full force, as though to dispel the shadows and the creatures that moved within them. I stood blinking in the foyer as my eyes adjusted to the gaslight reflecting off a giant crystal chandelier above.
The Dolphin had reached its glory days during the height of burlesque and the interior design mirrored those origins, with great swatches of plush velvet, gilt, and frolicking cherubs. The statues from whence it had derived its name flanked both sides of the large staircase. They'd recently been regilded, and I could not resist touching the shining patina in passing as we mounted the stairs to the main floors. Holmes climbed the stairs two at a time, his purposeful stride making short work of the sweeping, marble treads.
At the top of the stairs, another of Lestrade's men met us to escort us personally to the actual scene of the crime. Soon the smell of new paint and fresh woodworking gave way to the smell of greasepaint and mold as we were lead through the stalls and down below the stage to the actors' rooms.
Everyone we passed looked unhappy and tense. Several of the men were talking quietly among themselves, smoking heavily. As we approached, they fell silent, watching us with hooded expressions before murmuring to each other again when we'd passed. Outside the dressing room labeled simply "James," there was the odor of someone having been sick. I took out my handkerchief and held it up to my face. Holmes seemed not to notice.
Lestrade came to the door to meet us, a ghastly expression on his face. "So help me, Holmes, you know there've been times when I've resented your... participation on a case. But this one? This one you can have all to yourself." Lestrade shuddered and glanced over his shoulder at the body on the floor.
Indeed, my eyes were drawn to it as well. The corpse lay collapsed among several boxes of costumes, one leg stretched out as though attempting to rise from the floor, but head and neck arched back as though in the extremes of agony. Though the clothing was clean and pressed, the corpse within it had shriveled to a dry husk, wisps of hair clinging to a leathery skull, lips pulled back in a terrible grinning rictus. The right hand curled around a prop dagger, some sort of greenish substance stained the blade. The floor beneath the victim bore the scuffmarks of his boots as he'd struggled.
"Good Lord," I breathed.
Holmes stood in the center of the room, quivering like a setter having spotted covey of birds, taking everything in with his assessing gaze as it swept over the scene.
"Nothing good here, Watson," he said quietly. He spared a quick glance in my direction. "I think you were right before when you spoke of evil."
For the next thirty minutes or so, we said little to each other as we completed our respective examinations. Holmes fired off questions at Lestrade as though he already knew the answers; I ignored him, knowing that very likely he already did. For my part, I was engrossed in the horrible mystery that lay before me. Holmes examined the dressing room with care, exploring drawers and boxes, making entries into a small leather-bound diary while Lestrade, for once, remained pensive and silent near the doorway.
I noticed no one wanted to be in the room with us.
I couldn't say that I blamed them. The corpse before me was like some grotesque caricature from one of Poe's stories and revealed very little about his manner of death. I said as much when Holmes finally came over and crouched beside me, resting on his heels.
"You think this fellow has little to say?" Holmes cocked his head and looked thoughtfully at the mummy at our feet. "You obviously are not listening, Watson."
"You act as though I am deaf to this man's story, Holmes," I said irritably, nettled by the whole situation. "I am not deaf, I am confused. Nothing here makes any sense. James, if this indeed, is James, died here in situ, and yet that would seem to be impossible, based on the state of his mummification."
"Oh, this is James, all right. Witnesses have testified as to the fact that this is his ring." Holmes gently lifted up the left hand where a signet ring remained on the withered pinky; as he did so, the arm snapped off at the wrist and pulled free from the shirtsleeve. Holmes glanced at me in a moment of blank horror before the precise mask of logic and deduction slid over his features again and he held up the ring for my perusal. He then turned the hand over and, pulling out a pair of forceps from his pocket, began to tease a small piece of shiny black cloth from inside the clenched fist. "Watson, an envelope please."
Knowing his methods, I reached in my bag and pulled out a plain envelope, holding it open so he could deposit the material. He laid the hand on the floor, pocketed the forceps, and took the envelope from me, sealing it before placing it, too, in his pocket. "More importantly, there is the matter of his left ear." He pointed at the appendage in question. "According to the watchman, once any sense could be gathered from him, Mr. James had suffered an injury to his ear during one of the swordplay rehearsals last season. As you can see, the lobe is torn."
It could hardly be called a lobe anymore, but I could see what Holmes meant.
"No, this corpse has a lot to say." Holmes looked around the room again, pointing toward the dressing table. "He comes in here to change after the rehearsal. He's the last one, having stayed behind to see to some last minute business of the theater. Everyone else has said their goodnights; he went to the office first, coming down here only later to remove his makeup." Holmes indicated the leather briefcase sitting at the foot of the chair. "He hears a sound, he looks up and sees... what? We do not know, but it startles him sufficiently that he pushes back the chair violently and drops his washcloth."
I could see now that the chair skewed away from the dressing table in such a manner as to bunch up the carpet underneath; similarly, the washcloth smeared with greasepaint and the spattered face cream on the table spoke of a sudden, violent start on the part of the victim. I could see him clearly now with the description of the scene, the handsome young actor-manager wiping clean his face, looking up in the mirror to see some untold horror standing behind him.
"And yet he does not panic, no, Mr. Aubrey James is made of sterner stuff. He throws powder at his attacker, very clever." Holmes wove a picture with his hands of James feinting a blow at his assailant, thus scattering powder across the room. I could see now the absence of powder created an outline on the floor, even as Holmes continued speaking. "Now we know that his attacker is tall, unusually so. See here and here, the angle at which the powder was thrown."
Lestrade was leaning closer into the room now, carefully following Holmes' narration.
"What does he do next? His retreat from the room is blocked. Note that he leaves his briefcase untouched; there is a dusting of powder on the surface to testify to that. Therefore, nothing in it can be worth his life. Somehow, Aubrey James immediately knows that his life is in danger. He remembers the dagger in the box of costumes and lunges for it, but his attacker overpowers him." Holmes reached out to lift the right hand of the corpse, more carefully this time. It moved with the dry, brittle sound of dead leaves and together we inspected the blade. "Not, however, before James can strike to defend himself. What do you make of this substance, Watson?"
"I don't know. Great Scott, Holmes, I hate it when you do that!"
Holmes had lifted the hand holding the blade to his nostrils, so he could sniff the object in question. Over by the door, Lestrade slapped a hasty hand over his mouth.
Holmes rotated the hand back and forth, the gleaming blade catching the gaslight as he did so. "Had I not known better, I would say this was blood."
His pupils were dark and fathomless as he locked gazes with me. Without a word, I held up another envelope and Holmes cautiously removed the dagger from James' hand, dropping it inside. He lowered the hand down beside the body with care as I placed the dagger in my bag. I couldn't help but feel a great sorrow for James, who'd fought and died valiantly. No one who saw him now would even recognize him.
"Note too, the small tears in his clothing here, centered over his chest. They are the only indication of a possible means of attack."
Holmes rose easily to his feet, dusting off his hands. "I believe we've done all we can here tonight, Lestrade. Perhaps an analysis of the stains on the dagger and the cloth left behind by the killer will give us more information."
"That's it?" Lestrade was distraught with incredulity. "Holmes! What on earth am I going to tell the Home Office? The Chief Inspector? Or for that matter the press? We've been able to button up those other cases, as per your request, but this... this...." he trailed off helplessly, taking off his hat to wave it at James' body on the floor.
Holmes narrowed his eyes in thought. "Tell them you have a case of spontaneous combustion."
Lestrade looked to me for verification. I nodded. "Yes, I suppose that would be the most plausible explanation. Tell everyone that you're going to close the theater to look for gas leaks just to be sure." I stood as well, bag in hand, and turned to Holmes. "What about a motive, Holmes? The assailant came here merely to kill James in this bizarre fashion?"
"I didn't say that." Holmes' expression took on a faraway look, as though he were replaying the scene in his mind. "From the gap in the powder on the floor here, I would say there is a bag that used to be sitting here that is now gone. Add to that the apparent disturbance of the clothes hanging here in the wardrobe," he indicated the open piece of furniture and the haphazard pile of clothing on the floor within, "as well as the missing items from the dressing room table and I would say that our assailant wanted to change his appearance."
I followed the line that Holmes indicated with his arm—the missing wig on the stand on the shelf above the table, the overturned pots of greasepaint as though someone had been sorting through them rapidly. I saw too, the smear of powder swept from the countertop, as though someone had decided simply to take everything and push it into the bag.
I found this bit of information unusually disturbing for some reason. We didn't even know who we were looking for and yet now, his appearance could change before we had a chance to locate him. "What about the method by which he kills his victims? How exactly is our murderer accomplishing that?"
A small frown furrowed his brow as Holmes looked down at the body. "I don't know," he said softly.
"You don't know yet." I said.
He looked up. "What?"
"You don't know 'yet'. You were going to add that, correct? You usually do."
He laughed, a sound that seemed out of place in this room of horror and made a constable peer into the room inquisitively.
"Of course. Goes without saying."
Despite all these revelations, I had to stifle a yawn.
"Come, Watson!" Holmes cried, with a good-natured slap on my shoulder. "It's been a long day for you, old boy. I want to get back to our rooms and analyze that knife blade before the substance on it degrades any further. Lestrade, we'll be in touch."
Outside on the street, the crowd had gotten smaller but there were still people milling about. There was not a cab in sight; Holmes scanned the streets briefly and then leaned in close to my ear as he spoke. "I need you alert now, my friend. There are two men in the crowd here tonight that were also present at the last crime scene." He lifted his head to speak in a louder tone. "Damn our luck. Not a cab to be had anywhere. I warrant we'll have trouble securing one at this late hour as well. Wait here, while I see if I can find one."
Just like that, Holmes walked off into the fog, leaving me alone on the sidewalk. I set my bag down at my feet, conscious of the fact that it contained the only direct pieces of evidence we had belonging to the killer. I slipped my hand into my pocket, closing my cold fingers around the comforting steel of my revolver.
It didn't take long before someone approached me.
"Excuse me, Rodney McKay here, reporter for the Chronicle. You just came from the crime scene, right? Can you tell me more about the murder?"
I turned to see a man in a checked coat and bowler standing very close to me, his appearance sending mixed messages, as he looked like a bookmaker but spoke like a person of culture. I couldn't quite place the accent, though it was definitely North American. I knew Holmes would have pegged it down to the actual province. The man's expression had that quick alertness I often associated with the press, though his clear blue eyes seemed to hold more intelligence than the average journalist. He held a shiny little notebook in one hand and the oddest-looking pencil I'd ever seen. When he caught me staring at it, he slipped both within his pocket again.
"Murder?" I snorted. "Just like you lot to sensationalize a simple death. Who said anything about murder?"
The man frowned, the crookedness of his mouth pulling one corner down. "The streets are full of it. Guard runs screaming out into the street, the victim struck by the Pharaoh's Curse and turned into a mummy... "
"Balderdash." I said firmly. "Nothing of the kind. Watchman drinks, if you ask me." I ruthlessly sacrificed the watchman's reputation, despite the fact that I doubted the man before me was, indeed, a reporter of any kind.
Apparently, so did Holmes. He glided out of the shadows and up behind the 'reporter', placing a hand on one shoulder as he pushed the gun in his pocket into the man's side. "I'd like very much to discuss your theories on the murder, Mr. McKay. Would you be so kind as to join my colleague and me? I have a carriage waiting."
Mr. McKay stiffened, but did not look particularly surprised. If anything, he looked resigned, as though this sort of reception was a common, everyday occurrence. With a little eye roll, he sighed. "This really is not a good idea."
"No, it's not." A drawling voice came out of the mist somewhere behind Holmes and I could make out the shadow of another man. His position behind Holmes suggested he was surreptitiously holding a gun as well. I couldn't see much of him, other than the fact that he was dressed in black and wearing a top hat.
Holmes was calm about it all as he addressed the man apparently holding a weapon on him. "How else was I supposed to draw you out of hiding, except by threatening your partner? We would appear to be at a standoff. The police, who would come to our aid if I merely raised my voice, surround you. Come now, it's cold and wet out. I think a fire and a good stiff drink are in order." Holmes almost sounded jovial. "Watson, I believe we are about to entertain some visitors."
McKay did a little double take and started to turn, only to stop when Holmes gripped his shoulder more firmly.
"John!" McKay said delightedly, his mouth curving into an engaging smile.
"Yes?" I said in confusion, not knowing how he knew my name.
"No, not you, the other John. The Colonel." McKay still seemed extraordinarily pleased with the situation. He turned his head enough so that he could flick his gaze up and down Holmes in rapid assessment. He indicated me with a jerk of his chin. "If this is John Watson, then you must be..." McKay trailed off, speaking to his companion again. "Colonel, it's Holmes." He spoke my friend's name with a kind of odd fanatical devotion.
"Get the fuck out." The Colonel spoke abruptly. Though his meaning wasn't entirely clear at first, there was no mistaking that accent. Clearly American. I noticed that neither Holmes nor the Colonel had relaxed their stance, though Rodney McKay seemed ready to head for the nearest pub and declare himself an old friend.
"I think we should accept their invitation," McKay said, bouncing on his toes a little. Holmes sighed and released McKay's shoulder without explanation. Obviously, he had made one of his assessments and decided that McKay was not currently a threat. The Colonel immediately took a step back from Holmes. I could tell from the way he held his hand in his pocket that it was still on his gun.
"I don't." The Colonel was decisive. "Call me suspicious, but I really don't like invitations made at gunpoint."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, John," McKay snapped, suddenly losing his temper. "We're getting nowhere with finding... you know who... and our time is running out." The sudden spark of anger reminded me remarkably of Holmes, even more so when McKay's expression shifted rapidly into gleeful smiles again. "Who better to consult than the world's greatest consulting detective?" He indicated Holmes with a little flourish of his hand.
"Your friend is right, Colonel. I suggest we collaborate on this problem." Holmes had looked briefly flattered and was now impatient to be off, as though everything had been settled. Indeed, between Holmes and McKay, the air practically crackled with their need to be moving on and doing something.
I heard a long-suffering sigh from the Colonel that I'd been known to make myself on occasion and saw him fractionally relax his posture.
"Lead the way," he said in that drawling voice again. He added in an undertone, "I only hope this doesn't take all night."
I could sympathize. When an investigation carried Holmes away, time and meals ceased to have any meaning for him. I'd already put in a full day; I wasn't looking forward to entertaining these strange visitors in our rooms until all hours. Yet, there was something very puzzling about them. Despite my weariness, I couldn't help wanting to know their story.
Holmes, indeed, had a carriage waiting. How he had managed to secure one at this time of the night was a mystery to me, but I suspected it had much to do with the times that he dressed as a carter or drover and mingled with the workers in Covent Garden. Holmes mockingly held the door open for our 'guests' to enter the carriage. McKay clambered in with an odd sort of clumsiness, as though not used to entering such a transport. The Colonel started to climb in behind him, only to flinch when he placed weight on his right leg in order to enter into the carriage. He hesitated, placing a hand on his knee and rubbing it.
McKay's head appeared at the door of the carriage again, concern clearly etched on his expressive features. "Oh, here," he said, reaching out, "Let me give you a hand."
The Colonel glared up at him in such a fashion that McKay hastily withdrew into the interior. The Colonel glanced around, noted the handle made for just such a purpose, and grabbed hold of it, climbing into the carriage with an effort. He sat down heavily in the seat beside McKay, just as Holmes and I settled in behind him.
With a tap on the roof, we were off. The silence inside the carriage was as thick as the fog outside. Finally, Holmes spoke.
"You know of me?" he asked McKay.
"Know you?" McKay grinned like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat. "That's like asking if I've heard of Galileo or Newton or Einstein." He scratched at his stomach just under his waistcoat.
"Einstein?" I asked, but I could see that Holmes had no real interest in the topic of conversation as much as the speaker. He leaned back against the squabs, steepling his fingers.
"And you, Colonel? I perceive you are moving stiffly, much as my good friend, Dr. Watson, whose old war injuries plague him dearly on a night such as this. Pray tell me, do you suffer from the same?"
"Yeah," The Colonel drawled casually, as though he wasn't actually fencing with Holmes.
Holmes smiled when the Colonel did not elaborate. I recognized that smile. Parry met and returned. "I believe you have the advantage of us, Colonel." Holmes sounded genial, but I knew he was gleaning all the information he could from these two strangers just the same.
The Colonel looked blankly at Holmes as he spoke, though I noted his right hand drifted casually towards his pocket.
"Your name," McKay muttered in a not very subtle aside.
The Colonel blinked as enlightenment dawned. "Oh," he said. "The name's John Sheppard."
"And you served in...?" Holmes left the ending of his question open. I was surprised—I fully expected Holmes to tell us where Colonel Sheppard had served.
"Panama," the Colonel said at the same time McKay said, "Egypt."
The two men exchanged looks. "Oh," McKay said, suddenly flustered. "He was talking about your leg wound. I was thinking about the time you got shot in the...um, shoulder."
The Colonel gave McKay a look that clearly said, 'shut up.' I recognized that look as well, though I hadn't been on the receiving end of such a glare in a very long time.
Silence threatened to descend again, but Holmes took it upon himself to be jovial and entertaining, in that manner that he can effortlessly maintain, once he puts his mind to it. I could see it working with McKay, drawing him out. In very little time, the subject turned towards science, with McKay making an amused little noise as he suggested that Holmes might have an interest there. By some train of thought that I didn't quite follow, the conversation turned towards Michelson and Morley and the experiment they conducted that showed the speed of light was a fixed constant. By this, I gathered that McKay was some sort of physicist, which he confirmed when he said with false modesty that he was Doctor McKay.
The Colonel was silent. He seemed to be making his own assessment of us. By the light of one of the street lamps in passing, I noted his gaze upon me. When he realized that he'd been observed staring, his expression took on a sardonic, amused look. I wasn't sure what to make of him, but he reminded me of one of the majors I'd served with in the war, a reckless, courageous man who never asked his men to do anything he wouldn't do himself. The troops would have died for him to a man. Good with a horse, too.
The return to Baker Street seemed shorter than on the drive out, though I suspected the difference in times was due in part to the emptiness of the streets at this late hour and the heavy fog that made visibility so poor. The cold seeped in through the clothing, leaving one damp to the skin, and the air was thick and hard to breathe. As the carriage pulled up to the house, the Colonel began to cough in a painful, harsh manner. McKay, expounding upon some esoteric scientific theory to Holmes' apparent bemusement, suddenly stopped speaking, watching in concern as the Colonel continued to cough. A small furrow marred his forehead.
He began to pat his pockets. "I think I have... yes! Here."
He fished a rather disreputable handkerchief out of his breast pocket and handed it to the Colonel, who halted McKay's movement with another one of those quelling looks.
"Oh, for...just take it, will you? Don't be such a big baby. Unless, of course, you're worried about germs..." McKay suddenly looked askance at the cloth in his hand and held it away from him, pinched between his thumb and forefinger. "Oh god, we might have discovered a new biological weapon," he said.
It was subtle, but the Colonel managed to kick McKay in the shins while still coughing.
"Are you a subscriber then, to Koch's postulates?" Holmes interjected smoothly when McKay made a face and leaned down to rub his shin, conveniently dropping the handkerchief on the floor of the carriage and neglecting to retrieve it.
"I regard most of the soft sciences as little more than voodoo." McKay rolled his eyes. "But you can't argue with a man who creates a logical approach to cause and effect."
Holmes shot me an amused glance when he saw that I'd bristled at McKay's statement. Soft sciences indeed! I thought about giving him a brutal summation of my time in Afghanistan but remained silent. Holmes was playing out this hand. Besides, men of McKay's ilk always think they know best until they've seen action themselves.
The handkerchief was still on the floor of the carriage when we exited the cabin.
As we stood outside the entrance to our establishment, McKay lightly punched the Colonel in the arm. "Two twenty-one B," he said in a sort of stage whisper, his voice full of elation. The Colonel looked at him oddly and smacked him on the arm.
"We're not here as fans, Rodney." The Colonel sounded exasperated.
Though I found their strangeness disturbing, part of me wanted to laugh very hard. I could recall all too well similar scenes between Holmes and myself. Holmes led the way up the stairs with McKay following behind, still speaking forcibly on the subject of something called quantum mechanics, and I could tell by the line of Holmes' back that he would very much like to continue this discussion, if only there wasn't a murder to solve.
I was left to bring up the rear. The Colonel hesitated at the base of the stairs; for a moment, I thought he was showing the same reluctance he'd exhibited on entering the carriage, until I realized he wasn't comfortable with being boxed in between Holmes and me. With a sigh, he placed a bare hand on the banister and pulled himself up the stairs. His gait was halting and slow as he climbed the stairs; I was in complete sympathy.
Inside our rooms, McKay glanced around eagerly, taking note of both the artistic representation of "V.R." on the wall marked out in bullet holes, as well as the Persian slipper on the mantelpiece, overflowing with tobacco. He acted almost as if he were greeting old, familiar friends with each new sight. Gladstone lifted his head at the entrance of visitors, wagging his little corkscrew of a tail, but did not bother getting up and quickly settled back down to doze in front of the fire again.
Holmes took off his coat, hat, and muffler, hung them up, and came forward to take the same from McKay, who seemed to realize belatedly that he was wearing a hat. McKay's clothes didn't fit him well and were a hodge-podge of loud colors and patterns. He had thinning, light brown hair cut unfashionably short, with eyes the color of the North Sea. His manner crackled with energy; he reminded me of Holmes at his most manic state.
I turned toward the Colonel, reaching for his coat and hat, as I hung up my own. He shrugged out of his overcoat with some difficulty, as though it did not fit him properly, though, to my eye it looked tailor-made for him. When he turned towards me with hat in hand, I was surprised to see that he was much older than I'd thought he was.
A fine network of lines fanned out from his eyes. There were shadows under those muddy colored eyes, and the suggestion of bags. His hair was pewter in color, and slicked back with the judicious use of pomade, but even as I watched, a short spike of hair popped up in seeming defiance. He was one of those men who needed to shave twice daily and his grizzled jaw line made him look unkempt. His clothes fit him better than McKay's. He was wearing a black frock coat and close fitting fawn breeches, with a silver and black brocaded waistcoat and a white shirt. His cravat was a mess, however, and looked like it had been tied carelessly.
"Gentlemen, please be seated." Holmes threw himself in the nearest chair, leaving me to hang up the Colonel's coat, poke the fire, and start making the drinks. I didn't mind; I knew this was part of Holmes' plan. I could almost hear the gears turning in his head. I wondered what he would make of these visitors when I could make nothing of them myself.
There was a moment of confusion when McKay, taking in our rather Bohemian apartments, had settled himself into the second best chair, only to leap up and offer it to the Colonel.
Ice would have been warmer than the Colonel's glare. McKay reseated himself and the Colonel sat down carefully on the sofa, shifting a stack of newspapers to do so.
McKay absently scratched at his side.
"Can we cut to the chase now?" The Colonel asked plaintively, even as I pressed a whiskey and soda in his hand. He looked up with a brief smile at me when I did so, his face lighting up and looking boyish for a moment. I offered a drink to McKay, who looked at in bemusement before setting it down. Holmes waved me off, so I took my own glass and sat down at the other end of the sofa.
"Cut to the chase... What an interesting turn of phrase." Holmes savored the Colonel's words as though they were a fine wine and he was trying to detect all the nuances.
"He's going to do us," McKay said to the Colonel, with that queer sort of elation he'd been exhibiting since we'd met.
"It means get to the point." The Colonel ignored McKay as he spoke to Holmes; his tone was dry, but not unfriendly.
"Very well. I will cut to the chase. It would seem that we are both hunting the same villain." Holmes was direct, his expression hooded as he stared out from half-closed lids at the Colonel. "Here I immediately run into a problem. Dr. McKay is an intellectual, a man of science. I would think it fair to say that his scientific knowledge far outstrips my own; in fact, he's been striving unsuccessfully to keep that fact from me this evening."
McKay beamed at Holmes as though he were some prized pupil.
Holmes narrowed his eyes even further as he pinned McKay in his sights. "You are from Canada, though there is an overlay of other accents there; I conclude that you have spent time in central Europe or else have worked closely with someone from that area. Siberia, I believe, possibly the Balkans as well. I deduce from this that you have worked extensively in other countries, with an international team."
McKay shot a quick glance towards the Colonel, wanting to share some sort of private enjoyment. Never had I seen anyone so pleased to be at the mercy of Holmes' discerning eye. Really, Holmes could have made a decent living as a mentalist, had he been a man of weaker moral fiber.
"As I said before," Holmes continued on, as though the exchange between McKay and the Colonel had not taken place, "your knowledge of science far exceeds my own. In fact, I wonder at all the information you seemingly have at your fingertips. At times, it seems almost fantastical, and yet you speak with utter authority on the subject. You are a man of position, others look up to you, and yet there are many contradictions about you as well."
"Oh, really?" McKay shot a smug look in the Colonel's direction. "Do go on."
Holmes leaned forward in his seat until his hands rested on his thighs. "You are a man of education, and yet there is very little callus on your dominant hand from writing. The tips of your fingers are spatulate, suggesting that you spend much time at a typewriter keyboard, and yet you have none of the arthritis I would expect in a man of your age who types frequently, nor are there any inkstains on your fingers. You wear a wristwatch, a timepiece typically preferred by women, despite its usefulness as demonstrated in the Boer War, and yet the piece is of a technical design that I have never seen before. You defer to the Colonel, which suggests he holds a position of leadership over you, and yet you speak to him as your equal as well. You show concern over his well-being, but as an afterthought, which tells me that you aren't used to worrying about his health or condition." Holmes leaned back in his seat again, tilting his head to one side. "I am oversimplifying the matter here. It would be more precise to say you are not usually worried about him keeping up with you."
McKay's face turned very red here and he did not look at the Colonel. He folded his right hand over his left wrist, obscuring something on his wrist.
"The Colonel," Holmes smiled in a not very genial way, "is an American. He hails from Southern California, though he has spent some time in the southwest as well, probably Nevada. I doubt seriously that he has ever been in Panama. Egypt, possibly, though I would have said Afghanistan. No doubt an American career military man with an odd streak of individualism and rebellion has a logical explanation for why he was there."
The look that McKay fired off at the Colonel now was devilish indeed, which only seemed to confirm Holmes' assessment.
"Damn, you're good." McKay's admiration rang true.
Holmes wasn't through, however. Not by a long shot.
"Your clothing has obviously been borrowed, probably stolen. You are unfamiliar with common, everyday items of usage and yet speak casually of things that the average man on the street would not know. You frequently forget the limitations that the Colonel would have as a military man in his sixties; he does as well. We chase a murderer that has the capacity to render his victims into mummies. What am I to conclude except that the killer we seek has the capacity to take years from his victims and that the Colonel is a survivor of just such an attack?"
McKay let his mouth gape open somewhat unattractively but Holmes was watching the Colonel. I felt my mouth drop open as well.
A little half-smile appeared on the Colonel's face. He glanced briefly over at McKay in another one of those shared acknowledgments before directing his gaze at Holmes once more. "Now, that's just creepy," he drawled.
"That's utterly preposterous," I ejaculated. "Holmes! Listen to yourself, man! What you propose is completely insane."
Holmes shook his head. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible..."
McKay cut him off. "'Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?' That's actually one of my favorite quotations of yours. Very useful, when it comes to scientific theory, you know." He beamed expansively at Holmes and scratched at his side again. He frowned suddenly. "I did think you'd be taller though. You know, from Watson's accounts of your adventures together."
The look Holmes turned on me was too awful to describe. "I thought you said you hadn't published any accounts of my cases."
"I didn't!" I exclaimed. "You said it would hamper your ability to solve crimes and I took you at your word on that. I've chronicled our adventures together for my private use only." I didn't add that I'd wanted something to remember our time together or that my intention was to present Holmes with a bound copy when I moved out.
"I'm still trying to work out how we came to be in a universe where these guys aren't fictional," the Colonel said to McKay, indicating Holmes and me with a negligent flick of his fingers.
"Fictional?" I asked, understandably confused.
"Universe?" Holmes raised his eyebrow.
"We followed Kenny. He was the one who came to this universe. I just laid in the course. With all the universes containing a Holmes and a Watson, there had to be at least one variant where they weren't fictional characters." McKay sounded a little miffed. "The very fact that Kenny's stayed put as long as he has is a bad sign and you know it. We're running out of time."
"Kenny?" I asked, starting to feel stupid. I noted, however, that was the second time this evening McKay had suggested time was a factor in apprehending the murderer.
McKay pointed to the Colonel. "John names all the Wraith. Really moronic names, which make them sound like frat boys." He gave the Colonel an amazingly evil glare.
"You have to do something to tell them apart." The Colonel didn't look pleased with McKay either. "Getting a little ahead of ourselves with the information sharing, aren't we, Rodney?"
McKay had the grace to look embarrassed.
Holmes held up his hand. When McKay would have spoken anyway, Holmes made the kind of negative noise he'd make to Gladstone (or myself) when demanding complete silence. Once it became apparent that McKay was not going to say anything else, Holmes got up abruptly and stalked over to the mantle, taking his pipe from the stand and tamping in tobacco from the slipper. He took a taper from the jar on the mantle and stooped to the fire to light it, straightening to touch it to his pipe and puff furiously.
"All the Wraith," he murmured at last. He threw the taper into the fire and turned to face our guests. "What is your interest in this...Wraith?"
McKay exchanged a glance with the Colonel and seemed to get permission to speak. "The Wraith are a very dangerous species from another galaxy. They feed off the energy of other beings, their life force, so to speak... Not the sort of person you want running around your planet." McKay looked unhappy.
Holmes and I exchanged an uneasy look. The very seriousness of the two men before us made it impossible to dismiss their claim out of hand.
"Besides, he took something that belonged to me." The quiet intensity in the Colonel's voice belied his casual manner.
Holmes raised an eyebrow at the Colonel.
The Colonel smiled, an expression that was not very nice at all. "He took my alternate reality hyperdrive."
"My AR drive," McKay corrected with a sniff. He shot his cuffs and I could see the wristwatch that Holmes had spotted earlier. No dainty ladies timepiece was this. It was enormous and looked like something out of a novel by H. G. Wells. "Bad enough Kenny stole a hyperdrive and put it in one of their Darts. The ability to cross realities has really played havoc with catching him."
"Wait a moment." I briefly closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, as the full realization of what we were casually discussing caught up with me. "You mean to tell us that there is an entire race of beings that can... what? Drain the years from a man until he is no more than withered remains? Some sort of energy vampire? Like that story by Stoker?"
McKay exchanged another one of those looks with the Colonel before answering. "In a manner of speaking. You might call them Space Vampires."
"The two of you are from outer space," I said slowly, taking a good swig from my glass of whiskey.
"No," the Colonel clarified solemnly. "McKay's from Canada. I'm from California. We just work in outer space."
McKay's face lit up as though the Colonel had just expressed some sort of inside joke between them.
I looked helplessly at Holmes. He barely lifted his eyebrows at me but I recognized the shrug just the same. I looked back at our visitors. "I'm supposed to believe that one of these Space Vampires walks among us? Why would it come here?" I kept waiting for McKay to break in with the punch line and rag on me for falling for the sick joke.
The Colonel seemed fascinated by the amber depths of his whiskey, rotating the glass in his hand so that firelight glowed within. "Best case scenario? This Wraith is the only diner at an all-you-can-eat human buffet. Worst case? He's building a transmitter and planning to call all his Wraith buddies to join him at his new feeding ground. No offense, but you guys aren't capable of mounting a defense against a full out Wraith invasion." As the Colonel spoke, another spike of hair sprang to attention on top of his head.
There was a long moment of silence, in which the only sound in the room was the hiss and crackle of the fire. I thought about my life here, the plans I had, the things I wanted to do. With just a few words, these men had shown me an evil that put everything I cared about into a peril more awful than any war I'd ever survived.
"So then, we must stop Mr. Kenny," Holmes said dryly. "Before he can build such a transmitter."
"Not 'we'," the Colonel said firmly. He took a long pull from his drink before setting it down with a sense of finality. "McKay and I have this one covered. You guys are in over your heads."
"Oh, and you've done such a good job of catching this Wraith so far," Holmes shot back with deadly accuracy. "What, five victims here? And how many other universes have you tracked him to and failed to apprehend him?"
"He has a point," McKay said carefully, obviously not wanting to take sides.
"They have no idea what they're up against." The Colonel's words to McKay stung like the lash of a whip.
"Then tell us," I said.
The Colonel turned a cool gaze on me and I could see that he was assessing me, one military man to another.
"Fine," he said, in that tone that said it wasn't fine at all. He turned to his companion. "McKay?"
Rodney McKay took the floor; his hands moving eloquently as he spoke. "Okay, Reader's Digest version here. The Wraith are a species that come from the Pegasus galaxy. Right, that's neither here nor there. What you need to know is that they live in hive-like collectives, have the ability to sense and influence one's thoughts and actions, though it is not quite telepathy. They can make you see things, though." He paused to give a little theatrical shudder. "You think you're seeing ghosts. A quick flash of movement out of the corner of your eye. The sense that something just moved past you... If you experience anything like that, you're in deep shit, because a Wraith has to be close by."
"McKay," The Colonel said, in the manner of one used to keeping McKay on topic.
McKay gave a short nod and continued. "They feed off living beings—humans are number one on their menu. Back in Pegasus, they go through cycles of feeding and hibernation, in order to allow the human populations to recover sufficiently to serve as a food source, but not so much that they gain technological advantages that would allow them to mount any sort of effective resistance. Some of our scientists also believe that the size of the Wraith population is dependent on the available food supply. The sheer number of humans on Earth would represent the ultimate feeding ground. A sort of El Dorado for the Wraith, so to speak."
"You've been to Pegasus." Holmes spoke flatly, a statement of acknowledgment, not a question.
"We live there. In a city created by a race of beings known as the Ancients. They were the archenemy of the Wraith but ultimately not successful in defeating them. Circumstances forced them to evacuate their home and some of them eventually relocated on Earth. At least, in our universe they did." McKay took the small shiny notebook out of his pocket and opened the cover. An unusual light filled the room. He stood up and handed the object to Holmes.
"What is this device?" Holmes said curiously, turning the device over with his long fingers. When he rotated it in my direction, I could see an image depicted on a very bright background, as though it were lit up from within. The device also seemed to have a tiny keyboard and I intuitively guessed this was the typewriter without any ink that McKay used daily.
"A netbook," McKay said shortly. "That's not the point. Look." He leaned over Holmes to touch something on the keyboard. The reflected light on their faces took on a greenish glow. "That's a Wraith."
"Watson, come here." Holmes didn't take his eyes off the small screen. I crossed over to join him and looked down into the face of our quarry. A tall, cadaverous creature stared up at me from the small device. His skin was greenish and mottled; his features were not quite human. Long, white hair hung in stringy, limp locks on either side of his face. The expression in those dead, shark-like eyes was one of utter disdain. I was struck by the color and clarity of the image even as I recognized the lethality of the subject. Dear God. This had to be what James had seen in the mirror behind him. I felt a chill shudder through me, even though the room was quite warm.
"That would explain the stolen makeup," I said shortly.
"What's that?" The Colonel looked up alertly from his sprawl along the sofa.
"It would appear that Mr. Kenny has decided to alter his appearance," Holmes said quietly. "Hence his attack at the theater."
"Never mind." McKay shook off the look of frustration that passed over the Colonel's features. "If we get close enough to him, we can pick him up on the LSD."
Holmes flashed McKay a bright, questioning glance.
"Life Signs Detector," McKay explained impatiently. "Programmed to recognize Wraith DNA. Unfortunately, they have a rather limited range."
At our blank expressions, he continued rapidly. "DNA. Cellular material. Individualized like a fingerprint, but more accurate. In fact, DNA can be stored for decades; even now new techniques are being discovered daily to extract minute samples of DNA from saliva, blood, semen... we're able to convict criminals and release innocent people on DNA evidence."
"Ah, Miescher did some work on used bandage material. It sounds like the cellular material he identified in those studies." I remembered reading the article in one of my journals.
McKay's expressive face revealed what he thought of my contribution to this discussion and I could see at once that he did not have the fascination with living systems (or their decay) that Holmes did.
Holmes looked like he'd like to discuss this further but I interrupted.
"Wraith blood. Is it green by any chance? If so, I believe we have a sample for you."
"Really? That could be very useful. I might be able to boost the signal of the LSD if I had the specific DNA in question to narrow the parameters of the search even further."
Holmes stared in fascination at the device in his hands. While McKay was speaking, I caught the flash of mischievous glee pass over his features and I knew he was going to touch something he probably should not. I opened my mouth to speak, but he'd already pressed a small button.
The picture changed.
The screen now depicted a stunning view of a city such as I'd never seen before. Majestic spires rose up out of a glittering sea. The image must have been taken from some place high up in the city, a balcony somewhere. It was breathtaking.
"That's Atlantis," McKay said in a smug, fond tone as he looked down at the image with us.
"This isn't 'how I spent my summer vacation', Rodney," the Colonel said witheringly. I recognized that tone too.
"Atlantis?" I said. "The mythical lost city?"
"Not so mythical or lost," McKay said. If anything, his smugness increased.
Holmes pressed the button again. This time, the device revealed an image of the Colonel in profile, leaning along his forearm as he looked out a rain-streaked window. The sun was coming out of the clouds beyond; the light caught the interior of the Colonel's eye and lit it from within. He obviously was unaware of the photographer, a feat I found hard to imagine, given the bulky nature of most cameras, and I realized with a jolt that this was a much younger man than the one sitting on my sofa.
I don't think I really comprehended until that moment, what the Wraith were capable of doing. The older man on my sofa was, by all means, still a handsome man. The man in the photograph was beautiful.
McKay snatched the device away from Holmes, visibly embarrassed. "Right. Well, now you know. What the Wraith look like, I mean."
Holmes traded an unfathomable look with me. I didn't know what to make of it or the emotions that were coursing through me just then.
"What you really need to know is that in addition to feeding off humans, they draw strength and power off their victims as well." The Colonel decided it was time to take back the conversation, frowning in our direction as he obviously wondered what we'd been viewing on the device. "The more they feed, the stronger they get. The harder they are to kill. You could empty your gun at them, Doc, and they'd still keep coming."
"That's impossible," I said, not wanting to believe it.
McKay jumped back in, as though presenting a lecture. I wondered if he were a professor at some institution somewhere, and then boggled at the thought of a university in outer space. "They have the capacity to regenerate very rapidly from wounds—as long as they have access to a food source. You can overwhelm them with sufficient firepower, but you have to believe me when I say that unless the Wraith has been previously weakened, you might not be able to defend yourself with your regular revolver."
"In his current state, we might not even be able to take Kenny down with this." The Colonel got to his feet and headed for the coat rack. He retrieved his gun from his coat pocket and crossed to where we gathered around Holmes, presenting it for inspection across the palm of one hand.
"What is that?" I breathed, conscious of the envy in my voice.
"A Glock. Automatic." The Colonel took the weapon in one hand to make a swift maneuver with the other and suddenly the gun was in two pieces. "Bullets fit into here." He showed me the cartridge. "This model holds 17 bullets. You can fire them off in rapid succession and simply replace the clip. I can't use anything bulkier than that here." I could tell he meant here in my city and it was a weird feeling to know that you were an anachronism in your own time. Seventeen? The number seemed impossible.
"And the Wraith can withstand such a barrage of bullets? I'm assuming the weapon is highly accurate as well?" Holmes sounded bored, but I knew his brain was already churning away at the problem.
"A well-fed Wraith is very hard to kill." The Colonel shrugged, fitting the pieces back together and tucking the weapon in his waistband at the small of his back.
"We don't want him dead." McKay frowned, shooting a meaningful glance at the Colonel.
"Rodney," the Colonel said, and the warning note was back in his voice.
"Well, not yet, anyway," McKay conceded. There was obviously something else going on that they'd chosen not to reveal to us.
"Bottom line," the Colonel went on as though McKay had not spoken. "If you get the chance, kill the Wraith. Better yet, you stay out of the way." It was clear from his posture that as far as he was concerned, the meeting was finished. "Thanks for the drink. Come on, Rodney, ask nicely for the DNA and let's go."
"Wait just a minute," I surprised everyone by saying. Even Holmes raised eyebrow in my direction. "You gentlemen have presented us with a most alarming threat. It's all fine and well for you to say that you are taking care of it, but damn it, this is our lives and our city you're talking about here. Holmes knows London like the back of his hand; you'd be fools not to take advantage of his knowledge and skills."
McKay startled me by giving a burst of laughter, quickly suppressed. "No, no," he said, raising a calming hand at my expression. "I'm not laughing at you. It's just... Well, let's just say I've seen that fierce determination to protect a certain city at all costs before."
The look he gave me was so warm and conspiratorial that I couldn't help but smile back at him.
"Okay," the Colonel said slowly, the drawl apparent in his voice once more. "What have you got to offer?"
I turned to Holmes. He looked up at the Colonel, who was eyeing him impatiently. "The way I see it, trying to anticipate the next victim is futile. Mr. Kenny would seem to be an opportunist."
"I'm not sure which is weirder, John naming the Wraith after people he went to school with or you addressing them formally." McKay's comment was more of an aside, but when Holmes shot him a crushing look, he subsided.
Holmes continued. "You spoke of a 'dart'. I presume this is a spacecraft of some kind. Surely something like that generates an enormous amount of energy. You have sophisticated tracking devices. Can you not locate it through its energy output?"
McKay looked at Holmes with increased admiration. "We could, but Kenny has powered it down so that it emits no significant energy signature. We're getting bupkis."
Holmes seemed to understand the idiom, even if it wasn't immediately clear to me. "Very well. This 'dart' must be hidden somewhere, correct? Find the lair and we can wait for the fox to return."
McKay exchanged a speaking glance with the Colonel, who merely shrugged. "I can't stop you from looking," he said at last. "You know the risks. If you find where the Wraith is holed up, do not engage." The Colonel was emphatic; a man used to giving orders only when he expected them to be obeyed. "We'll take it from there."
"How do we get in touch with you?" Holmes sounded amused. I didn't trust that tone; I knew it from old.
This time the Colonel and McKay didn't even bother exchanging glances. "We'll be in touch with you." The Colonel turned toward the coat rack. McKay joined him, stuffing the device back into his pocket as he went.
"Just one moment." Holmes shot me a questioning look, but I ignored him. The Colonel looked back over his shoulder with the air of a man whose patience was running out. McKay halted uncertainly, torn between two poles of attraction.
"Colonel." I debated taking a step closer and decided against it. "You have told us a little of the threat we currently face. You have not explained to my satisfaction how this threat is manifested. How exactly do the Wraith extract energy from their victims? How long does such a feeding take? Surely, there must be some means of defending ourselves. How is it that you managed to survive?"
Holmes watched from the depths of his chair, willing to let me take this round.
McKay looked decidedly uncomfortable. The Colonel blew air through his lips in a small, exasperated sound and indicated with a gesture that McKay should field this one. McKay nodded briefly and launched into an explanation.
"The Wraith have a feeding orifice in their hand." McKay held up his right hand and waggled his fingers, indicating his palm with his other hand. "They must be in direct contact with you to feed, but it only takes a matter of seconds for them to drain you completely dry."
"They can control the rate at which they feed." The Colonel said abruptly. "They can stop at any point to ask you questions. Feeding is a means of gaining strength, but they also use it to interrogate their prisoners." His voice was dark with the memory of what he must have experienced.
"How did you survive such an attack?" I asked.
"Kenny was interrupted." His reply was succinct.
I couldn't help it; the doctor in me took over the questioning. "What were the residual effects, other than the obvious ones of accelerated aging?"
"Well," The Colonel drawled again, as though he had to think about it. "It hurt a bit."
"It hurt a bit?" McKay's voice rose with remembered outrage. "It looked like it was fucking excruciating." He balled up his fists at his sides.
"Rodney." That was all that the Colonel said.
McKay glowered at him. I pictured what it must have been like for James, alone with his alien assailant, certain that Death was staring him in the face as it drained him of his life. I could see him all too clearly, pinned down among the boxes, struggling in vain to fend off his attacker. In my mind's eye, James became the Colonel and I felt a sickness within for how close this man had come to a horrible death. When I caught McKay's gaze upon me, I could see the same revulsion and fear.
"The corpse at the Dolphin was too desiccated to show any physical evidence of the attack. I presume that is not the case for you, Colonel? I would benefit from seeing for myself the signs left behind." I spoke mildly, but McKay bristled up anyway.
"It's not like you'd have any difficulty recognizing the rare survivor," he snapped. "They'd be the ones inexplicably older than when they woke up that morning. And most likely gibbering insane with fear."
"Thanks, Rodney." For the first time, a glimmer of humor was visible in the Colonel's expression toward McKay.
"I didn't mean you and you know it. Watson just wants to see you with your clothes off. It's a doctor thing, I'm sure."
I gaped at him. Holmes snorted with laughter. When I turned in outrage to glare at him, he shrugged. "McKay has a point. You doctors do seem to want to strip everyone down at some point."
"It is quite possible we might come upon an insensible victim. Being able to identify whether or not their injuries were the result of a Wraith attack might mean the difference between catching this monster and having him kill again." As I spoke, the Colonel gave a long-suffering sigh and tugged loose his cravat. He made a face as though he'd tasted something sour as he peeled off the black superfine coat and laid it across the arm of the sofa. He removed the gun from his waistband, laying it carefully on the couch as well. He unbuttoned his waistcoat, discarding it on the arm of the sofa before starting on his shirt. He began to pull it off over his shoulders without removing the suspenders first.
"Braces," McKay muttered as a not very subtle aside.
The Colonel frowned, looked down, and sighed again. He shrugged off the straps to his braces and let them hang in loops at his waist as he went back to removing the shirt. While he did so, I went over to my bag to retrieve my stethoscope and the envelope containing the prop dagger. By the time I had returned and had handed the envelope to Dr. McKay, the Colonel was stripped to the waist and standing with an expression of cool detachment on his face. I draped the stethoscope around my neck.
He was one of those wiry types that would be thin even in advanced old age. I couldn't help but notice the identity discs hanging on a chain made of silver beads around his neck. I was tempted to reach out and touch them, to pick them up and turn them over for inspection, despite knowing what a personal violation that would be.
The Colonel was a moderately hairy man, not entirely unexpected after seeing the shadow along his jaw line. The hair that dusted his chest was coarse and gray. He was still quite muscular, in the lean manner of a lurcher. His torso was unusually long and yet not disproportionate to his body. I had to resist the urge to open his mouth and inspect his teeth; for a man in his sixties, he appeared extraordinarily healthy.
"Would you like to see me go through my paces?" The sardonic drawl was back in his voice. I could tell that he was amused; it was strange that he echoed my thoughts so closely. I found myself wondering how he would face interrogation by the enemy and I suspected it was very much in the same vein. Always a shield of humor between him and the rest of the world.
His pupils widened as he made eye contact with me. I had the feeling he could tell I briefly saw what was under the mask.
My gaze fell to his chest. There, just left of center, was a series of angry, puckered lesions, spread in a little half crescent over his breast.
Holmes rose and came over to join me, leaning in alongside as I peered at the Colonel's chest. McKay shifted uneasily as Holmes did so; I spared a quick glance in his direction and for the briefest of moments, saw a look of terrifying protectiveness on McKay's face. For that instant, the scientist was lost to the soldier, and it was unnerving to witness.
Holmes reached for the Colonel's chest, his fingers spread as though to span the lesions. The Colonel's hand snapped forward with uncanny speed; he grasped Holmes by the wrist and held him fast. McKay opened his mouth and took another step closer to the Colonel.
Holmes was an unusually strong man. I'd witnessed his strength and his ability to slip out of an enemy's grasp on more than one occasion. I honestly could not tell if he was unable or unwilling to break the Colonel's grip.
"My pardon," Holmes said, with all sincerity. "I was merely attempting to confirm my theory that the Wraith is not only unusually tall, but also has fingers of an abnormal length."
The Colonel seemed to hold Holmes in a match of wills for a moment longer before releasing his wrist.
"These marks," I said, ignoring how Holmes rubbed his wrist briefly and McKay blew a heavy sigh through his lips, "they were created by the feeding hand? These lesions here..." I pointed without touching at the semi-circle of marks on Sheppard's skin. "They were made by what, precisely?"
"Talons," the Colonel drawled. I think a part of him was amused when I reacted to his words.
"Dear Lord," I breathed, taken aback.
Holmes had taken a small tape measure from his pocket and unfolded it, holding it in the vicinity of the Colonel's chest and then rapidly jotting down the numbers in his notebook before stuffing everything back in his pockets.
"Are we done here?" The Colonel's patience was clearly gone.
"What is this mark?" I asked, pointing out a scar on his forearm.
"That's where a Wraith bit him once. Well, she was a teenager and under the influence at the time, but she bit him anyway." McKay volunteered the information before the Colonel could speak.
"And the place on your neck?" I asked. The scar there looked uncomfortably like what had been described in Stoker's novel about the vampires. I'd been consoling myself all along by telling myself that vampires didn't exist but these strangers were refuting all my compensatory mechanisms now.
The Colonel fingered his neck absently. "Iratus bug. Nasty."
"A bug did that?" I was appalled.
"Colonel Sheppard is one of the few people that have ever survived an Iratus bug attack." McKay looked inordinately pleased, as though the Colonel's indestructibility somehow reflected positively on himself as well.
The Colonel met my glance. "I'm harder to kill than I look." His smile seemed to be just for me, and I felt foolishly warmed by it.
"Yes, yes," Holmes interrupted, impatient once again. "As fascinating as cataloging the Colonel's battle injuries might be, this isn't getting us any further on our current case."
I raised an eyebrow at Holmes, who raised an eyebrow back at me. If I didn't know better, I'd have said he was jealous.
The Colonel reached for his shirt.
"A moment please." I placed the ends of the stethoscope in my ears and indicated that I wanted to listen to his chest. He sighed, but stood quietly with his hands at his side as I approached.
I didn't like the small sounds of crackles deep in his chest. I made eye contact with him and I could see that he didn't want me to say anything in front of McKay. From his expression, I could tell he was chewing the inside of his mouth as I examined him. "The aging process," I said quickly, as though pulling a painful tooth. "Does this correlate with actual aging or is it just the appearance of aging?"
The Colonel's expression took on a measure of respect.
"The body is put through an amazing amount of stress on the cellular level. It mimics aging, but in a very rapid manner. In fact, many people cannot adapt to the rapid change in cell physiology and die from the shock of being fed upon, regardless of how many years were taken or not." McKay's explanation still felt like he was leaving something out. He looked at the Colonel with an expression that was almost painful to witness.
I glanced at the Colonel, who shrugged. He slipped his shirt on over his shoulders and began to button it again. He slung his cravat around his neck without bothering to retie it. I'd wanted to check out his knee as well, but realized I would be pushing the limits of what I could get away with under my current excuse for examining him.
"Well, gentlemen. This has been very edifying." Holmes rubbed his hands together and I wondered just what he was up to now. Obviously, as far as he was concerned, the audience was over. "You'll be in touch? Excellent."
The Colonel shot a sardonic look in my direction, but continued to dress. McKay collected their things from the rack and hovered around the Colonel, waiting to hand him his frock coat. I watched as McKay seemed to trade a long, intense look with the Colonel over the jacket and I caught myself holding my breath in response. The Colonel eased into the tightly fitted coat, allowing McKay to help it on over his shoulders. He tucked the Glock back in the waist band of his breeches.
With a quick glance over his shoulder in my direction, McKay followed the Colonel out of our apartments. I found myself wanting to run after them, wanting to ask them so many more questions, questions that I had only half-formulated in my own mind. Of course, I did nothing of the kind, and wondered if I was a sensible man or a coward for not doing so.
Holmes had taken up residence in his chair once more, sunk into its depths, legs stretched out in front of him as he puffed away on his pipe, the rich, sweet smell of tobacco filling the room. I thought about how Mary hated the smell of pipe tobacco and how much I would miss it.
I took out my pocket watch. It was well on nigh to midnight. I carefully wound the mechanism and pocketed it again. Holmes seemed buried in his own thoughts. A thousand words formed in my mind and died without utterance.
It wasn't until I stood with the intent of going to bed that Holmes spoke.
"So what did you make of our visitors?"
There were so many ways in which I could have answered. I could have told him that I thought medicine in the future was going to make exponential leaps in efficacy and that a man in his forties would not be considered old. I could have told him that Colonel Sheppard was hiding the fact that he wasn't entirely as tough as he made himself out to be and that on some level Rodney McKay knew this. I could have told him that I thought the two men had a relationship that went beyond that of colleagues and friends, and part of me desperately wanted to bring that subject up and see what his reaction to it would be. I said nothing along those lines.
"If what they say is true, than we are all up a salt creek without a paddle."
Holmes made an inelegant, snorting sound. "I believe you have sanitized that bit of slang for my benefit, Watson."
I smiled faintly at him.
He dropped his chin into his chest, flashing me a look so mischievous and cunning that it stirred something deep inside of me. Like a conjurer, he made a little flourish with his right hand and revealed a small, black wire.
I had no idea what he was showing me, but I could guess its source.
"You lifted that off Dr. McKay," I said.
"For a man of science, he is astonishingly unobservant at times," Holmes said, by way of answering. He delicately manipulated the tiny object and then surprised me by placing in his ear, hooking one end over his lobe.
"Well?" I asked.
Holmes frowned and said nothing, obviously listening intently.
I moved about the room, shoving things into some semblance of order as I looked for Gladstone's leash. "I'm surprised you didn't take that... what did he call it? A 'net book'?"
Holmes flashed me a dark look. "Bah. Merely a glorified journal. I probably keep as much in my own brain, and if not, then pen and paper suffice. Unless, of course, it was linked with other such devices. Perhaps that was the meaning of the term 'net'..." His eyes took on that familiar, faraway expression.
"Not to mention you don't have a power source for the device," I said dryly. I yawned so hard it brought tears to my eyes. "Right, then. I'm off to bed."
Holmes ignored me, fiddling with the device in his ear. I wondered what would happen if I told him how I felt, and through some sort of strange mind transference, he looked up at me as though he could read my thoughts. He opened his mouth as if to speak, and then suddenly stiffened and sat up very straight in his chair, touching the device with one hand.
"This is Sherlock Holmes. With whom am I speaking?"
The excitement that coursed through Holmes was as obvious as lightening touching down on the ground. It took me a second to realize he was speaking to someone not in the room, and I was transfixed on the spot.
"Holmes?" I asked uncertainly.
He curtly motioned me to silence. "It's some sort of wireless telegraphy. Astonishing. No, Specialist Ronon Dex, I was not talking to you, but to Watson here."
I continued to stare at him. Why on earth would the device in his ear, so clearly a wire, be considered wireless?
He listened intently, the delight on this face at figuring out how to work the device fading as he did so. "No, I assure you, Dr. McKay and the Colonel are fine. No doubt, they are on their way back to you. No, that will not be necessary. I presume the Colonel has a wireless device as well? Perhaps you should just contact him and verify his whereabouts for yourself?" Holmes made eye contact with me, looking slightly worried for a brief instant.
There was a pause, after which Holmes said testily, "Yes, that Sherlock Holmes. No, I am not a fictional character from one of Sheppard's books. Ah, Colonel!" Holmes sounded relieved and I was confused by his words until he continued to speak. "Yes, well, you said you would be in touch but you did not say how. Now you have the means. Goodnight." Holmes hastily removed the piece from his ear. I thought I could perceive squawking sounds coming from it.
"I see Dr. McKay has discovered that you stole his communication device." I was astonished that such a tiny piece of wire could allow multiple lines of communication at once.
Holmes just shot me a wicked grin.
I leaned down to clip the lead on Gladstone's collar, clucking to him to get up. He lumbered to his feet with great effort, unwilling to leave the warmth of the fire. I knew how he felt. "I'm taking the dog out and heading to bed."
"Obviously," Holmes said in that odious manner of his.
He looked up, frowning.
"Don't go looking for this monster alone."
"Watson, you know my—"
I cut him off. "I do. That's why I am begging you, as a friend, do not go out searching for this creature alone. Please."
He opened and closed his mouth, looking disconcerted. I don't know what he saw in my face. For once, I didn't care.
"Very well," he conceded with less displeasure than I would have expected.
I had to be content with that.
The rooms were cold and full of the smell of stale smoke when I arose the next morning. I threw back the curtains to let in the weak sunlight. The illumination, such as it was, revealed the blue haze of smoke in the room, and despite the noxious quality of the air outside, I briefly opened the windows. Damp air brought with it the smell of wet leaves and coal smoke. I knew I couldn't leave the windows open for long and set about lighting the fire. Once it was drawing well, and the air in the room felt slightly fresher, I shut the windows again.
Gladstone showed no inclination to move, which meant that Holmes had either been up all night or gotten up early this morning. I was inclined to think the former; either way, he'd taken Gladstone out before he left.
I delayed as long as I could before eating breakfast and seeing about the business of the day. Normally I wouldn't have given much thought about his absence, but this time I was both worried and angry that he'd broken his word to me. Finally, a glance at the clock on the mantelpiece told me that I could not dally any longer waiting for Holmes to show up—not and retain any sort of reputation as a doctor. Mentally, I was already making up the excuse of a medical emergency as I headed out the door for my first appointment.
I did my best to focus on the day's work, but as the hours passed and I still had no word from Holmes, I became increasingly distracted. It was with relief when the final appointment of the day canceled and I was able to make my way back to Baker Street.
I was just mounting the stairs to our home when I was accosted by one of the street Arabs that Holmes was fond of using to assist him in his investigations. I had a brief moment of some awful prescience when I looked down at young Billy, with his green eyes and mop of black hair, and envisioned him at the mercy of the Wraith known as Kenny.
Rage at Holmes and his careless belief in his superiority surged through me. When I got my hands on him...
Billy gave me an unrepentant grin and held out his hand. "Mr. 'olmes, sir," he said. "Promised you'd give me a harf crown for the note."
"He did no such thing, Billy," I said severely, fishing two pence out of my pocket and handing it to him. "The note please."
"Can't blame a boy for harf trying, now can you, sir?" Billy said as he proffered the note. He placed the coin carefully in his pocket and then jumped down the staircase with a whoop of noise, running off down the street.
I opened the note.
"Come at once," it read. "Rotten Row, near the stables. Do hurry up, old man."
I deduced from the tone of the note that Holmes had something else in mind besides hunting space aliens, but I still took the time to run upstairs and toss my revolver in my medical bag. I hesitated about bringing the bag, to be honest. I felt as though my attempts to practice medicine were akin to some native witch doctor, compared to what the men from Atlantis must know to be solid science. I suddenly understood with crystal clarity what Dr. McKay meant when he described medicine as voodoo, and I felt ashamed for my profession. Briefly. It wouldn't hurt to bring disinfectant and bandaging material. With Holmes, I never knew when my skills as a doctor would be required. I reloaded my supplies quickly and was back on the street in a matter of minutes.
Rotten Row, in its heyday, was the place to be seen on any given afternoon by the fashionable of London society. It was still heavily trafficked, though less so by the members of the ton and more by nannies with prams, it would seem. Holmes, for once, looked oddly out of place as he waited patiently for me. I had seen him in many guises before; it was one of his favorite games to surprise me on such an arranged meeting—trying (and often succeeding) in fooling me as to his identity. Today he was himself, leaning negligently against a tree facing a small copse of trees that opened out into an area suitable for picnickers. He had a leather document case slung over one shoulder, with papers erupting out of one end. He smoked his pipe and stared broodingly into the copse as I approached.
"This is not exactly near the stables," I said when I came to stand beside him.
He flicked a glance over my person, taking in every detail, no doubt. I was certain he had deduced that I'd stopped to refit my bag with supplies and the reasons why.
"Near enough," he said with a shrug. "You found me, didn't you?" He tipped his head slightly to one angle and frowned. "You're mad with me. Why? Surely, it is not because I wasn't specific enough in my directions... No, ah. I see." He nodded, pushing himself off the tree trunk with a grin as he knocked out his pipe. "You are angry because you think I have been out Wraith-hunting without you. Ah, and even worse," he leaned in toward my face to peer at me intently, as though reading my thoughts. "You think I have enlisted the Baker Street Irregulars to assist me in the search. Watson, for shame."
He pulled back, pocketing his pipe and looking a little upset. I felt the flush of heat flame over my face.
"I know you wouldn't knowingly endanger the boys," I said defensively. "But damn it, Holmes, they look up to you. They would do anything to win your approval and I'm not sure that includes acting with sense or discretion when the situation warrants it."
His face fell and I felt badly that I had caused that reaction.
"You are right, Watson, and I had thought of that. I merely used Billy as a messenger today." His voice was quiet. God, that voice. I'd heard it on more than one occasion, close to my ear, when it had sent a little inexplicable shiver down my spine and provoked all sorts of emotions and feelings that I'd thought best left unexpressed. Surely the man who knows everything about everyone knew how I felt?
"Despite what you might think of me, I'm not a complete megalomaniac monster when it comes to hunting criminals," Holmes spoke dryly.
"Right you are," I said in an attempt to change the heated tension between us. "So, why the summons? Why here?"
The tiniest of smirks crossed his lips. "I have need for more data, Watson," he said. "I need to consult with Dr. McKay and I thought you might wish to be present."
"And they arranged to meet you here?" I looked around at the park. It seemed an odd choice.
"We have not arranged anything yet." Holmes took out the wire device and screwed it into his ear. He then lifted his head and expertly tapped the device briskly with one hand. "Ah, yes, Dex." He shot me a triumphant glance and then assumed that look as he did when he was listening intently. "I need to consult with your Dr. McKay regarding the possible location of the enemy's 'dart'. You will permit this, I trust?"
I could hear the cockiness in his voice and hated to bring him down a peg, but I had to interrupt.
"Holmes," I said.
As expected, he gave me a warning look and continued his conversation with the unseen Dex. "Perhaps you should consult with the Colonel, then." He paused and looked directly into the open space of land between the trees. "You know I am already here outside your conveyance. It is merely a matter of waiting for the right time." He casually looked around. "Now, would be good."
With a nod at me, Holmes began walking briskly across the bridle trail into the small stand of trees and I quickly matched strides with him. The sun chose that moment to break through the clouds briefly, slanting through the tree branches in a glowing light. We crossed through the wet, mulchy woods and into the field. Holmes came to a stop and put both hands on his hips expectantly.
"Holmes," I tried again.
"Not now, Watson." He rubbed his hands together, giving me a quick glance as he did so. "I actually planned this with you in mind. I thought you would enjoy this."
"Enjoy what, precisely? We're standing in Hyde Park, staring at a field of dead grass."
"Oh, yea of little faith," Holmes said smugly. He indicated the field with a tip of his head. "We are standing in front of the transport belonging to our guests from the other night."
"We are?" I looked around. It looked like an empty field on a typical November day. I raised an eyebrow at Holmes.
"You see, Watson, but you do not see." Holmes was in lecturing mode now. "Obviously, the transport has an Invisibility Shield, that's why it is sitting in plain sight."
"Uh-huh," I said. "Well, Mr. Observant, I'd like to point out to you that your pocket is on fire. Again, I might add. What's that? Third time this month?"
Holmes started, glanced down at the smoke smoldering out of this pocket where he'd placed his pipe, cursing colorfully as he slapped at it and danced about. He shoved the document case at me rudely and whipped off his coat, turning it upside down to dump out the pipe.
"Tried to tell you," I said, with no trace of a smile. I shouldered the case.
He glared at me as he brushed down his pant leg and beat out the remaining embers from his coat. "You enjoyed that very much," he accused.
"Tremendously," I agreed. This time I let my grin show.
He slipped his coat back on as I reached down for the pipe, making sure it was out this time before handing it back to him. When I looked over his shoulder, I saw something that made no sense to my eyes whatsoever. A rectangular square had appeared in the center of the clearing. It seemed to be an entranceway into some sort of room, but I could not see anything but the entrance itself. All around it, the scenery of the park remained unchanged.
He looked over his shoulder and then clapped me on mine. "Ah!" he cried. "Here we go then. Come along, Watson. The longer we delay the greater the possibility someone will see us."
He strode across the field and up a small ramp, disappearing into the depths of the invisible structure. With a curse, I hurried to catch up.
I hesitated at the top of the ramp. The interior seemed to be like that of a large rail car, with room to stand and move about, but also with bench seats to either side. A door through to a forward compartment revealed chairs that faced a large glassed-in window. Holmes was already in the forward compartment and was speaking with the Colonel. I could also hear a woman's voice and I was intrigued.
A large hand reached around from inside the door and grasped me by the waistcoat, dragging me bodily into the car. The ramp closed behind me with amazing speed and the room became darker by the loss of light. I looked up into the face of a giant. He was easily the tallest man I'd ever seen. He was wearing a leather waistcoat with no shirt underneath. His arms were impressively muscular and his darker skin was marked with some sort of tribal tattoos. His hair hung in dreadlocks around his face, though his beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. He reminded me of one of those Hungarian-herding dogs, which lived with the flocks as one of them, and I remembered on my visit to the Magyars that these dogs were not particularly well socialized.
He seemed amused at my discomfiture.
"John Watson," I said by way of introduction.
"I know," he said, showing me a row of incredibly white teeth. I've never seen anything like them. He turned his head toward the front compartment. "Sheppard," he announced. "We're all in."
He indicated with his head that I should go forward. Holmes peered in the entranceway just as I approached it. "There you are. Come along, don't dawdle."
He pushed me slightly sideways so he could retrieve the document case and withdrew it from my shoulder. He set it down on the floor between his feet, pulling out papers, and muttering while he did so. He'd already removed his hat and had laid it on one of the empty chairs near the door. I removed mine and tucked it under one arm.
I looked around in amazement at the forward compartment. It had a control console that could have been designed by Jules Verne—it was obviously a ship of some sort. The Colonel sprawled in one of the chairs, which seemed to have the capacity to swivel slightly so he could face us. He was in breeches and shirtsleeves and appeared to have forgotten to pomade his hair, given the way it stood up in unruly disarray. It struck me that he looked as comfortable and at home as Holmes did in his chair by the fire.
McKay frowned as he took the large, folded sheets of oilskin Holmes shoved in his direction. He was wearing the same clothing from the previous evening, though he'd removed the heavy, checked coat and was wearing a pinstriped shirt with a rather resplendent waistcoat. Standing between McKay and the Colonel was a remarkable woman.
Like the man behind me in the doorway, the woman before me was also a person of color, but I can honestly say I'd never seen a woman or a colored person with such presence. She was regal, like a queen, although she was dressed in the most shameful of outfits. She was entirely encased in black leather, her clothing fitting her body as though it were painted on. Her hair was a coppery brown and she wore it loose, down to her shoulders. Not once did I get any sense of impropriety in her manner—this was simply normal for her. She met my gaze with a kindly, knowing smile and I realized my mouth was hanging open.
"I still don't understand how you found us so easily." McKay sounded disgruntled and I wondered what his problem was. Wasn't that the whole point of involving Holmes in this investigation? He should be reassured, not threatened, that Holmes had deduced their location.
"Simple," Holmes said dismissively. "Your lascar here is a notable personage. Reports of his presence on the waterfront led me to this part of town. I realized that Hyde Park was a potential place to conceal the kind of spacecraft such as I presumed you employed. When I reached the park, I heard rumors that many horses had spooked violently along the bridle path this morning. I watched several do it myself, always at this same location. You may be invisible, but the horses sense that you are here."
"What did you call me?" The Giant rumbled and Holmes cast a glance that was both alarmed and slightly puzzled in the big man's direction.
"A lascar is a person, such as yourself, employed as a sailor or soldier on British ships," I explained.
"Huh." The big man looked at me and I realized I'd been wrong when I thought of him as a herding dog. The eyes that stared at me were not domesticated. I was looking at a tiger.
"Ronon," the Colonel drawled. "Did you go out barhopping last night when Rodney and I checked out the crime scene?"
Ronon curled a lip at the Colonel, indicating what he thought of that statement. I felt my appreciation for the Colonel's ability to command rise even higher. I sensed he wore his authority lightly, and suspected that he was obeyed all the more readily because of it.
"It is hard for us to remain behind," the woman injected smoothly.
McKay looked embarrassed. "Teyla, you know why we decided that would be the best for all concerned. This society..."
"Can we get back to the problem at hand?" Holmes interrupted with an impatient gesture. "I presume the 'dart' does not have an Invisibility Shield, or else you would have mentioned it."
Teyla exchanged a highly amused glance with Ronon behind me. It felt as though she had included me in it as well, and I could not help but feel a kinship with her recognition that Holmes and McKay shared some similarities of trait.
McKay frowned, shifting the maps he held and shoving them back at Holmes. "No, it doesn't. That's one tactical advantage that we have over them."
"Comes in handy when we want to sneak up close to their ships and plant bombs on their hulls." The Colonel looked amused and I got the impression he was baiting McKay.
McKay shot the Colonel a look that would have slayed him had he not already proven he was hard to kill. Holmes merely ignored the Colonel. Together, he and McKay turned to pore over the maps again. In fact, they seemed oblivious to the rest of us in the car, an unusual achievement, seeing as Teyla and Ronon both were striking people. I found myself confused that Holmes showed no interest in their origins and at his seeming obliviousness to their presence.
Holmes shoved past Teyla and McKay to spread a map out over the console. "Very well then, if you look here and here..." He trailed off as he indicated points on the map circled in red. "These are the locations where the first victims were found."
"Hang on a second." McKay stepped over to the wall and pressed a button, revealing a hidden compartment. He pulled out some sort of flat, hand-held device that looked similar to the 'net book' he'd shown us the night before, though much smaller. He held it in front of him, running it over the spread map. A brilliant green light came out the end. He swept the device back and forth over the entire map.
Without a word, Teyla retrieved the map when McKay was done and folded it neatly, handing it back to Holmes. McKay sat down in the chair opposite the Colonel and fit the device directly into the console, depressing a button and chewing on a thumbnail as he watched some moving figures on a small black window built into the desk. Holmes leaned over his shoulder to watch the streaming of data on the black screen as well.
"Allow me to introduce myself," I said to Teyla, when she shifted her position to make more room for Holmes by the console. "I'm John Watson."
"Teyla Emmagan, daughter of Turghan and Torren." She smiled serenely at me.
"I beg your pardon in advance, Miss Emmagan, but you and Mr. Dex are not from around here, are you?"
Her smile was brilliant. "No, Dr. Watson, we are not. Dr. McKay has explained to me that our customs and mores are very different from your own and that we might inadvertently cause offense."
Somehow, I suspected it was the other way around. I couldn't help but glance around at the small, enclosed space.
"I travel with these men of my own accord." Teyla spoke as though she could read my mind and I realized I was speaking to an alien woman from another planet. Who was to say that she could not travel with these men without a companion or chaperone? Or read minds, for that matter?
The Colonel seemed to recognize my discomfiture and spoke with amusement. "Teyla's people have been killing Wraith for generations."
"That means she can kick your ass into the middle of next week." Ronon unexpectedly joined in the conversation. I saw now that his hand rested on a huge gun in a holster at his side, the likes of which I'd never seen before.
"Kick ass?" I asked uncertainly.
Ronon showed those brilliant white teeth again. "She might be tiny, but she's a pretty good fighter."
"Ronon," Teyla said reprovingly. "Really. Just 'pretty good'?" She arched a delicate eyebrow.
It took me a second to realize she was teasing him. Suddenly her risqué outfit seemed to have more practicality than the current London fashions for women.
I noticed that Holmes flashed a quick, assessing glance in her direction before returning his full attention to the console.
"Here we go!" McKay suddenly sat up straighter, snapping his fingers. His hands moved over the strange console with confidence as he flipped switches and pressed more buttons.
Before my very eyes, a map of London appeared as a ghostly green image in midair above the console.
"Now, let me just finishing entering the data points..." McKay spoke as he worked. Bright red dots appeared in several locations on the map. Five to be exact.
Holmes dismissed the wonder before him almost as soon as it appeared and was already concentrating on what it could tell him. "See the spread of victims? From what you've told me of this Wraith and his need to mask his appearance, the distribution of victims would suggest that he has been traveling by foot, after dark." Holmes pointed at the wide spread of plot points on the suspended map.
"That's a lot of ground to cover," I said. Something about the pattern was familiar, just the same.
"Too much ground." McKay tugged at his lower lip with a frown before indicating the map with a finger. "Even given the time between killings, this distribution would have him zigzagging back and forth across the city." He indicated the order of sequence of the killings with his hand.
Holmes made a small noise of frustration. "I am an idiot. Look here!" He reached in the satchel to withdraw another map, unfolding it as he continued speaking. "This is a map of the City and South London Railway, one of several underground rail systems. And this," he tucked the first map under his arm and unfurled the next, attempting to smooth it out, "is a map of the District and Metropolitan lines. What do you see?"
He held the second map up so that the lighted map was superimposed over it.
"The Wraith is using the system of tunnels to travel across city," I said. It was obvious, once you had all the pieces in front of you.
The pattern of known tunnels did seem to correspond to the locations where victims had been found. Holmes glanced back to find me with the light of approval in his eyes. It felt good to know he still wanted to share that moment with me
"What are we waiting for?" Ronon pulled out the weapon from his holster. It was battered from hard use and the grip was held together with strapping tape. As he handled it, there was a soft whine and the end lit up with a glow. It was an energy weapon of some sort, and I longed to hold it with a passion seldom felt for anything else.
"Hold up there, cowboy," the Colonel said. He swiveled the chair slightly toward Holmes and McKay. "So, you boys have a plan?"
"If Dr. McKay can provide me with the details of the 'dart's' design, I believe, with the use of this map and interrogation of the locals, we might be able to narrow down the search grid considerably. We can no longer presume that the Wraith is entirely restricted to moving at night, because of the theft of the theatrical makeup. I suspect, however, that he continues to move primarily after dark. Based on your descriptions of his appearance, even with excellent makeup, it would be hard for him to pass as a Londoner." Holmes went to tap the luminous map and ended up shaking a finger at it instead. "Mostly likely he stays near the 'dart' during the day. If we can locate the 'dart', we can either surprise him there or lie in wait for his return."
"I can call up the specs on the Dart." McKay's hands moved rapidly over a small keypad ensconced in the console. He typed faster than anyone I'd ever seen before. Another illuminated diagram appeared suspended in mid-air, depicting a needle-nosed craft, and McKay rapidly reeled off characteristics of its flight and maneuverability.
"We need to take into consideration that without a cloaking device, this 'dart' will need to be hidden from the public eye." Holmes tapped his mouth with one long finger and I forced myself to look away.
"What about in the Underground itself? There's got to be a lot of hidey-holes down there where no one goes very often." The Colonel's seat creaked slightly as he leaned back in it.
Both McKay and Holmes turned a look upon him that was not unlike the look Holmes gave me when I'd said something particularly useful or illuminating. An irrational spurt of jealousy coursed hotly through me and suddenly I felt weary. I realized I'd eaten nothing since breakfast and I had been on my feet all day as well. I could see this was going to take a while. My expression must have given me away, because Teyla indicated the larger compartment toward the rear of the vessel.
"Perhaps you'd like to sit down, Dr Watson. May I get you something to drink?'
"I suppose it's too much to ask if you might have some tea," I said, resigned to accepting whatever was offered.
"I believe I can provide tea," Teyla said with her enigmatic smile. I followed her into the rear of the ship. To my surprise (and subsequent unease), Ronon followed us, re-holstering his weapon as he did so.
I took a seat on one of the benches and set my hat down alongside me, while Teyla busied herself in a tiny galley-like area. I couldn't see everything she was doing, but I saw her take down a small kettle and fill it with water from a spout on the wall. The sight of the kettle oddly reassured me. At least some things were universal constants.
Ronon leaned in the doorframe and pulled out a very large knife, which he then used to clean under his nails. I spent some time staring at the toes of my shoes and wondering why Ronon felt the need to intimidate me. Whatever the reason, it was working. I debated on taking out my pistol and making a show of checking the chambers for rounds, but decided that would just be silly.
When I looked up, Teyla was standing in front of me, holding a pot with steam coming out of the spout.
"That was fast," I said. I wondered how on earth she'd managed to heat the water so quickly. I started to rise, but she stopped me.
"Ronon will help me, thank you, Dr. Watson."
Ronon sheathed his knife and pressed a button on the wall. A panel slid back to reveal a small folding table, which he extracted, opened, and placed in front of me. The design of the small vessel was amazing and I dearly wished I could see it in action. The idea of flying above the city... that held tremendous appeal.
I watched with bemusement as Ronon placed three cups on the table, his large hand looking as though it might crush the china.
Teyla, sitting with her back perfectly straight, poured the tea in the manner women have been doing for as long as I could remember. It was also oddly reassuring, despite her practically obscene garb.
"My people are from Athos," she explained, as she poured out the tea. The fragrant brew didn't smell familiar. "We have several complicated tea ceremonies. I thought perhaps one of the simpler ones would be in order today."
She realized that she would not be able to place the pot safely on the small table and rose to return it to whatever device she'd used to heat it in the first place.
Quick as a flash, Ronon's hand appeared over the mugs, holding a small flask. He dashed a liberal amount in both my mug and his before withdrawing his hand and placing the flask back in his pocket.
"You'll need it," he murmured as an aside when I raised a questioning eyebrow at him. "Athosian tea tastes like wet grass."
He waited until Teyla returned, and then they each took a seat on either side of me. Teyla raised her mug and indicated we should do the same.
"It's so light!" I exclaimed. "What is the substance this cup is made of? It cannot be glass."
Teyla smiled. "I believe they call it plastic. I was such as you when I first met the people of Atlantis. Much of what they took for granted seemed marvelous to me. The Athosians are a simple people; hunters and nomads." She still held her mug expectantly.
"My apologies, Miss Emmagan," I said. "I was distracted." I stopped examining the mug and held it aloft along with her. Ronon did likewise.
"To new friends. May our association be of mutual benefit." Teyla took a sip of her tea, indicating with her eyes that we should do the same. I could taste the fine Scotch over the admittedly grassy tea and thought Ronon just might be a man after my own heart.
"Are you from Athos as well, Mr. Dex?" I prided myself on my opening gambit. Here I was having tea with two aliens from another galaxy and feeling very damn civilized about it.
Ronon's face, which had previously held a hint of schoolboy collaboration, suddenly closed up. It was as though a sheet of ice had formed on his features. "I'm from Sateda. The Wraith came there. They destroyed everything. There is no Sateda anymore."
I'd lifted my cup to take another sip—I held it now partway to my lips, looking at Ronon in shock. I tried to picture the entire planet under attack by these Wraith. In my mind's eye, these demons walked the Earth, plunging their hands into the chests of their victims, who died contorting and screaming. It was an awful image. "That's terrible," I said. "I've fought in battle before, Mr. Dex, but what you describe horrifies me."
"Drink some more tea," Ronon suggested, with a ghost of a smile again.
"We will not let that happen here." Teyla was calm and spoke with utter assurance. I don't know why I believed her, but I did.
Desperate to change the subject, I took a hasty sip of tea and set the cup down again. "I see that the Colonel is looking better than he did last night. Perhaps the clearing of the fog has helped him a bit."
"I agree," Teyla said over the brim of her cup. She took a long sip and lowered it to her lap, her hands comfortably molded around the mug. "Though I believe he is also taking a medication that has made him feel better as well. I heard him discussing it with Rodney last night."
I felt my interest perk up. "Oh really? Do you know what it is he is taking, by any chance?"
"I do not recall the name," Teyla said as a small furrow developed between her eyes. "I believe he and Rodney looked up the dosage, however." She set down her mug of tea and reached beside her on the bench to pick up a small, flat device. I'd noticed it on the way in but presumed it was McKay's 'net book'. To my surprise, there was no cover to open and the device lit up when she picked it up.
She glanced down at the writing that appeared and then handed the device to me. "There. The information is still on the screen, I believe. This is one of the medications the Colonel is taking."
Fascinated, I took the device from her and looked down on a printed page that could have been taken directly from a book. A part of my mind was excited by this notion and I wondered briefly how many 'books' this device could hold. As I continued to read, however, the miracle of the device was superseded by the miracle of the drug that was described there.
"Good Lord," I breathed softly, as I read. I looked up anxiously at Teyla when I reached the end of the page. She was watching me with a smile and she reached over to show me how to use my finger to 'turn' to the next page. Delighted, I read on.
When I got to the end of the section on prednisone, I looked up again. "Miss Emmagan," I said, handing the device back to her. "This medication the Colonel is taking is wondrous, to be sure, but there are some potentially serious side effects." According to this document, this amazing drug wouldn't be discovered for nearly sixty years in my world, if then, given the vagaries of parallel existences, and yet I could see all the great potential and harm it could do. In the Colonel's case, the drug he was taking might be a potent anti-inflammatory but it would also suppress his immune system and potentially do damage to his liver and other internal organs.
Teyla and Ronon exchanged a knowing look across me. I felt as though I knew what they were thinking.
"I must go have a word with the Colonel." I glanced around, but I was boxed in by their presence on either side of me.
Unexpectedly, Teyla put a hand on my arm. I glanced down at it in surprise and she quickly removed it. "Leave this to us, Dr. Watson," she said with a look of pleasant determination. "Colonel Sheppard must be handled properly. I'm sure you must do the same from time to time with your friend, Mr. Holmes."
"I'm getting married in six months." I have absolutely no idea what possessed me to say those words; they seemed to have bubbled out of me through their own volition. They also seemed apropos of nothing and I was nonplussed at hearing them come out of my mouth.
Teyla, however, seemed to understand me, even when I didn't understand myself. A fleeting look of sympathy and compassion crossed her lovely features.
"I'm gonna go see if they're about done up front." Ronon stood up abruptly. It might have been my imagination, but I thought he winked at Teyla as he turned to leave.
"Did he just leave us here alone on purpose?" I snatched up my mug and took a hasty swallow, despite the fact that the tea was still very hot. "Really, Miss Emmagen, I'm very much concerned for the Colonel's health."
"As am I, Doctor," Teyla said, and I could see the worry on her face. "However, the danger to your world is very real. Neither Dr. McKay nor Colonel Sheppard will rest until the Wraith is no longer a threat here. None of us will."
She looked down at her hands folded in her lap. "Doctor," she said carefully, the way one would speak to a spooky horse that was threatening to bolt. "Rodney has informed me of the many cultural differences between your world and mine. How the women in your society are cherished, but largely treated as possessions. How people with skin color such as mine would not be permitted to hold positions of power in much of your world."
"Well, I think the use of the word 'possession' is a bit strong, and we do have a queen as a ruler," I said a bit defensively. Still, it would explain much about her if, on her planet, she was a leader of some sort.
The face she gave me clearly said that she knew better, and as I thought about it, I realized she was right. My society did tend to view women as something to be cherished and protected. It made it hard to envision any sort of relationship with a woman as being on equal footing and I wondered if in part, that was what I sensed lacking in my relationship with Mary.
Teyla set down her mug and looked me directly. I fought the impulse to squirm under such scrutiny. "When I was pregnant with my son, Colonel Sheppard became very annoyed with me for not informing him right away. He found out just as we had returned from a scouting mission in which our team had engaged with a hostile contact. He was quite short with me when he found out, and I didn't understand it at the time. We work together as a team. Among my people, pregnancy is not a sufficient reason to stay at home. Women continue to hunt and fight well into their gestational period."
I felt my mouth fall open once more. I snapped it shut quickly, hoping not to appear as a complete provincial idiot.
"I was surprised at the Colonel's attitude because in all other respects, he had shown himself to be an enlightened man. His people in Atlantis made no distinction between color, gender, or background when it came to choosing the right person for the job. Though I found some of their cultural differences strange, for the most part we saw things the same way. This is why his reaction to my pregnancy felt so out of character to me."
I was still struggling with the idea of a woman on a scouting mission, let alone a pregnant one. Even the frankness with which she discussed her pregnancy was alien to me.
Teyla gave me another one of those secret smiles as though she knew exactly what I was thinking. "Later, I realized that he had been frightened for both me and my unborn son, and this made him react as though he was angry with me. I asked him about it and he admitted as much. In addition, Colonel Sheppard prides himself on his tactical abilities, and with good reason. He said he couldn't make informed decisions if he didn't have all the information and I could accept that."
I shook my head bemusedly. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Even among the people of Atlantis, there are cultural differences," Teyla went on as though I had not spoken. "Among the Colonel's people, homosexuality is not as widely accepted as it is among Rodney's people. I believe that homosexuality is frowned upon in your society, is it not?"
I felt my face heat up. "It is punishable by hard labor in prison." I couldn't believe I was holding a conversation of this nature with anyone, let alone a woman. There was something about this woman though, that made me feel that anything short of complete honesty was an insult.
I appeared to have shocked her and somehow her wide-eyed expression convinced me more than anything else that I was indeed speaking with an alien woman.
"Well." Teyla blinked, hesitated, and continued speaking. "Such cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings between close friends. Do you know what I am trying to say, Dr. Watson?"
"I have no idea, Miss Emmagen. I believe Holmes needs me right now." I stood up hastily, gave her a short nod as I snatched up my hat, and beat a retreat into the forward compartment.
"There you are." Holmes frowned owlishly at me when I burst into the forward compartment. "I was wondering where you had gone." He sniffed at my breath when I came abreast of him and I punched him in the arm as subtly as possible. For some reason Ronon found this highly amusing and I found myself flushing once more.
Holmes studied me with an odd air of puzzlement and I hastily redirected his attention. I'd gotten good at that over the years.
"So, then. Have you formulated a plan?" I felt claustrophobic in this small vessel and wondered how the four people from Atlantis could stand to be in it all the time.
McKay started to speak but Holmes forestalled him.
"We have determined that the best course of action would be to try and discover the hiding place of the 'dart' at night, when the Wraith is likely on the move. This way we can lie in wait for his return, maintaining the element of surprise." Holmes nodded in McKay's direction, obviously continuing a previous conversation. "Very well. We will meet back here after dark and go into the tunnels together. In the meantime, we should all get some rest and something to eat."
McKay screwed up his face and reached under his collar with one hand to scratch at his neck. He pinched something between his fingers and pulled it out, gazing at it with a horrified expression.
"Problem, McKay?" The Colonel drawled. I noted that though his breathing was better, he hadn't stood up the entire time we were there. From his relaxed demeanor, I couldn't tell if he was naturally lazy, making room for Holmes and McKay to work, or avoiding standing altogether in order to rest his knee. I suspected a bit of all three.
"Dr. McKay has fleas." Holmes made his pronouncement with a little evil glint in his eye. "Which he did not get from our rooms, I assure you. He was scratching before he ever arrived there. No doubt, the source is the suit that you acquired through less than legal means. I would suggest a thorough washing in carbolic soap. Of Dr. McKay, not the suit, that is, though undoubtedly, the suit would benefit from a washing as well. Come, Watson, we have things to attend to before this evening."
And with that, Holmes headed for the exit.
"Well, I know who's sleeping in the doghouse tonight." The Colonel's statement on face value would seem to be the causal teasing between good friends and colleagues, but in the aftermath of the conversation with Teyla, I suddenly read more into it. I felt my face flare with heat again, and wanted desperately to pull my collar loose. I'd intended to make a snappy departure but realized with an internal sigh that Holmes had forgotten his hat. I collected it, and replaced mine on my head as well, tipping the brim at the Colonel.
"Borax powder," I murmured sympathetically to McKay in passing.
The sound of Ronon's laughter filled the small compartment behind me as I hurried past Teyla to catch up with Holmes.
The time Holmes had agreed upon meeting with the team from Atlantis was ten p.m. It made sense to me: late enough that the Wraith would have likely ventured out, but not so late that he might already have gone out and returned.
Holmes sent for Billy and gave him several notes to deliver. He then spent the afternoon in a brooding silence and I let him, as was my want. I cleaned and oiled my pistol, an Adams .450 that I'd carried with me during the war. It was a sturdy six-shot revolver and I had a hard time imagining anything that could fail to be stopped by it at close quarters. To my surprise, Holmes also got out his revolver, a Webley, made popular by the Metropolitan police; though I believe its pocket size made it his weapon of choice when a firearm was needed. I was surprised, because Holmes often described himself as an indifferent shot (though his idea of home decoration refuted that) and he preferred alternate means of self-defense.
Not against this target, however.
We sat in companionable silence, cleaning our weapons as the sun went behind the clouds and the sky became overcast. At one point, I'd asked Holmes why he'd shown so little interest in Teyla and Ronon, as representatives from other cultures from other worlds. Holmes had looked blankly at me as he processed my question.
"Aren't you the least bit curious about their lives on their home worlds? What they did for a living, how they lived under the threat of the Wraith?"
Holmes had shaken himself slightly, like a dog. "Would the information change things for us in the matter of finding this Wraith? Does it matter that they have different political and social beliefs when it comes down to locating our quarry? I think not."
And that had been the end of that discussion.
An odd mood came upon me as the afternoon turned into evening. It occurred to me that this might be the last time Holmes and I sat thus, and several times words rose in my throat only to falter and turn tail. During the course of the afternoon, various members of the Baker Street Irregulars turned up with notes in kind for Holmes, their faces red with the cold and noses running. They eagerly took the pennies Holmes gave them for their work as messengers and thundered down the stairs and back out on the streets.
Holmes read the messages without a word, pocketing them with a twist of his lips before pulling out the maps of the rail systems to study them again.
We partook of a fortifying tea, opting to forgo a late supper, which might slow us down on the hunt. After tea, I read while Holmes smoked his pipe and sat with his eyes closed. I presumed he was thinking about this evening and the most likely hiding place of the Wraith, but I really didn't know. With Holmes, one never did know what he was thinking unless he chose to reveal it.
At eight p.m., Holmes abruptly stood and began putting on his coat and hat. "Come on, then, we don't want to be late."
I glanced at the clock on the mantle. "Late?" I questioned before his intent became clear. "Ah, of course. You expect the Atlanteans to leave without us."
Holmes adjusted his collar and tapped the side of his nose several times. His warm smile felt like the highest praise and I quickly reminded myself not to be an idiot.
"Are we really that much of a handicap?" I groused as I joined him by the coat rack.
Holmes handed me my coat and walking stick. "I think not. I suspect they perceive us more as favorite uncles and that they would feel badly if some harm befell us."
I snorted at the idea. Holmes chuckled as well.
"They can't know us very well, then, can they? Well, never mind," I said. "Let's go show the nice people from outer space that Uncle Sherlock and Uncle John can kick some ass when the occasion warrants it."
Holmes gave a sudden bark of laughter; the sound exploded out of him and ended in a strangled cough. He clapped me on the shoulder, his eyes bright with merriment. "This is what happens when I let you associate with aliens."
That moment of camaraderie buoyed me as we stepped out into the cold, damp night but gradually faded as we made our way to Hyde Park. The fog had moved in again and air was harsh enough to take my breath away. I wondered how the Colonel was faring. Admittedly, I wondered as well about the medical advances that lay ahead of us, and when such miracle drugs might be available to the doctor on the street.
I wanted not to feel so helpless when I looked down at a patient and knew I could do nothing for them. It was my greatest fear that one day, that patient would be Holmes.
The jarvey let us down outside Hyde Park without comment or question. I supposed he was used to keeping his own council at the things he'd witnessed and overheard as a hackney driver. As he drove away into the fog, it felt as though Holmes and I were encased in one of those snow globes that were so popular right now. It was as though we were cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by swirling fog instead of snow. It was an unsettling feeling and I wanted to say something to Holmes, anything to break the surreal silence, but I did not. For a brief, fanciful moment, I even wondered if the paths we were walking really existed in miniature, and we were but figments of someone's imagination.
I was relieved when we reached the site where the ship lay hidden.
"Holmes," I said suddenly, my voice sounding unnaturally loud in the fog. "How do we know they haven't moved the ship in our absence?"
Holmes shot me an incredulous look and I realized my question had caught him off guard. It was a possibility that obviously had not occurred to him.
"I mean, it's not like we can see they're still there." I couldn't resist. It was rare that I, or anyone else for that matter, got the upper hand with Holmes.
In lieu of responding to me, Holmes placed the tiny wire in his ear and tapped it to get a signal. "Colonel," he said crisply, tilting his head into his 'listening' position. "There is no use thinking you can leave without us. We are waiting outside." He spoke as though he was absolutely certain the ship was still there. I knew that he was not so sanguine, and despite the seriousness of our purpose this evening, I was amused.
Holmes listened to the response over the wireless, his hand closing over the sleeve of my coat. "Very well," he said, glancing at me. "We are ready."
He turned his face in my direction, still holding onto my arm. "The Colonel has dimmed the lights inside the 'jumper', I believe he called it. When they lower the ramp, it will not be so obvious to the rest of the world as we enter. Quickly now!"
Holmes dragged me along as he crossed into the clearing and I hurried to keep up with him. I could hear the sound of the rear hatch of the ship opening and wondered how I'd missed it this afternoon. Within, I could make out the firefly glow of small console lights, the only indication of which direction to go. I stumbled as my boot hit the ramp, and Holmes paused, only to have me run into him.
"Steady on, old chap," he said with a breathless laugh in my ear, holding me up as I collided with his shoulder.
Tell him, the voice in my head begged, but it was not the right time or place, though it might have been the only time and place left. Coward, the voice accused, before withdrawing back into its place of hiding.
As soon as we were in the 'jumper', the ramp behind us closed with that rapid whoosh of sound from before and the lights were brought up halfway, which prevented them from blinding us as we entered.
"Might as well preserve some night vision," the Colonel said with a wry note in his voice, as though he could tell what I was thinking. He directed his next sentence to Holmes. "Seeing as you gentlemen decided to come early, we might as well go over our plans." The drawl was very evident now and I strongly suspected we'd behaved in a manner predicted.
This was confirmed when Ronon held a hand toward McKay and said, "Pay up."
McKay made a face of disgust and fished around in the pocket of the military-style vest he was wearing to remove something in a silver packaging and hand it to Ronon, who grinned like a fox and put it in one of his own pockets.
I studied them curiously. Aside from Ronon, who now wore a long leather coat over woolens, leather, and linen in various shades of loden-green and brown, the rest of the team was dressed in a black uniform of some sort. Each of them wore a heavy vest that had an assortment of pockets, and McKay was busy packing things into his.
"Okay, boys and girls, let's do a little recap for the new kids on the block." The Colonel spoke as though he was jesting but I could see that he was quietly serious. His hands rested on an impressive looking weapon that appeared to be some sort of stout cross between a Lee-Enfield rifle and a Maxim assault canon that was suspended on a strap around his neck. "Rule number one: I'm in charge here. We come into contact with the Wraith, you stay back and let us handle the fighting, understood?"
"Understood." Holmes agreed without hesitation. I glanced over at him, knowing that he'd have agreed to anything at this point, and he had the audacity to wink at me.
"One of us will be with you at all times. Don't go off by yourselves." He reached into his vest pocket one-handed and pulled out another wireless device, handing it to me and continuing to speak as he watched me place it over my ear. "We'll stay in contact by radio. We'll be rotating the frequencies in the alpha-1 pattern in case Kenny is listening in. The others will show you," he added specifically to Holmes and me.
"Try not to shoot any of us." McKay's voice was sour.
I opened my mouth to tell him exactly how insulting I found that statement to be, only I suddenly had the full weight of Holmes standing on my foot. I jabbed my walking stick down on top of his boot and he shifted his foot back again.
"Rodney is not being deliberately rude." Teyla intervened smoothly, yet somehow managed to convey the words, this time, as well. "The Wraith can make you see things that are not there. You will get the impression something is moving alongside of you but when you look directly at it, there is nothing. Meanwhile, the Wraith will attack from a different direction."
Holmes and I traded a wary look. I'd forgotten about that little tidbit of information, though I knew Holmes had not.
"The plan is to get in, find the Dart, and wait for Kenny to return. We'll split up in groups of two, to cover more ground. Rodney, you and Teyla are together. Holmes, you're with Ronon. Watson, you're with me."
I wondered how long he'd thought about that plan and how many permutations he'd run through his head before he came up with this division. While the Colonel explained the use of the wireless and handed out devices that had the underground rail system maps programmed into them, I thought about how I would have planned such a mission. I realized that I would probably have come up with similar pairings, had I been the Colonel.
He obviously had to pair Holmes and myself with one of the experienced team members. He probably assumed, for a variety of reasons, that neither Holmes nor I would best be served by being paired with Teyla—our cultural differences might prevent her from doing her job, namely protecting us. It seemed wrong to think that she should be protecting one of us, and this just proved to me that the Colonel had made the right decision there. Despite my wanting to be 'enlightened', to use Teyla's word, I was a product of my upbringing and would have intervened to protect her if I thought she was in danger. In a critical situation, my confusion could prove fatal to us all. It was a bitter pill to swallow, just the same.
He obviously thought that Holmes had a good chance of finding the location of the 'dart' and had chosen to pair him with Ronon Dex as a result. That left him to be my nanny while he paired McKay with Teyla. Well, I'd show him just what kind of soldier the British Army could turn out.
When I tuned in again, the Colonel had gaze upon me, and a little smirk on his face. I smiled briefly back at him.
"These are the Life Signs Detectors I mentioned earlier," McKay said as he indicated the devices that each of his teammates held. "I've programmed them to be specific to Kenny's DNA and he will show up as a red dot if he is within range. White dots will be civilians. Blue dots are the team from Atlantis. I've also programmed into them the maps for the underground rail systems."
"Cool," the Colonel said, tucking his LSD into his vest pocket. "Good work, Rodney."
McKay puffed his chest out like pigeon at the Colonel's laconic praise. I took that to mean that this was a recent modification of the devices.
"I wish I could provide you with standard issue weapons, but the truth of the matter is that we're running low on ammo ourselves," the Colonel said to us. "Besides, we don't have the time or place to check you out on them first."
McKay got a faraway look in his eye, one that I'd seen quite often when Holmes was entranced by an idea.
"Holodecks," McKay said inexplicably. He glanced around the interior of the small ship. "Next improvement for the jumpers, holodecks."
I felt more than saw the little quiver of excitement in the Colonel standing next to me. When I glanced at him, a boyish smile lit up his face for an instant and was gone.
"Cool," he said again. I realized this was some sort of slang for 'good' and had nothing to do with the temperature. I realized too, that the driving force behind McKay's modifications was the Colonel's delighted approval, and a ripple of deep sorrow coursed through me. What was going to happen to these two, once this mission was complete and the universe was safe again?
"Rodney." The Colonel frowned suddenly. "Where's your weapon?"
McKay became very animated. "I finally finished the prototype for my particle gun."
"Rodney." The Colonel's drawl was almost a whine. "I really don't think now is a good—"
McKay cut him off. "I still have the Beretta as back up. And I'll have Teyla with me. I'm telling you, though, this model will work."
"Let's see," Ronon smirked.
Excitedly, McKay pulled out a small silver and black device from his pocket, no larger than a deck of playing cards.
"You're joking, right?" Ronon's amusement was evident.
"I'll have you know, Conan, size isn't everything." McKay sounded miffed. "Just because it's not monstrous, like your Clint Eastwood-Make-My-Day magnum, doesn't mean it can't get the job done."
It certainly sounded as though McKay had called him 'Conan', but I must have been mistaken, because no one reacted to this at all.
"No one's, ah, saying your gun can't get the job done," the Colonel said, in a voice working hard to suppress its own amusement. "Just that maybe a few trial runs are in order first."
McKay glared at Ronon and replaced the 'gun' in his pocket. "I wanted it to look like type I hand phaser," he said grumpily, to no one in particular.
"It does and I'm sure it is just as effective. We'll test it later." The Colonel gave him a quick little pat on the shoulder.
I could sense a growing impatience in Holmes. There was a quivering eagerness in him to be off on the chase—he was like a leashed hound waiting for the command to go forth and track his quarry. Unable to remain silent any longer, he spoke.
"I put out some inquiries this afternoon," Holmes said, reaching into his pockets and pulling out some slips of paper to hand to the Colonel. "Mr. Dex and I will start at Charing Cross. There have been reports of several construction workers walking off the job because they've seen a 'ghost' in the new tunnels. It may prove to be nothing, however."
I knew he was thinking of a similar case that we'd investigated, where a clever and desperate businessman spun tales of an ancient Roman burial ground to the men digging the foundation for a rival business—and then proceeded to salt the construction site with Roman 'artifacts'. His ingenuity and talent for story telling caused the closure of the construction site as every worker quit to a man. Holmes had proven the artifacts false, and convinced the client who'd hired him that rival had meant no real harm.
The Colonel handed the slips of paper to McKay, who peered at them intently before pocketing them.
"I believe if Dr. McKay and Miss Emmagen would start at Moorgate, you can see where the two rail lines parallel each other. There are areas of new constructions there as well, though no reports of strange sightings." He paused, glancing at me thoughtfully. "As you are taking Watson with you, Colonel, perhaps the District line, where it almost connects with the Metropolitan and the South City lines, would be appropriate. We can make inquires at each stop, and then move on to the next one."
"You're thinking he might have come in at the London Bridge area," the Colonel said, showing that he, too, had spent some time with the maps this afternoon. "Makes sense. There are probably a lot of warehouses in that area. Well, might as well saddle up then." The Colonel rolled his neck slightly until it popped. "If you gentlemen would just take your seats in the back, we can get going."
"Excuse me?" I said, confused.
"The Colonel means to fly us to our destinations in order to save time." Holmes positively radiated excitement. "That's why he and Dr. McKay are not wearing their clothes from the other evening."
"Well, that and the fleas," McKay groused.
"There's no disguising Ronon," The Colonel explained. "And I don't know about you, Doc, but I can't fight effectively in those tight jackets you guys wear." He flicked a glance up and down at my attire.
"Why don't you and Mr. Holmes take our seats up front," Teyla said with a smile. "Ronon and I have seen it all before."
Ronon opened his mouth to say something, but Teyla steered him into the back compartment. It was a little like watching a small housecat lead a lion, and yet he went willingly. I reminded myself that even housecats could be lethal when the occasion warranted it.
The Colonel took his seat at the controls. Holmes and McKay bumped shoulders as they both tried to get into the other forward seat at the same time.
"I ride shotgun." McKay's tone was emphatic as he glared at Holmes. Holmes glared back, unaffected.
"Children, no fighting." The Colonel sounded like the patriarch of a family, laying down the law. "McKay, you're in the back."
Holmes gave McKay an extraordinarily smug look as McKay huffed and pushed past me towards the seat behind the Colonel. When Holmes would have sat down up front, the Colonel added, "Watson, up here with me."
I had to resist mightily the urge to stick my tongue out at Holmes as I edged past him into the seat. I was startled by the look of raw jealously on his face when I looked at him; I thought briefly about relinquishing my seat to him anyway before I suspected maybe his look had nothing to do with the seating arrangements.
That gave me something to think about other than dying as the Colonel readied the small craft for flight. I sat down, resting my walking stick between my feet as I did so.
Outside of the large window in front of us, I could make out next to nothing in the fog. With almost no sensation of movement whatsoever, the 'jumper' rose slowly up from the clearing—though the only way I could tell was when it rose high enough that I could make out hazy globes of light along the city streets on the other side of the trees.
"How can you see to fly this thing?" I asked a trifle nervously.
To my utter surprise, a transparent, colored grid appeared before my eyes. I could tell it was a map of the city, and it was reassuring to know that even in the Stygian darkness surrounding us, the Colonel would be able to navigate his way safely.
The Colonel gave a surprised snort of laughter as he held the yoke-like throttle with one hand and used the other to flip some switches.
"Oh, that is so not fair," McKay expostulated from the back. "He has the gene!"
"The what?" Holmes asked.
"The gene, the gene, the ATA gene. The Ancients came to Earth millennia ago and eventually mingled into the population. A certain percentage of humans today have the Ancient Technology Activation gene, which allows them to manipulate certain kinds of equipment that no one else can. I've had to modify a bunch of things so that Ronon and Teyla could operate them, including the jumpers. The Colonel has the gene in spades and so apparently, does Dr. Outrageously Goodlooking."
I turned in my seat to gape at McKay. "What did you just call me?"
He waved his hand impatiently, as though I were missing the point, which, I suppose, I was.
"Well, we'll keep that in mind if we end up hanging around here any length of time." The Colonel sounded amused.
Holmes looked at me as though I'd sprouted horns and I turned back in my seat to face the front. Outside the window, I could see that the fog was not entirely uniform in density, and through breaks in the mist, I could make out the lights of the city.
It was so beautiful. Below us, the city lay swathed in vapor, as though an elegant woman had dropped a veil over it. Beneath the fog, the lights of the city shone hazily, with a glowing nimbus surrounding them. Where the fog had cleared, I could see the comforting glow of gaslight from within buildings and homes, reminding me of everything I held dear. My love for my city and my world threatened to overwhelm me, followed closely by a fierce determination to protect it at all costs.
"I think the fog is starting to shift," the Colonel said conversationally. I wondered how he knew that, and as though in response to my thoughts, the map in front of me changed into one that I could not interpret.
"Huh, you're right," McKay said from behind us, leaning forward to speak. "The weather map shows a front moving in. It's going to get colder, maybe even some snow by the end of the week."
"Kenny's not going to like that," the Colonel said as he banked the ship in a curving arc.
From the back, I heard the sound of Holmes smacking his forehead. I grinned. A revelation was about to unfold.
"Stop! We need to go back, back toward the Thames."
The Colonel looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised as he did so.
"I was so blind not to see it before!" Holmes continued to berate himself as he turned toward McKay. "From everything you've told me, these Wraith believe themselves to be superior to humans, yes?"
McKay nodded, the expression in his blue eyes serious and concerned.
'They can also control the thoughts of their victims—influence them if you will."
"To a degree," the Colonel admitted. "Especially if you don't know they're doing it."
"The one place where power is universally revered and no questions are asked is in the Saffron Hill and Smithfield districts. The crime lords operate almost without restriction and the police cannot stop them. The area is an absolute rabbit warren of narrow lanes and crowded buildings, practically a hive, if you will. The rag and bottle men shift stolen goods openly there and every hackney driver is quick to pass you counterfeit coins in change. An arrogant, powerful being such as Mr. Kenny wouldn't need to hide, not with the theatrical makeup he's stolen. He could operate in plain sight."
The Colonel touched his radio earpiece. "Ronon, Teyla, you hear that?"
"I believe Mr. Holmes is right, Colonel." Teyla's voice was startling in my ear—I'd forgotten about the radios. "It would be the first step to establishing a base of power and no longer hiding in the tunnels. Hiding is not something that comes naturally to the Wraith."
The Colonel was already turning the ship in a slow, steady arc. Below, I could see the shining expanse of the Thames and the dark line of the massive London Bridge. How had we covered so much ground so quickly?
"Show me Saffron Hill," the Colonel spoke aloud and the map in front of us altered to reveal the districts between Drury Lane and the London Bridge. Saffron Hill, along with Snow and Smithfield, was halfway in between.
"Change of plans," the Colonel said lightly, as though it were no big deal. "Let's go check out the seedy side of town."
"Take me to your leader," the Colonel said to the filthy ragman blocking our path.
"Wot?" the man said, almost unintelligibly.
"Seriously?" McKay asked in a voice of complaint.
"I've always wanted to say that." You could hear the grin in the Colonel's voice.
We were standing in a group in a narrow, cobbled street, the walls closing in so much that had we stood abreast, our shoulders would have brushed the brick on either side. The fog wasn't nearly as dense here—in fact, when I glanced up, I could see stars.
"We have business with Mr. Kenny," Holmes said imperiously. "Take us to him at once."
"Yeah, he doesn't like to be kept waiting," the Colonel added.
The ragman looked us over and apparently decided we knew what we were doing. He turned without a word and lurched off down the street, hobbling on one game leg.
"Stay sharp, everyone." The Colonel's murmured warning sounded in my ear and I felt the short hairs rising on the back of my neck. Indeed, had we been ambushed, there would have been little room to fight.
The ragman took us as far as a cul-de-sac that opened out into a small freight yard. The air was colder than before and thick with coal smoke. The thin light of an anemic moon struggled to illuminate the yard, but it largely remained deep in shadow. Without warning, the ragman suddenly bolted and ran.
Ronon made as if to go after him, but the Colonel stopped him with a raised hand.
We all listened intently, but heard nothing more than the sibilant rustling of rats in the nearby trash bins.
Ahead of us, the warehouse stat in squalid disrepair, with several smashed windows that reminded me of broken teeth on the face of a brawler.
McKay had his LSD out. "Goddamn it!" He replaced the device by shoving it into his pocket. "There's some sort of dampening field."
"So," the Colonel said, "we don't know if Kenny is home and whether or not he has company. Damn. And me without any calling cards."
I was beginning to get a feel for how the Colonel diffused tension, especially with McKay. Earlier he'd quipped as we left the cloaked jumper for 'everyone to remember where we parked' and I could tell that was another one of his inside jokes with McKay.
"I hate waiting." Ronon practically growled and I had to agree with him. Out here, it felt like there were too many eyes upon us.
The attack came even as I was wondering if we'd been wise to follow the ragman without question. Several figures swooped out of the shadows in long black coats, brandishing cudgels and yelling fearsomely. I had just time to pull out my sword from inside my walking stick when they were upon us.
Never, as long as I will live, will I forget the resulting melee. One moment I was certain we were outnumbered and had been lead into a fatal trap, the next it seemed there were flashes of light, cries of pain, and bodies lying on the ground. It took less than a minute to rout the attackers. The Team from Atlantis moved with swift precision. Ronon crashed two of the attackers bodily into each other, cracking their skulls together so that they fell in a boneless heap. Teyla picked up a cudgel from one of the fallen, and used it to block the blow of a man striking at her, while in the same move, kicked him hard in the stomach. When he went down, gasping for air, she punched the man behind him in the face.
Holmes fended off two men with his combination of jujitsu and his powerhouse right hook, while the Colonel used the butt of his gun to smash in the face of one man and ducked a blow meant to stun from the cudgel of another. My sword snapped in half when I used it to deflect a cudgel aimed at my head and, cursing, I flung it at my attacker, following up with a roundhouse punch to his gut.
McKay took careful aim and shot the man who'd been about to gut the Colonel from behind. The loud report echoed in the narrow space—the remaining attackers fled the scene.
I bent over the man that McKay had shot to check for a pulse, but he was dead. McKay watched me with a vaguely horrified expression on his face.
"Leave the others. We don't have much time. If Kenny is here, he'll know we're coming. Let's move." The Colonel's orders were brusque now; there was no hint of playful camaraderie.
McKay seemed to stumble along behind the others as we entered the building. I lingered back to stay with him, exchanging a brief glance with Holmes as I did so. He nodded and moved to join the others.
"Are you all right, Dr. McKay?" I asked, guiding him by the arm.
"I... um, yes. Well, no. I mean. Well, I've shot things before but they were things, you know? Not really people." He suddenly squared his shoulders. "He was going to stab John, wasn't he?"
"Yes, he was," I admitted. "Not to mention that he undoubtedly was a dangerous criminal. You did the necessary thing."
McKay shot a wry glance at me and I could see his stability returning. "I notice you didn't say it was the 'right' thing."
"It was the right thing for you," I said firmly. "You, ah, care for the Colonel very much, don't you?"
I could sense from his sputtering that McKay was probably turning red but he shortly calmed down.
"I do," he said almost defiantly. "It took me a long time to realize just how much and I very nearly made a serious mistake along the way. I almost got married to a lovely woman because I thought... well, she was out of my league, you know? I couldn't believe she was even interested in me in the first place and because she was, I felt like I had to act upon it. Like I had something to prove. Because if I couldn't have what I wanted, I could still have her, and that was like some sort of big consolation prize, you know?"
I didn't know what to say. "Come on. We must catch up with the others."
McKay caught me by the arm. "I didn't think I could have what I wanted. I was wrong. I was just too afraid to ask for it." He looked at me in a rather meaningful way until a small noise reminded us we'd fallen too far behind and we hurried through the empty rooms, guided only by the thin stream of moonlight that made its way in though the windows.
The building, if anything, felt even colder than the street. The moonlight didn't penetrate far into the room and McKay and I had to make our way carefully to avoid running into abandoned packing crates and broken bottles. We checked in by radio and discovered that Ronon and the Colonel had split off to head down to the lower level while Holmes and Teyla were waiting for us on the main floor.
We were crossing a large, open room, making for the staircase on the other side, when a flash of movement caught the corner of my eye and I turned to see what was making it. Nothing was there. "McKay," I began, but he'd already forestalled me.
"Shit!" He cursed vehemently. He slapped the earpiece and said, "John!" just as there was an eerie 'whump' of sound and a flash of light behind us. McKay seized up as though he had tetanus when the light struck him and he collapsed to the floor.
I knelt quickly beside him but he was unresponsive. I stuck his gun in my pocket, grabbed him by the hands, and began dragging him out of the open area, toward some packing crates where I could defend our position better. He appeared to be breathing, but I had no idea what had happened to him.
There was a flutter of movement behind me and I dropped McKay, whirling to see what had made the noise. I pulled out my familiar pistol but before I could locate the source of the noise, something large hit me in the ribs and I went flying through the air. I landed on my shoulder, skidding sideways in the dust and broken glass. My pistol clattered onto the floor somewhere; I couldn't see where it went in the shadows.
When I looked up, the Wraith was standing over McKay, looking down on him. He extended his right hand out in front of him, curling and unfurling his fingers in as though in anticipation.
McKay's weapon felt right in my hand when I leveled it at the Wraith and pulled the trigger. As first bullet hit the Wraith in the shoulder, he half-turned with the impact, and faced me with a terrible snarl of rage. The action of the firearm was so seamless, so easy, that I pulled trigger again and again.
It didn't matter. I pumped bullet after bullet into the Wraith's chest, each strike blossoming into a green stain as it impacted his shirt, and still he kept moving toward me. All I could make out of the Wraith was his white shirt and pale, ghostly skin; he appeared like a disembodied torso moving toward me out of the darkness.
The gun made a clicking noise in my hand when the Wraith came to a halt inches away from me. He curled his lip with a sniffing gesture and then smiled. "You carry the blood of the Ancients. How... delightful."
It was a terrible smile. It was the smile of an evil so old, so ruthless, so mocking, that Satan himself would have been frightened. The Wraith lifted his hand and folded his fingers into his palm with a little twist of the wrist—I felt as though something had grabbed hold of my heart and was hoisting me up by it—while at the same time, I felt myself being driven to my knees. The pain of being pulled in two different directions made me catch my breath as I sank down to the dusty floor.
"I'm going to enjoy this," the Wraith said, as he pulled his hand back into a striking position. He opened his mouth in a hiss.
The sound of a yell ripping its way out from someone's throat erupted into the room and the Wraith whipped his head around to see what was making that noise. Holmes burst out of the shadows bellowing like a bull. He hit the Wraith like a locomotive, swinging what appeared to be a broken pipe with brutal force. Again and again, Holmes struck, his blows landing with crippling impact on the Wraith's head and shoulders, until the Wraith too, dropped to his knees.
"Mr. Holmes! Stop!" Teyla entered the fray, grabbing hold of Holmes by the forearm as he was about to bash the Wraith again. "We need him alive!"
Holmes lowered his arm at her restraining hand, dropping his head to glower at the Wraith from under his forelock, his chest heaving with the anger and exertion of his actions. I heard the sound of running footsteps in our direction and Ronon burst onto the scene, with the Colonel following behind.
Ronon paused only long enough to take aim with his massive gun. An orange light flashed from its end and hit the Wraith squarely in the back. When the glow subsided, the Wraith fell over.
"Rodney!" The Colonel's concern was achingly present in his voice and suddenly I could hear everything I'd ever felt before but had been too afraid to show. I'd begun to wonder if the relationship between the two men had been one-sided, and that all the, dare I say love, had been on McKay's side.
Now I knew better.
"He will be all right," Teyla hastened to reassure the Colonel. "He is just stunned."
The breath whooshed out of the Colonel in a great gust of relief and he bent over at the waist to rest his hands on his knees and blow a bit, as he recovered his air. The action started him coughing, but he quickly got it under control.
"Ronon," he said in a voice as hard as flint when he could speak again. "Go back downstairs and finish pulling the AR drive. Then destroy the Dart. I don't care how. Meet us back here."
Ronon gave him a short nod and disappeared into the darkness again.
I looked up at Holmes, who was looking down at the pipe in his hands with a dumbfounded expression.
"Holmes," I said gently, so as not to startle him.
His gaze sought mine and locked onto it. "Watson," he said in a voice that was rusty and old. "Are you all right? The Wraith... He didn't touch you, did he?"
"No. I mean, no, he didn't and yes, I'm fine. A little bruised, maybe, but fine."
Holmes just stood there, looking shattered.
"Help me up," I said, holding out my hand.
He clasped my hand in his firm grip and gave me such a pull upward that I stumbled against him when I got to my feet. My nose ended up just under his ear; I could smell the remnants of Trumper's Extract of Lime aftershave—the one I got him for Christmas the year before last and I would've sworn that he never wore. His other arm suddenly came around behind me, hugging me hard. I gave into it for a moment before I pulled back. He still gripped my hand.
"I need to go check on Dr. McKay." I said as I looked into his eyes, trying to make sure he was okay first.
"Of course," Holmes said, releasing me as though I might burn him.
I made my way over to where the Colonel and Teyla knelt beside Dr. McKay. The Colonel had one knee on the floor; he rested his elbow on the other as he looked down on Dr. McKay.
"Will he be all right?" I asked as I knelt beside him, even though I'd heard Teyla say that he would. I needed to hear it again.
"Just stunned. He's gonna be pissed when he wakes up though. The feeling comes back in pins and needles and parts of you don't work as expected for a while." The Colonel seemed to be looking forward to this event with some glee. It took me a moment to realize that relief was adding to his sense of humor in the situation.
"I'm so sorry." I chewed at my lip before speaking again. "I let myself be distracted. Everything happened so fast..."
"You've nothing to apologize for, Doc. You did good." The Colonel's easy words of approval had somehow become every bit as important to me as anything Holmes might have said. Well, almost anything.
"The Wraith is moving," Holmes warned quietly. The Colonel got to his feet stiffly and went to join him.
He looked down at the Wraith. "Well, Kenny. Long time no see. You don't look so good."
The Wraith bared his teeth in a feral snarl of rage. The moonlight through the window fell in a weak beam across his face and I could see that much of the damage that Holmes had caused had already healed. Even as I watched, the gash on his skull stopped bleeding and the bruise faded away.
"Right. Pleasant as always. I've gotta tell you, I don't think Todd's gonna be too happy to see you when you get back."
"You aren't seriously going to try to take him back to your universe, are you?" I was aghast. It would be like traveling with a king cobra loose in your rail car. Teyla came to stand beside me, holding the Colonel's assault rifle as though she'd been born carrying it.
"That's the general plan, yes." The Colonel's expression was inscrutable, as though a door had shut between us.
"But first, you are going to make him restore your years, correct?" Holmes spoke in his old manner, arch and confident as he dropped his bombshell.
The Colonel laughed as my mouth dropped open. I glanced from Holmes to the Colonel and back to Holmes again. "Yeah, I was thinking about it." The Colonel sounded almost carefree.
"No," said the Wraith. "I will not do it until we reach Pegasus. It is the only guarantee I have of staying alive."
Holmes turned to address the Wraith. "Your injuries are serious enough that you will not survive the trip back to Pegasus without feeding on someone. The Colonel will not let you feed on any of his people. Therefore, if you have no intention of restoring his youth to him, you are of no purpose, only a liability. We will kill you now."
The Wraith eyed him for a long moment. I tensed, wanting to intervene, not knowing what kind of effect the Wraith might be having over Holmes. Whatever it was that he read in Holmes, it made the Wraith growl and make a small noise of resignation.
"Very well. I will restore the Colonel now. But only if you guarantee my safety." He spoke these last words to the Colonel.
"You have my word." The Colonel nodded to Teyla. "If he tries anything, shoot him."
"I will be very weak afterward," the Wraith warned. "I will need to feed."
"Yeah, we'll see what we can do about that. Let's get this over with." He knelt down at the Wraith's level and drew one eye into a squint, slightly turning his head away as he seemed to brace for the Wraith's touch.
The Wraith grunted as he pulled his hand back, much as he'd done with me, and slammed it forward into the Colonel's chest. The Colonel arched back with the impact of it, the tendons in his neck cording with the effort not to cry out. The sound was pulled out of him anyway, as you could practically see the energy flowing out of the Wraith and into the Colonel.
In the weak moonlight, I could see the lines of the Colonel's face soften, and the silver in his hair turn blacker, as though someone had spilled a bottle of ink. Something seemingly rippled across his skin and the look of tension eased from his body. When the Wraith released the Colonel, he dropped his head in exhaustion, clenching his feeding hand as though it hurt.
The Colonel gave a little shudder and glanced up at me with a sleepy-lidded smile. "Damn," he said with a grin. "I always forget about that part. I could use a cigarette." He got to his feet with ease, stepping back out of the Wraith's reach once more.
A sound from behind us made him hurry back to McKay. "Cover him," he said to Teyla in passing. I went with him back to McKay. To my surprise, Holmes came with me.
McKay had sat up and was looking around in confusion. "John!" he exclaimed in a voice full of relief. "Man, am I glad to see you. Is Watson—" he broke off when he saw me. "Oh, thank god. I would've felt terrible if I'd let a Wraith kill John Watson. No one would ever let me live it down."
"I, for one, am happy that did not happen, Dr. McKay." Holmes knelt beside McKay, opposite of the Colonel, placing a steadying hand on McKay's shoulder. "I am pleased to see you are quite well yourself."
McKay brought his right hand clumsily up to his face to touch his lips tentatively. "I feel like I've been pumped full of Novocain. And my left side doesn't work for shit." He demonstrated by attempting to move his left arm, only to have it flop around as though it were completely disconnected from his nervous system.
"How long will it take before you fully recover?" I asked, catching his arm and draping it across his lap.
"Hours," McKay looked grumpy. "I'm going to be awfully slow moving back to the jumper."
"We'll manage," the Colonel said. "Ronon can carry you."
"The last time Ronon carried me, he said I almost gave him a hernia. Am I drooling?" McKay pawed at his mouth and looked at the Colonel, really looked at him, for the first time. "John," he breathed.
That single word was so full of relief and love that I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. I felt Holmes grip my arm and I looked down in consternation.
Holmes often gripped me by the arm. To stop me from doing something, to make me wait or to get my attention or to convey a message when words were not possible. I'd never felt him take hold of me in quite this fashion—as though his life depended on it.
When I looked back up at him, he was staring at the Colonel and McKay, not at me. I placed my hand over his fingers and gave a little squeeze. He tightened his grip on my arm briefly in response and did not let go.
"Come here, you," McKay said softly and took the Colonel by the head, pulling him closer.
"McKay," the Colonel protested, but not very hard.
"Like I give a rat's ass," McKay said. He tugged on the Colonel some more and the next moment they were kissing as though they hadn't seen each other in a thousand years.
I heard Holmes intake his breath sharply, but like him, I couldn't look away from the two men, soldier and scientist, reverently kissing one another.
I thought the look McKay shot me when he and the Colonel broke apart was oddly embarrassed and smug at the same time. He gave me another one of those meaningful looks and I didn't have to be a mentalist to know what he was trying to tell me.
Ronon came jogging into the room at a good clip, only to stop in front of the Colonel and McKay.
"We should be going now." He held up a piece of equipment that had wires dangling from it as though it had been removed in haste.
Holmes had released me, standing when Ronon entered the room. The Colonel stood as well.
"Ronon," he said, and the drawl was firmly back in place. "What makes me think we should be running about now?"
Ronon grinned. "You said destroy the Dart. You didn't say how."
The Colonel and I helped McKay to his feet. "I hope you can run," he said to McKay.
McKay rolled his eyes. "I guess I have to. When will you learn? You need to leave specific instructions for Ronon when it comes to blowing things up."
"Right. I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime, move your ass, McKay."
When we rejoined Teyla, the Wraith got slowly to his feet. We started toward the entrance as a group.
"Faster," Ronon suggested. The Colonel and I were still supporting McKay; Ronon pushed me aside and took my place.
We were almost back at the entrance when the Wraith made a break for it. Teyla brought her weapon around to bear, but Holmes beat her to it. He pointed his hand at the fleeing Wraith and a beam of blue-white light left it. Like a bolt of lightening, it struck the Wraith in the back and subsequently vaporized him. Literally. One second the beam of light had made contact with the Wraith, causing him to arch his back and fling up his hands in response, the next, the Wraith had gone up in a glowing ball of light and was no longer there.
"It would seem your energy weapon is quite adequate," Holmes said calmly, handing the 'phaser' back to McKay.
"Adequate?" McKay carped. "I'd call that more than just 'adequate'."
"Holmes." The Colonel sounded a bit put out. "I promised him safe passage."
"I did not," Holmes said, in that manner of his that ends all discussion.
Outside in the courtyard, our previous assailants had all disappeared. We had only just entered the alley from whence we'd come when the warehouse behind us blew up in a spectacular fashion.
It was still relatively early when we all returned to the rooms on Baker Street. We'd managed to leave Smithfield without interference—apparently, word had gotten around that we were not to be trifled with. We'd made it back to the jumper and I'd helped McKay lie down on one of the rear benches while the Colonel flew us back to Hyde Park.
"Do come back to Baker Street for a drink before you go," Holmes had invited warmly. "All of you." He'd included Teyla and Ronon with his eyes.
The Colonel could hardly refuse. By the time we were back in Hyde Park, McKay had recovered this use of his limbs; I suspected his projected 'hours' to full recovery was hyperbole on his part. We'd still had to procure a carriage, not an easy thing to do at that time of night, and transport us all back to Baker Street, and by then McKay could walk without assistance.
I was surprised at how little time had passed since Holmes and I had left that evening on the adventure of a lifetime. Now it was just shy of 11 p.m. and we were back in front of the fire, sharing a victory toast, and saying our good byes.
In some ways, that was the hardest part of all. I had so much I wanted to ask, so much I wanted to know.
In the light of the room, the contrast between the man we'd met the night before and the Colonel as he was now was striking. The man before us was every inch a soldier, radiating health and energy. His hair, showing only the barest trace of silver in his sideburns, seemed to crackle with vitality. Though he still had fine lines around his eyes, they were to be expected in a military man who has spent years of squinting into the sun.
He sat close to McKay on the couch. Whenever McKay would stop speaking, his hands would flutter to rest, one of them touching the Colonel in some small way. We laughed and recounted our evening's adventures together, filling one another in on the details that we'd missed in one another's absence.
I was going to miss these new friends of ours, and yet I very much wanted them to go home.
They finally took their leave, rising with stretches, yawns, and handshakes all around. McKay took me aside and pressed a small leather pouch into my hands.
"Look," he said with a glance to either side before continuing hurriedly. "In one of your future adventures, you tell of Holmes receiving a trinket box in the post and when he tries to open it, he is stabbed with a needle containing Yersina pestis, the organism that causes the bubonic plague. You try to save him, but you can't because the antibiotics that can save him haven't been invented yet."
I looked at him in horror.
"I don't know if events in this universe will play out that way, in fact, I'm pretty certain they won't, but I wanted you to have the streptomycin just in case. The instructions on its use are there inside. Just remember, there's only enough there to treat one, maybe two, people."
"Thank you." I think my hand shook a little as I folded the pouch into my pocket, filled with an intense, burning satisfaction. "What makes you think that things will be different in this universe, however?"
"Well, that's up to you. You could try not getting married and staying on here."
"I could." I nodded slowly. "It's not entirely up to me, though."
McKay's eyes took on an unholy glint of glee. "Teyla tells me that Holmes practically beat the Wraith to death with only a piece of pipe. She thinks he might well have taken him apart with his bare hands, had he no other choice. It didn't even occur to him to pull out his gun. Trust me—you're not in this alone."
"But..." I began, only to trail off.
"Look." McKay glanced over at the Colonel, who was saying goodbye to Holmes along with Teyla and Ronon. "I know about this sort of thing. You're going to have to make the first move or it's never going to happen."
"But--" I tried to intervene again, but McKay was drawn into the round of goodbyes as well. Before I knew it, they were gone.
"Well," Holmes said, shutting the door behind our departing guests. "A most satisfactory end to a challenging case. I look forward to telling Lestrade in the morning that he need not fear about any further 'mummy' murders." He stretched his shoulders with his back toward me before turning. "Much as I enjoyed the stimulating company, it is nice to be just the two of us again, eh? Well, you, me, and Gladstone."
At the sound of his name, Gladstone lifted his head and made a snuffling noise of enthusiasm.
My silence seemed to unnerve him. Holmes glanced around and continued speaking in a rattled sort of way. "My word, but I do believe it is rather stuffy in here. Perhaps I should open a window."
I tried to see him through the 'observer's eye', the one he was so fond of pointing out on occasion, usually when he was about to strip one of dignity and reveal personal secrets better left unsaid. I recalled the look on his face as he beat the Wraith, that livid look of fury as he defended me. I thought about how he never engaged in a relationship with a woman and how he'd refused to discuss my upcoming marriage. I thought about McKay's words, and the conversation Teyla tried to have with me, and the overwhelming relief on the Colonel's face when he knew that McKay was going to be all right.
I closed the distance between us with determination, ignoring the look of puzzled confusion as I backed Holmes up against the door. He made contact with the wooden panels with a thump, and opened his mouth to protest. I seized the moment to take his head in my hands and plant a kiss on his lips. He struggled for an instant, during which I almost faltered, but then he suddenly gave in to the demands of my mouth, opening his to meet mine so completely, I was taken aback.
Only for a second, however. Something deep inside me sang out, yes! I molded my mouth and body to his, pressing him against the wall. He spread his legs to accommodate me and I freely admit, it triggered a wild sort of response in me. Before I knew it, I was grinding into him, clutching at his hair, and moaning into his mouth while his hands wormed their way up under my shirt. I couldn't get enough. It was as though all the years that we'd been together, I'd been a teetotaler, and he'd been the forbidden whisky I'd refused to touch.
When we broke off the kiss, Holmes held onto my arms, as though I was the one that might slip away. "Watson," he began, only to shake his head and say, "John."
He put a wealth of meaning into that single utterance of my given name.
"I will call off the engagement first thing in the morning," I promised.
"It's about time," Holmes said, a hint of the superior returning to his voice.
I punched him on the shoulder and then kissed him again.