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The Longest Night

“Being John Watson”

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by nlr alicia
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Part Two: Aquarelles

Chapters 6-11

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Author’s Note on the Author’s Notes: They’re all in Part One.

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Content Warnings:
Special Director’s Cut Edition – See if you can spot the differences!

Romantical slash. PG-13 to R-Rated in the last two chapters. Angst? Buckets full. Sad little buckets. Also substance abuse, French detectives, egregious misuse of poetry and lots and lots of trains. (Actually, we’re just about out of trains.) More than a tad bit of violence. Still no kittens.

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From “Seventy Minutes to London”
Pycroft chuckled merrily. “It goes to show my old Ma was right. She used to say, my boy, the longest night in the world’s still got a sunrise after it.”

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—oooOIIIOooo—
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Part Two: Aquarelles

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Chapter Six: Golden Courtesan

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“A companion loves some agreeable qualities which a man may possess, but friend loves the man himself.”

- James Boswell
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“My friend,” Villard said slowly, “I think it is true what we have each been told. That it is the most capital of mistakes to make a theory before the fact is known.”

I continued to sit, my elbows on my knees, staring out the window of our compartment. Behind spider web branches, the moon slivered, vanished, and reappeared flickering.

Villard’s reflection held steady on the glass. He was leaning back on the opposite banquette, staring straight ahead, one fingertip tapping rhythmically against his chin in counterpoint time with the beat of the wheels.

I leant back to rest my head against the cushioned seat. “I suspect we have also both been told,” I said. “That when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I rubbed the heel of my hand across my eyes. “Francois, I am no longer certain I can identify the impossible.”

“Non, I do not think that this is true,” Villard said. “You and I, we will reason through this thing that seems so full of impossibilities and we will see what is…” He flashed a smile. “What is un-impossible, eh?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “All right,” I said, nodding. “We will see what is un-impossible. Where do we begin?”

Villard sat forward. “I think to work back in time is easiest.”

I puffed out a sigh. “Well, we know that Holmes was in Grenoble.”

“It is so,” Villard agreed. “There he commissions a figure in wax. He sends it to London. We do not know to what address in London.”

“We can assume that he also commissioned the second bust to be sent to Paris. To the address on the card given you by Meunier… Mullerrebe – which is it?” I asked.

“Meunier,” he said. “Oscar Meunier. The address in Paris is near to the Parc du Champs de Mars.”

“I’m afraid I have only been to Paris a few times,” I said. “Is this a location I should know?”

“Eh.” Villard gave a dismissive wave. “It is not an important place compared to the beautiful sights of my city. The Folly du Eiffel. It is not too lovely.”

“The Folly du Eiffel,” I said. “Do you mean the Eiffel Tower?”

“Oui. Blot that it is.” Villard pulled a face. “For now we will set this fact aside. We have the mannequin from Meunier. We may see what we see when we arrive with it at the address. We cannot know what this is that has not yet happened, so we do not wonder. We continue backward.”

“Before Grenoble, there was the telegram,” I said.

“Oui,” Villard’s hand went reflexively to his breast pocket. “The telegram anonymous. We may assume this is from Monsieur Holmes. He knows I go to Montpelier. How does he know this?” Villard shrugged. “Who can say. Does he follow my movement as I try to follow his? This we cannot know.”

“Perhaps,” I said flatly. “We shall ask him.”

Villard flashed a smile with little humor in it. “Perhaps we shall do this,” he said. “And so to the telegram. It says I should meet with you in Montpelier. So Monsieur Holmes, if it is he, also knows you are there.”

“Arriving at 7.10,” I reminded him. “Wearing a brown suit.” I knocked the toe of my shoe against the bag at my feet. “Carrying a leather kit bag.”

“Oui. So it is these last two facts which are of most significance, is it not so?”

“He must have observed me,” I said, fighting the tightness building in my throat. “At some point along my route.”

“We cannot know where,” Villard said, his eyes narrowing as gazed at my bag. “Was it in London? Was it on the journey? Your train stops several times. A telegram may be sent from any point or in the relay from one point to the next. Too many un-impossibilities.”

“It could have been anywhere,” I agreed. I expelled a long breath then went on, “Certainly if he was in disguise.”

Villard’s gaze came up. “This disguise you could not penetrate?”

I shook my head. “Even when I knew him to be–” I stopped and collected my fleeing thoughts. “Even when I knew him to be alive, I could never see through his disguises.”

The memory of his lips masked by layers of cracked and peeling beeswax flashed up in my mind. I willed myself to trace the fleur-de-lys pattern of the fabric on the opposite wall. “He could have been anyone.”

“Non.” Villard’s voice was firm. “Not anyone. Monsieur Holmes, he never taught to me this gift of disguise. But he taught me to see into a disguise. The things that cannot be hidden.”

“Weight,” I said, pulling the idea from those slipping through my mind.

“And ears,” Villard added. “Though these may be covered as the face may be.”

I sat up, staring at Villard. “The old woman in the station. There was an old French woman, heavily veiled, in the station when I boarded at Victoria. She–”

I broke off remembering taking her elbow as I helped her up the stairs. My mouth opened but no sound came out.

Villard’s voice was sharp. “Bon. This old woman. Did you see her again?”

I shook my head slowly. “Not after Calais. I assumed…” my voice trailed off. She had touched my arm, pointed at her book. The place on my arm felt hot and cold at the same time.

“Doctor. Later.”

The steely sound in Villard’s voice brought me up short. I met his gaze and his eyes softened.

“Later,” he said again. “There will be time later. Now we think. We think of what we know.”

I managed a crooked smile. “Oui,” I said. “We think of what we know.”

Villard’s smile touched his eyes. “Oui.”

“So,” he went on. “The old woman, we leave for now. Her importance is not for this moment. I have no more facts to add. I have only rumor and… guesses. Now I understand that I am simply playing the game with logic before today. It has been a mere puzzle to my mind. A name here. A strangeness there. Phuff.” He snapped his fingers. “Not a fact in sight.”

I rubbed at my forehead. “I can’t add much more. He might have been any face in the crowd. I could have stood and spoken to him–” I froze. “The old bookseller. The old bookseller who–” I thrust my hand into my open bag and sat up holding aloft the rust-colored book of poetry.

Villard’s eyes widened. He reached out then withdrew his hand. “May I?” he asked diffidently.

I held the book out to him. “Please.”

He flicked through the pages. He turned the book over so the pages hung toward the floor. He held it up, bending the spine to peer through the gap. Finally he traced the interior edges of the cover.

He looked up at me, disappointment in every line of his face. “Without some indication,” he began. He turned the book up in his lap and stared vacantly at the pages. “We may simply read and see if we find a key…” his voice trailed off.

“Wait!” I bent and dug through my bag again. I pulled out my new journal and flipped it open to the flyleaf. I thrust it triumphantly at Villard. “The key.”

Villard’s gaze ran down the list of numbers inscribed inside the cover. “A cipher,” he said wonderingly.

To my surprise, I laughed. “Yes, in the Birlstone Manor case, Holmes,” I swallowed. “Holmes showed me how to read a number cipher that corresponded to words in a book. This book,” I tapped the open journal. “Arrived on the morning I left London with no indication who had sent it. I assumed it had come from a friend of mine…”

As my voice subsided, Villard leaped into the gap. “Oui, yes,” he said excitedly. He thrust the open journal back toward me. I took it as he opened the book of poetry on his knee and grinned.

“John,” he said. “If you please. What number is first?”

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After a frustrating start we decided that the first number referred to a page and that the words on the page were grouped in threes. The second number referred to a group and the third to a word in the group.

“It is a simple enough cipher,” Villard commented as he turned pages. “If one has the right pieces.”

“And a working knowledge of the French language,” I said, smiling.

“Oui.” Villard chuckled. “Monsieur Holmes leaves not much to chance. He knows where you are going. He knows I, too, am going there. A coup-de-maître indeed.”

A thought had been niggling at the corner of my mind. As Villard counted out the words, tracing his finger across the lines, I asked, “Francois, why use a code at all? Why not just send a telegram?”

Villard put a finger on the page to hold his place and looked up past me toward the window. “I, too, have pondered this, my friend. I think perhaps it is a part of why Monsieur Holmes takes himself away for so long. I will tell you what I believe. This is purely the work of speculation you understand. Maybe you will agree with my speculations, maybe not. We will see.”

He gave a little sigh and began, “Monsieur Holmes, he takes you on his journey to the mountains these years ago. He does this because he knows this Professeur Moriarty wants to revenge himself. The Professeur has this man with the air gun. The Professeur follows on the trail of you and Monsieur Holmes. Is the Professeur killed? I think so. Was he alone? Maybe not. I think maybe the Professeur dies and the man with the air gun is left. This man knows Monsieur Holmes is not killed. Now this man with the air gun, he wants revenge.”

Villard shrugged. “Is all just airy thought, you understand. Remember I have not the facts. What we know is Monsieur Holmes, he somehow escapes. He goes here and there in disguises, with other names. After these years of masquerade, he makes himself known to you and I by this telegram. Yet he is invisible. The telegram tells me that it is urgent to meet you and I must ‘observe all due caution.’ Let us assume then that this… hypothetical, eh? This hypothetical man with the air gun is looking for him still. This air gun man goes to look in London. You are in London. You are leaving London. Monsieur Holmes follows you. Why? ‘All due caution.’ Air Gun Man and I are of the same mind. Each of us think maybe you go to meet Monsieur Holmes. Your friend sees this in the mind of Air Gun Man and he knows you face danger. Monsieur Holmes must watch over you, but he must also stay hidden until he may capture Air Gun Man. We say this is true. Hypothetical. So now where is this Air Gun Man? Does he follow you on the train? Maybe he follows you to Grenoble. To Paris even. He may ride this train with us. We do not know, but we must assume the danger is not past. And we must trust Monsieur Holmes to make all clear when the time is come.”

With considerable effort, I was able to keep my silence through this recitation. At last I said, “If all that is so, Francois, and I have no reason to doubt it after what I’ve seen today, then where is Holmes now?” I took a steadying breath. “Is he on this train?

“I think he is not,” Villard said quietly. “I think he trusts that we learn what we learn from Monsieur Meunier. That we continue. Your friend is not arbitrary, eh? He makes decisions with thought. He thinks to keep you from danger. He sends me to go with you. Your friend, I think, is waiting in Paris. When we understand this message before us… we see where it will takes us.” He looked down at the book and clucked his tongue. “Ah, I have foolishly lost count. What is the number we look for on this page? Oui, 17413. Here. The word is matin – morning.”

I forced myself to concentrate on the notes I had jotted in the journal alongside the numbers. “We have friendly cat blue cathedral gold courtesan morning.” I looked up. “And you say the Blue Cathedral–“

“I believe it is Our Lady, the Notre Dame,” he said, nodding. “The Madonna is known by her blue gown, the cathedral is not far from the Tour Eiffel. It is a place full of English people, touristes. It is a safe place to meet. This ‘gold courtesan’ may be a woman we will know by her dress or her hair. Does she have another message for us? I think that is likely. I think because Monsieur Holmes, he must construct the message before us in London, he does not yet have a rendezvous planned in Paris. The place of rendezvous will be the message we get from the gold courtesan. Again I speculate. It is a bad habit as Monsieur Holmes warns,” He shrugged. “I will worry on that later. But this friendly cat in the message. That is strange.”

Amiteaux, Chat,” I recited the words.

“But ‘amiteaux’ has no word in English,” Villard murmured as if to himself. “The Delightful Cat? The Cat with Good Spirits? Is it a café? There is no such place near to– Ah!” He slapped his knee. “I have it. It is the play on words. The Bishop’s Cat. There is no word ‘Bishop’ in these poems. So, Amiteaux. Ami Dieu. We go to the cat of the friend of God in the shadow of Notre Dame. Le café the Bishop’s Cat. C’est bon. C’est très, très bon.”

His delight was infectious. I smiled as I tapped the journal in my lap. “But why ‘morning’?” I asked. “Did Holmes know we’d arrive in the morning?”

“Ah,” Villard said and gave a dismissive wave. “That is easy. All trains east to Paris are night trains. C’est tout.”

I felt a pang in the pit of stomach at the memory of my last ride on an eastbound night train through France. “So it seems we have our message and still some time before Paris. Shall you go to sleep?” I asked.

“I believe I should. We may have much to worry us in the morning. We must think of this hypothetical Air Gun Man. Should he exist, no doubt he will be near. You will go to sleep?”

“I should do,” I agreed. I stared out the window. The moon had sunk below the horizon. We sat in silence for a moment.

Villard cleared his throat. “Perhaps I read from Verlaine, eh? You practice more en Francais?”

I settled back in my seat. “Très bon,” I said giving him a small smile.

“Ah, see?” His eyes twinkled. “Already you have a little French.”

“Francois,” I said as he began to thumb through the pages, “You said before that Verlaine was notorious. Is it for his addiction to absinthe and opiates? Surely that’s not entirely out of the common for men of artistic temperament.”

“Hem, non.” Villard studied the book in his hands. “It is not for that reason alone.” He pursed his lips. “Perhaps… Perhaps, I will give you this poem.” He turned the book so I could see the words and began to read.

“It is of a set of poems with the name “Brussels.” he said. “Of its own, it has no name.” He began to read.

The pathway runs on without end
Yonder where the heavens blend
Over this sweet glade.
Do you know that it would be
Good to lie beneath this tree
In the secret shade?

Some gentlemen in careful dress–
Who they are one well might guess
Friends without a doubt
Of the Royer-Collards – go
On their way toward the chateau.
Would that were my route!

The old chateau is all in white,
With, at its side, the somber light
Of the setting sun.
Fields around… Here all is blest,
Oh! that here our love could nest
When our day is done.

“Many people,” Villard said still studying the page, “They say Verlaine wrote this poem for a friend. A poet called Arthur Rimbaud. A very… tempestuous friendship they had. Verlaine was one day arrested for trying to kill Rimbaud in a fit of rage. Of jealousy maybe. Most people believe he was not serious in his attempt. He is only being French, they say,” Villard shrugged. “Who knows? The Belgians say he is serious and send him to prison for some years. The young man, Rimbaud, does not find it agreeable to wait. So now Verlaine sits in the Lapin Agile drinking absinthe and writing bad poems.” Villard gave a humorless smile. “My city, Paris, she can forgive the misbegotten love. She can forgive the crimes of passion. She can forgive many things. But to lose one’s talent? That she cannot forgive.” Villard closed the book in his lap. “And so for all these things, Verlaine is notorious. But at the bottom it is just, as they say, a case of l’amour toujours.”

“Yes,” I said and gazed out the window. “It sounds very like l’amour toujours.”

After a moment, Villard laid the book of poetry on the banquette beside me.

“Perhaps we try to sleep after all, eh, John?” he said softly. He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.

I did not answer. I closed the journal on my lap and placed it on the bag at my feet. Then I picked up the rust-colored book and turned the pages, seeing without reading words with no meaning.

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At nine o’clock in the morning, the depot of Gare de Montparnasse was teaming with travelers. We met the railway porter and after retrieving the case into which Monsieur Meunier had packed the wax bust we had to make our way through the throngs coming and going through the wide glass-paned doors of the station.

“It is fortunate,” Villard said, raising his voice above the din. “That we did not have the many suitcases to gather, eh, my friend? We are on our way tout de suite.”

I wasn’t entirely sure I agreed with Villard. Having left my traveling wardrobe along with my toilet requisites in Marseilles, I was becoming ever more conscious of my travel worn suit and the wish for a warm bath.

As if reading my mind, Villard took my arm and guided me toward the cabstand. “We will stop at my flat, I think, before the rendezvous, n’est pas? It is close by and the Bishop’s Cat will not be open for some bit of time more.”

Villard and I were soon jouncing over the Paris streets to his flat in Saint Germain. “The roads on the Right Bank are not so, eh… Bohemian as this,” he said with a laugh as my hat bounced off and landed in his lap. “They say the Right Bank is for spending and the Left is for thinking. I think they could spend more on this road, eh?”

After a short wash (perhaps more refreshing than I might have wished given the icy chill of the water), during which Villard managed to procure for me a clean shirt and collar from a rather larger neighbor, I felt much more myself.

We agreed to leave the bust in his flat along with my traveling case. The book of Verlaine’s poetry fit easily in the pocket of my tweed coat.

I asked Villard if he would take measures to ensure we weren’t followed to the café. He nodded and said noncommittally. “We shall see. I believe it will not be too difficult to keep up the surveillance, eh?”

A short time later we were bouncing along in another cab, this one bound for the Ile de la Cíte and Notre Dame. The love Villard felt for his city was plainly evident in the excited way he pointed out the landmarks along our way. I had visited Paris before, but never with a native of the city. It was a very different to wandering the streets with one’s face buried in a guidebook.

He kept up a steady stream of narrative, turning to remark on this and that, telling tales of a city that had been ancient when the Romans arrived. Listening to his exuberant descriptions of events long distant was so diverting I was almost able to forget the tightness in my chest.

A little more than twelve hours before I’d learned that Sherlock Holmes was still alive. That he had been close enough to touch. That I had looked into his eyes and he had said nothing.

Villard’s hand on my wrist called me back to myself. “John,” he said brightly over the steady clop of horse’s hooves. “You have not eaten, I think, since I so rudely interrupted your breakfast of yesterday. I will order for you at our destination. You will have a very large meal and perhaps a little glass of wine, eh? In Paris, it is not too early now I think.” He gave me grin.

I managed a smile of assent and he beamed back at me. “Ah, bon,” he said. “We must have the energy for the day. I think it may be an exciting one, non?”

He grinned and pointed past me out the window of the cab, “Ah, see! There is Our Lady. She is truly beautiful.”

I followed his gaze and saw the two towers of the great cathedral rising like a galleon among clippers. Morning light bathed the great edifice lending the stone a warm glow. It was indeed beautiful, yet somehow terrible in its grand silence. As our cab rocked across the Pont Neuf to the open square that marked the very heart of France, Notre Dame and her great, still face filled the sky.

Our cab juddered to a halt at the corner of the two narrow streets that crossed on the northern side of the cathedral. Villard bounded out and paid the cabman while I climbed down more slowly. Villard was at my elbow before the horse gave a high whinny and the cab started away.

He began his travelogue again on the instant, pointing down the road before us. “There,” he said excitedly. “That is where the doomed lovers Abélard and Heloïse met and fell in love. Ah, it is the most beautiful tale of woe, is it not?”

Before I could give my opinion, Villard was pulling me forward toward our destination. The Bishop’s Cat was a café like many I had seen from the cab. Delicately curved iron chairs were arrayed along the walk with round tables scattered among them. Each table looked hardly large enough to hold a tea set, yet several were occupied by groups of two or three, each diner sipping dark coffee from saucer-shaped cups and now and again reaching out to pull apart a golden brioche. Some dipped the sweet bread in their coffee before popping it into their mouths.

Villard ushered me to a corner table under the shade of the narrow yellow awning that extended the length of the establishment. Looking to the café itself I saw there were no tables other than those at the road, the interior being entirely dominated by gleaming wood bar traced with brass fittings.

Villard called a hearty “Bonjour!” to a tall waiter with neatly groomed side whiskers. The man wandered up with an easy rolling gate. “Bonjour, ça va, Messieurs,” he murmured. His eyes followed a young woman strolling past until the hem of her trim velvet dress vanished around the corner.

Unconcerned by this apparent lack of attention, Villard was rattling off a long list of items from a menu we had not been offered. I could only assume the menu was identical at every sidewalk café throughout the city.

While Villard made arrangements for what sounded like an enormous meal, I glanced discretely around at our fellow diners. At the nearest table two couples of middle years conversed in rapid bursts of dialogue interspersed with bouts of gay laughter. In the farthest corner an apparent philosopher in a faded black woolen suit was engaged in vigorous disputation with two young women who made gestures that set the bonnets on their heads bobbing.

I was startled to see one of the young women gazing curiously back at me and I blushed at being caught out. Villard chuckled beside me and I turned to him.

“It is the national sport,” he said wryly. “You have your cricket, we have watching one another. It is part curiosity, part diversion. But it makes it something more difficult to spot a golden courtesan from those casting their eye your way, non?”

He chuckled and inclined his head toward the girl who was again in conversation with the serious young man. “It is not that one. We wait. She will appear.”

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Villard proved forceful in his insistence on fortifying me with the local cuisine and despite the heavy knot that persistently rolled in the pit of my stomach I managed to consume at least enough to appease him.

“Francois,” I said, studying the fragments of anise-flavored biscuit on my tea plate, “You are sure we should expect to receive another set of instructions. Holmes, if he is in Paris, will not meet us here.”

Villard took another sip of strong black coffee from his tiny demitasse. “That is my belief, my friend,” he said at last. “But we cannot know what– ah, non. Not this one. C’est impossible…” His eyes narrowed and he set down his cup with an uncharacteristic clatter of china.

I tried to follow his gaze but saw only milling throngs of tourists. “Do you see her?”

“Oui,” groaned Villard. “I see her. But ‘courtesan’ is rather kind a name, I think, for this Séraphie Bouguereau.”

I spotted her an instant later, moving through the caterpillars of tourists who shuffled behind brightly chattering guides. She strolled with a gliding walk that set the lace trim (I hoped it was lace trim and not petticoat) of her cherry blossom pink dress swirling around her ankles. Men and women alike turned to watch her pass.

As she drew closer I could see she did indeed have an abundance of shining golden hair piled loosely under her simple white bonnet. It complimented her faintly olive skin remarkably. She wore no paint, but had a healthy, glowing complexion. Her beauty was all the more profound for its apparent artlessness.

When she saw my companion rise from his seat (I followed his example rather tardily, so rapt was my attention on her approach) Séraphie’s radiant smile encompassed us both and for an instant seemed to cast a spell of silence over the babble of voices and the rattle of cabs passing endlessly on the street.

“Monsieur Villard,” she said brightly, extending one slender hand to the Inspector even as she inclined her head to me. “And this I think is Doctor John Watson, is it not?”

I murmured something in response and touched her delicate fingers to my lips. A light scent of lavender lingered in the air as she settled in the vacant chair, arranging her slim skirt decorously as she sat.

“I have a message for you, Doctor,” she said, lowering her voice to a breathy whisper. The rapt attention of her sea green eyes was reserved solely for me as she murmured, “But first, I think I would like a glass of wine.”

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It was impossible to hurry Séraphie to the burden of her visit and despite the welling sense of anxiety that was fighting upward in my chest, it was just as difficult to ignore her charms, although I noticed Villard seemed to be managing quite well in that regard. I once looked over to find him elaborately rolling his eyes.

After some twenty minutes of polite badinage in which Séraphie complimented the cut of my suit, while taking special care to let her gaze linger on my shoulders, and asked if my hair was always so fair or if I had been sailing recently in the Mediterranean, Villard was finally able to turn the conversation to her message.

“Ah, oui,” she said with a little sigh that caused her bosom to rise and fall. “The message is very simple.” She leant across the table and laid one hand lightly on my arm. “It is for you, John.” I held my breath as she murmured, “Seventeen, fourteen, and one hundred thirty one.”

She canted her head a little to the side, her delicately arched eyebrows raised quizzically as she studied my face. “Is it the message you desired, cher?”

It was only with profound effort that I kept from digging for the book in my jacket pocket on the instant, but I felt Villard’s fingers on my wrist under the cover of the table and I forced my hand to relax.

“Thank you, Mademoiselle Bouguereau,” I said carefully. “That is just the message I expected.”

She smiled beatifically, her hand still resting lightly on my upper arm. “I am so glad. It seemed very important that you receive it so I took special care to remember the numbers.”

“Who gave you–” I began, but Villard cut across my words.

“We thank you for your time, Séraphie,” he said flatly. “I am sure I will find a way to recompense you for your consideration in the not too far future. If you will excuse us–”

“Oh, non, it was my pleasure,” Séraphie responded with a light laugh, gazing at me as she said, “It is I who am grateful for the chance of conversation with two so charming gentlemen.”

“- we really mustn’t keep you from your other appointments,” Villard went on.

Séraphie showed her first sign of pique as she shot him a glance from under her lashes then she gave a mock sigh and leaned toward me conspiratorially. “Poor Francois,” she said in a whisper that carried easily across the small table. “He is so jealous, is he not? I think he would like to keep you all to himself, John.”

She touched my arm again and as her lips parted to speak her wine glass exploded in a shower of fragments. Séraphie gave a tiny scream and slipped sideways. I slid from my chair and caught her as she fell insensible.

I looked wildly at Villard. He was on his feet scanning the street and the windows above.

“Air gun?” I gasped. He nodded.

The other diners around us seemed to have noticed no more than a broken glass and a fainting woman. There were murmurs of concern and curious stares, but no one seemed inclined to leap to their feet in panic.

“He is most certainly gone by now,” Villard snapped. “But we cannot stand here in the assumption. And we must see to this one.” He spared Séraphie a glance. “She is not hurt?” he said with slightly more solicitude as I helped the girl back into her chair.

“No,” I said tightly as her eyelids fluttered open. Her eyes were unfocussed, but showed no sign of pain. “The spots of red on her blouse are wine. Villard what does this mean?”

“We must determine that,” he said under his breath. “But at a distance, I think. We may not wait for Séraphie to decide she is recovered. Can she stand?”

I put a hand on the girl’s elbow and gingerly eased her to her feet. She rose unsteadily and stood gazing around her in frank confusion.

“Good, I will pay the check. Signal a cab, Docteur.”

While Villard settled with the waiter, offering some explanation for the shattered glass and our companion’s rattled nerves, I waved down the next passing hansom.

The three of us were quickly settled inside and the cab jolted forward with a lurch. Séraphie put her head against my chest and clung to my waistcoat. I kept an arm around her quaking shoulders as we rolled toward the Pont Neuf.

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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
.

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.’”

.

Twilight

.

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.

.

Night

.

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.

.
-«oOo»-
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Chapter Eight: Gray Eyes

Gray eyes. Nothing else mattered. Not the pain. Not the voices. Not the cold or that strange taste. Nothing mattered but gray eyes looking into mine. Gray eyes fading in the dark…

.
o00o
.

Dark. Moving. I was in a carriage and it was moving through the dark. It must be a carriage because it was rocking and it hurt my head. I couldn’t think because of the awful pain in my head. If I got out the rocking would stop. Why didn’t I think of that before? I would just get out…

“John, no. Be still. Don’t try to move.”

That was strange. It sounded like Holmes, but Holmes wasn’t here. He had gone. He had been gone a long time. The roaring water took him. No, there was something wrong about that. Something Francois knew. Francois would know what was happening. Where was he?

“Francois?”

“No, he’s not here. He’s at the hotel. We’ll be there soon. Just lie back.”

That was all right then. I always felt better when I was with Francois. He said things that made sense. He could explain why I kept hearing Holmes’s voice. He could help me make sense of this pain in my head.

“Where– will Francois help?” No answer. I was alone. Head hurt so badly.

“Yes, I’m sure he will. Don’t worry. You’ll see Francois soon.”

There were two people whispering somewhere. One was the voice pretending to be Holmes. It sounded so much like him… I couldn’t think. My head hurt. I had to get out.

“John, please. Lie still. We’re almost there. Just lie still.”

A cool hand on my forehead. That was better. It hurt less now.

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry, John. I’m so very sorry.”

.
o00o
.

Bright lights. A blur of lights and loud voices that didn’t make sense. I couldn’t concentrate.

“We’re almost there, John. Just a little farther.”

Almost there. At the hotel? Someone had mentioned a hotel and Francois. Someone who sounded like Holmes. It was all so confusing… More voices. All of them excited. All talking and I couldn’t understand. What was wrong with my head? Everything blurred, even the words. No, I knew that voice.

“Francois?”

“I am here, John, and Monsieur Holmes is here, as well. We will talk soon, eh? We have much to talk about, but first you must sleep for a time.”

So it was Holmes’s voice. Francois had found Holmes. No, we had, together.

“We found him?”

“Yes, it is the greatest un-impossibility, is it not? You will rest a bit now, then you will talk with Monsieur Holmes.”

But what if Holmes left again? He might disappear again in the bright blur. I couldn’t bear it if he left again. Francois understood. He understood Holmes better than I. Maybe Francois could make him stay.

“Francois, you’ve got to– please, don’t let him leave…”

“No, my friend, do not worry. You will rest for a time and Monsieur Holmes will be here when you awake.”

“Shh, hush cher, quietly my ange. That’s right. Do not worry so.”

A woman’s voice, so sweet, and now it was cool and dark. It was so much easier to think. But Francois had said it would be all right, so maybe I could sleep for a little while.

“Rest now, cher. Close your eyes. Sleep now my ange.”

Yes, sleep…

.
o00o
.

I could hear Holmes speaking. His voice was muffled as if… yes, he was in the next room and he was not pleased. He was using that tone he sometimes used with Lestrade. Why was Lestrade in Paris? No, not Lestrade. Francois. Francois sounded angry. They were arguing and it was hard to make out… French. They were arguing in French. That was frustrating. I wanted to help, but how could I help if I didn’t understand the words?

Holmes kept forgetting I couldn’t speak French. I’d tried to explain in the garden. We had been in the garden and I was trying to tell him something. No, I didn’t want to tell him something. He’d tried to tell me something. What was it? It seemed very important.

He’d been trying to tell me something and he had his arms around me. No, that couldn’t be right. That wasn’t supposed to happen. But he had, hadn’t he? Yes, I remembered his face, very pale, close to mine. He was sitting on the ground and holding me and saying something… something important, but what? Was it a memory or a dream?

I kept searching, but the pounding in my head swallowed the words. When I saw him again I would ask. I would ask what he’d been trying to tell me. I remembered him talking to me the garden and later in… in the carriage, yes, we’d been in a carriage and the hotel and now Holmes was in the hotel room outside arguing with Francois.

Why were they arguing? There must be a good reason. Something important was happening. Perhaps I could help although my head hurt terribly. Why did my head hurt so?

It didn’t matter. I had to get up. I had to stop lying in the dark because there were things I needed to do. Something to do with… Moran. Moran had been in the garden.

I considered the thought. It wasn’t quite right. Holmes had said Moran was in London. Someone else. A member of Moriarty’s gang had followed me from London. I had led him to Holmes.

A chill ran through me. Was Holmes all right? I had to get up. I had to get up and make sure Holmes was all right. I had to get up now.

I forced my eyes open and found I was floating in a dimly lit room, looking up at a rippling ceiling the color of pale vanilla. Two white florets bobbed in the center like dollops of cream. A moment’s consideration told me I was in a bed, the ceiling couldn’t be rippling and there was only one dollop– floret with a strange, pale nimbus around it.

Concussion? That seemed likely. That’s why my head ached so badly. How did I get a concussion, I wondered. Nothing else seemed to hurt, just my head, but I was ridiculously weak and there was a metallic taste in my mouth. Blood, I thought blearily as I blinked up at the gently wavering ceiling. All that blood and…

“Holmes?” I said. I was surprised to find my voice was a low croak.

There was a rustle of skirts and I felt someone settle on the edge of the bed. A voice at my ear whispered, “Hush, cher, do not get up just yet. Rest just a little more, John, my ange.” A soft hand brushing my forehead and the fragrance of lavender hung in the air.

“Séraphie?” I said thickly.

“Yes, John. I am here. You must not stir just yet,” she soothed.

“Is Holmes all right? He wasn’t hurt?” I was pleased to hear my voice sounded stronger already although my throat was terribly dry.

“Yes, he is fine,” Séraphie said and I heard a smile in her voice. “You rest a little more. I will bring him here for you to see.” The bed shifted.

No, that was wrong, I thought, as anxiety welled up. If Holmes was truly all right I shouldn’t see him yet because there was something I didn’t want to say. I wasn’t sure I could see his face and not give away… cold realization hit, cutting through the fog in my mind.

“No, Séraphie, wait,” I murmured.

“Yes, John?” Her voice came back to the bedside.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?”

“Of course, ange.” There was a rustle of skirts and the ceiling brightened. I heard water running at a little distance.

I shouldn’t see Holmes yet, I knew. Not until my head was fully clear. Not until I could set aside the knowledge that I loved him, still loved him even after all this time, although he’d never loved me.

None of that was important. My feelings weren’t important. I had to forget all that and master my thoughts so I could get up and make myself useful. Surely, I thought, I could still be of use.

My first action should be to sit up. Once I was sitting up, I decided, I could worry about the rest. I ventured a tentative movement of my head and inhaled sharply as pain blazed through my skull and out through my limbs wiping away all thought.

In a moment Séraphie was back at my side. She touched my shoulder lightly as I sank back. “Ah, cher, not yet. Just a little at a time,” she said. “It is so nice to talk with you I would not like it if you went back to sleep so soon. Would you not like me to bring Sherlock and Francois to know you are awake?”

I blinked. The mention of Holmes’s Christian name brought me to full awareness more quickly than a dose of smelling salts might have done. It was so strange to hear it used by anyone but his brother that it was almost physically jarring.

“Um, no,” I said, pleased to hear my voice sounded more distinct. I cleared my throat. “No, Séraphie, just give me a moment, please.”

“All right, cher,” she said. “We will wait a moment.” She brushed my forehead with her fingertips and the pain in my head seemed to lessen fractionally. White lights sparkled at the edges of my vision, but the pale nimbus that surrounded everything was rapidly receding.

I turned my head far enough to see Séraphie sitting by me. She had turned to place the glass of water on a table by the bed. Her golden hair was piled loosely on her head in an elegantly uncomplicated fashion, a stray curl falling along her cheek. When she looked back and found me watching her a smile lit her green eyes.

“Thank you,” I said weakly. “I’m all right.”

“No,” she said, in her low, sweet voice. “I do not think you are all right just yet. But you are doing very well for a man with so many bandages on his poor head.”

I reached up with an unsteady hand and felt the gauze dressing. There seemed to be packing above my right ear.

“Sherlock said you were… graz’d.” She said it slowly as if trying out the strange word on her tongue. Her fingertips brushed the bandages at the side of my head. “Here. He said it was very fortunate it was only a graz’ding shot.” She made a tiny moue. “But your pretty suit is ruined.”

“An air gun,” I said.

“Yes,” Séraphie said and she sounded strangely mournful. “The air gun. That is what Sherlock said when he brought you here. So much violence. It is not very nice.”

I swallowed. “How long ago did I come here?” I feared to hear the answer. I would never forgive myself if were the cause of derailing Holmes’s plans for capturing Moran after so long a chase.

“Not long, cher,” Séraphie answered soothingly. “Just a little time.”

“How long, please, Séraphie?” I asked again. I was not entirely sure what her conception of “a little time” might be.

“Only… Yes, only just a few hours. I remember because the supper had finally arrived after I had requested it many times. I was hungry after so long, as you may understand. And yet Francois did not even have the goodness to send for the champagne. He is a very irritating little man, your Francois. I am sorry, cher, but it is true, you must admit this.”

I feared for a moment I might be slipping back to unconsciousness, so difficult was Séraphie’s train of thought to follow, but I was able to sort out the necessary facts. Only a few hours then. There might still time to capture Moran’s agent.

“And we’re at the Hotel de Gaspard?” I ventured.

“Ah, oui!” Séraphie said delightedly. “You are not so hurt in the head as I might have feared. It is clear you are the strongest of men.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to manage that statement so instead I indicated the bedroom door with a glance of my eyes. From the other room the sounds of animated conversation rose and fell. “It seems as if they’ve been talking like this for some time,” I said. “Can you tell me, what is the disagreement about?”

“Ah,” she said, her petal pink lips curled in a half smile. “It is the oldest of disagreements, is it not? But we will hope it may be settled without the dueling pistols.”

I must have looked confused because her eyebrows arched in question. She leant a little closer and looked into my eyes. “John, you are awake, yes?” she said carefully. “You know over what these two men disagree, of course.”

“I’m afraid not,” I said, beginning to feel a bit lost. It had seemed a simple enough question. “Unless it is about how best to capture the man with the air gun, I don’t…”

Her eyebrows drawing together in a small frown, “You cannot but guess?”

“Séraphie,” I said as patiently as I could manage although the throbbing in my skull was again increasing. “Please. Just tell me. What is the argument about? Is it about a man named Moran?”

She bit her lip in a gesture I might find charming under other circumstances. She appeared to consider for a long moment then gave a sigh and said, “Yes, your friends talk angrily about this Moran and also about the meaning of the air gun. They argue very much about how you came to be hurt by it. They argue about everything but very little do they argue about that which they are angriest. Francois I think would like to argue about this, but your Holmes… Well, it is a matter for them to discuss with you, I think, and I should not say more. You must ask them to explain.” She gave a little smile. “But not together. One at a time I think will be best.”

More certain than ever that my thoughts were still muddled, I couldn’t begin to think to what argument she referred. I might have tried again to get her to explain, but the discussion that had seemed to be at last trailing off reached another brief crescendo.

Séraphie’s eyes narrowed as she cast a sidelong look at the door. “Maybe I will bring one of your friends to see you now, yes?” she said. “It might be best if I do this soon.”

I sighed. If I had to choose between not understanding what this personal matter might be and seeing Holmes again when my faculties were not fully restored, I decided, I could endure a certain amount of curiosity.

“I think I’d prefer to get up if I can,” I said. “I’d like to make myself useful. There’s still a great deal to be done tonight, I imagine.”

Séraphie studied me with a steady gaze. I had never seen her look so serious and it was a revelation to see the intelligence in her eyes. In the next instant she inclined her head and flashed a bright smile.

“D’accord,” she said. “I will assist if this is what you wish.” And with that she slipped from the bed and stood watching me expectantly.

I considered the wisdom of my actions. I was suffering from blood loss, certainly, and almost surely a concussion. Yet I seemed to be cogent, my double vision had resolved itself and apart from weakness and the pounding in my head I could think of no reason not to rise. I could always return to bed if it proved I was more hindrance than help.

That resolved, I decided there here was no point delaying any longer. I took a deep breath, braced my hands against the bedclothes and began to push myself up to a sitting position. As I did so, I realized on a sudden that I was clad only in my trousers.

In my surprise I swiveled my head toward Séraphie too quickly. I gasped as pain arced out from my skull to my fingertips, clenching my stomach with welling nausea. White pinpoints of light danced in front of my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said when I could speak. “I didn’t realize– my shirt…”

There was a pause before Séraphie answered. I heard a smile in her voice as she said, “John, my ange, I will tell you truly you are the most lovely of gentlemen.” She leant toward me and whispered, “But I am not so easily embarrassed as that.”

Even as the pain receded from behind my eyes I remembered the phrase “gold courtesan” and I think I must have blushed for she gave a light laugh. “Ah, I see you are all aware again, my gentleman John,” she said. “Bon. We shall try again.”

Her hand slipped under my shoulder and I took another deep breath as she helped me ease up to a sitting position at the edge of the bed. The pain receded more quickly this time and the wave of nausea was more manageable for being expected.

“There,” she said encouragingly. “Your strength is most impressive. Let us now wait just a moment before you stand.”

I took a sip of water when Séraphie offered the glass and I was soon ready to attempt to rise. With Séraphie’s arm for steadying support, I managed to gain my feet. The first wave of vertigo passed and I found I could stand unaided long enough for her to step back and give me an appraising look.

“Merveilleux,” she said thoughtfully, inclining her head to the side. “Très merveilleux.”

Although I was not averse to Séraphie’s praise, in our current situation I hoped she was commenting on my stamina. I cleared my throat and said, “You said my clothes are not in wearable condition?”

“Non,” she said sadly, “It is the great shame but your shirt and coat are all soaked with blood. They are in the cabinet in case you may want them again.” She waved a hand at the corner of the room. “But I would not if I were you. They are very messy. I will find you something else even if it is not so nice as your pretty suit. But first…” She paused as she glanced at my bandages. “We may tidy you just a little to make the best appearance. We do not want to frighten your friends any more than they have been or I will worry we may see still more blood and ruined clothing.” She cast a glance at the door. “Although it is likely this will happen in any case.”

Before I could venture a response she turned on her heel and crossed the huge room to a door I had not seen from my vantage point on the bed. She disappeared inside and an electric lamp flared, spilling blue-white light across the bedroom’s richly patterned rug. I again heard water in a basin and gathered the room was furnished with an en suite bath.

The rather lavish appointments were becoming more evident as I was able to better comprehend my surroundings. The gilt and cream furnishings, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, seemed to be a tribute to the last age of kings. Scrollwork traced the edges of a large mirror adorning the wall above the bed and the cabinet Séraphie had indicated.

There was a wide, bowed window and through the sheer curtaining I could see the sky was full dark. I was thinking of attempting to step toward it to find whether, as Francois had implied, the room might have a view of the Eiffel Tower when Séraphie stepped up behind me and laid her hand lightly on my shoulder.

“If you may, cher,” she said, guiding me with gentle pressure. “Come into the bain- the bath room and we will refresh your appearance as we may.”

Séraphie was of average height for a woman, but she was stronger than I would have anticipated. Though I was some half a head taller she was able to guide me surely toward the bath with light touch on my arm and at my back. My steps were uncertain at first, but I was pleased to find I soon moved more easily.

As we walked, Séraphie kept up a steady stream of conversation. Her light voice was a pleasant distraction from the pain that still throbbed along with my pulse.

“I shall tell you of what I learned when your Sherlock brought you to this hotel. You are progressing very well, cher. Take care here at the edge of the rug. What I hear, although I am yet confined to this room as Francois has forbidden that I should leave it… This imprisonment is growing tiresome as you may well understand. I do not prefer to be locked inside doors all day. I am cross with your Francois but I think maybe you can convince him to let me take the air in the other room for a while, no? Bon. And so, your Sherlock, he tells Francois of how you received your injury and how he called for help. Soon a girl came and he sent her to run to a Doctor as quick as she might. I think that your friend cared for you as best he could while he waited. Sadly, his suit is also ruined. But soon the Doctor came and bandaged your head and they brought you here to the hotel.”

She paused long enough to help me across the threshold of the bath. There was a fragile looking gilt-work stool pulled up to the cabinet-style washbasin. Séraphie selected one from a set of linen cloths stacked at the edge and dipped it into the brimming basin while I eased myself down on the stool.

As she wrung out the cloth she launched back into her story. “Sherlock told Francois that he did not think you would be safe in a hospital away from where they could watch for the man with the air gun. Francois agreed to this, but only with some words that I will not repeat for I think you may blush yet again.”

She touched the warm cloth to my forehead and brushed it across my temple at the edge of the bandage. “This Doctor was not so concerned with making you presentable, I think. This was not so good for the sake of Francois. Ah, but there was the row terrifique when he saw them bring you inside the room. Such words! The Doctor, I think, was afraid. He said he would call a gendarme. Francois said that he is a gendarme and the Doctor left very quickly. Since that time, there has been little but this.” She inclined her head to the door. “Sherlock, I think, was very outraged though it is more difficult to tell in his case. But Francois…” She gave a little shudder.

I closed my eyes as she stroked the cloth across my face and shoulders. I was in danger, I felt of drifting off to sleep again between her sweetly soothing voice and the comforting touch of her hand. The sense of her words seem to filter into my mind from a long way away.

When next she turned back to the basin I roused my concentration so far as to ask, “Did Holmes say whether he saw the man with the air gun?”

I heard her turn back toward me and as she resumed her ministrations she said, “There is one thing that I have some curiosity about. Here we have Francois, Séraphie and dear John…” I felt her lips lightly brush my forehead. I opened my eyes in surprise as she went on. “And Holmes. Why is your friend Holmes? I think it is nicer to say Sherlock. It is a pleasant name anyway.”

I blinked and looked up to meet her curious gaze as she went on, “It seems to me that this is strange in the circumstances.” She gave a little shrug. “But perhaps I do not understand how it is with you. If you prefer not to be so informal in this. I think it is best to be very friendly and then it may not go so hard if an unpleasantness should occur. Perhaps if you also called Francois as Villard? But no. That would not help too much. So it will be your Holmes and your Francois.” Before I could begin to formulate an answer or even unravel the question, she leant back and flashed a bright smile. “Et voila!” She said happily. “You are once again as handsome as can be despite this,” she indicated my bandages, “Not so lovely chapeau. I will find you- Ah! I know. It will be so nice with your pretty blue eyes.”

And with that she whirled and stepped from the room leaving me seated before the mirror. I surveyed my appearance critically. I was, if possible, even more pale than I had been before, but my eyes betrayed no sign of significant head injury. And whatever gruesome sight I had presented when I woke had certainly been cleansed away by Séraphie. What hair was visible under the swaddling bandages that circled my head was reasonably kempt as was my face and mustache. It had taken no little work to achieve the effect I considered as I saw the murky red color of the water in the basin.

Séraphie clucked her tongue as she stepped back into the room. “I am sorry, cher,” she released a lever and the basin began to drain. “I should not have left such an untidiness, but look what I have found.”

She held up a black wool jumper for my inspection. “It is lovely, is it not? It will look most jaunty with your bandages. Now we will be careful as we put it over your poor head.”

Before I could reply she’d turned the jumper in her hands and held it out to me expectantly. “You will begin and I will help,” she said officiously, but belying her words she began to ease the neck over my head without my assistance.

As she worked it down over my shoulders and I found the sleeves she continued what I’d begun to think of as her monologue. It was strangely relaxing, I considered, not to have to take the trouble to respond. I wondered if the ability to keep up a pleasant stream of conversation was a skill cultivated by all courtesans or if it was peculiar to this one.

“This I found,” she was saying, “In the bag of your Holmes.” I might have looked startled at this had my face not been covered by black wool, but Séraphie seemed to anticipate my surprise for she laughed and said, “You must not be too upset with me, dear John. I was bored as may be being trapped in this room for such a long time. Sherlock is a most secret man you will agree and I am too curious. So I took just a peek. There was not much of interest but this was very pretty and a good size. Your friend’s shirts are not quite so big as yours here.” She touched my shoulder as I managed to shrug the jumper down over my chest and pull it down to my waist. “Do you not find it to be so? No? Well, it is no matter. You will see that I am right in this.” She flashed another smile. “I have the good eye as they say.” She gave me another appraising look. “Bon,” she said approvingly. “Très, très bon. Now I will ask this question and you will not think too hard on me again, eh?”

It took me a moment to understand that she was, in fact, waiting for a response. “Um, yes. I mean, no. I’m sure I won’t,” I said. “What is it you wanted to ask?”

“My question is only, would you have your drug now?” she said. “Because I am not so experienced in this but I maybe can give a little help if it is what you wish.”

I gaped at her. “My– ” I hesitated. “Do you mean the Doctor left something for me to take?”

She puffed out a little sigh. “No, cher,” she said patiently. “That is not what I mean as I think you know very well or I will begin to doubt your mind again. I mean that which you carry in your suit as I saw when I put it to the side for you. If you do not wish to have it now I will not insist, but…” She gave a little shrug. “Even though your strength is so great, if you must be determined to be on your feet I think it may be a good idea.”

I sought for an answer and she went on even as she leant forward to straighten the shoulders of the jumper. “You are disappointed with me, I can see,” she said equably. “Still as we are both in this room at the present time and you may need assistance.” She shrugged. “I will help as I can.”

“It’s not mine,” I said, recognizing as the words came that they sounded absurd.

Séraphie stepped back and gave me a little frown. “John,” she said. “We are friends, are we not? I am sad that you would tell me it does not belong to you, but I, too, have my little secrets and I will not think too hard on you.” She gave me a wide, beaming smile that was disconcerting in its suddenness. “We will not talk of it again and I will not worry for you. I am sure your strength will be more than enough. So we shall go and be useful.”

She held out her hand and, as I was unable to find a response that would not sound dissembling, I took it and let her help me to my feet. As she began a new monologue, I vaguely registered she was describing Villard’s state of mind when he’d brought her to this hotel and confined her to the bedroom and explaining that she had only been trying to force the lock of his flat because she’d had nothing to eat for hours and all she could find in his kitchen cupboard was coffee and a tin of olives.

My mind was preoccupied with her assumptions about the black leather syringe case in my jacket pocket. I’d carried it as a reminder of Holmes and as something of a penance, I recognized now, for it somehow represented the guilt and remorse I felt at the pain I had caused in my abandonment of him.

What did it mean, that I had kept it in my pocket so long? Could I keep it even after today? Knowing what I did now?

I had no thought of returning it to him. I would not subvert my feelings for him so far as to seem to condone his habit. It was not my property to keep, yet how long could one carry an item, treating it as a personal talisman, before it became one’s own? Was it now mine, I wondered. Holmes would surely have replaced it if…

He had seen it. He had seen it at the bookshop, I realized with a suddenness that almost made me stagger.

Séraphie must have felt me falter for her hand tightened on my elbow and she paused in her monologue long enough to give me a questioning look. I managed a weak smile and she seemed to take it as encouragement enough for she launched back into her tale as we continued toward the door.

Holmes had seen the case fall from my pocket. Had he recognized it? Of course, he had, he was Sherlock Holmes. What must he think of me except that in addition to the rest of my litany of follies I could add hypocrisy? So my humiliation was complete. With a deep sense of resignation I realized the cold knot settling in the pit of my stomach was one to which I had rapidly become accustomed.

Later, I reminded myself. Later I would indulge the self-pity. It would wait. It would always wait for me in the dark.

Séraphie and I reached the door. On the other side, the argument had once again subsided to a series of chilly-sounding statements. Holmes’s voice had the slow and patient tone he knew so tried Inspector Lestrade’s temper. Villard barked a derisive laugh and Holmes’s murmured response sounded worryingly pleasant.

I took a deep breath and nodded. Séraphie gave me quick smile and squeezed my arm once before releasing it and reaching for the door. She tugged it open and stepped back. I walked through as steadily as I could.

The bright light that filled the sitting room was dazzling. I blinked as my eyes tried to adjust and noticed with a vague sense of unease that it took rather longer than it should have.

The argument cut off instantly as I stepped into the room. When I was able to focus I found both men were standing by a door that I assumed by its location led to the outside passageway.

They watched me silently as I made my way to a divan just outside the bedroom and leaned casually against the back. I hoped that I looked casual and not as though I wished to collapse into it.

I cleared my throat and said pleasantly, “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” I was relieved to find my voice sounded only a little weak. “Please continue. I have no idea what you’re arguing about, but it sounds important.”

Séraphie spoke up from the bedroom doorway. “It is true,” she said helpfully. “He does not. Perhaps you would like me to explain?”

Villard was already moving across the room. He growled something that sounded very uncomplimentary at Séraphie who merely gave a light laugh. He was at my elbow the next instant and lowered me to the seat with gentle pressure. “John,” he said. “Sit down, please, my friend.”

I would hardly have recognized the neatly groomed man I had met in the pension just the morning before. His hair was in disarray and his suit was as rumpled as if he had slept in it. His mustache was still trim, I noticed idly, then realized I must still be slightly dazed.

Villard was muttering under his breath in rapid French. I looked back at Holmes, being careful not to turn my head too quickly.

Despite a surprising pallor and the state of his thick black hair, which was as wild as I had ever seen it, he was, if possible, a more wonderful sight than he had been before. My chest ached at the sight of him.

He was leaning against the door, his arms crossed tightly before him. His face was perfectly expressionless, but his gray eyes studied me with an intensity that was somewhat alarming. He was in his shirtsleeves and with a shock I realized there was a broad stain of blood from his shoulder to his wrist.

My first thought was that he had been wounded, after all. My concern must have showed in my face for when I raised my eyes to ask if he was hurt, he simply pursed his lips and shook his head once. I exhaled in relief.

Villard still had his hand on my shoulder but he had turned to speak to Séraphie in a clipped undertone. Her airy responses apparently did nothing to calm his temper.

To distract myself from the vision of Holmes, I forced my gaze to wander about the room. Like the bedroom, all the furnishings were of gilt and creamy satin. There was another wide, bowed window and this one, too, was covered with a sheer curtain. I would, I decided, have to make a point of admiring the view. I had yet to see the Eiffel Tower and it was reputed to be quite lovely by moonlight.

My gaze strayed to a narrow console table beside the window. On it sat the waxen bust of Holmes that Villard and I had brought from Grenoble. Seeing it now, I could not imagine why I’d thought it resembled the man watching me from the doorway.

I turned to him and said quietly, “You have been in Grenoble, I perceive.”

Our eyes met as a smile quirked the corners of his mouth. It touched his fog gray eyes and in that instant I knew that nothing, nothing that was truly important, had changed.

One day, I was sure, I would learn to live with, maybe even forget from time to time, the sorrow of knowing he had never loved me, would never love me, while I would love him always. For now, all I needed to know was that Holmes had returned.

Beside me Villard had fallen silent. I felt his hand tighten on my shoulder.

“Perhaps,” I said carefully, keeping my eyes fixed on Holmes. “When there’s a lull in the conversation, I could prevail on you both to bring me up to date on the case. I plan to be of use, you see, and I would like to understand a little better what’s expected.”

Holmes and Villard exchanged a look over my head.

Séraphie bent forward to lean around Villard and said in mock whisper, “And also what we discussed about my liberty, cher?”

“And Séraphie would like to come out of the bedroom now,” I added, smiling in spite of myself. “If it’s not too much to ask.”

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Nine: Black Leather Case

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.

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.

.
-«oOo»-
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Chapter Ten: Shards of Silver

I stood at the wide bedroom window, gazing at the Eiffel Tower as it soared above the low line of trees. The silvery shape fountained up from the ground, as though its filigree structure was made of numberless iron filings, straining up into the sky toward the lodestone moon that hung just out of reach. The two would never touch, but the endless dream of it was beautiful. I was keenly aware of the beauty all around me as an almost physical sensation, as if my bare skin hummed with its energy. Everything hummed. The satin sky, the white night, even the silence.

It was strangely quiet, I noticed. There was no argument, no murmured, angry words of French. Perhaps the sense of peace that radiated from my chest had spread far enough to calm the tempers in the next room. It was a strange fancy, but it appealed to me. I was made up of nothing more than strange fancies it seemed. They flickered through my mind, each thought image was clear in isolation but put together they seemed to overlap and blur at the edges like a kinetoscope with a guttering candle.

The Tower was as beautiful as any magic lantern show I’d ever seen. It shimmered as white points of light danced around it in the glowing nimbus. I wondered when those white points of light had returned in such numbers and looking about the dimmed bedroom I noticed the same pale glow surrounded the edges of every object. That was a bit worrying. There was the little matter of concussion, I reminded myself, it seemed for the hundredth time. Really, it was very tiresome to have to be concerned about such things. I would have preferred, I thought, to enjoy the feeling of evanescent calm, but it was growing harder to touch as my thoughts so persistently skittered and jumped ahead of me. It might have actually been disconcerting if I didn’t feel quite so good.

I did feel very good although my skin was warm and my teeth were cold. I couldn’t remember if that was among the lists of effects I’d studied. I had spent a great deal of time reading about cocaine use out of concern for Holmes’s health and mental state. I read all about heightened senses, confidence and stamina, feelings of indomitable energy and clarity, enhanced desire and physical sensation and the wish to have all those things last forever. Instead of just reading, I thought, I might have been well advised to try the drug myself. If I was so concerned about it, I wondered, why hadn’t I done just that? It seemed rather high-handed of me. Clearly, it was just one more in a long line of poor decisions. If I had tried it before I mightn’t have to stand in this window wondering why Holmes hadn’t asked me what solution might be best for a man who had never used the drug and was suffering concussion and blood loss.

Where was Holmes, I wondered. I didn’t hear his voice outside and that was worrying. He might disappear again at any time. But, I reminded myself, the important thing was that he was back now and even if he didn’t care for me nothing had changed, really. It was good to keep that in mind because I kept forgetting. I had to remember because I was under the influence of a drug that sometimes made one more voluble l and it would never do to tell Holmes I loved him.

At that I felt the edges of my sense of delight contract, as though the world outside was gnawing away at it. The exhilarating calm was starting to fade. The drug was already losing power, I knew, and my contentment crumbled further at the understanding that the feeling would soon be gone. At least, I reasoned I’d be better able to concentrate. Then I could just enjoy how much better I felt. In fact I felt more startlingly alive than ever in my memory. I wondered what my memories would be like. Would they make sense later? They were making some sense now although they persisted in slipping away.

Really, the way my thoughts refused to light on anything was exasperating. How had Holmes found it restful? Maybe that came with more experience. He’d certainly had a great deal of it and I trusted his judgment on the use of the drug, of course. Between his skill as a chemist, his knowledge of human physiology, and his own extensive use, there were probably not many men better able to judge the required solution. Yet he hadn’t consulted me. Holmes could be very trying. I was still a doctor though I didn’t have an active practice at present. If I were more sensible I might have stayed in London and concerned myself with such things. It was clear I was not proving much use to my friends. Now that I felt so much stronger that would change, of course. While my renewed strength wasn’t likely to last an hour in my depleted state, my nausea and vertigo were completely cured. Even the pain in my head had dwindled to the merest twinge. No that wasn’t quite right, I thought. My head seemed to hurt just as much, but I only felt it as a twinge. Well, that was certainly nonsense. It either hurt or it didn’t.

The important thing to bear in mind was that I had a concussion and I should use caution if I didn’t want to find myself unconscious or worse. In fact, as a doctor, I should advise myself to lie down immediately. Although it probably didn’t matter at the moment whether I laid down or not. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Not with this vibrating in my skin. It was almost a shame. What dreams I might have. No visions of howling water and bare cliffs would come with this feeling. Instead I might dream of still, mossy green forest floors or hillsides of yellow mignonette burning like the Mediterranean sun and Holmes there to share them with me.

I wondered if Holmes had ever felt this same quickening of desire. Most certainly not. Such feelings held no appeal for him. Holmes was drawn to the drug because it heightened his natural powers. I had worried repeated use of the needle would damage that unique mind of his. It was silly, of course. Holmes’s mind was fine and his health clearly wasn’t broken. He didn’t seem to have spent his time away from me wandering from vice den to vice den. He was no Isa Whitney. Poor Isa’s experiment in the addictive effects of opium had left Kate a widow. Yes, I considered, opium was a far stronger snare. Though I had to admit it was hard to think of losing this feeling.

Some self-important part of me had always wondered what rational person would pursue a sensation that, at its peak, lasted only a few seconds. My question had certainly been answered. It couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, I reasoned, to feel so contented with life and with oneself. I wondered what the effects were like in a sound body. If I used the drug again, and there was no reason I shouldn’t now the initial fear was gone, it would be out of such curiosity. The sense of being in splendid accord with the world was better than intoxicating. Where brandy only rounded the edges of sadness, cocaine turned it inside out. What had been gray and bleak a few moments before now all but sparkled, like the Tower just out of reach beyond the glass.

I would have very much liked to share the sight with Holmes. It would be near to heaven to stand here together and look out over the shimmering night. I could almost still feel his breath on my naked shoulder, his sensitive hands at my back, his heartbeat so close to mine… my stomach tightened at the sensations sleeting over my skin and through my mind. It would never be the way I’d wished, but imagining it was breathtaking.

I felt a surge of irritation as light brightened behind me, washing out the image of the Tower. I realized the door to the sitting room had been pushed ajar and I heard Séraphie gasp. The door swung closed and after several minutes she reached my side. Her hands closed on my arm and she began tugging me away from the window.

“John, ange, no. It isn’t wise. Come away, please.”

I was reminded how much I enjoyed listening to her lovely, sweet voice and her hands felt astonishing. I was almost tempted to resist so I might pull her to me and feel the fabric of her shining pink dress against my skin, but in the end I allowed her to drag me away from the window because it seemed very important to her.

“It’s all right,” I said trying to calm her show of nerves. “It’s perfectly safe.”

“You know better than this, cher,” she said guiding me toward the bed. “Now your Sherlock is anxious to go and if you are determined to be in the danger with him you must make yourself prepared. So here is your shirt and I will help you slip it on, yes, and we will fasten it here… I asked Sherlock to please have patience just a little and I will help so you may not strain your poor head any more than may be. If you will stand just so I will arrange here and here. Ah, there we have your shirt and your trousers so tidy. Bon. Now your new cuffs…”

My attention kept wandering from what she said to what she was doing. As her voice lilted on, she fastened my clothing with quick, deft movements. I wondered if all courtesans were so charmingly adept at such things. I smiled down at her and she cast me a quick, curious look as she fastened a shirt cuff at my wrist.

“Here is your other cuff, yes, très bon. Your Sherlock said I should say to you, ‘You must come now or stay behind.’ And as I think you want to go with him very much… Here is your collar and with this you must help just a little, cher, for you are tall and if you will just bend so–” She looked up and I saw her eyes widen as they met mine.

“Oh,” she said with a little start. She stepped back with the collar still in her hand and shot a quick glance at the closed door before she reached up and guided my face toward hers with a gentle touch on my cheek. She slipped the collar around my neck, fastening it back and front, as she said, “So Sherlock, has made you know you must use the strength where you may find it tonight? Well, I think this is wise, as you know, although I would not like it if you followed this advice from your friend too many times.”

“No, no,” I reassured her. “It was my idea to use the drug. I don’t imagine Holmes was pleased by it. Although, as you say, it’s hard to tell with him. I suspect he would have preferred to lock me in the bathroom, to be honest, but he’s always been considerate about not coddling me.” I smiled as she looked up, her lips parted in surprise. “I don’t like to be coddled.” I explained. “Although I don’t mind when you do it,” I added.

“I am glad to hear so,” she said, smiling. She reached back to the bed and returned with a cravat. “For you are very nice to coddle and to speak with.” She guided my face toward hers and reached around my neck, encircling it with the tie. “Also,” she said, her smile widening. “You are most pleasant to the eye.”

“That’s kind of you to say,” I replied. “You may be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. And you smell wonderful.”

I had never seen Séraphie blush before. “Ange,” she said, concentrating with unwarranted intensity on my tie, “You do not mean that.”

“No, I do,” I assured her. I caught her hand in mine and held it to my lips. “You are enchanting, my angel Séraphie.”

“John,” she said, looking up into my eyes, “I begin to think we are all just moths to a flame. And such a pretty flame.” She gave a light laugh as she retrieved her hand. “But it would not do for your men to hear you say such things. Are not things as tangled as they may be now?”

“I have no idea,” I said frankly. “You make references to a disagreement and I know there’s some sort of dispute that seems within a few words of fisticuffs, but I really haven’t an inkling what it might be. When I return later perhaps we shall open another bottle of champagne and you might explain it to me at last.”

Séraphie paused, her hands at my tie. She bit her lip and as I looked into her eyes it took a moment to recognize the emotion I saw there. It was the first time I’d seen sadness in those sea green depths and it was all the more shocking for its suddenness.

I took her gently by the shoulders. “Séraphie,” I said softly. “Don’t worry. We’ll all be fine. Holmes knows what he’s doing.”

“No, ange,” she said. “I am afraid, but not of this. The danger is great, but you men– you take these chances all knowingly, each in your way. No, what makes me afraid is that you may think hard on me in time to come and I cannot change this and perhaps I would not if I could. Only remember that I would not have you be pained any more if it can be at all helped. Please just do as your Sherlock says and all will be as well as may be.”

“Séraphie, what–”

Before I could voice the question, or even decide what it might be, the outer door opened and closed. Immediately, Villard’s voice sounded in the next room and Holmes’s rose in response.

Séraphie sighed. “Ah, now the disagreement will go on a little more. We may not hurry so much. Let us finish making you tidy so you may be ready when Sherlock has finished his present argument.” She moved behind me toward the bed. Over my shoulder I saw her retrieve my new jacket from where it lay. “And while we do this I will ask you a question on which I have wondered for a little time.” She slipped the coat sleeves onto my arms and as I shrugged it over my shoulders she indicated the rust-colored book on the bedclothes.

“When first I put away your poor ruined coat, it was strange to me to find you should have this poetry. If I am not too mistaken, and I am not often in these things as you may imagine, I do not think you may be the great follower of poets and it is even more the mystery because you do not speak French as I very well know.” She smiled up at me as she smoothed my lapels. “Does this belong to Francois, perhaps?”

“Ah, no,” I answered. “It’s mine, actually. I suppose it is at any rate. Holmes gave it to me.”

Séraphie’s silence was striking in its rarity. She was gazing at me with her eyebrows drawn together in a look I had come to associate with rapt attention. “Sherlock,” she said slowly. “He gives this book to you.”

“Yes,” I said. “Although in point of fact he sold it to me.”

One delicately curved eyebrow arched.

“It’s a complicated story,” I said quickly. “In every way that matters, he gave it to me. Do you know it?”

“This book? A little,” she said. “I have heard Monsieur Verlaine read from it.”

“You know Paul Verlaine?” I said.

“Ah, oui.” She gave a little shrug. “I have the friends who visit the Lapin Agile from time to time for the art and the verse and other things. I have met this Verlaine. His poetry is mostly very pretty, but I did not care for him too much. He is a very angry man. But that this book should come from your Sherlock is a surprise to me. He reads this book to you?”

I blinked. The thought of Holmes reading poetry to me was one of the more absurd fancies that had crossed my mind that evening. “Read it– Holmes? Good Lord, no, Francois read me some of it.”

Séraphie gazed up at me, her sea green eyes wide. “Cher,” she said softly. “You did not tell Sherlock this?”

I thought back. “Well, I think he must assume it. We did…” I hesitated. Though it seemed a moot point now, I felt sure neither Holmes nor Villard would approve of me divulging the use of the book for coded message even to Séraphie. “Yes, I’m sure he must assume it.”

She sighed. “Ah, well, this may explain at least a little.”

Outside the voices rose again. Séraphie narrowed her eyes as she looked toward the door and I followed her gaze. The words were still French, but now I felt that I could almost understand them. It was an interesting sensation.

I looked back to find her watching me. “You would like to know what these men say, John? I think– Sit down by me here.”

Séraphie guided me down to sit at the edge of the bed. She looped her hand around my waist and rested her cheek against my shoulder. Because it seemed the natural thing to do, I put my arm around her slim shoulders.

“The personal matter of which I told you,” she said softly. “These men are talking of it now. I think they should speak of it with you, but instead they are speaking together in a way you cannot understand. At this time, it is right that you should know what they say. Listen, John, and I will tell you their words in English…”

And with that she began to speak in a syncopated rhythm that was like counterpoint music to the argument in the next room.

“What will it take to convince you that this man is outside? Will it take one of us being killed? I think even you may agree we have come close enough.”

“Do not try this. I tell you I will not be distracted now. Please do not embarrass yourself in this sad attempt. My question is simple and I thank you to answer it without all this wasting of my time.”

“I have no idea–”

“I warn you to no more play the fool with me, Monsieur, or I will begin to think it is no fraud. Just say if you will let him go on so or if you will not put an end to his unhappiness.”

“You believe you know how it is with him after less than forty-eight of the hours.”

“I know how it is with him after so many minutes. You have the years to see and yet you don’t. This makes you the biggest fool there can be in my imagination. It is beyond belief that you should be so fortunate and yet you will not notice it.”

“Is this not a poor time for you to be so concerned for what I do or do not notice in a matter that does not concern you? Or is it that this matter concerns you very much?”

“You try my patience to the utmost with this tactic. This is not the subject between us.”

“Is it not? Maybe this is exactly what we discuss though not in so many of the words. Maybe you only want to know where you stand in this question that you imply.”

“Why do you persist in this delusion that there is some question? I tell you again there is no question in his mind, there is only you. I am not happy by this and I will not comment on the wisdom of his choice, but I must accept it. How is it you will not see something that is so plain?”

“You say this is so plain. I do not think the evidence supports this.”

“Evidence? You speak of evidence? What other evidence exists in your sadly deranged mind?”

“Only the fact that he talks ever of you.”

“He– No. You cannot be so stupid as all this. These are the so great powers of observation and of deduction we have all heard too much? This is the master detective in his work? I am overthrown. Fine. If your brain is so weak why not listen with your heart? That is if it may be found.”

“I suppose you can tell me what is in this as well?”

“Ah, the first true thing you have said in so long. I know this as well as I know my own. How could there be but one answer? That you will not act on it leaves me only to think you are the basest coward.”

“I thank you for this succinct description of my character. May I understand what is this action you would have me take?”

“Not too much. Only open your mouth. You are quite good at that without encouragement in all other cases. What is it that makes you so afraid of this? Surely by now it is harder not to say.”

“I think I have indulged you enough for the present. I have work if you do not. This foolishness is at an end.”

“I disagree. Where you are concerned the foolishness yet goes on. I begin to see there is but one way to end it.”

“Oh, and what is it you suggest? This duel Séraphie so wants to see?”

“No. Nothing so formal as this. I would simply like to knock you down and see if some sense may be administered that way.”

“You have lost what reason you once had.”

“I would not test my patience, Monsieur, or I will have no regard for the fact we have other appointments at this time.”

“I think you would be unwise to attempt this.”

“That is your belief? I would disagree. Let us find out who is right. Why do we not–”

At that moment there was a loud knock at the outer door of the suite. Séraphie and I both started violently and I had to catch her around the waist to keep her from tumbling off the bed.

We listened as Villard apparently conversed with a gendarme in the passage. There was no sound from Holmes.

“Do you understand now, John?” Séraphie whispered. “Do you understand the disagreement?”

It was the same feeling of a few moments before – of almost being able to speak French. Like the shards of silver that made up the Tower, the words were being dragged together, tugged by an invisible force into a semblance of order. A shape was forming, but I couldn’t make it out.“I’m not sure…” I began.

“It is all right, cher,” she said quickly. “It will be clear soon, I think. But there is one thing– I would not ask this, but I must because it is very important. Tell me. Who do you choose? I know, but I must hear it. Francois or Sherlock, who do you choose?”

I couldn’t think. The question made no sense. I said the name that first appeared in my mind. “Holmes.”

She took in a sharp breath. “Yes,” she murmured, “Yes. Maybe there is time–”

“Watson!” Holmes’s voice rang out from the sitting room. I shot a glance at the door and made to rise. Before I could release her, Séraphie reached up, took my chin in her hands and kissed me. It was startling and wonderful and by the time I realized her lips tasted like honey, she had leant away.

As I sat blinking dazedly, she whispered, “Men are not smart, cher. They believe thinking and saying are the same. It is not true. I cannot say you are smarter than most, but you are much braver. If the chance should come, you will be the one who is so brave as to say what must be said.”

“Doctor. I cannot wait any longer,” Holmes called. “If you will not collect yourself and come along I will leave without you.”

“Come, come.” Séraphie was on her feet and pulling me toward the door. “You are all dressed and ready now. You must not keep your Sherlock waiting. Oh.” She stopped suddenly and reached up to brush her thumb across my lips. “It would not do for you to emerge with the lip rouge,” she whispered. She tugged the door open and all but pushed me through.

Holmes was leaning against the door to the outer passage, his arms crossed tightly on his chest. He did not look at me, but studied my companion with a look of fixed interest. For her part, Séraphie did not meet his gaze but went straight to a table against the wall where a few items of fresh clothing yet remained.

In some confusion, I glanced about the room. Villard was nowhere in evidence.

“He realized he had work to do,” Holmes said evenly. “May we venture out now? By my watch you have some fifteen minutes of useful time remaining. I suggest we make the most of it.”

I opened my mouth to answer, but he was glaring at Séraphie. “You know your part?”

“Ah, oui,” she said, turning from the table and flashing a startlingly bright smile. “Francois will look to see me turn the mannequin.” She gestured at the wax figure I saw was now standing on the console table where it was visible at the side of the window. “It should be turned just a small amount every few of the minutes. I understand what is expected.”

I stared between them. “Just a moment,” I said. “I don’t like this. Séraphie, are you sure you’ll be safe here on your own?”

Her smile softened. “Yes, I will be safe. I will not be seen by the window.”

“And you know where we will be,” Holmes asked her.

“Yes. And you will make sure my John is safe and will stay from harm.”

“I will do my best.”

“And you will also take good care of yourself for the sake of John,” she said.

Holmes blinked at this request, but made no answer.

I cleared my throat. “Look, I’m growing a bit tired of being discussed as if I were some sort of half-witted pet. I am standing right here.”

Holmes pursed his lips. “Yes,” he said evenly. “Of course. Well, we had better go then.”

“Here, my ange,” Séraphie said and somehow she was standing on her toes before me, fitting a bowler over my bandages. “Your pretty hat is all gone somewhere and it would not fit now nonetheless so I have found this one for you.” She bent toward me and breathed, “Do not let Sherlock go to the Tower.” Before I was even sure of what I’d heard, she leant back and said brightly, “La! It is very nice. Now you must go.” She stepped back and pushed me gently toward the door.

Holmes had it open and was already in the hallway when I arrived. We became a little entangled at the door and the next instant Holmes was propelling me toward the stairs with a touch on my elbow. I looked back to see Séraphie framed in the doorway, a vision of pink and gold, then we were around the bend of the hall and she was lost to sight.

“Will she really be safe there alone?” I asked as Holmes strode past the elevator toward the stairs.

“Safer,” he said without looking around.

We were at the ground floor in no time and I was glad to find I felt only a little winded from our brisk trot down the stairs. It was small comfort for my head was again throbbing with every beat of my pulse, which seemed to be going twice normal speed.

The hallway we paced along was not anything I would have recognized as a lobby. Boxes of linen and vegetable crates indicated we were making for the service entrance. As Holmes pushed through a door at the end of the passage, warm spring air brushed past my face bringing with it the smell of kitchen refuse. A wave of nausea surged up strongly enough to bring a resurgence of my earlier vertigo, but I barely faltered as I pushed through the door behind him.

We were out in the alley behind the hotel and moving at a quick march toward the adjoining road. As we crossed behind a row of buildings, at one stage darting through what was apparently a private garden, I kept at my dogged attempts to understand the exchange Séraphie had been trying to reveal for me.

If I had followed the burden of the conversation as it was translated, Villard had reasoned or deduced or simply observed my love for Holmes. It was, apparently, not difficult to do. Seemingly everyone I passed on the street might read it in my face.

However he had come by his knowledge, Villard had laid the fact before Holmes, expecting that Holmes would… what? It sounded as if Villard thought Holmes should tell me one way or the other whether he returned my feelings. Well, I thought, I knew the answer to that. But it was difficult to deny, painful as it might be to hear the worst from his own lips, it would be preferable to this constant, aching hope. For as much as my mind understood Holmes would never return my feelings, as Villard had said, the heart doesn’t listen to the head.

Still, if it weren’t for the drug, I reflected, I might be acutely furious with Villard for sharing his observations. It was hard to overcome the sense he’d somehow betrayed a confidence. As things stood, however, even as the more obvious benefits dwindled away, the lingering shreds of that sense of peace still clung to my mind, muting any outrage I might have felt.

Earlier that day I’d feared looking the fool. Now, I thought with a wry smile, Villard had removed that risk. He had made sure Holmes was fully aware that my love for him had not changed. As if, I amended, my merest glance weren’t confirmation enough. As Holmes had always told me, I had no gift for dissembling.

That remembrance triggered another thought. There was something I was missing in the brief snatch of discussion Séraphie had translated. I understand Villard’s position clearly enough. But it sounded as if Holmes was refuting it. Why should he do such a thing? All my reason told me he must know the truth of how I felt for him. There was no possibility it had escaped his notice.

Would he deny it to protect my pride? He’d certainly never showed such consideration before, I thought wryly. And, as I’d told Séraphie, he and I had always had an understanding about such things. There was no reason to think that had changed. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to discuss it. That seemed the most likely answer.

Villard had been importunate in his expectation that Holmes would want to resolve the unasked question of my feelings. Holmes had always considered emotion too outside the realm of predictable behavior to be of much use in his work and he was unlikely to want to discuss it as a matter of general interest. He must have soon wearied of putting the suggestion aside.

It occurred to me rather than feeling enmity for Villard, I was beginning to feel a swell of gratitude, even pity. Looking back over our brief friendship, I understood he didn’t indulge in gossip, but he was not one to let a thought remain unsaid if he felt it needed saying. He believed in setting out the facts as they stood for the better convenience of plumbing their mysteries. I could not recall ever hearing him say, “I don’t yet have enough information. Ask me later,” as Holmes was wont to do.

I could imagine him carefully framing his impressions for Holmes. Couching them by adding, “I have not the facts, as you understand.” At Holmes’s blank look he might have graduated to the “so humble policeman, not the philosopher” approach and finally, as a last attempt at drawing Holmes on the question, he may have even tried the “un-impossibility” gambit. I hoped for his sake he had not. I could only imagine Holmes’s reaction to such an unscientific exercise in logic, as useful as it had proved to be. He would be convinced Villard’s mind had come unhinged or that the Inspector had thrown in his lot with gypsy soothsayers.

Whatever had passed between the two men in that hotel room, it seemed their working relationship, even their friendship, had been sorely tried. Although I knew my small concerns were no more than a skirmish in their larger dispute, whatever it may be, it was terrible to think something so insignificant to anyone but myself should contribute to their falling out. It seemed, I decided, it was my responsibility to try to resolve at least this small conflict.

I could confirm Villard’s deductions and explain that the Inspector might have been too persistent in his approach, but that his intentions were good. His position was apparently that Holmes had a responsibility to bring the question to light, and to finally resolve it in my mind. The idea was a perspective I had not really considered and it was hard to dismiss out of hand.

But Séraphie had echoed what I had always believed. As the one who had the emotions at stake, it was up to me to express them or not. When I’d thought Holmes and I were as one in our feelings I had used to think I might make the emotions between us real by a word. Why should that have changed, I wondered. In that regard, at least, I had been given a second chance.

And surely, as Villard had argued, it was harder not to say it. My mouth twisted in an ironic smile as I considered how true his words were proving this day. It was only by the purest good fortune I hadn’t blurted out my feelings to Holmes in the garden before being shot, after being shot, in the carriage, in the hotel room, or, possibly even now. I felt a twinge of worry for as soon as the determination to be forthright formed in my mind, a doubt began to grow alongside it. What if it was only the drug that was fomenting this uncharacteristic fit of resolution?

If so, I thought, what of it? Maybe it was a case of ends justifying the means. What would be the benefit if I waited until my resolve was fully overthrown by fear and self-doubt? At the idea it might mean years more of the same tortured silence, my stomach lurched. No, I thought, surely if nothing else of benefit might come out of this experiment of mine, at least that one question might be forever put to rest.

So, I thought, for good or ill it was decided. I would tell Holmes how I felt in no uncertain terms. And, remembering another piece of Villard’s advice, it was best not to over-prepare. Nothing would be gained by rehearsing what I might say. After all this time, I reasoned, if I didn’t have the right words emblazoned in my mind I didn’t deserve to know them and I didn’t deserve this chance.

As is the way of such things, the instant I’d decided I wouldn’t churn through a thousand ways to express three short words, my mind proceeded to do just that. Fortunately, I was brought up short when Holmes came to a sudden halt before me.

I realized I’d been following him up streets and down alleys with absolutely no idea where we’d been or how long we’d been traveling. We stood now at the edge of an empty avenue.

Holmes peered down the road and up at the looming faces of the darkened buildings behind us then paced quickly across the deserted street to a line of tall, slender gray trees. I scurried in his wake. I guessed we must be entering the Champs de Mars. I wondered how far we were from the Eiffel Tower.

As we reached a broad expanse of lawn, showing pale gray in the moonlight, a bright shape coalesced from the white lights dancing at the edge of my vision and I looked up and up along a sweeping arc of silver. High above me a lacework shape swept toward the heavens. The moon that had drawn it inexorably upward now had rolled onward toward the horizon, leaving the Tower standing alone, etched against the sky and stars.

“Watson,” Holmes hissed at my ear. “This is not the time for sight-seeing. Do try to keep up.”

By the time I turned toward his voice he was striding away, turning rightward from the Tower and toward a cluster of trees that stood a little apart from the rest some little distance up the lawn. I hurried after him and reached his side just as he came to a stop.

Now, I thought. I should talk to him now. The time was all wrong, but hadn’t I already lost so much by waiting for the right time?

Holmes was looking up across the avenue we had just crossed, studying the front of a building that seemed to be made of white marble. Its elegantly curved face gazed in serene silence over the park. On a sudden I realized it must be the Hotel de Gaspard.

“Which is our window,” I asked under my breath as my eyes scanned the few bright squares of light.

“There.” Holmes pointed upward and to the left of the bowed center of the façade.

I picked out the profile on the curtain immediately. It was remarkably like my friend after all, I had to admit, at least in silhouette.

I cleared my throat. “Are we waiting for Moran to make his move?”

“No,” Holmes said, his gaze fixed on the window. “We are waiting for the fair Séraphie to betray us.”

.
-«oOo»-
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Chapter Eleven: Moonlight and Mercury

“Holmes, would you be so good as to explain what in hell you think you’re talking about?”

In the moonlight his gray eyes shone almost silver as he half-turned toward me. He looked startled for an instant then he schooled his features into a mask of bland indifference and resumed his study of the Hotel de Gaspard’s white façade.

“Really, Watson,” he said. “That you should continue to defend this woman even now… Well, it seems over-generous even for you. I grant you I’m not the best judge, but surely her charms are not so remarkable as all that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said tightly, “I’m afraid you must make allowances for my unusually diminished capacity for understanding tonight. If you’d be so kind as to make plain exactly what you mean by waiting for Séraphie to betray us…”

“It’s simply enough stated,” he answered coolly. “In a very few minutes Séraphie will abandon her post and make her way to the street where she will meet the younger Moran. He is hiding, nearby no doubt, waiting to learn where he may find us– or more accurately, me– for a quick kill. Removed from all the trappings of double-blind and deceit, the central plot is actually notable for its purity of form.”

The last vestige of any sense of calm imparted by the drug was now fully exploded and my resolve of a moment before, to confront Holmes with the fact of the depth of my love for him, was swept away with it. For a fleeting moment I thought longingly of the black leather syringe case. I took a steadying breath. “Holmes, this is absurd. What possible reason could you have for thinking Séraphie will betray you? You sent her to us.”

“Yes,” he said in a tight undertone. “I blame myself entirely, have no fear on that score.” Without shifting his gaze he touched my elbow and it took me a moment to understand he was urging me to step back from the spreading patch of moonlight that striped the grass before us. It traced the sharp cut of his fine cheekbones making him appear strikingly pale.

“I had my doubts of the wisdom of bringing her into the game,” he went on when we were once again in the shadows. “But I was fool enough to think I’d taken sufficient precautions. I waited until the last possible instant to tell her where to find you. I took her to the Île de la Cité myself. Somehow she managed to get a message to Moran in the distance between the Pont Neuf and the café.”

“Holmes, I won’t hear any more of this,” I said. “I know neither you nor Francois trust Séraphie. I’m not unaware she has a checkered past. But throughout this affair she’s shown remarkable bravery and good grace. Not many women, or men for that matter, would have acquitted themselves so well after being exposed to gun fire in a public square.”

“Her performance has certainly been notable for its lack of hysteria,” Holmes said dryly. “I wonder, did she ask many questions about that rifle shot?”

“No, she didn’t,” I said readily. “She was in shock as you might imagine. The glass shattered directly in front of her.”

“Yes, it was a skillful trick shot.” Holmes kept his gaze fixed on the hotel where the window of our suite was one of only a handful still glowing bright in the smooth façade. “Tell me, what was the signal? Did she turn the glass several times? Or perhaps she adjusted her bonnet unnecessarily.”

I could not prevent my sharp intake of breath. I saw his mouth tighten in something approximating a smile even before I answered. “She touched my arm.”

Holmes nodded. “Uncomplicated and perfectly in character for a courtesan. I wouldn’t concern myself about an uncommon credulity, Doctor. She’s a gifted actress, by profession and by nature. I understand she was present as you made your plans to meet me in the garden at Auteuil?”

I felt the fabric of the day’s events unraveling like so many threads slipping through my grasp. “No, she– she was asleep was in the next room. When we reached Villard’s flat I urged her lie down and rest.”

“A very small flat, is it?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “But, Holmes, that’s immaterial. You know she couldn’t have gotten a message to anyone. Francois told you himself he locked her in while he followed me to the garden. And when he went back for the mannequin he brought her directly here to the hotel.”

“Thank you, I do recall being informed of that fact,” he said evenly. “Also that Villard found her working at the lock of his door when he returned. Which naturally presents the question, was she trying to get out? Or was she covering the fact that she had forced the door, or been let out, sometime before. An interesting line of thought, don’t you agree?”

I could muster no response. His inferences were devastatingly logical. As a courtesan, Séraphie’s livelihood depended on making men believe the things they wanted to hear. I had known that when I met her at the Bishop’s Cat that afternoon. I had seen the artifice in her sweetly confiding gaze and light laugh and enjoyed them for the pretty play that they were.

The art had become truth for me. When I had awakened to her gentle touch on my brow and the fragrance of lavender in the air, it was as though I had awakened into a dream where a courtesan might be a confidante. I wanted to believe her bright smile and the light in her sea green eyes were just what they seemed. Now my illusions of the lovely, warm Séraphie were shattered like so many others that day.

Holmes went on, casually tearing away the last shreds of my self-possession. “I gather Moran cultivated her in hopes of such a chance,” he was saying. “I’d had cause to rely on her in the past and somehow he learned of it. If it’s any comfort, he wouldn’t have told her his true object this afternoon. Séraphie may not live up to the promise of her name, but I don’t think she would willingly be a party to murder. I daresay she doesn’t yet realize she’s more pawn than queen in this game.”

As he spoke, Holmes pulled out his watch and held it up to the light. “I haven’t decided how much was skillful planning on Moran’s part and how much he owes purely to good fortune. Either way, the man seems to have the luck of the devil. Villard would not normally have let Séraphie get so close. His judgment was sadly impaired, I’m afraid. But we must make allowances for his preoccupation, mustn’t we?” He closed the watch cover with a snap.

I struggled to find my voice. “But I don’t understand,” I said, and nearly laughed at my own obvious understatement. “If Séraphie told Moran where to find you at the garden and followed you– us here, why did you allow her to stay as you made your plans this evening? Why did you let her leave to visit the hotel manager? For that matter why did she return?”

Holmes exhaled a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll allow I’ve shown precious little wisdom in this enterprise, Watson, but give me credit for hindsight at least. When I arrived at the hotel and found Séraphie waiting it was obvious what had happened. Even Villard grasped it instantly. We both knew our tactical position would be stronger if we didn’t let on. Still in those first few minutes I think either of us might have considered the pleasure of pitching her out the window worth the loss of any hypothetical advantage. Fortunately, we were at least as furious with one another.” He thrust his shoulders back and went on, “We assumed she’d want to stay close and continue gathering intelligence for Moran. The original plan was to give her the job of attending to the mannequin. Villard saw no harm in letting her think we believed Moran to be outside. He believes nothing of the kind, of course, which only shows up his regrettable tendency to narrow thinking. He doesn’t see the role of obsession in this little drama of ours. Moran must kill me just as Séraphie must protect his freedom even at the cost of her own. But he was willing to go along with what he termed a ‘so sad charade’ to keep Séraphie where we can make use of her. As to why she came back when she had the chance to make a clean escape, we may put the thanks for that squarely at your feet.” His mouth twisted in a wry smile. “It seems even courtesans are not safe from your charms. Your insistence on being part of the proceedings proved to be a valuable bargaining chip.”

It seemed I had lost my ability to follow even the simplest train of logic. “A bargaining…”

“Yes, while you were collecting yourself for this expedition I took the chance to work out my own arrangement with her. I explained we knew her role in the affair and suggested she might modify her allegiances for the sake of avoiding an unpleasantness with the gendarmerie. Her counter was that she would take her chances with the gendarmerie if she knew you’d be kept from harm. It was the only trade she’d accept in the end. I’m afraid the parlay won’t improve my standing with Villard. He was very much looking forward to arresting someone.”

The night breeze that brushed the back of my neck was chill against the sheen of perspiration there. Holmes, Villard, Moran, Séraphie… players in a grand game of skill and strategy. It all spun dizzily in my mind. At last I ventured, “So Séraphie betrayed us… and now Moran?”

“Woman is a changeable creature,” Holmes said tersely. “But it’s not so simple as that. She agreed to pretend to play along until Villard and his men were in position at the eastern end of the park and you were well away from the hotel. Then allowing a safe interval she would leave to meet Moran as they arranged this afternoon. Instead of giving away our location, however, she will tell him we’re aware of the plot and the best course will be to retreat and try again at a later date. The end result is she’ll escape arrest while keeping her two competing loyalties, you and Moran, safe from harm.” He gave me a steady look. “You, Doctor, should be flattered. You seem to be quite the wild card in this game. I dare say events would have played out even more entertainingly if Moran had had a chance to get to know you better.” His jaw tightened as he returned to his study of the hotel. “Unfortunately, all this means he will escape us today. Still, I wouldn’t let that concern me overly. There is more than enough blame to go around in this fiasco.”

At his final words, the harsh white light of truth flared up in my mind, washing out shadows and uncertainty and leaving one fact standing alone. I surveyed the barren landscape, stripped of self-deception, and was surprised to find I was entirely drained of emotion.

I removed my hat and wiped a hand across my eyes. “Holmes, my faculties are even less acute than usual. I want to be sure I understand. Abandoning your plans in London, your thwarted strategy here in Paris, your willingness to allow both Morans to escape after three years– more than three years of pursuing Moriarty’s gang… all of this wasted effort. It’s all my fault.”

When I looked at him again, Holmes was staring at me, his eyes wide. “Watson, that’s not– I never meant to imply…” he began, but I continued, speaking though my mouth was dry as leather.

“No,” I said, shaking my head despite the resurging pain at my temple. “Don’t feel you need to placate me. I know there’s no way I can go back and correct the past. The best I can offer is the promise that you won’t have to make allowances for my mistakes in future. I’ll find my own way back to London, don’t trouble yourself about that. Concentrate on the matter at hand. Capturing Moran is the only important–”

“Oh, Watson. John. Tell me–” he all but groaned. “Tell me how it is I can never make my words match what’s in my mind. Why am I so damnably incoherent when I’m with you?”

I stared uncomprehendingly. “Holmes, I don’t–”

“I know. I know.” He closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath. His dark lashes lay feathered against his cheeks, so pale in the moonlight. His eyes drifted open and the silver fire in their gray depths was like nothing I’d ever seen. A tremor ran through me, starting gooseflesh on my skin.

His voice was barely a whisper as he said, “John, I know I’ve ruined every chance that you might ever feel the same. Probably a hundred times over. I know you can’t forgive me. Just tell me you won’t turn away. I might live one more day if only I thought that were true, but–” He drew in a sharp breath and his voice dropped to a growl. “Damn it, John, why must you be so infuriatingly beautiful.”

Those silver-gray eyes never left mine as he leant toward me. I felt him take my hat from my numb fingers and a distant part of my mind heard it hit the ground. I felt his breath on my lips before I felt his kiss, so soft I might have thought I imagined it.

His quick, nervous fingers traced up the front of my jacket to my shoulders as though afraid to alight. His second kiss brushed my upper lip, grazing my mustache. I felt as much as heard his low moan then his fingers twined through the hair at the back of my neck. Thought fled.

My hands moved to his shoulders and waist and he drew a quick, gasping breath as my lips parted. His tongue traced between them and what had been a tentative, questing kiss deepened, quickened.

How little my imaginings had prepared me to feel his lips on mine again. The taste of him… strong French coffee and rich tobacco… was intoxicating. The very smell of his skin was like a half-remembered dream. I burned to taste that, too. I broke the kiss and with the heel of my hand, I turned his head. My lips brushed his throat and the rough texture of his unshaved skin was like electricity.

He gasped and the sound inflamed me. I groaned aloud, feeling his racing pulse against my lips and his shuddering breath against my ear. My lips reclaimed his and I felt his hands fist at the back of my jacket. The sensation was like nothing I’d ever dreamed. Blood burned through my veins. I crushed him to me and our light summer suits were no barrier as I felt his heartbeat thrum against my chest. I fit the length of my body to his. I recognized his passion as our hips met and at that instant he gasped and pulled back.

His hands loosed their grip and came to my chest, tensed as if ready to push away. My vision cleared and I focused on his eyes, dark and wild and staring into mine. I couldn’t read the emotion there. It wasn’t fear or desire, but something unknowable in between. For a moment I studied them, confused, then fragmented pieces of memory, disjointed from thought, slipped together in my mind. His quick, nervous hands. His startled eyes. His searching kiss, a tentative echo of my own six years before.

There weren’t words to match the knowledge that shimmered to light in my mind. If there were, I didn’t hesitate long enough to find them. I let my hold on his shoulders relax and bent forward. I pressed a light kiss to his lips before gently tracing between them. We shared a long, slow kiss that ended on a mingled breath something like a sigh.

When I leant away again I took in the sight of his wet rose-colored lips, his tousled black hair, his gray eyes, now dark with need. It was a memory and a dream and a perfectly etched vision all in one. I knew then there truly were no second chances. Every chance was new and precious and should be seized with both hands for it would never come again.

Holmes’s voice reverberated in my palms as he leant back in my embrace. “Imagination is a poor second to life,” he murmured. “If I’d thought it might be anything like this…” A strange, broken laugh escaped his lips.

My own answering laugh, I think, surprised us both. Holmes’s eyes met mine.

“John,” he said and his voice was unsteady. “I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t have an idea how to– If I had anticipated, I might have thought what to say…”

His words recalled Villard’s earlier admonition on being over-prepared. “Francois–” I began, but got no farther for on the instant the name passed my lips Holmes stepped back from my embrace.

He stared at me with a look as near to outrage as I had ever seen on his face. “Yes, what about Francois? Did he know the perfect words to say at such a juncture?”

I hesitated as he crossed his arms on his chest and studied me with narrowed eyes. “Just– while you were out of the room earlier…” I faltered.

“Go on,” he said tightly. “I look forward to hearing this. I’m sure it will be instructive should I ever find myself in such a situation again.”

“Just that he thought it might be possible to spend too much time preparing for a thing,” I said slowly. “That what you did after was often more important. But, Holmes–” I stopped as he held up his hand.

“A moment, please,” he said. “I must understand this. You and Villard…”

I must have looked very confused for he lowered his hand and leant closer. “You don’t… care for him?” he said, studying my face. “Like this?” His hand moved in a vague gesture in the air between us.

I blinked. “What? Why would you think that?”

Holmes pursed his lips then said carefully. “You will admit you speak of him a great deal. In the garden. In the carriage. Here. Now.” His eyes narrowed again. “What am I to make of that?”

My scattered thoughts flashed back over the events of the evening. I heard Séraphie’s low, sweet voice say, “John, you are awake, yes? You know over what these two men disagree, of course.”

Images and fragments of conversation slotted together. My eyes widened. “That’s what Séraphie was trying to tell me,” I breathed. “Ever since I woke up, she’s been trying to make me understand… she wouldn’t explain. She said you had to tell me yourself. This argument between you and Francois… the duel,” I murmured. “She was certain you two were going to come to blows. She said…” I met Holmes’s eyes. He stared silently. It seemed ridiculous to say aloud, yet as I watched him studying me, I had to finish the thought. “She suggested I try calling Francois ‘Villard’ and see if that might help.”

There was no glimmer of a smile on his face. “I don’t think it would.”

“No.” I shook my head. “That was her conclusion as well. Holmes…” I stopped to consider the unspoken question between us. The proposition that I could be at the center of such a dispute between two such extraordinary men was patently ludicrous and yet everyone… Holmes, Séraphie, and, as I remembered the anger in his eyes as he stared Holmes down, Villard as well… they all seemed to take the idea seriously.

My gaze drifted up to the rectangle of light in the distance and the shadow of the mannequin there on the curtain. “I don’t really understand how such a thing might have come about,” I said, feeling my way through the words. “I’ve only known Francois a little more than two days, yet I am more grateful for having met him than I would have thought possible. His is a remarkably generous spirit. And he seems to truly value my judgment.”

Holmes pursed his lips. “You haven’t actually answered my question, Doctor.” He hesitated for the space of a breath. “Or have you?”

I shook my head quickly, despite the surge of pain at my temple. “Holmes, what I feel for Francois is friendship and nothing more.” I met his level gaze. “I hope you and he are still friends. He’s a good man. And he admires you enormously.”

“Hum. I think you may find he’s revised his opinion,” Holmes said, his voice impassive. “We have recently said a number of things to one another that will be difficult to overlook.”

I thought back to Villard reading to me from the rust-colored book of poetry. “I’m sure he understands,” I said.

Holmes cleared his throat. “You know it’s not just friendship on his side.”

I shook my head. “That’s something I suppose I’ll have to discuss with Francois. There’s been far too much left unsaid as it stands.”

“Yes, that’s certainly true.” He exhaled a long breath and turned his gaze up between the breeze-tossed limbs of the trees toward the blue satin sky. “I suppose much of this could have been avoided if I’d just kissed you there in the garden. I wanted to.” He gave a little shake of his head and his gaze drifted to the trees behind me. “But you were so distant.”

“I had just decided I’d been an utter fool for six years,” I said.

He refocused on my face as a frown creased his forehead.

“I was sure I’d misread your intentions that night in the train from Birmingham,” I said quietly.

He inhaled sharply. “But… why?”

I gave him a small smile. “I have had my perceptions rather challenged lately. I’ve had to adjust to some… surprising revelations. Not always with a clear head, it seems.”

He studied my face for a long moment. “John, I know I owe you many explanations, but there is one thing, at least, that must be perfectly clear and free from misinterpretation.”

He moved to touch my cheek with his fingertips, guiding my face toward his. Our lips met and I felt his hand slip under my jacket to the small of my back, pulling me closer. His kiss was infinitely, painfully slow and careful as his lips moved from mine to trace lightly along my jaw and down to skim the edge of my collar.

My hands gripped his shoulders and I felt his breath quicken against my throat before his mouth reclaimed mine in an urgent, searching kiss that set my head swimming. When at last he broke away his eyes were closed and he inhaled deeply as if breathing in the moment. My own breath caught in my throat at the sight. His eyes fluttered open. They shone like pools of mercury.

“Yes,” I said thoughtfully. “If you’d kissed me like that in the garden, it would have clarified things.” A smile spread across my face. “And it would have startled Moran terribly.”

Holmes gave a snort. “I’d imagine he might have missed his shot by a wider margin.”

He stepped back and his gaze drifted past my shoulder again. I realized he was looking toward the Tower that would be visible as a set of silver lacework arcs between the trees. The thought sparked a memory.

I studied his face as I said slowly, “Holmes, what Séraphie said as we were leaving. About you taking care… She whispered something else. Something you couldn’t hear. She said I shouldn’t let you go to the Tower. Why would she say such a thing if there was no real danger?”

His eyes met mine and I saw a flicker of something in their gray depths that was gone so quickly I might have thought I’d imagined it were not my attention so fixed on his every fleeting expression.

His jaw tightened before the mask of impassivity fell back into place. “She was simply playing her part. I have mentioned that she is a skilled actress.”

My eyes narrowed. “Yes, I admit that statement gave me pause,” I said. “I doubted her motives for a moment, but I was wrong to do so. A courtesan, she may be, but she is also a very courageous woman. I don’t imagine Moran would be pleased if he learned of her bargain with you.”

Holmes frowned. “Surely you don’t think I’d put her in unnecessary danger merely for the sake of my own skin.”

“I don’t,” I agreed. “That’s why I wonder what else was in your mind when you negotiated her betrayal of Moran’s strategy.”

“Your thinking may still be a bit muddled, old boy,” he said mildly. “It is just as I said. Séraphie will tell Moran the hunt should be scratched for tonight. We will have other opportunities to take him. The Morans are a very patient family. I’d imagine it comes from hunting tigers. On one point you’re quite right. You shouldn’t underestimate Séraphie’s regard for you. That’s why I gave in to her wish to go in to see you privately before we left. Did she say anything else that might be considered a warning?”

As I thought back over our last conversation, nothing of the same sort came to mind and I saw Holmes’s posture relax marginally in the silence.

“But I know she was trying to tell me something important,” I persisted. I glanced around at the copse of trees that surrounded us. “Holmes, why are we hiding here among the trees if there’s no danger? Why were you worried that we’d be visible in the moonlight? There’s more to this than you’re saying.”

When I looked back at him, Holmes’s gaze shifted abruptly to mine. My eyes narrowed and I peered over my shoulder toward the Tower.

The persistent humming in my ears rose in pitch. “’This is no time for sight-seeing,’” I said, echoing his earlier words.

“That’s correct. It is not,” Holmes said abruptly and thrust his hands into his pockets. “I think we’ve kept Villard and his men up late enough tonight. And I would guess…” He glanced up at the hotel window. “Yes, while we’ve been engaged in this very diverting conversation the mannequin has not moved for several minutes. We may assume Séraphie is safely away and Moran with her. Villard will be growing anxious by this time. Before he storms the hotel it might be prudent to find him and let him know he may call off the hunt. If you’d be so kind, I think he might take it better coming from you. Give him my apologies. Tell him I admit I was wrong, that Moran clearly wasn’t waiting. That should please him enormously. You will find him near the eastern edge of the park. Meanwhile, I shall spend a few minutes questioning some of the hotel staff about loiterers in the lobby. Your description of Moran should prove useful. Afterwards,” he said, flashing a brief smile. “Perhaps we could resume this conversation.”

He bit his lip then in the same strange gesture he’d made before and something in his posture sent a chill through me. His hands were thrust in his pockets, his expression curiously expectant as he gazed past my shoulder. The picture was horribly familiar. My stomach lurched as I recognized it and the humming in my ears echoed with the sound of boiling white water.

“This night has not been a fiasco at all, has it,” I breathed. “It’s worked out even better than you could have hoped.” Pain seared behind my eyes. I reached up to scrub a hand across my forehead. I felt a trickle of wetness at my temple.

“John?” Holmes began and moved toward me.

“Stop,” I said stepping back. “You’ll not get around this.”

He took a quick step forward and caught my chin with his fingertips. He studied my eyes. A frown creased his forehead. “You don’t look– are you well?”

“Concussion,” I said tightly. “Do you mean it wasn’t obvious? I’ll have to reevaluate my own acting skills.”

His jaw tightened. “Why didn’t you tell me before? You have to go,” he said. “Now.” He reached for my elbow and I stepped back.

“No. Not if we have a chance to end this tonight. You’re to meet Moran at the Tower. That’s the message Séraphie is really delivering, isn’t it?” His lips parted, but before he could argue I said, “I can’t let you go alone. Not this time. Not again. And I don’t think you’ll take a chance on making the situation worse by trying to knock me down, so just tell me the plan. And hurry. Time must be running out. He may come looking for you if you fail to appear.”

He reached for my shoulder, but I shrugged him off. “No, John, wait,” he said urgently. “There is no master plan. I’m no wiser than I was then. But it doesn’t matter if I catch Moran tonight. It’s not important.”

I stared. “Not important… Three years, Holmes. If it’s not important then where did those three years go?” I took a steadying breath. “Nothing has changed, has it? You’re still behaving as if you’re in this alone. Can’t you see it’s no more true now that it was then? And this time, it’s not just me. Francois. Séraphie. Are we all just pawns to be swept from the board at your convenience?”

“John,” he breathed. “Listen. Let me–”

“Let you what?” My voice was rising and I struggled to keep from shouting. “Explain? How can you explain doing this to me again? How can you justify trying to make me walk away just like before? Have you no human feeling at all? Can you even begin to know– ”

My words broke off as Holmes took a quick step forward. I tried to back away, but he caught me around the waist, throwing me off balance and pulling me against him. Even as I tried to shove him away, he bent toward me. His lips brushed my ear.

“You’re wrong,” he said under his breath. “On several counts. And I will knock you down if I have to because the risk is less than giving in. I can’t take the chance, John. I can’t. Try to understand. I love you.”

Stunned, I felt his shoulders stiffen too late. Before I could pull away, the heel of his hand connected with my jaw. Bright pain flared as white light exploded behind my eyes and then there was only darkness.

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o00o
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I stood at the bottom of the path to Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was at the knife’s edge of the cliff, staring down into the churning, crushing torrent. White mist boiled up around him.

I cried out a wordless shout of warning. He looked up and met my eyes. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear over the scream of the Falls. I stumbled down the ragged path, desperately calling his name.

My feet caught on the broken rocks and I fell forward. When I looked again, Holmes was gone. I staggered to the edge of the chasm. Nothing marked the spot where he’d been, not even footprints. I faced into the stinging spray and screamed out my rage.

“It’s not too late, my ange,” a sweet voice beside me whispered. I spun toward the sound and found Séraphie, gold and pink against the gray stones. “Tell me quickly,” she said. “Who do you choose?”

“Holmes,” I breathed.

She smiled, her sea green eyes shining. “Yes. Go to him, cher.”

I turned toward the yawning chasm. I didn’t want to fall. Not alone. But that was how it happened, wasn’t it? You had to fall alone.

Séraphie whispered in my ear, “You will not have far to look, John. He is waiting.”

I stepped out into emptiness. As I crashed through the icy water and watched the sunlight split into silver fragments high above me, flowing back together into a blanket of white, I felt no pain, no fear. There was only a spreading sense of peace as everything was washed away in white silence.

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-«oOo»-
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~ The Story Continues in ~
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~ooOOoo~
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