I really have nothing to say here. I’m a bit drained to be honest.


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Chapter Nine: Black Leather Case

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Our Council of War convened around a low table pulled up before the divan. As I sat perched on the edge of the couch, Villard sat straddling a chair from the bedroom, his chin resting occasionally on the straight back as we spoke. Holmes sat cross-legged on the floor on a pillow from the bed. It would have been a quite comfortable scene, I reflected, had not two of the party been within an ace of coming to blows.

The personal disagreement between Holmes and Villard to which Séraphie had alluded had showed no signs of abating. I had never seen Holmes unable to master his temper for such a length of time and Villard’s flashes of outrage were completely new in my experience of a man I had considered the soul of affable good humor.

At a loss to understand what lay at the heart of the dispute, and reluctant to insert myself in the middle of what was apparently a very important matter to my two friends, I could not but look on as they traded jibes and insults and fervently hope that whatever the origin of the quarrel it would not be the cause of a lasting rift between them.

Although it had been necessary to extract the details from among the insults, both veiled and undisguised, woven into the conversation, I had succeeded in gaining some understanding of where the case stood. The chief, and all but solitary, point of agreement was that the man with the air gun was part of a gang that had formed around those leaders of Moriarty’s cadre who had escaped justice three years before.

The presumptive head of this organization was Colonel Sebastian Moran, once of Her Majesty’s Indian Army. In the absence of definitive evidence or Holmes’s testimony, the man had never been tied to Moriarty’s organization and so had escaped any form of prosecution.

There were many shadowy areas in the man’s history, although that was not unheard of among Englishmen who spent considerable time in the far reaches of the Empire. Such men had been known to construct second, even third, lives for themselves far from home and country. Many had wives and families completely unknown to their relations in England.

To the knowledge of the British government, however, Moran had always lived within the law. His day-to-day dealings were above reproach and he was a respected member of society in all regards. He was even revered in some circles as the best heavy game shot known to our Eastern Empire. Tigers were a specialty of his and his tremendous kill-rate was legendary.

Holmes believed that the late Professor Moriarty had recruited Moran on the strength of that skill. Holmes’s researches showed Moriarty had arranged the manufacture of an air gun specifically for Moran and it was Holmes’s belief that Moran had, after the Professor’s death, acquired at least one other for his cohort.

Learning that, as Villard had theorized, Moriarty was truly dead, was one of the few real pieces of information I’d been able to glean and I confess the revelation caused me to lose the thread of the conversation for several minutes.

It was very nearly impossible to tamp down my burning desire to know what precisely had happened at Reichenbach Falls and how Holmes had emerged alive from the roaring white water that haunted my nights, awake and asleep. The few hints I’d been able to piece together thus far… that his brother had known him to be alive, that he was still pursuing and being pursued by Moriarty’s cronies, that he’d been moving under aliases and disguises… raised more questions than they answered.

My only solace as I sat studying my friend’s face and trying to read in it some clue about his life away from me was that Villard was almost as anxious as I to have his questions answered. Yet the Inspector of police, consummate professional that he was… although he was yet on holiday I remembered with a flash of wry amusement… had managed to set his curiosity aside in service of the immediate concerns. I only wished he had been able to do the same with his temper although I had to admit Holmes was equally, if not more, to blame for the barbs that continued to fly between them.

A particular bone of contention seemed to be what the man with the air gun might do next. Both men concurred that the shot fired in the garden had been intended for Holmes… though the black looks that accompanied this point of accord made it seem less a triumph of unity than another battleground… but that is where the agreement ended. Villard believed that the man would cut his losses and wait another chance. Holmes believed that the man would take his chance again that night rather than risk losing his quarry in another flurry of disguises and false names. The subject arose again and again as it was the hinge on which their immediate actions turned.

My suggestion that, as with the timing of the meeting in the garden, nothing would be lost by pursuing all possibilities rather than limiting the field to a few, was received with a quirk of an eyebrow by Holmes… a gesture I wasn’t sure represented approbation or indulgence… and a frown of deep disappointment from Villard.

Since then I’d found myself relegated to the sideline of the discussion, even finding, to my rising annoyance, I had to occasionally remind my friends they had reverted to speaking French. Holmes seemed disinclined to solicit my views on any subject whilst the last time Villard had showed significant interest in my contribution was when he had insisted on again fortifying me with huge amounts of food.

Although I’d tried to explain the idea of eating anything held little appeal, the table before me was now littered with the remnants of a largely untouched feast. I had forced myself to swallow several bites of warm baguette and a tumbler of mineral water, but although I’d felt my companion’s eyes on me when they thought themselves unobserved, it was the most I could safely stomach. As they sparred I occasionally picked at the remains of some rapidly cooling morsel attempting to present the appearance of appetite.

It seemed unwise to share the fact that the nausea I’d fought since waking had not abated by a fraction. Both men, I knew, were well acquainted with the symptoms of concussion and I did not wish to find myself bundled back into the bedroom with my fair-haired guardian.

Séraphie, for her part, was as ebullient as I was miserable. She had made the most of her liberty, spending several minutes circling the room with a waltzing step, gracing us all with her most charming smile and a steady stream of bright monologue on the joys of liberty.

Villard had explained in an undertone that he had been compelled to bring her to the hotel when he’d found her trying to force the lock of his apartment from the inside. “I did not think it safe to let her run free, and yet I could not leave her in my flat, so…”

I had retorted that Séraphie had shared that information with me and had explained she had merely been hungry, having not been offered lunch at the café and having been confined to his flat with nothing but a bottle of brandy for sustenance. Villard looked rebellious when I suggested he was as much to blame as Séraphie for her presence.

Holmes, for his part, waved the problem away. His only contribution to the question of Séraphie was to say, “As long as she keeps out from underfoot.”

Observing Villard casting dark looks that boded ill for the girl’s chances of staying on the sitting room side of the bedroom door, I had quietly asked him to add champagne to his lengthy menu. In truth, I took the step as much because I knew it would please her as in hopes of providing distraction. Her vivid display of delight on being presented with a bottle of Taittinger was, in fact, worth any amount of disapproval from Villard.

But in the end even a bottle of apparently very nice champagne had not proved distracting enough and had, if possible, made her conversation still more sparkling. I had quietly suggested to my companions she might profitably be sent on an errand.

Holmes and Villard had exchanged skeptical looks at this and I found that I was growing profoundly annoyed to find that the only point on which they seemed to agree was that my judgment was somehow impaired.

I grimly pointed out that as she was here it was better to find her something useful to do than to waste her inexhaustible energy and, furthermore, she had taken excellent care of me and I would consider it a personal favor if they would bear that in mind. With some asperity Holmes had agreed and, to my surprise, Villard had acquiesced soon after.

So it was Séraphie had, to her unbounded delight, been sent to find whether fresh clothing, sufficient to give us at least the semblance of upstanding members of society, might be obtained from the hotel manager. Her response was the assurance, “Oh, yes. I know Luc very well. He is most agreeable. I will return as soon as may be.”

I was nonplussed at her intimation, but forgot it soon enough for, almost on the instant that Séraphie had glided out the door in a swirl of pink skirts, a member of the gendarmerie had stepped in to present himself for further instructions from the Inspector.

While Villard was thus engaged, I turned to Holmes, who was still wearing his blood stained shirtsleeves. I smiled and said, “If you’ve another shirt in your carryall, I’d be grateful if you changed, old man. I feel as though I’m in an operating theatre.”

To my shock he narrowed his eyes and replied curtly, “I shall see if I may accommodate you, Doctor, as you seem to have already helped yourself to some of my clothing.”

I openly stared before collecting myself enough to respond, “I will be glad to return it, if you’d prefer. It seemed expedient at the time, but clearly it was an undue liberty.” I chose not to explain that it was Séraphie who had found the black wool jumper among Holmes’s belongings for I was sure it would go even harder with her than it had for me.

I made no move to rise, however, for I was equally sure that the effort of trying to divest myself of the jumper would betray the worsening nausea and vertigo I had been feeling for the past several minutes. I had no desire to find myself sprawled across the remains of our supper for the sake of such a seemingly pointless gesture.

Holmes merely pursed his lips and pushed up from the floor. Villard returned at that moment, having dismissed the gendarme, and as they passed they spared one another a look of such enmity that I was completely taken aback.

As Holmes disappeared into the bedroom, Villard turned his chair toward me and rested his hands on the straight back, gazing at me solemnly. By now I was feeling no more warmly toward Villard and his incomprehensible behavior than I was toward Holmes so I only stared stonily at him.

After a moment he said quietly, “You are not in the best of spirits, my friend.”

The undeniable truth of this remark made me bark out a laugh. Villard blinked at my outburst, no doubt fearing that it heralded a sudden attack of brain fever. I hoped he was mistaken. I tried to smile reassuringly, but I’ve no doubt the effect was somewhat ghastly.

“No,” I said evenly. “I am not, Francois. Between the siege war atmosphere of this room and the sense that I have made a colossal series of misjudgments, I confess I feel rather tested at the moment.” I sighed and made an effort to relax some of the tension that was threatening to inflame the throbbing pain in my head to an unbearable degree. “I suppose I might have been at least a little better prepared for this evening if I had only trusted in your theories sooner.”

It was Villard’s turn to laugh. “My friend, if you had done this you would have trusted to them more than I myself. Never before have I been so certain there is little difference in being the detective and being the gambler. Fortune in the end, she decides, non? And I am learning that it is sometimes more dangerous, maybe, to have too much time to prepare than not enough.”

“I don’t doubt that’s true in some cases, Francois,” I said rather tersely. “However, in a day when one must choose whether being shot or having one’s friend resurrected from the dead is the more exceptional experience, I cannot see that a little preparation in either case might have gone amiss.”

Villard rested his chin on his hands and seemed to consider this. After a few seconds deliberation he sat up and said, “I will suggest, John, if I may, and I say this though I am only a humble detective and not the philosopher, as you understand…”

At this familiar assertion, I had to smile in spite of myself. He must have taken heart for the smile he returned touched his hazel eyes.

“But even as the so humble detective,” he went on, “I have found that it is of use sometimes to look at the effect, more so than the cause. As the Docteur you must find it this way from time, yes? The very smallest of things… a merest scratch… can maybe have more serious effect than the most grievous of injury. And the effect that seems most certain, may not be so when all is done. It may be preparation is not always of so great importance as what one may do in the time after a thing occurs. But…” He shrugged. “I am sure I am mistaken in this. I am no Docteur any more than I am the master of philosophy.”

As I considered his words I forgot myself so far as to lean forward and rest my elbows on my knees. Blinding pain bloomed behind my eyes at the sudden change of posture and it must have shown in my face for Villard bent forward to touch my arm. He started to speak, but whatever he had been about to say was cut off by Holmes’s sudden reappearance.

“I hate to interrupt what is doubtless a fascinating conversation,” Holmes said striding back across the room in a fresh white shirt, “But may we get on with this before our entrancing companion returns? There are one or two matters that require attention.”

“Certainly, Monsieur,” Villard said coldly. “I would not be so bold as to suggest that a small amount of conversation may be of benefit at this time.” He was glaring at Holmes, but his hand tightened on my arm for a fleeting moment before he leant away.

Holmes folded his long length back to his cushion on the floor and, rather pointedly I thought, did not look at either of us. For my part, even as my head cleared, I found I was unable to turn my thoughts from the many times I’d seen him adopt just such a pose on the floor of our flat in Baker Street.

So lost was I in memories my attention was brought back to earth with a jolt when Villard, in an uncharacteristically harsh tone, said, “And I yet submit that this man must be truly buffoonish if he may attempt the assassination twice in one day. It is preposterous. John,” he said turning to me as he waved a dismissive hand at Holmes. “Please, would you not explain to your friend that this man with the air gun has so far proved to be a cunning individual? He does not act with the randomness of a mad dog, but with the clear planning, is it not so?”

I blinked. “I beg your pardon,” I said dryly. “I’m not sure I heard correctly. Am I to understand my opinion is actually being sought?”

“That he has the foreknowledge is clear,” Villard went on as though I hadn’t spoken, “What we must understand is where he learns this. It is the purest un-impossibility that– ”

“What in God’s name are you blithering about, Villard?” Holmes snapped. “The man is no more than an opportunistic hunter. Can it be your faculties have so far deteriorated that you can’t see it? Perhaps you’d best go back to chasing footpads through Pigalle and leave the detective work to those with some aptitude for it. Watson, be so good as to explain to your friend that the man we’re after clearly has no more insight than a bloodhound. This is no master criminal. After years of pursuit he knows definitively where to find me and that I am a continued danger to his organization. I think even you might admit that he has motive to make another attempt, Inspector.”

“Is it not to be conceived, Monsieur,” Villard replied in a dangerous undertone, “That you may rate the importance of your person even a little too high? For your sake this man would so risk his freedom? Is this not a bit of aggrandizement on your part?”

It did not escape my notice that, despite initial appearances to the contrary, my opinion had not been required or even actually asked. In all likelihood there’d be no need of my assistance unless a chase was in the offing or an errand needed running. Not that I was up to either of those eventualities, I thought dismally. Séraphie was certainly proving herself of more use to the enterprise than I.

As the argument raged on it was born in upon me that as intolerably fatigued as I was with this constant sniping and with my own worsening temper, I was even more discontented with my intimate view of the congealing remains of our dinner.

It was becoming an imperative that I move away from the scent of stale coffee and, I decided, I might as well test my ability to keep my feet while my companions were otherwise engaged. The least challenging course seemed to be to move to the window. Once there, I reasoned, if my nausea were no less at least the view would be more felicitous.

Holmes had begun a diatribe on the proposition that he was “better equipped to discuss the tactics of one of Moran’s gang than a sadly provincial police detective” which held promise of continuing the argument for some time so I took the opportunity to lever myself up to my feet. To my relief there was no diminishing of the discussion as I stood surprisingly readily and ventured a few steps from the divan.

I had almost reached the curtains when the conversation behind me broke off abruptly and Holmes snapped, “Watson! Get away from the window.” In the same instant his hand was on my arm and I think I might have staggered in surprise had not his grip been quite so firm. As it was my sudden anger overwhelmed my flash of vertigo.

Despite the throbbing in my head I spun toward him prepared to return a sharp reply when I registered the naked alarm on his face. The next instant he had schooled his features to a mask of bland interest, but I knew I had not been mistaken in what I had seen.

My mouth opened once before I managed to murmur, “The air gun?”

“Yes,” he replied and added dryly, “You at least have a grasp of the obvious danger. Do you think you might explain it to our friend the policeman in simple words so he may understand?” As he said this he released his hold on my arm though, I noticed, slowly enough to ensure I had my feet securely under me.

I ignored the insult toward Villard and met Holmes’s eyes, attempting to silently convey my gratitude for understanding that I did not wish to bow to my condition. His impassive gaze told me he considered the favor nothing untoward. The next instant he had thumped back down to his seat on the floor and re-engaged Villard in dispute.

As the argument raged on I considered the revelation that the air gun was still a very real threat. I had no doubt Holmes was right. Above all men he knew the capability and thirst for vengeance among Moriarty’s gang. And if revenge weren’t motivation enough an assassin could make his name on the triumph of finally and definitively ending the career of Sherlock Holmes.

As I stood to the side of the window considering this, my eye fell on the waxen bust against the wall and another piece of the puzzle slotted into place.

“The mannequin,” I said, turning to my companions. They broke off in the midst of a fresh volley of insult. “The mannequin is meant to lure this man into the open where you may catch him. With Villard’s men outside, you plan to compel him to reveal himself by making an assassination attempt.” My words picked up speed as I begun to fit the pieces together. Holmes and Villard watched me in silence, Holmes, for his part, betraying a certain enjoyment by a quirk at the corner of his mouth. “You were going to attempt this in London against Moran, but– ” I hesitated only an instant, “But you had a second bust made. This man, your current quarry. Where is he likely to be?”

“There are several most likely possibilities,” Holmes answered calmly as if the question were of only the most academic interest. “There are two lines of trees in full foliage lining the Champ de Mars parallel to the face of this building. There are several places in the park where the remains of the exhibit buildings from the 1889 Exposition still stand. And there is the Tour Eiffel itself, which provides an excellent view of this window from two platforms but with the disadvantage that even the first is some three hundred and twenty-five steps or an lift ride from the ground and so is poorly fitted with quick escape routes. All of these are completely deserted at this time of night and most are poorly lit. Our man might use any of them or he might simply drive up in a carriage and take a potshot from the avenue. We must be prepared to miss him entirely. But we must be equally prepared to take the risk.”

“Where will you be?” I asked quietly.

“We had been discussing that for some time before you awoke,” he answered and his mouth quirked in a wry smile. “Villard’s view was at odds with mine as you may imagine.”

I thought about this for a moment as both men watched me steadily.

“And where shall I be?” I asked. At this they turned toward one another, presumably to exchange another meaning glance, but I went on with a remarkable display of equanimity, “I wouldn’t think of trying to convince me to stay up here quietly. It would be a wasted effort and I believe you might better use the time to come to some sort of agreement before this man gets fed up with waiting his chance and goes home to bed. You might,” I went on, “Even consider locking me in as you did Séraphie. I would advise against it. Between the two of us I’ve no doubt we’re a match for a hotel room door.” Both men, I was dismayed to see, looked no less skeptical so I added more strongly, “Finally, I remind you, gentlemen, that I have a greater claim to this man’s apprehension than either of you.”

Holmes’s jaw tightened before he answered, “Possibly, Doctor. And possibly not. But I submit I have the prior claim.”

Our mutual stare of challenge was interrupted when Villard cut in, his voice a low rumble. “Pardon, Messieurs. Whilst we are asserting the claims in this matter, I must remind you that as Inspecteur Judiciaire I have the most business to apprehend this man and if you choose to obstruct me in my duty I may, regretfully you understand, be compelled to arrest you on that same charge.”

Holmes gave a snort. “Villard, you wouldn’t dare.”

“Would I not, Monsieur?” Villard demanded, pushing aside his chair as he stood. Holmes rose from the floor in one smooth motion.

Villard advanced on him. His smaller stature was no deterrent as he thrust a finger against Holmes’s chest. “Already you have been the cause of most grievous injury and endangerment,” he snarled. “By the laws of France–“

“Always thinking like a policeman, aren’t you, Villard?”

“Always thinking like the lonesome wolf, eh, Monsieur Holmes?”

“I believe,” I said coolly, “I should like to take a position along the nearer line of trees. Shall I go down now, or do you have further instructions?”

Holmes and Villard had each drawn breath to retort when the door to the suite swung open and with a merry, “Et voila! Success!” Séraphie’s voice rang out. She strolled into the room followed closely by two bellmen bearing an array of men’s suiting.

She waved a dainty hand and the bellmen deposited their burdens on various chairs and tables arrayed around the walls. “Merci!” she called, bestowing the men with a beatific smile as they backed through the door as though in the presence of royalty. “Merci! Au revoir!”

She hummed what sounded like a lilting waltz as she began to arrange the clothing in three sets. “Sherlock,” she said sweetly, “I am not sure these things are quite long enough– ” Her words broke off and she planted her hands on her hips as she surveyed our standoff with a curious lift of her eyebrows.

“Eh, what is this?” she said. “I leave a room of detectives and return to find a room of the boldest cavaliers. I am overwhelmed. I must enjoy this good fortune.” With that she slipped around the divan, sat and surveyed us with rapt attention.

I exchanged a look with Villard and his face relaxed its rigid lines. He gave a small shrug. “D’accord, John,” he said. “It is your choice. I will not interfere. Although I consider that this is the errand of fools.” At the last word he shot a grim look at Holmes.

“Very big of you, I’m sure, Villard,” Holmes answered tightly. “Watson, I’d be glad if you’d accompany me at the base of the Tour.”

“As you like, Holmes,” I said evenly and turned to the girl. “Séraphie, might you have a shirt and coat there in my size?”

“But of course, cher!” she said, rising on the instant and stepping to the nearest array of clothing.

“Francois,” I said, turning back to him. “Perhaps we can replace the shirt we borrowed from your neighbor–“ I broke off as I found Villard and Holmes once again exchanging black looks.

“Enough!” I rasped in the silence. “I don’t know what this feud is about and, frankly, I don’t have much interest, but I suggest you put it aside until the matter at hand is settled.” I might have expounded on the thought but the sudden outburst had caused a rush of blood to my head that manifested in an alarming return of the white lights that danced in my vision.

Thankfully, Séraphie appeared at my elbow with a shirt and jacket draped over her arm. She leaned against my back and rested her head on my shoulder effectively propping me up in a standing position. I’d no doubt she knew exactly what she was doing.

She clucked her tongue and whispered in a voice that carried easily across the room, “Oh, cher, I am afraid that we must soon see the duel, eh?”

As she passed the garments to me, she met my eyes under her lashes. “It is too bad, of course, but…” She gave a little shrug, “Cherche l’homme as they say.”

She patted me lightly on the small of my back and turned back to her task. The sound of her bright laughter followed me as I walked steadily into the bedroom and pushed the door closed behind me.

o00o
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Once back in the dim and quiet room, I felt myself sag. The bravado I’d displayed in the sitting room evaporated quickly as the full weight of my exhaustion made itself known by a violent fit of trembling. I braced my hands against the end of the bed and took several long breaths. I knew I couldn’t risk sitting. The chances I wouldn’t be able to stand again were too great.

Combat in the next room resumed almost immediately. The volume was lower as if the men wished not to be overheard but, I thought grimly, it would not have mattered as they were again speaking French.

I pushed the two of them from my mind and considered the possibilities. If I followed through and insisted on being allowed to participate in the hunt, I might put the venture at risk. Yet I couldn’t stomach the thought of being confined to the hotel room while events played out in the street below. There had to be a way to shore myself up enough… Séraphie’s earlier words rose up, unbidden, in my mind. “If you must be so determined to be on your feet…”

Straightening, I carefully laid the garments Séraphie had selected for me out on the bed. Even as did, my eyes strayed to the cabinet in the corner. She had said my blood stained jacket would be waiting there, should I want it again.

I found it neatly folded on a shelf. As I lifted it out and carried it back to the bed I could hear the pulse pounding in my ears. Delaying the inevitable, I pushed the new clothing to the side with deliberate care before I spread my old brown tweed jacket out across the bedclothes.

I first felt in the hip pocket. The rust-colored book of Paul Verlaine’s poetry was still there and was, I was amazed to see, almost unmarked by blood. In fact, as I ran my eye critically over my jacket, it seemed there had been more blood on Holmes’s clothing than on my own.

As I opened the book to riffle through the pages, something small and pale in color dropped onto the bed. It was a moment before recognition dawned. It was the pouch of candied violets I’d bought in Toulouse two evenings before.

The book had seemingly shielded it from bloodstains, but in all other ways it was a sorry spectacle. The lace bag was crumpled and as I lifted it I discovered had a small tear from which fragments of crushed violet fell in a tiny shower.

I laid the book and the violets side by side on my coat before my hand traveled to the breast pocket. The black leather case was there. Séraphie had returned it just as she had found it.

The case joined my small collection of souvenirs. A book. A bag of candied violets. A syringe case.

The book had been sold to me in a ramshackle shop in Kensington by the surly old proprietor who’d pretended it was a guide to North Africa. The bookseller had proved no more genuine than the guide. What precisely had been in Holmes’s mind when he’d maintained that disguise even as we stood eye to eye for the first time … to my knowledge, at least… in three years, and why he had chosen that book, I didn’t know. I might never know.

He had said in the garden he hadn’t meant the book as a source of secret messages when he’d given it to me. Perhaps I would question him on it. Perhaps, I thought, it didn’t matter any longer.

The original message of the book had been lost when he’d put it to new use, still as a guide of sorts, but not one to a distant, exotic land of sand-baked sun. Instead it had taken me, with Francois le Villard, on a night train to Paris.

A night train to Paris. Just days ago I’d thought to never take another such journey again. Not after the night train that had carried me alone, stunned and grieving, away from Reichenbach Falls.

The past and the present kept twining and intertwining in my tired mind. The truths I had clung to over the last three years since Holmes’s supposed death… the guilt, the pain, the nightmares… they were all still there. They hadn’t evaporated like morning mist when I’d been struck near senseless by the knowledge that he still lived.

How, I wondered, would I have survived the shock of that moment if Villard hadn’t been there with me, to talk with the old sculptor in Grenoble, to walk me with unsteady steps to the train station, to guide me through the streets of Paris to a sidewalk café in the shadow of Notre Dame. It was Francois who had led me to Grenoble at the start, I reflected.

I had stood on the platform at Montpellier, staring into the rising sun, trying so hard not to think of Holmes, clutching a little bag of candied violets bought in a trackside shop in Toulouse from a pretty young girl with laughing black eyes. The violets I’d thought would be my first new memory.

I’d hoped for so many things and they’d all been forgotten, like the violets, when I met Francois le Villard. Like the rust-colored book, he’d been set in my path by Holmes. Holmes had told him where to find me in Montpellier. Instructed him to take me under his wing, to guide my steps. Had Holmes known, when he’d sent Villard to me, just how much I’d come to rely on the intelligent and kind Inspecteur Judiciaire from Paris?

Villard had been as surprised as myself, I considered, to learn Holmes was still alive. Was he still as off-balance as I felt? Did he still find his thoughts skidding off track every time he encountered a memory or an idea that had once seemed so certain and now stood revealed as the basest illusion?

I could have used Villard’s hand on my shoulder at that moment, I realized. It would be nice to hear the laughter in his low, soothing voice as he talked of un-impossibilities and the strange ways of the heart.

We hadn’t truly talked since he’d sent me off to the Jardin des Poètes. To meet a ghost, returned from the dead, in a green and sun-dappled place far from the bleached white stones of Reichenbach Falls.

That meeting had been so faltering, so tentative, and had ended in a burst of rifle fire. What if Holmes had been killed? I thought. What if I had been killed at the very moment when time had seemed to fold in on itself at the border of a past and present that didn’t quite meet? Had I been? The strange fancy almost made me smile. My memories stretching back before that moment now seemed somehow unreal, gray and distant, as though they were stories imperfectly remembered from a book I had misplaced.

In a way, my life had started again on that Parisian hillside overlooking a field of mignonette. How odd that it was so different than the life I’d imagined as I lay awake in the watches of the night, longing for a second chance that would never come. There were no second chances, I knew now. There were only new choices and sometimes the same choice, wearing a new face.

I’d made the choice to travel to Marrakech. Though Stamford had chosen the destination for me. My mouth twisted in a wry smile as I thought how Stamford would be dismayed when he learned how far my plans had gone astray.

I’d made the choice to follow Villard to Grenoble. Although, in truth, it had been less a choice than an inevitability. I couldn’t turn my back on even the most forlorn hope that I might find some trace of Holmes that lingered in the world he’d left so chilly and dark.

What choices had I truly made? What choices had been made for me? Wasn’t it all the same in the end? All choices led back to Sherlock Holmes. All choices of more moment than a palm full of broken violets.

There was one more choice yet to make, I knew. My gaze drifted, unbidden, to the black leather case. Like one in a trance I lifted it and turned it over in my hand. I knew what was inside just as though I could see through the scuffed black leather to the velvet lining. A glass barreled syringe and a vial, just large enough to hold a dose of cocaine.

Simple things. Ordinary things that carried so much meaning. It had been my choice to carry the case away from the Falls, to make it part of my days and nights as I wandered through them, lost in memories and grief. What kind of anchor had it been, pulling me ever back to the past to before even Reichenbach, to that night on the train six years ago when in the elation of what I’d thought was love, Holmes had promised me he wouldn’t need it to distract him from whatever demons haunted his thoughts when he was alone.

Were his demons gone now? Had they been swept away in the boiling white water? Or were they here, clinging to the black case in my hand, laughing at my folly, at my foolish, hopeless, pointless hesitation?

For I knew, as surely as I knew the feel of that black leather in my hand, I was going to take the drug. There was no choice. I had to follow Holmes.

Some part of me then, some deep part of me that still echoed back my voice howling on the side of a wind-scoured cliff, some spark in me asked, when would it be enough? When might it end? When could I finally turn my steps aside and make the choice Mary had offered?

My sweet Mary and the legacy she had left. The last remnants of a treasure long gone, the bequest that was to have taken me to new places. Places where I might begin to make a new life. One that wasn’t built on the bones of old dreams.

I remembered what Kate Whitney had said, it seemed so long ago now, as she leant forward to brush a light kiss on my cheek. She’d told me, “Be happy, John. For Mary’s sake and for your own.”

Happiness seemed very far away from this hotel room in Paris, so full of doubts and fears and echoing voices and the choice, that was not a choice, I held in my hand.

In the end, what difference did it all make? What difference did it truly make if I indulged the demons, if I gave up one more piece of what I’d thought it meant to be John Watson? What difference did it make when there was so little of myself I could still call my own?

As I stood, irresolute, turning pointless thoughts over and over in my mind, there was a hesitant tap at the door behind me. I had to collect myself just to clear my throat before I could manage to say, “Yes. Come in.”

The door opened and I looked up into the mirror behind the bed. Holmes stood framed in the doorway, limned by the bright lights of the sitting room, his face in shadow.

“Villard’s meeting with his men for last minute instructions,” he said in the stillness. “I wondered if you needed– if I could help, in any way.” I hesitated and his voice was tight as he added, “Or if you’d prefer, I could send Séraphie or…”

“No,” I said quickly. “No, thank you. I–” I looked at the case once more and exhaled slowly. “I’d be grateful for your help.” I turned and held the case out to him. “Please.”

He stepped into the dim light of the bedroom and I watched the recognition dawn in his eyes. He looked up and his gaze met mine. Whatever I had expected to see, it was not there. I didn’t find accusation or disappointment. There was no anger or disbelief in his eyes. There was only quiet acceptance. Almost before I had registered the action he had pushed the door closed and moved toward the bed.

He held out his hand for the case. I placed it in his open palm and his fingers closed over it. I thought how large clumsy my hand looked next to his. He stood there a moment longer and I looked up to find he was studying the small array of items on the bed.

“I wondered,” I said, trying to sound casual and hearing instead the catch in my throat. “I had meant to ask. You said there was something else you’d intended me to see in the book, originally.”

He didn’t answer and I saw his jaw tighten. “It’s no longer important,” he said. He bent and pushed the clothing and the rest to the side then straightened and with a light touch on my shoulder, urged me down to sit on the edge of the bed. In the next instant he’d crossed briskly to the bathroom and clicked on the electric lamp. I blinked as the blue-white light spilled across the floor to my feet.

I could see only his back through the open door. I heard the case snap open and saw him stand, studying it for a moment before his shoulders moved and water began to run in the basin.

As is the way of such things, now that the adrenaline of anticipation coursed through me, I felt stronger, as if I no longer needed the artificial support of the drug. Even the near blinding pain radiating from my skull down my neck and shoulders felt less. I knew it was an illusion, of course. The adrenaline would soon be gone and I’d be left weak as a kitten, utterly unable to be of use.

I sought for some conversation to distract my mind. “I would be glad,” I ventured, “If you could fill a few gaps in my memory. Séraphie gave me the rough outlines of what happened after I lost consciousness, but…”

My words trailed off and Holmes’s voice carried back to me in his normal assured tones. “As you have no doubt discovered for yourself, it was a glancing shot although,” he went on, “Among other things, you are fortunate to still have your right ear.”

I smiled in spite of myself at this dry observation. “Did you see the gunman?” I asked.

“No. He was hiding in a copse of trees some distance behind you. The range of those air guns is exceptional. I gathered that he was aiming at my chest and when you bent forward…” His voice trailed off. Water splashed in the basin. “I saw him at a distance, as he ran for the forest at the edge of the park. If I had to speculate, I would put him at six foot two or three and some fourteen stone. He had a sprinter’s wind. I would not be surprised to learn that he was in his late twenties and had competed in field sports in his university days. While the Doctor worked,” he added. “I went to examine the place he’d been hiding. He wears a size eleven shoe, a rather fine low-heeled walking boots of Italian make, and smokes a variety of Punjabi cigarette common to–”

“Roman Saint-James,” I said, pulling the name from my mind with something of the same delight as if I’d suddenly found I could perform card tricks.

Holmes went quiet and l saw him lean back to stare through the open door at me. I smiled with real pleasure at the look of startlement on his face.

“Roman Saint-James,” I said. “I met him on the platform at Montpellier. I think he boarded at Calais.”

Holmes stared. “Roman,” he said at last.

My eyes widened. “Moran.” I considered the possibilities. “A son?”

“I’ve no information about any heirs,” Holmes said thoughtfully. “If he is a relation he could be a nephew or even more distant. Or it may be a case of barre sinister. It’s an avenue for investigation, certainly.”

We regarded one another then Holmes leant away and resumed his work at the basin. “Can you describe him in any detail?” he asked over his shoulder.

I considered. “I’m not sure,” I said truthfully. “I was rather distracted at the time. He is certainly as you describe in build and I remember thinking he looked like an athlete fresh from university until I noticed the age in his face. He’s something like thirty, has sandy or sun-bleached hair… that seems more likely because his skin was very brown as if he’d been in Africa or the East for an extended time. He was dressed in a pale brown suit and wore a white rose in his buttonhole. I think his eyes are a medium brown. Like caramel, perhaps.”

The flow of water cut off. “You seem to have observed him rather more closely than you at first believed,” Holmes said.

“I suppose I did,” I said. “I’d been brushing up my observational skills on the journey, since I’d spent so much time writing in my journal–” My words broke off as I remembered on a sudden who had sent the journal to me as in an unmarked package on the morning of my departure from London.

I sought for something else to say, but the words fled from my mind. The journal was sitting with my leather kit bag in Villard’s flat. Thinking on it now I wasn’t sure if I’d ever open it again. The man who had written in that journal on the train ride through France had only existed for the space of a day and was now long gone from the world.

I heard the tap of glass against the basin and Holmes’s voice. He sounded somehow hoarse as he offered, “That’s a considerably better description than that I had to work with a few hours ago. Thank you.”

I blinked at this unexpected praise then said, smiling, “You do realize you might have had this information a bit earlier if you’d given me some of the facts while we were in the sitting room.”

“Yes,” Holmes said, dryly. “I do.”

He turned in the doorway and my smile faltered. He seemed to hesitate for an instant then he pulled the bathroom door half-closed. The glow from the electric light slivered down to a narrow band that cut across the floor.

“I regretted not being able to follow you to Marseilles,” Holmes said as he crossed to the bed. His face was again in shadow and I heard a change in his tone I couldn’t identify without seeing his expression. “I had to make arrangements for Paris. Fortunately, I knew where to find our friend Inspector le Villard. I had planned to contact him even before I became aware of my mistaken impression of your knowledge of travelers’ French. I trust he made himself useful?”

I nodded and refocused my gaze, staring ahead at the bedroom door as he moved around the bed. “Very much so. I’m glad to have– ” I broke off as a thought crossed my mind. I wondered if I’d hit on a source of the conflict between my two friends. I looked up at Holmes and said, “I wasn’t followed to the park. Villard made sure-”

“He told me the precautions you two had taken,” Holmes said. “He told me vociferously and at great length, in fact.” He paused and I looked up to find him watching me. He looked away when I met his eyes. “You asked for him in the carriage,” he remarked.

“Did I?” I said. I thought back. “I have a vague memory of thinking he might explain why… why I seemed to hear your voice although you were dead.” I think it was the first time I’d been able to say the word to him. If I’d had time to think about it, I reflected, it would have been more difficult than it was.

The silence lengthened and I looked up to find Holmes watching me again. He took in a short, quick breath before he said, “It will be simpler if…” he glanced at the jumper.

It took me a moment to comprehend the sense of his suggestion. “Oh. Yes, of course,” I said and reached for the jumper’s waist.

“Stop,” he said and bent toward me. We hesitated in the same instant. He bit his lip, in that same strange gesture that had given me pause in the park, before he said, “If I may.”

I nodded dumbly and he bent forward, reaching behind me. I realized I hadn’t noticed him set down the syringe and case when he’d come back to the bed.

His white linen shirt brushed my cheek as his lithe hands found the waist of the jumper at my back. Some part of my mind noted that instead of the aroma of tobacco, his shirt, just as the jumper, carried only the scent of freshly laundered linen.

I tried to concentrate on my other senses. The weave of his shirt as he eased the jumper up my back. The sound of my own breath as he pulled it up and over my shoulders.

I tried to concentrate on anything but the feel of his hands against my skin. But that was all I knew. His touch burned as his fingertips brushed the back of my neck and through my hair.

Though I tried with all my might, I could not banish the memory of all the times, in the silent vault of the night, when even the howling water was still, how I’d thought of such a moment and how it might be. His fingers on my skin, his breath against my ear, his heart beating so close to mine… I felt heat start behind my eyes. This was the closest I’d ever come, I knew, to feeling such sensations. It could have been so different.

He carefully eased the jumper over my head and I wanted the moment to last forever. I so wanted to look up into his eyes. I wanted to match that image to the sensations coursing through my skin. But I couldn’t bear the thought of the distance I’d see there. Better, I knew, to have half a dream than none at all.

At least I’d know what was to feel his breath on my bare shoulder. I’d remember the feel of his arms around me, so like an embrace.

Here on a bed in a hotel in Paris, it was nothing like what I’d imagined and so much more than I’d had any right to hope for. I wouldn’t have traded the pain for anything in the world.

His hands brushed my wrists as he pulled the jumper from my arms and the next instant he had turned half away and was folding it carefully and laying it aside on the bed.

It seemed to have been too long since I last took a breath. For the space of an instant I wasn’t sure I remembered how.

In the stillness he seemed to gasp once before he asked, “Have you a handkerchief?”

I swallowed. “No. It’s– no.”

He nodded and moved to the cabinet. I heard the rustle of fabric as he searched through his bag. I studied my hands as they gripped my knees, I willed them to relax.

He turned back to the bed and sat down beside me, the handkerchief draped across his lap. We sat, half-turned to one another. Our knees almost, but not quite touching just as we had a handful of hours before in the Jardin des Poètes. Before this moment would have been conceivable.

Gooseflesh raised on my arms as his long, cool fingers circled my wrist. He lifted my hand to rest, palm up, on his leg and I felt the muscles of his thigh tense.

He sat there unmoving, for a long moment before I realized he was studying the crook of my arm. “I haven’t,” I said in the stillness.

He exhaled a long breath and released my hand. He deftly twirled the handkerchief into the shape of a rope then looked up and met my eyes. The unspoken question hung in the air between us.

“It’s my choice,” I said and wondered why I didn’t believe it.

He inclined his head once in acknowledgement of my words then he threaded the handkerchief around my upper arm.

With two, quick movements he snugged the makeshift tourniquet tight. He met my eyes and I nodded.

He turned away to retrieve the syringe from where he’d placed it on the bed. “How did you come to…” he began, his voice tight.

I didn’t need to hear the rest of the question. I thought over possible answers as he raised the syringe. He held the glass barrel to the ray of blue-white light, waiting for the cloudy solution to clear. It crossed my mind to lie. To say it was for convenience. In case of a medical crisis.

“As a memento,” I said.

His face went very still. Then he looked down and with a light brush of the fingers of his free hand over mine, he curled my open palm into a fist.

His fingertips traced a blue-violet vein from my wrist to the crook of my arm. He studied it critically for a moment then thumped it once with the back of his index finger. I almost jumped at the sudden movement and I think if I had I might have laughed from the tension, but in the next instant he had positioned the needle. I felt the pressure as he touched it to my skin.

It was a ridiculous way for a doctor to behave, I thought, so ridiculous, but I couldn’t watch. Even as the needle pierced my skin and slid home, my eyes came up. Holmes’s lips were tight as he depressed the plunger with a slow, even stroke. He raised his other hand and released the handkerchief tourniquet as the glass barrel emptied.

He tugged the needle free and pressed the handkerchief to the crook of my arm as he turned and tossed the empty syringe onto the bed.

He raised his eyes. I gazed into them over a span of inches. Tiny silver flecks dotted the gray. I had never noticed them before.

Warmth leeched outward from my chest to my nerve endings. A low buzzing started in my ears. I tasted something like sulfur and tin at the back of my throat then time seemed to protract. Over the span of several minutes the handkerchief moved away and I heard Holmes tuck it into his trouser pocket. The sound was so vivid I could almost see the edges of it.

I gasped as he touched the corner of my jaw. It seemed as if the pulse there was coming from his fingertips into my skin rather than the reverse. His hand moved, his fingers cupped my chin and he stared into my eyes.

I tried to smile reassuringly. To let him know I was fine. More than fine. I wasn’t sure if I smiled or grinned.

His nostrils flared. “Get dressed,” he said. Then he stood and strode to door. He pulled it shut behind him with a barely audible click that seemed to echo off the walls.

I stared at the closed door and tried to feel regret. Instead I felt only a depthless sense of peace.
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-«oOo»-
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~ Coming Soon ~
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Chapter Ten: Shards of Silver

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