No rambling preamble this time. I hope you find something to enjoy. If not there’s always Chapter Eight?… :/

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Chapter Seven: White Light

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Day

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“You said we wouldn’t be followed, Villard,” I hissed, straining not to shout for the sake of Séraphie, asleep in the next room. Still my voice rang off the walls of the tiny flat.

“We were not. I will swear to it,” Villard snapped. “I kept the watch throughout our journey. Pointing at this and that. There was no one. No one follows us. Of this I am sure!” He was pacing in tight circles on the graying oriental carpet that covered the small patch of open floor. “How could he follow and not be seen? He could not. What is this man’s game? I cannot understand–”

I cut across his words. “This is not a game, Villard. This man was an associate of Professor Moriarty. He is deadly. He will kill without a second thought.”

“I know this, John,” he growled. “But why does he not?.” He beat his fist against his thigh as he paced. “If he means to harm us, why does he not?” He stopped in his tracks and spun to face me. “For two hours we sat at the café. If he follows us there, why does he wait? Then to miss all of us three when we are sitting so close? Can this man be such a ridiculous blunderer? Explain these things to me!”

My teeth clenched as I glared at the Inspecteur Judiciaire. At last I released the breath I had been holding. “I can’t, Francois,” I said, sinking down on his threadbare settee. “I can’t explain any of it.” I lowered my head into my hands.

I heard the scrape of wood and looked up to see Villard straddling his desk chair, resting his chin on the straight back. He was watching me with no expression in his hazel eyes.

“Do you remember the numbers?” I asked wearily.

“Oui, oui.” He gave a quick wave of his hand. “Seventeen, fourteen, and one hundred thirty one.”

“Do you have a pencil?”

He nodded and stood, dragging the chair back to the desk then rummaging among the scattered papers, shifting aside a heavy volume with the words L’histoire et Annales du Crime stamped on the spine. He turned and offered me a stub of pencil.

I murmured my thanks and scribbled the three numbers on my cuff. Villard resumed his pacing as I tugged the slim red book from my pocket. I had whipped through only a half dozen pages when he stopped in his tracks and spun toward me. “What is the time?”

“What? Ah– ” I pulled out my watch keeping one hand on the book. “Ten of two,” I said thrusting the watch back in my pocket.

“Flûte,” he groaned. “The package. It must go to the address.”

I stared blankly at the case standing in the kitchen corner.

Villard crossed to me in two steps and knelt beside me. “John,” he said, keeping his eyes locked on mine. “I know you desire to see your friend. I, too, am most anxious for this. But I am a policeman and a madman is firing air guns in my city. Please, s’il vous plait, be…” he gave me a crooked smile. “Be my Docteur Watson for just a very small time.”

My hands tightened on the book in my grip. Villard’s eyes didn’t waver.

I sighed. “What do you want me to do?” I asked.

Villard gave me a quick grin, squeezed my arm and jumped to his feet. Instantly he resumed his pacing. “Séraphie, where is she?” he asked, glancing around the room apparently as an afterthought.

“She’s resting in your bed. I gave her a glass of brandy.”

Villard gave a reflexive grimace. “D’accord. All right, please, Docteur, if you will, help me to reason through this puzzle. What could be the Air Gun Man’s purpose? Maybe he means to harm one of us, but why?”

“Perhaps he only wanted to frighten us into doing something rash,” I suggested.

“Oui, yes.” He turned to me. “This is a logical reason. If so, he must assume we are cognizant of where to find Monsieur Holmes.”

“We might be,” I said tersely. “If you’d let me look at this book.”

He flashed a smile. “A moment more, my friend. I beg your indulgence, but a moment more. We will assume it is you he thinks he must pursue to Monsieur Holmes’s hiding place. Or maybe he believes you have given the responsibility of such a rendezvous to me as an Inspecteur of police. If it is true, it is of benefit to us. If we separate he may grow confused and make the mistake of tipping his hand, as they say.”

Villard nodded toward the packing crate as he passed. “We have the good reason to separate. We must take this waxwork to its destination. We may assume it is not to Madame Tussaud.” He flashed a tight smile at the carpet under his feet. “Where then? To Monsieur Holmes? It is unlikely. Would that not but contradict the purpose of these codes? Nonetheless, this mannequin must be of great importance if Monsieur Holmes would risk the chance of revealing its destination, even to you and I. He knows that you are followed.”

“What is the address? You said it was near the Eiffel Tower,” I broke in. “Could that be of use?”

“Mais oui, of course.” Villard spun toward his desk. He rummaged for a moment in a flurry of papers. “Ah!” he said triumphantly, slapping a large platte book out on the desk, knocking several other books to floor. He tugged the address card from Meunier from his breast pocket and held it to the book, scanning a page then flipping to the next. “La!” he cried. “Here! It is the Hotel de Gaspard. Its face is to la Tour.”

“Hardly secluded,” I said.

“It is true,” Villard answered thoughtfully. “We must think on this. This hypothetical Air Gun Man… eh. I think we may now grant him existence. And so, we assume Air Gun Man follows behind you. Monsieur Holmes provides the mannequin to us. We take it to the Hotel de Gaspard. Air Gun Man follows to the hotel. In this way Monsieur Holmes may know how and when to find him. For capture one must assume. So much we may gather from our small supply of un-impossibilities. Bon.” He nodded to himself. “I thank you for your kind patience, Docteur. I think we have reasoned as far as we may. Now we will learn our next instructions. Let us see what this new code may tell us.”

o00o
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My hansom rolled eastward through the Left Bank. Soon tightly packed townhouses with rakishly crooked chimneys give way to patches of green where the evening sun brushed the tips of long grass.

Villard was out of sight, but somewhere near at hand. As we had arranged while sitting side by side on his threadbare divan, his cab was making a loop to intercept mine. Rather than take the time to double back, change cabs, and make feints toward the points of the compass, Villard had suggested I take a leisurely eastward path that would wind beyond the Seine toward the Bois de Boulougne. He would not follow me directly, but would crisscross my route. Each time our paths crossed he would spy for trackers in my wake.

Confident we had taken every possible measure to deter interference, I might sit back and watch the city roll past. Instead I contemplated the poems Villard and I had found by the numbers Séraphie had relayed.

We understood immediately that the system of counting words had been abandoned for a much simpler set of numbers. (“Consider this messenger,” Villard had said with a tight smile.) However, the task of decoding had proved to be more difficult, not less. We were forced to cull meaning from complete poems, a task made no less problematic by the need, as shown by the play on words that had led us to the Bishop’s Cat, to continually cross-check by language to be sure we had plumbed all possible interpretations.

It had taken hours to come up with a message we could look upon with some degree of confidence. There was many an obscurely poetic phrase to ponder. Somewhere in the midst of our deliberations over the possible significance of “celestial ladder” Séraphie had emerged, golden hair tousled and skirts disarranged, to ask if she could be of help.

Villard had bundled her back into his bedchamber, this time with a bottle of his best brandy, and all but ordered her to keep out of the way. I protested his treatment of a girl who had been sorely tried that day. I reminded him that Holmes or his agent had apparently seen fit to trust her and that we could afford to do the same.

Villard had snorted indelicately. “Monsieur Holmes may trust this Séraphie Bouguereau. I think then maybe he does not know our Séraphie very well. We will keep her in hand but out of sight.” And with that succinct dismissal he set us back to work on the cipher.

So we had gradually arrived, perspiring for my part and pacing an ever-deepening track in the rug for Villard’s, at a message that gave us enough confidence to plan my travel. The first of the instructions had been simple enough, assuming we had interpreted them correctly. We had “the station at Auteuil” as a starting point. It was Villard who hit upon the next piece by extracting the numbers fifteen and six as a time of day.

We had hotly debated the several possible permutations of the numbers until I asserted that we would lose nothing by attempting the next time that could be arranged from the sequence. Villard had eventually agreed that we should make our bid for fifteen past six that evening.

When we came to the decision a glance at my watch told me that there were but ninety minutes remaining to the time. The idea that I might be face to face with my friend so soon after being so long from him caused my concentration to wander. Only Villard’s light touch on my knee called me back to myself.

When I looked round it was to find he was watching me with a troubled expression. Before I could ask what was the matter, he said, “This one I think I must copy out for you. I do not think there is a single word of the significance. It seems perhaps it is the entirety that is the message.”

He sat down with the stub of pencil and wrote in a blank page of my journal. After a few moments he passed the open book to me saying, “It is called ‘After Three Years.’ I will go make coffee.” And so he left me on the settee to read.

I pushed aside the narrow swinging gate
To stroll within the garden green and small,
Some morning rays the sun let sweetly fall,
Spangling the flowers with jewels, as in state.

Nothing has changed. I have seen all: the vine,
The humble arbor with its rustic chairs…
The jet of water playing silvery airs,
And the old aspen with its plaint divine!

The roses nod, as of old, and one sees
The lily proudly balance on the breeze.
The larks that go and come I know them yet.

I even found Valleda standing there,
At the walk’s end, her plaster scaled, and bare,
–Frail, ‘mid the pungent sent of mignonette.

He returned some minutes later bearing a cup of strong, sweet coffee the color of a fresh baguette. “For energy of mind,” he said, flashing a small smile.

I cleared my throat. “Valleda?”

Villard nodded briskly. “Oui, I know of her. She is the German druidess. Not too famed, I think. You will not find her statue in the station at Auteuil.”

We tried various combinations of words until I ventured, “Francois, is there a public garden in the town of Auteuil?”

“Ah! You are right undoubtedly,” he said, laughing. “It becomes more clear every moment why Monsieur Holmes consults with you on the cases of difficulty. I look too closely at the details. It is a garden we seek. The Jardin des Poètes– très bon!”

He hefted the platte book of maps he had dropped at our feet hours earlier when we’d puzzled out Auteuil. “La.” He pointed to an open space several streets removed from the station. “Jardin des Poètes. It is not to the station you go, but this place near to the station. A little extra complexity, is it not? Much more in the manner of our secret messages to this date.”

We decided that it was too much to hope that I would find a statue of Valleda inside the garden gate, but I was certain to locate more than one landmark among the many described. I was even confident, I said, that I could recognize mignonette as Mrs. Hudson had tried some in her kitchen window.

As insurance I tore the page from my journal, folded it and tucked it into my breast pocket. In so doing my fingers brushed the black syringe case resting there. Villard must have seen me falter for he gave me a worried frown.

I pushed the sheet of paper down deeper in my pocket and patted it, flashing what must have been an unconvincing grin. “Armed and ready, my friend,” I said. “Although not in the literal sense.”

We had agreed it was unfortunate that my service revolver, still kept cleaned and oiled as was the unbreakable habit of a former soldier, had been left in Marseilles with my luggage. For his part, Villard had no personal arms, it not being a well-regarded custom among members of the Judiciaire to keep their own weapons.

Part of Villard’s task, once he had seen me to the gate of the garden was to return to requisition a squad of officers from the Judiciaire headquarters. They were to take up posts in the vicinity of the hotel to be readily available if needed for Villard was determined to capture the Air Gun Man before his potshots could prove deadly. While the squad took up their stations, Villard would deliver the wax bust.

I made him promise that when he returned for the crate he would let Séraphie out of his flat. I had strongly protested when he insisted on locking the door with the girl inside, but I at last agreed to trust to his judgment, admitting she did seem content to continue enjoying his brandy.

I asked Villard if he didn’t wish to come to the garden with me. “Although,” I said, with a shaky laugh, “There is a better than even chance that I will only find another go-between with a new message for us to decipher.”

Villard’s mouth quirked in a peculiar smile. “No, John, this adventure I think is for you alone. And I hope with all my heart you find that which you seek.” With that he chuckled and clapped me on the shoulder. “For I believe I have had enough of our Monsieur Verlaine for the present time.”

We parted at the ground floor entrance to his residence. I reached out to shake his hand and was surprised when he pulled me to him in a tight embrace. He stepped back and grasped my hand in both of his. “Bon chance, my friend, and remember,” he said seriously. “‘Observe all due caution.’”

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Twilight

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I stood at the gate of the Garden of the Poets with the page torn from my journal clutched in my hand. In the twenty-four hours since I’d learned Sherlock Holmes had seemingly not died – had not plunged from a cliff’s edge into howling white water as I had believed for three years – I hadn’t allowed myself to fully consider what that might mean.

I had lain awake so very many nights, staring up into the dark, wishing for just such a chance. My mind warned me that it was lie. There were no second chances. My heart told me it was true, it had to be true. I could not have come all of this way only to find I’d been chasing an illusion.

And somewhere between the language of my heart and my head there was a still point where I feared to go farther and risk breaking the spell. For twenty-four hours I’d known how it felt not to regret, but to hope.

I didn’t want to wake from the dream. I wanted to go on believing, for the sake of my heart, yes, but above all because he was my friend, the best I’d ever known, and I knew I would never love another so well.

It was the knowledge I had not come for myself alone that finally urged me across the threshold. Villard waited to know if his mentor lived and someone, maybe Holmes, had thought it exceedingly important that I be in this place at this time. I couldn’t know for what purpose until I followed my instructions.

So I took a deep breath and walked through the gate. On the other side a neatly paved stone path wandering left and right around a grassy rise. Copses of trees and tidy flowerbeds were laid along the way. It was, after all, a garden just like any other. I gave a rueful smile and hesitated just a moment more before taking the left turning.

As I walked, I folded the poem and tucked it back in my pocket. There was no reason to read it again. In my journey from Villard’s flat I had studied it so thoroughly I had memorized it. I knew all the possible landmarks by heart.

I soon saw a pair of lovers approaching, walking arm in arm. It was impossible not to marvel at their perfect state of bliss. They had no knowledge of me or of anything outside the circumference of their embrace. For them, time was a mere abstraction. I offered a prayer that it would always be so kind, that nothing would ever alter the happiness they shared at that moment.

They passed and I peered around me, looking for any of the markers Villard and I had picked out as most promising. We’d shared a smile over his complete inability to identify mignonette or even aspen, his city breeding and disinclination to wander either gardens or countryside proving a decided hindrance.

The flora described in the poem was there in profusion. Flowering vines danced in the evening breeze while roses tumbled forward under the weight of heavy red blooms. Bees swooped giddily among them in arcing trajectories. Nothing presented itself to my eye as the key to the riddle so I walked on.

I couldn’t help but think there must be a deeper significance to the words. After all, others of Verlaine’s poems talked of flowers and trees and stone statues. Surely, I reasoned, the title “After Three Years” meant there was more to the message than at first appeared.

Try as I might, I could make nothing of it. Apart from the phrase “Nothing has changed” it was little but description.

Assembling the words into the sentence “After three years… nothing has changed” was no more useful. That idea was patently ludicrous. Everything had changed.

At least, I amended, everything had changed for me. I as yet had no real knowledge of how Holmes might have fared in the time. It was possible that for him it represented only a frustrating pause in his career. Or maybe not even that.

If Villard’s supposition was true, the last three years had been but a part of a larger pattern of events. Holmes was still pursuing and being pursued by one of Moriarty’s men.

The memory of a long-ago thought echoed in my mind. A memory from the night Holmes had appeared at my door and asked if I would fly with him from his enemies. Moriarty, and air guns, and precautions with the cab.

As Villard had guessed, the fight against Moriarty’s organization continued. Nothing had changed in that regard, it seemed.

It occurred to me on a sudden, the message hidden in the poem was that simple. “Moriarty’s gang is still a danger.” There was no other meaning to be found.

If so, I reasoned, if all of the subterfuge, the coded instructions, the disguises… if they were all in service of preparing for a confrontation with Moriarty’s forces, maybe near the Hotel de Gaspard as Villard theorized, why then would I assume any of the messages were directed at me at all?

Would it not make more sense to give such warnings to Villard? To a fellow detective?

Maybe my role was merely to act as courier. Perhaps it just a fortunate coincidence that I was leaving London at the time Holmes needed to relay instructions to his apprentice in France.

Had Holmes intended that it be Villard who came on this errand to Auteuil? On reflection we had been given no cause to think it was I who had been summoned. Despite Villard’s assertion, the messages had held nothing of personal significance as far as I could see.

Here I was dreaming of a tender reunion while Holmes was concerned with things of importance. With such momentous events playing out around it me, it was surely the height of egoism to imagine personal messages for myself alone. After all, hadn’t Holmes had opportunities enough in London to make himself known to me if that was his wish?

And if all that were true, I thought with a growing sense of disquiet, might not a deeper misunderstanding lurk at the bottom of it all? I knew my mind wouldn’t rest until I gave words to the fear that already sent an icy chill running through my limbs.

It was a simple enough question… did Holmes feel for me as I did for him?

What real cause had I to think so? He had never declared it, any more than I. That made my own feelings no less real, but… I scavenged desperately through my memory for any confirmation from him, for a fragment of evidence that would stand as proof.

I could find nothing. Just a glance, a sigh and a single kiss. I had shared other kisses in my life. I was surely wise enough to know affection, warmth, compassion… those were not the same as love. And in the cold light of truth, it was not even a kiss shared. I had stolen it.

Was this the foundation on which I’d built my grand, tragic vision of lost love? A kiss stolen on a night train from Birmingham?

Like a series of lenses snapping into place, reality leapt into sharp focus and the undisguised truth stood revealed. I loved Holmes with a fire that devoured my every thought and in my boundless idiocy I had believed my love returned.

I was a fool. A ridiculous, brainless, dangerous fool. I think I might have laughed then at the depth of my own folly. Yet even as I stood choking on the catch in my throat, I knew the prize was worth the pain.

I could not have my dream of love. But what did it matter? I would have my friend… my gifted, astonishing, utterly unique friend… restored to me at last. That was all I could have wished for and infinitely more.

The long adventure of Professor Moriarty and the man with the air gun was at last drawing to a close like the other cases Holmes had let me share before his absence. I would offer what assistance I could and in the future, when he allowed it, perhaps I could record this adventure, too.

I could be John Watson, biographer, once more. Now that Holmes had returned I’d have reason to write again. Stamford would be pleased. Things would be once again as they should be, just as if nothing had changed.

Six years before I’d misread Holmes’s intentions. He had hoped I’d return to Baker Street, of course. I was a benefit to him as a sounding board, a foil to exercise his gifts. Villard, too, had found me useful for the purpose. It was the role for which I was best suited.

I could fill that role again. After all, nothing had changed for Holmes. All the alteration was on my side. And he need never know how close I’d come to stealing another kiss.

It seemed the garden gate had proved magical after all, but like the gifts of Aladdin’s djinni, the wish you made would be granted at a price. Time would not wind back three years, but six. To before the night I had drowned myself in a chimeric illusion of love.

When I was able to collect myself enough to walk on, vaguely surprised to find my legs would carry me, I soon had to stop again as it broke upon my mind I’d so far forgotten my surroundings I might have missed a dozen landmarks.

My distraction was proving a danger already. “Later,” I seemed to hear Villard’s stern voice repeat in my mind. Later I could indulge my self-pity, not now.

Standing in the path, trying to marshal my fleeing thoughts and regain my bearings, I glanced up the hillside. A girl of no more than twenty sat under a willow, a book open and forgotten at her side, watching the thin clouds overhead glow in the light of the waning sun.

She must have felt my gaze for she looked down and met my eyes. I returned the bright smile she gave me unsteadily and in the next moment she’d returned to her cloud watching. She had seemed to see nothing amiss with me. It was a promising sign, I thought, as I forced myself to walk on. With luck, I could play my part.

In the past, my self-deception must have been entirely transparent to Holmes’s keen faculties. I had probably betrayed myself a thousand times in the span between that meaningless kiss and the stinging spray of Reichenbach Falls.

He had been able to overlook my weakness although it must have been disagreeable to endure. Even as humiliation lanced through me, I thanked a merciful heaven that I had understood in time, before I could prove myself no less a fool after three long years.

Around the curve of the hill I found a statue of a saturnine faun. Its empty eyes gazed out over a meadow filled with mignonette. On the hillside beyond its stone shoulder I saw a figure seated on a bench in the shadow of a spreading oak.

It was Holmes.

I did not need to peer into the half-light or doubt my perceptions or take the time to blink. Even before the dark figure rose, I knew it was he.

I knew the set of his shoulders, squared above hands thrust into jacket pockets. I knew his long, lean form and the hawk-like attention in the tilt of his head. I knew his silhouette just as surely as I knew the sun from the moon.

Like one in a trance, I stepped onto the grass. My legs felt remarkably heavy, as if the air had turned to water. I removed my hat and I held it in my hands as I walked.

He stepped out of the shade. His fog gray eyes, the fine angles of his face, the firm set of his chin, his raven-black hair, all were exactly as I remembered and so staggeringly, agonizingly beautiful I had to bite hard on my tongue to keep from crying out at the sight of him.

If only, I thought, if only I could play my part without betraying the emotion that threatened to knock me to my knees.

Nothing has changed, I repeated again and again to quiet my mind. Holmes was pursuing a case. I was his aide-de-camp. I was here to receive my orders. Nothing had changed.

Holmes made no sign as I approached, only watched me with the fascinated concentration he might apply to studying a surprising piece of evidence. Deducing what adjustments the years had wrought in me, I decided. Looking for signs that would speak volumes to him about the state of my medical practice, my morning habits, my choice of cigars.

When I had drawn close enough to hear, his lips parted and closed once before he murmured “John.”

Hearing my name on his lips as I heard its echo so long in my thoughts, I was almost undone. How much, I wondered, how much of this searing, wonderful torture could I bear and keep my sanity.

I stopped and stood an arm’s length away, holding my hat in my hands like a supplicant. I released the grip of my right hand and held it out to him. It barely shook.

“Holmes,” I whispered. There was a fraction of a second’s hesitation before he raised his hand to mine. His skin felt cool to the touch.

The world did not stop turning. The birds did not stop singing. Somewhere in the distance a woman laughed gaily. And by some miracle I did not shatter in a million fragments at his feet.

I released his hand. “It is good to see you,” I said.

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Night

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We sat on the bench under the shade of the oak. Holmes gazed at me silently.

We were half turned to one another, our knees almost, but not quite, touching. Across the brief distance I could almost feel his breath on my face. I caught the faint, sweet aroma of tobacco on his charcoal gray suit.

It wasn’t Virginia tobacco, I was sure. It was some other blend, one I’d never known before. If it had been Virginia tobacco, as I remembered it from long ago days when we’d walked together arm in arm along the Strand, I don’t know that I could have resisted the urge that thrust and leapt inside me to touch him, to feel the reality of him under my hands. I willed the trembling in my stomach to still.

Yet my rebellious mind imagined cupping his face and pulling him toward me. Brushing his skin with my lips. Tracing his high, fine cheekbones with light kisses. Feeling his lips move under mine. Tasting his mouth, sharing his breath. Just once more.

To steal another kiss would only betray my foolishness, I knew. Holmes would stare at me with confusion or, worse, pity.

I had to break the stillness somehow. In the silence it was too hard to control my heart. I struggled for something to say that would not sound pathetically senseless.

“You–” I began.

“I–” he said at the same time.

We both broke off and the strain threatened to burst out as desperate laughter. I managed to give some sort of awkward smile and Holmes returned it. I wondered if my breath would always catch at the sight of each small expression I had never expected to see again.

The silence lengthened and I tried another tack. “We received your messages,” I said and instantly wanted to bite back the obvious words. I hurried on. “Inspector Villard will be waiting at the hotel for his instructions. Will you meet him there?”

Holmes blinked. “What? Oh, yes. Later perhaps.”

“He’ll be on his way by now,” I went on, aware that I my words were beginning to come in a rush. “He planned to arrange for a squad of gendarmes to be available nearby should you require them. I asked if he would come. We decided I should see how I might be of use. What would you like me to do?”

He was studying my face in apparent confusion. My blithering must have been near incomprehensible. I concentrated on keeping my hands locked on my thighs.

His lips parted. “John,” he began. “You– you look well,” he finished abruptly.

He was trying to find a way calm my rattled nerves, I knew. He must sense that I had only the most tenuous hold on myself. I struggled for some response. I knew I did not look well. I hadn’t been so thin since I’d returned from Afghanistan and I had never been so pale.

“You look… rested,” I said although he did not. Meunier had rendered the burnished color of his skin perfectly, but he hadn’t captured the more pronounced hollows under his eyes, maybe because he hadn’t known them any other way. “I hope you … I hope your travels have not been difficult.”

He looked startled as well he might at such an odd statement, so I hurried to explain. “Francois– that is, Villard has a few theories about where you’ve been. I’m sure he would be glad if you’d confirm what you may.” I managed a small smile. “He has spent considerable time, apparently, working on the assumption that you had not… were not…” I tried to say it without choking and wasn’t able. I had to let the sentence linger embarrassingly in the air.

“I’m sor–” Holmes took a breath and then bit his lip in a most uncharacteristic gesture. I wondered if it was a habit he’d acquired while away from me. “I was sorry to learn about Mary.”

My gaze turned past his shoulder at the buckled, cracked bark of the old oak as I took a steadying breath. “Thank you.” I said and looked back into his eyes. “Thank you that is kind of you.”

“I am very glad to see you,” he said quietly.

I attempted what I hoped looked like a wry smile. “You have seen me several times, I think,” I said. “In London and at Victoria. And also in the Gare de Montparnasse, perhaps?”

His eyes tightened. “Yes,” he murmured and repeated, “Yes.”

“It was fortunate you were able to send me to Villard,” I said. “If it weren’t for his intervention, I would have sailed for Marrakech.”

The ghost of frown crossed his face. “He shows promise as a detective,” Holmes said slowly. “Although he will persist in thinking like a policeman.”

“He’s very much looking forward to seeing you again,” I offered. “He’s published more of your monographs.”

“Watson,” he said evenly. “If we may put the Inspector aside for a moment…”

“Of course,” I said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. What did you need to tell me?”

“I– it’s not…” He hesitated and I noticed he had his hands clasped tightly together in his lap. As the silence lengthened I knew he was trying to find a way to turn our conversation to the case. I sought for something useful to say, but he continued before my sluggish brain could assemble a thought. “That book…” he began.

“The poetry book. I have it here.” I said quickly, reaching down toward my pocket. “Do you wish to have it back?”

“No, John, I wanted–” His gaze followed my hand. He looked up. There was something urgent in his eyes I couldn’t put a name to. “I meant for you to read it,” he said.

I blinked. “But… I don’t speak French.”

His lips quirked at the corners. “Yes, I realized that boarding the train at Victoria. But I had once given you a letter of Villard’s to read. You appeared to get the sense of it…”

“Holmes,” I said, smiling in spite of myself at his generous overestimation of my talents. “There aren’t many who can’t recognize the word ‘magnifique.’”

“Yes. True.” He cleared his throat. “But I didn’t intend the book for coded messages, not at first. I thought if… Well, the idea of messages only occurred to me rather later.” He flashed a strained smile. “Otherwise I might have chosen a book with rather less– with a rather more helpful vocabulary for the purpose. I simply hadn’t any time to prepare. Mycroft came to me at the bookshop only that morning, you see. He told me he’d heard you were leaving. Leaving London. I b- told him to find out to find out where you going. Whether you had discovered I had returned. He came back to tell me he was sure you were completely unaware of it.” He paused and flashed a tight smile. “He didn’t tell me he’d sent you to buy a guidebook. I still have to thank him properly for that.”

I was frankly staring, trying to find words. “Your brother…” I said slowly. “How long did he know you were– you weren’t–”

Holmes seemed to hold his breath for a long moment. At last he said quietly. “Almost from the start. I needed funds. He helped me on the condition that I perform some select services for the government. He was to keep me… informed of events at home.” His jaw tightened. “He apparently thought it of less importance than I.”

“And he knew you were in London?” I managed to ask.

“I insisted on coming back. I couldn’t stay away any longer. I thought to find a way to- to reappear. I took the place in Kensington just a few days before in hopes…” He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them his gaze was distant.

“When you came to the shop,” he said. “By then I’d decided I would meet you on the train. That away from town might be better. So, fool that I am, I let you leave. When you’d gone I ran to the upper floor and watched you to the street. I saw Moran.” His hands flexed into fists. “I knew he thought I was still in France. He must have followed you. They thought you might lead them to me, so I had to keep my distance, to keep watch. To wait for another chance…” He took a breath, seeming to search for his next words.

I attempted to say something useful in the silence. “Villard thought something of the sort,” I offered. “He guessed that at least one of Moriarty’s men was still pursuing you. It’s Moran?”

“Yes,” Holmes said quickly. “Moran was trying to lure me to London. Adair was to be killed. They thought if they committed the act in such a way I couldn’t help but see their hand in it, it would draw me from cover.”

I remembered the headline in the Times. “Adair… an air gun?” I interjected.

Holmes nodded sharply. “Moran, but he’s not alone. He’s trying to pull together the tatters of Moriarty’s gang. He stayed in Lond–” His eyes suddenly widened. “Oh, the devil with Moran!”

I started at this outburst and he leant forward, his eyes strangely bright. I willed myself to look away. It didn’t seem possible to stare into his eyes at such a little distance and not betray myself. The slanting sunlight had reached our patch of shade and I tried to concentrate on the way the light caught pale threads in the weave of his suit, highlighting them in silver.

“John,” he said under his breath, “I did not come here to talk about Mycroft or Moran and certainly not about Francois le Villard. This is– this is not the conversation I had planned.”

“Yes, of course,” I murmured, forcing myself to meet his gaze. “I’m sure the case must be–”

His eyes flashed. “Watson. John. For the love of heaven, please stop talking for just one moment. Clearly…” He took a long breath. “Clearly, despite endless preparation, I still don’t have the right words.” He hesitated then said, “Perhaps if I showed you the book.”

“The book– of course,” I stammered.

I bent to reach into my pocket and somewhere behind me I heard a sharp hiss of air. White light burst behind my eyes. I registered an instant of blinding pain before darkness swallowed all.

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-«oOo»-
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~ Coming Soon ~
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Chapter Eight: Gray Eyes
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