The case was one that would never grace the pages of any magazine. Holmes' brother had asked him to enquire, discreetly, into the suspicious death of a Chinese sailor in the Limehouse district. The man had apparently been an agent of the British government, and if his death were politically motivated, it might have serious implications for Her Majesty's plans overseas.
Holmes discovered that not one, but four Chinamen had been murdered that day across the district. They were from all walks of life, their deaths linked only by a dusting of tea on the corpses' hands. Holmes identified the tea as a precious Souchong variety, but was at a loss as to its significance.
The investigation took us through-out the district. We explored tiny shops redolent with exotic spices, steamy laundries, and gambling parlours wherein yellow-faced men barely deigned to look up from their multi-tiled game to pretend complete ignorance of the English tongue. Holmes ducked his head low to enter a pagan temple where a bald-pated, dark-eyed man greeted him, listened courteously to our request to examine the bodies of the deceased, and sent us away empty-handed.
After a few hours frustration, Holmes attempted to hire a translator at the docks. They all refused him; even such a poor observer as I could see that the boys were frightened out of their wits. A lithe green light-weight dragon watched us, unblinking, from the deck of a moored ship until we left the area.
"It is a most perfect conspiracy of silence, Watson," Holmes complained, pacing back and forth through our rooms in a state of agitation that evening. "All of our potential witnesses either speak no English, or may plausibly sham such a state of ignorance. Our description has obviously been circulated though-out the district. Should I attempt to investigate in disguise, the moment I even approach the topic of the murders, I'll be greeted with that infamous Chinese reserve."
"You've dealt with uncooperative witnesses in the past, Holmes," I reminded him. "I am confident that your methods will prove themselves in this case, as they have in every other."
Holmes spun on his heel to glare at me. "On the contrary, Watson. My methods allow me to deduce much, based on the observation of trifles. I can tell the state of a man's marriage from a loose button, his financial security by the way he ties his shoes, and evaluate a lady's fidelity by the jewellery she chooses for a night at the opera. Yet all of this, every bit of it, is meaningless among the Chinamen."
"Surely you exaggerate, Holmes?" I ventured.
"Exaggerate?" he snapped, incredulous. "Let us take one simple example from this day's expedition. The priest in the temple, he was wearing a yellow robe, with a most curious set of creases along the hem, yes? Why? Is that an effect of some required obeisance? A sign of an unsettled mind, that he donned them improperly? I haven't the faintest idea. I walk into that district, Watson, and it is as if I have been struck blind!"
Holmes collapsed onto the couch with a groan, knuckling his eyes. He then slowly curled up upon it, wrinkling his suit terribly.
Signs of an unsettled mind, indeed. I was much concerned. Such behaviour was so often a precursor to one of Holmes' black moods, which he might fall into for days at a time.
"Surely we just need some sort of … native guide," I suggested. "One who can both translate and offer you some insight into the mind of the Chinamen."
He chuckled bitterly. "Little chance of that, I think, after today. No, we would stagger through the streets, Watson, a pair of blind men without so much as a dog or a beggar's cup between us." He sat lay there quietly for a minute, and then sighed. "I shall have to inform my brother that he has over-estimated my capacity, in this case."
I nodded reluctantly, though he could not see it. Mycroft Holmes would have contacts in the diplomatic corps, in the military, and certainly one of them would … oh.
Holmes swiveled his head round to stare at me from where he lay curled up on the couch. "You've thought of something, Watson. What is it?"
"I ... I may know someone who can help." At the sudden glitter in Holmes's eyes I rushed to correct myself. "Possibly."
Holmes rolled off the couch to his feet and came to loom over me. "An acquaintance from the military," he concluded after a rapid appraisal of my person. "One that you've lost touch with, since your discharge. Excellent, Watson. You must contact him at once."
"Hold on," I protested. "He might be stationed overseas at this point. If he is close enough to get word to, I'm certain he can at least suggest someone who would help us with the investigation. But it's far too late to send a telegram for anything but an emergency. I'll send a telegram first thing in the morning."
Holmes reluctantly agreed. He roused me before dawn the next morning, and I was standing outside the local telegraph office when they opened. I then returned to our room for one of Mrs Hudson's delightful breakfasts as Holmes deigned to eat a few bites of toast and occupied himself with a series of papers his brother had provided, a sort of introduction to Chinese culture, history and traditions. I recognized the author, and wondered if this was a coincidence, or Mycroft Holmes' idea of a gentle hint.
A message arrived via dragon messenger in the early afternoon, inviting me to dinner at the London covert.
"Invite him to join us here," Holmes suggested.
"That wouldn't be at all appropriate," I told him firmly, sending a reply with my grateful acceptance of the invitation.
Holmes continued to pester me over the issue hours later, as I pulled my dress uniform out of the wardrobe and was pleased to find that it still fitted.
"You cannot possibly think me so bound by convention as to refuse a source of information simply because he is an aviator," Holmes said, attempting once again to invite himself along. "And trying to keep secrets from me, Watson, is like flirting a fox's brush before the hounds."
"The invitation was for one, and I am imposing rather heavily on a distant acquaintance as it is," I answered.
Holmes huffed, and reached out to straighten my Sam Browne belt. "Well, he's certain to be impressed by this display of martial prowess," he said irritably, indicating my medals.
"When seeking favours, one ought to put one's best foot forwards," I informed Holmes. I knew how dragons valued displays of wealth. My medals were the closest I had, and their weight lent firmness to my step as I walked down the stairs to the street.
The first cabbie I flagged down refused to accept a fare to the London covert. The next, eyeing my uniform with respect, brought me as near as he dared. I was left with a few minutes brisk walk through the slums of those too poor to afford housing anywhere but under dragon-wing before I reached the gates of the covert and offered my card to the guard. A young man in a rumpled green aviator's coat led me around the barracks to a brightly-lit pavilion where Commodore Temeraire reclined in all his glory.
I had forgotten how unreasonably, impossibly huge a heavy-weight dragon is, having seen nothing since my discharge but the light-weight dragons that frequent the streets of London.
I straightened my shoulders, and followed the young aviator, approaching the great, toothy head of the dragon until I reached the proper distance and saluted. "Thank you for agreeing to see me, sir."
"Of course, Captain, I was so pleased to receive your telegram," Temeraire said, his voice so deep it seemed to resonate in my bones. "I'd heard that you were sorely wounded at Maiwand, but you seem quite fit for duty now."
"Your kind letter was much appreciated during my recovery. I'm won't be performing any battlefield surgeries, but I do have a practice of my own, here in London." I hesitated, not wanting to raise old ghosts, but aware that my very presence must bring back memories of Afghanistan. "My condolences on the loss of your captain."
Temeraire took a great breath and let it out, the wind of it ruffling my hair and moustache. "Jeremy was my fourth captain, but practice has not made it any easier to bear such a loss."
I waited in respectful silence for him to continue.
"Still," he said a minute later in a determinedly cheerful tone, "were it not for your skill as a surgeon, I would have had only hours to say goodbye, rather than weeks before we lost him to the fever. I am in your debt, Captain Watson."
I nodded, soberly. "If I may ask, will your new captain be joining us for dinner?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Tessa's not allowed to fly at night, as of yet."
"Tessa?" It was an open secret among the military that certain dragons demanded female captains; her sex was not at the heart of my disbelief. No. I remembered long, lamp-lit discussions with Captain Jeremy Laurence during his battle with enteric fever, protected from the elements by our largest tent and Temeraire's great scaly bulk. None of our nurses would brave the dragon's ire to tend to him, after the surgery. I had done my best.
"Captain Laurence's Tessa? But she's just a baby."
"Tessa is six and three-quarter years old," Temeraire corrected me.
"I'm … very surprised that the Admiralty allowed you to take her as your captain."
"I wouldn't say they allowed it, exactly," he replied. Temeraire picked up his head, glanced around the covert, and brought his head down right next to me. I managed not to flinch away.
"I do worry, sometimes, though," he said in a hushed voice. It was a whisper, of sorts, one that they probably couldn't hear in the barracks. "You are a doctor, and not part of the Admiralty. You were a good friend to Jeremy, in those final weeks. I believe I may rely upon you Watson, both for your integrity as a physician and your discretion. So I must ask. Is it normal for Tessa to mature so slowly?"
I considered the young girls I had seen in my practice, and wondered what developmental milestones might have a dragon so concerned. "Can you describe her symptoms?"
"Well, I provide her with all the food she wants, but she's only grown a few inches in the past year, and put on less than a stone of weight."
"That's perfectly normal," I assured him. "Little girls don't grow any faster or larger if you feed them beyond what's required to avoid malnutrition and starvation. What's more, I should be concerned if she had put on a full stone of weight. Human children aren't meant to be, err, round, as it were."
Temeraire blinked at me. "They can grow spherical?" he asked, puzzled.
"No. I mean to say that over-eating can be a problem, especially if she's having lots of sweets."
"So her mother was right about that," Temeraire said with a twitch of his whiskers. I wasn't experienced in interpreting the facial expressions of dragons, but he sounded rather embarrassed.
"Was there anything else you wanted to ask about?"
"Yes. You see … it's not that Tessa's slow. Not at all. She has a gift for mathematics, and an excellent grasp of strategy, but she … she can barely speak."
"Ah," I said. I had heard of this type of thing – idiot savants who were protégés in one area, yet hopelessly backwards in others. They were generally placed in sanatoriums, something that Temeraire would never allow. "Can she communicate her needs? In individual words, at least, if not full sentences, as of yet?"
"Yes. Oh, she's fine in English and French," Temeraire said mournfully. "But when I speak to her in any other language, she'll answer me in Mandarin, Latin, Quechuan, and Xhosan, all mixed up together. And her writing – even in English and French, she can't seem to use proper punctuation, and her brushwork is appalling. She tried to write a letter to her mother, and it was completely unreadable. I blame myself," he said glumly. "I should have been there, to teach her when she was in the egg, and now it seems humans can't learn properly once out of the egg."
"No, once again, that's perfectly normal for a human child. Rather advanced, actually," I clarified. "The handwriting, that's a matter of hand-eye coordination, and will improve with age and practice. It might help Tessa if you were to focus on one language at a time, rather than teaching them to her all at once."
"Really?" Temeraire said. "Then we shall be able to go on active duty, when she comes of age. Excellent! This has been tremendously helpful, thank you, Captain Watson. Excuse me for a moment." He picked up his head and spoke in voice that would carry across a battlefield, "You there, skulking in the shadows. Come out before I'm forced to take issue with your presence in the covert."
To my great surprise, Holmes emerged from the shadows by the barracks. He moved forward to within fifty feet of Temeraire (extraordinarily close, for someone unaccustomed to heavy-weights) and sketched a bow.
"Commodore Temeraire, may I introduce my good friend, Mister Sherlock Holmes, on whose behalf I came seeking your assistance tonight," I said, hoping for the best.
"Temeraire, the noted Chinese historian?" Holmes asked, with a single sideways glance at me.
Temeraire moved closer to him and sat upright. "A few minor monographs," he conceded. "I've mainly published in the fields of dragonology and military history."
I would have taken his response for modesty, had I not seen Holmes react in the same way when others admired his work in chemistry and forensic science.
Temeraire continued. "And you must be the great detective Sherlock Holmes. Young Thomas has been reading me stories –" He stopped and glanced down at me, startled. "Watson, are those your stories? You might have said. I suppose I ought to have realized, but Watson is a rather common surname. Here I thought you barely recovered from your wounds, and you've been running around London chasing down criminals with Sherlock Holmes!"
I straightened my uniform jacket. "That's why I asked to see you, actually. There have been a series of unfortunate –"
"Four men have been brutally murdered in Chinatown, and we need your help to bring the perpetrators to justice," Holmes interrupted.
"Brutally murdered," Temeraire echoed, sounding thrilled.
Holmes quickly informed him as to the specifics of the case.
"I can help you interview the witnesses," Temeraire volunteered immediately.
"It is the old section of London, sir," I said, reluctant as I was to discourage such enthusiasm with cold counsel. "I don't think you'll fit."
"Thomas," Temeraire bugled. "Bring me my writing kit! Velox, wake your captain, I have six messages to be delivered to the Limehouse district of London, as quickly as I can write them."
"They wouldn't even speak to us," I reminded the dragon. "They were terrified. Do you really think they'll come?"
"The Tong, or some other criminal gang may have threatened them, but when a Celestial summons them, they will come," Temeraire said. "Luo, expect seven more men for dinner!"
As Temeraire continued to bellow orders, I walked over to Holmes.
"Well done," I complimented him.
"I may have been sadly misinformed as to the character and capabilities of dragons," Holmes replied quietly, "But I would have to be blind and deaf not to recognize an old campaigner in need of a bit of action."
With Temeraire's assistance, the case was brought to a swift and satisfactory conclusion. Well, satisfactory to the families of the deceased and to Her Majesty's government, in any case. Holmes and Temeraire were sorely disappointed when two notorious members of the Tong were delivered to the London covert, bound and subdued, the next morning. They were surprisingly cooperative when faced by Temeraire's demands for information, and immediately confessed to the murders. Apparently the four victims had interfered with a plan to smuggle a group of high-class prostitutes in from China, and had paid the ultimate price.
Holmes and Temeraire engaged in a regular correspondence from that day onwards, and the next time we sought out Temeraire's expertise for a case, we were far more discreet. But that, my dear, is a tale for another day.