April 27, 2008
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………[ RATED R ]………

Demons, Devils and Rogues

The First Story

The Squire of Reigate

by nlr alicia

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<< These stories are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of his immortal characters, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. The content shared here is the responsibility of this author.>>

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On style choices: I use Americanized spelling and punctuation because I’m not confident I’ll always remember to use Anglicized alternatives and the possessive “Holmes’s” as Doyle does in the Strand version of HOUN because I like it better.

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Setting: An Alternate Universe retelling of the events described by Doctor Watson in his chronicle The Reigate Squires.

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Content Warnings: Dubiously consensual violence. Blood. Bullets. Bludgeonings. And one lone orange.

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Part One
The Witness

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“On referring to my notes I see that it was upon the fourteenth of April
that I received a telegram from Lyons which informed me that Holmes was lying ill in the Hotel Dulong.”

Traveling from London to Lyons in haste is not a simple task. Because I received the telegram in the forenoon, I was able to throw my standard traveling kit in my bag and make the dash to Victoria in time to board the mid-day train to the coast.

Once in Calais, however, rather than wait for the scheduled passenger train, I arranged to go by mail train to Paris. From Paris to Lyons I booked travel in a second-class carriage, which proved to be entirely occupied by soldiers on their way to the port of Marseilles.

My inability to correctly pronounce even the simplest of French phrases was a source of much good-natured amusement among the young men, many of them raw youths recently plucked from field and farm to judge by their sun-bronzed skin.

One lean young man with a mop of russet hair and eyes that matched in a most beguiling fashion sat beside me and took it upon himself to coax me through some essentials of traveler’s French, though his own inability to utter a word of English served to make our faltering efforts more comical than educational.

In my young and footloose days I might have journeyed on to Marseilles with this amiable lad whose wide, inviting eyes and attentive manner conveyed, in language unspoken, a willingness to further our acquaintance beyond the need for conversation. But those days were behind me and my friend was waiting in Lyons, in a state of health that I could only assume was precarious given the terse nature of the telegram I’d received the day before.

When I bid the young man farewell at the station I knew there was no need to exchange addresses. He would soon be on his way to an outpost in Marrakech and I on my way back to London and doubtless our paths would never again cross. Still in the week to come, particularly at those times my patience was most tried, I would think of those rich, brown eyes and wonder what they saw in mine.

The Hotel Dulong was not to be found, as I’d hoped, near the station in the heart of Lyons, nor in the sprawling central square of the Place Bellecour, nor in any of the neighborhoods favored by tourists to that ancient city.

After much fruitless searching, I located a British newsagent who was able to direct me up the steep slope of the hill known as Croix-Rousse, the center of Lyon’s silk industry. There I wandered narrow passages and twisting alleyways until, quite by chance, I happened upon a signboard of faded gold that proclaimed the Hotel Dulong.

It crossed my mind to wonder how Holmes had chosen the unprepossessing spot. Perhaps, I reasoned, despite the successful completion of his investigation and the arrest of his quarry, Baron Maupertuis, he still had reason to fear discovery.

When I pushed through the door, with its peeling paint that had probably once been a striking azure, I found myself in a deeply shadowed lobby decorated with brocade furnishings that recalled the heyday of the local silk industry much as a faded beauty in tattered finery recalls the gilded courtesan of sparkling nights long past.

The shivering peal of the tiny bell over the entry died away and the ancient proprietor shuffled out from a tapestry-shrouded door. It occurred to me then I didn’t know whether I should give my friend’s name or an alias. On quick consideration, I decided to take the chance that since the telegram gave no further instruction than to present myself at the hotel, there was no need for artifice.

Full of hope I’d interpreted the signs correctly, I offered a greeting and said, “Monsieur Sherlock Holmes?” before the old proprietor had time to cross the graying carpet. Rather than answer he gave me a curious and appraising look that left me groping to expound on my request.

Fortunately, before I was forced to delve into my already depleted supply of French, he gave a shrug, offered the single word “Neuf” and made a waving gesture to a doorway at the corner of the room.

The door proved to lead to a narrow staircase that wound up past three landings. Room number Nine was at the topmost and by the time I found it the strain of my journey, the long climb to the hill of Croix-Rousse, and the heat of the late afternoon were all taking their toll.

My traveling suit of loose-woven tweed, light as it was, clung to my back and itched at my neck as I crossed the last few feet of threadbare rug. With a passing nod at decorum I quietly called out “Holmes?” and waited a moment before raising my hand to rap on the door.

To my surprise, there was a rustling as of paper and a whispered voice, the deep, rumbling timbre of which could not be mistaken for my friend’s no matter how muffled. I thought perhaps I’d misunderstood the proprietor and was trying to think how to apologize when I heard a voice I did recognize.

“Watson? Just… wait a moment.”

Standing outside the door, staring at the tarnished brass handle, I knew no skill with the French language was required to understand what I’d just heard.

I had long assumed Holmes shared my fondness for the company of men of like mind though I’d had no evidence for it. While I considered myself to be of rather broad tastes in companionship, being as attracted by the sight of welcoming eyes whether they shone from under a bonnet or a cap, I’d never known Holmes to show the slightest interest in either the open admiration he received from many of our female clients, or the less open but no less attentive glances of some of our male visitors. Yet something in his manner, impossible as it was to define, was a fellow feeling I recognized in that young soldier on the train.

Holmes and I had never discussed it any more than we’d discussed those occasional early mornings when I walked quietly up the stairs of our Baker Street lodgings to my bed above the sitting room we shared, though more than once I’d heard Holmes moving about below.

I had never observed the same practice from him. Unless it was in the service of a case he rarely stirred from our rooms from evening to mid-morning. I had simply assumed in this, as in so many things, he was more discreet than myself. I never pursued the question. Although I considered him to be my closest and dearest friend, Holmes was not a man who invited the sharing of confidences. I had always accepted that and often appreciated it.

Yet somehow, now that I was actually faced with evidence that brooked no realistic alternative explanation, I found myself subject to an entirely irrational fit of temper.

Thankfully, before I had time to dwell on the feeling and what it might mean, I heard Holmes call out “Come in, Watson.” His weary voice bore the unmistakable signs of exhaustion and ennui I’d expected, common as they were to the conclusion of a strenuous investigation and by the time I’d pushed open the door my professional concern had come to the fore.

My equanimity suffered another blow, however, when I found myself confronted by the sight of a powerfully-built young man sitting at the edge of the unmade bed in the midst of lacing up his boots. It was a relief, though I couldn’t say why, to see the bed was otherwise unoccupied.

Choosing tact over curiosity, I tried to occupy myself with surveying the faded damask curtains drawn tight across the room’s tall windows.

The young man spoke again, his deep, resonant voice strangely loud in that still room, and I heard “Docteur Watson.” I turned to him in surprise and was immediately arrested by the sight of cornflower blue eyes regarding me from under his tousled mop of wheat colored hair.

“…ne parle pas le français.” Holmes’s quiet voice came from somewhere over my right shoulder and I turned.

I found the room was larger than I’d first imagined, bending so that it apparently took up half of the top floor. Holmes was emerging from a curtained room at the end of the dogleg. In a lightweight dressing gown over an uncollared linen shirt and well-worn trousers, he was clothed much as he might have been on a weekend morning at Baker Street.

The only surprising feature was his bare feet. I might not have noticed immediately had not his approach explained the sound of rustling paper. The floor was littered with crumpled telegrams. Here and there they’d been pushed up in low drifts so they formed ankle-high cascades around the legs of the narrow desk and chair.

The young man pushed up from the bed and stood with his arms crossed on his broad chest. An insouciant smile quirked the corner of his mouth and he spoke again. To my surprise I thought I recognized the word “lapin” from a recent menu that included French rabbit stew.

Holmes answered curtly and the young man shrugged and gave a low laugh then stepped across to my friend who stood still at the crux of the room, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his dressing gown.

With a quick movement he took Holmes by the elbows and leant forward to give him a light kiss on each cheek after the French fashion. Before releasing him, he murmured something close to Holmes’s ear at which Holmes gave a quick shake of his head.

I realized I was staring only when I saw Holmes’s eyes meet mine. He dropped his gaze to the floor and I turned away to resume my survey of the room, only to find myself again confronted by the bed and its rumpled sheets.

Almost immediately I heard more rustling and a low, “Au revoir, Docteur.” Before I could turn the young man had slipped through the door behind me and shut it again with a soft click.

I looked around to find Holmes standing in the same spot, regarding me with an unreadable expression. At the sight of the dark hollows under his eyes and the sharp cut of his high, sculpted cheekbones, my irresolution evaporated in an instant.

“Sit down,” I said, moving to the side of the bed and depositing my bag on the floor.

There was a moment’s hesitation before Holmes was at my side and perched on the edge of the bed. I rummaged through my hastily packed bag for the few medical necessaries I’d thrust inside. My movements were arrested, however, when he murmured, “Watson, why are you here?”

I blinked in surprise and glanced over. Holmes was watching me, tension evident in every line of his face.

I narrowed my eyes in confusion. “You didn’t send the telegram?”

His eyebrows rose for an instant, before he schooled his features into a look of bland interest. “May I see it?”

Frowning, I straightened and dug through my pockets until I found the crumpled sheet. I offered it to him and watched as he read the terse message.

“I told him-” he began then he crumpled it and dropped it to the floor with the rest. “It’s dated yesterday morning. You must have had good luck with the trains.”

“I had to exercise some creativity,” I said simply. “Have you been here long?” I asked in what I hoped was a neutral tone as I took his wrist between my fingers and began to count his pulse. His skin was worryingly warm to the touch.

He didn’t answer immediately and I looked up. His eyes were distracted, gazing off into the distance.

“No,” he answered, his brows drawn together. “This is… two days. A little more.”

Such uncertainty was so unlike my friend, who prided himself on exactness in particulars from large to small, I was immediately overcome with concern. I focused my attention on the slim wrist I still held in my hand and turned it to look at the back of his hand. I touched it with the ball of my thumb and saw that slight pressure left a hollow in the skin.

I leant forward and caught his chin in my fingers, turning his eyes to the dim light of the gas lamp. My worry turned into alarm.

“Holmes, when was the last time you had anything to eat or drink?”

“Ah, Jean-Marc came back with some bread and wine last night,” he said making a vague gesture at the narrow desk pushed up against the far wall. It held a deep green bottle, nearly full, a single glass and most of a pale golden baguette.

“Is there water?” I asked briskly standing and glancing around. No ceramic ewer of the type I’d expect to see met my eye. There was no response behind me as I started toward the curtained room, a fact that was in itself worrying for I’d never known my friend at a loss for a ready reply.

The space behind the curtain proved to be a dressing room. It held only a few items of clothing, some linen and a portable basin. A quick survey turned up nothing to meet my needs. I strode back over to the desk, kicking telegram paper out of my path.

Within a few moments I had arranged the bottle of wine and baguette on a small table beside the bed. “Have a little of this then lie down,” I said as I turned toward the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

There was no answer and I looked back to find Holmes still sitting at the edge of the bed, gazing after me with a peculiarly forlorn expression. It was so unlike him that I froze in my tracks.

“Holmes?”

His eyes focused on mine and in an instant his expression stiffened into a look of calm disinterest. “I’d offer you currency, but I find myself without,” he said blandly. “I think there’s an exchange in the next street.” And with that he picked up the baguette and tore a piece from the end.

I only nodded in response as I let myself out into the hall, but a thought nagged at me as I made my way down the twisting staircase. I had never known Holmes to be so yielding. The mere fact of it was worrying enough to speed my steps.

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It was some little time before I found myself again climbing the stairs to room Nine. I’d been too late to find an open exchange and I had to travel far afield to locate a shop that would accept British coin.

At last I reached the door and shifted my burden to push it open. The room was dark. The sun had dropped down below the roofs of the clustering silk workshops and apartment buildings that lined the high hill of Croix-Rousse and the little sunlight that filtered around the damask curtains when I’d left on my errand was long dissipated.

The gas lamp had either gone dry or Holmes had doused it while I’d been out. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I looked to the bed. To my alarm, I saw it was empty. I dropped my burden to the floor.

“Holmes–”

His name had barely left my lips when I saw him in the entry to the dressing room, on his side, his legs drawn up as if shielding his stomach. I was kneeling at his side in an instant. His skin was hot, but dry. When I turned him onto his back I didn’t need a light to see his lips were a livid white.

My actions of the next few minutes required no conscious thought. I took his arm and lifted him, braced against my shoulder, noting and filing away the knowledge that his always lean form now seemed to be no more than skin stretched over bone.

I carried him to the bed and laid him across it. Then I turned to the lamp and found it had only been turned down. I brightened it to its fullest and was heartened to hear a moan of protest. I didn’t turn but went back to the dressing room.

The reason Holmes had stirred from the bed was evident when I found the remains of what little bread and wine he’d managed to consume in the portable basin. With all the economy of motion I could bring to bear I cleaned it, gathered up the small supply of linens and carried it all back to the bed.

As I knelt on the floor and set about my work, Holmes stirred again. I reached out to lay my hand on his chest, thinking to still him, but he knocked it away with surprising strength and began struggling to rise. I drew the inevitable conclusion and, lacking any other recourse, snatched up the topmost linen. I gripped his shoulder and pulled him toward me, thrusting the linen into place. I held it there as he retched the small amount there was left to expel then heaved empty breath for a minute more.

At last his spasms relaxed and he rolled back against the bed, shivering and breathing heavily. I paused to stroke the lank hair back from his forehead. It was as blue-black as a raven’s wing against his pale skin.

Chiding myself for my lapse of detachment, I went back to my preparations. Within a minute I had mixed a solution of salts and sugar in the skin of boiled water and set to tending my patient.

It was a long night of coaxing him to drink it a few drops at a time. As much came up as went down in the early hours then gradually the spasms began to ease and he was able to swallow a mouthful of water without immediately coughing it back up.

In between attempts at making him drink I made him as comfortable as possible. I found fresh nightclothes in his satchel in the dressing room. By the time I was ready to help him change him out of his damp and rumpled clothing he was able to assist, shifting when I coaxed him with a touch on his arm or leg.

I worked in silence apart from the occasional word of instruction. Holmes had never been one to abide idle chatter and, though I’d had almost no experience of him in illness, I knew a stream of cajoling or sympathetic talk would not sooth him in the slightest degree.

At some time around midnight he dropped into a fitful sleep and I felt I had luxury enough to replenish my meager supplies. I knew without having to travel down the long flight of stairs I would not find the ancient proprietor at his post and I was disinclined to try to hunt him up.

Instead I went to the next door along the hall. I’d not heard or seen any other guests so felt reasonably assured we were alone on the top floor, but I rapped softly on the door nonetheless. Receiving no answer I tried the handle and, as I expected, found it unlocked. It was the work of a minute to strip the sheets from the bed and raid the dressing room for more linen and a second basin.

As I scavenged what I required, the worries I’d been able to push aside in the presence of my patient, forced themselves into my mind. I’d known Holmes to drive himself to near exhaustion on more than one occasion, refusing food and sleep for days at a stretch, once even falling in a faint before my eyes. But each of those events, dire as they seemed at the time, were soon recovered from with a hearty meal and a day or two in idleness and sleep.

His current state was entirely new in my experience of Holmes, though not in my professional experience. I’d seen it in soldiers who’d been on desert patrol far longer than their commanders should have allowed. I knew how best to treat it. I knew no care could be offered at the local hospital that I couldn’t provide myself in my makeshift fashion and, moreover, I knew, though he would no doubt never admit it, Holmes would appreciate my not having subjected him to what he would consider a last resort if he would consider it all.

As I made my way back up the passage to room Nine, I wondered, how hard had Holmes driven himself and for how long to come to such a state? How had he come by the fresh bruises I’d seen on his chest and the ones on his arms that resembled nothing so much as finger marks?

At least, I reminded myself, there was one concern I could put aside. I’d seen only a half-dozen fresh needle marks along his sinewy forearm. There were other ways, of course, he might have taken the drug, but I’d seen no clear evidence of it and was comfortable in thinking he hadn’t strayed from his preferred method of injection. Not having to deal with that complication was the single most persuasive fact in my decision to keep him at the hotel. Still I had plenty of other concerns to keep me on edge as the night wore on.

At last weak gray light began to filter through and I turned down the lamp but left the curtains drawn. By then we were both perspiring, Holmes finally having taken in enough liquid to replenish his system that far.

When I eventually had the idea to check my watch I found it was nearing noon. An unutterable weariness settled on me at that moment and I sat back on the floor, drawing up my knees and resting my forehead on my crossed arms.

“How long has it been since you had anything to eat or drink?”

I looked up at the sound of Holmes’s low voice. He stirred and shifted onto his side, watching me from under the fringe of hair that seemed to persist in settling back on his forehead.

“Or slept?” he went on.

I met his eyes and saw they were still weary and deeply shadowed, but more aware than I had seen them since I arrived. He regarded me steadily and I realized with a start I hadn’t registered the questions, only the manner in which he asked them.

“Two days,” I said. “On both counts.”

“I’d offer you some bread,” he said, glancing at the forgotten baguette and bottle of wine on the table by the bed. “But I believe it’s passed its prime.”

I smiled. “Fortunately, I’ve been to the market.” I retrieved the net bag I’d pushed off to the side.

Holmes cleared his throat and the sound ended in a dry cough. I waited while he wiped a hand across his watering eyes.

“Before I attempt anything of the kind…” he began quietly.

I levered myself to my feet. “I assume there’s a door down the hall?” I offered.

He nodded as I moved to take his elbow and guide him to a seat at the edge of the bed. “I believe I can-”

I cut him off. “I’m sure you can,” I said evenly. “I’ll just come along so I might see where it is.”

He pursed his lips in something like a wry smile, a gesture that was easily as heartening as anything I’d seen. I kept my hand on his elbow until he was on his feet then judiciously moved a little to the side, keeping alert but a pace away as he made his way with slow but sure steps to the door and out into the passage.

As I’d promised, I saw him to the door of the lavatory then, with a hope for the best, dashed back to the room and stripped the sheets from the bed with lightning efficiency. I vigorously ignored the various evidences that had nothing to do with the night before.

With a few quick movements I balled up the old sheets then spread and smoothed the new set. In under three minutes I was back in the hall.

Holmes was already making his way back. When he saw me he dropped the hand he had braced against the wall, I pretended not to notice and we walked back to the room in companionable silence.

I noticed his cocked eyebrow as he came back into the room and saw the bed, but I left him to his thoughts as he crossed and sat back at the edge. I busied myself with preparing a small meal and arranging it in place of the old one on the table.

Nothing was as inviting as it had been the evening before, but I judged it would serve our needs. I soon had the small table drawn up by the bed and sat near beside Holmes as I poured out a short tumbler of wine for each of us. His I cut with generous amount of water and was inordinately relieved when he didn’t remark on it.

Deciding I had no doubt pressed my advantage as far as could be borne, I set about tearing off a bit of bread and cheese and assembling a rough sandwich.

Observing without watching, I saw Holmes take a small amount of bread and dip it in his light colored wine before swallowing it. Nothing untoward happened and he ventured a bit more while I chewed my simple meal, delighting in even the sharp taste of the cheese, which was far from the soft Edam I preferred.

In a very few minutes, between his small appetite and my ravenous one, we’d eaten as much as could be expected and I pushed back the table and set to tidying up. Holmes watched as I moved about the room and rearranged the contents of my bag.

At last, when I stopped to gaze around the floor to discover what else I’d forgotten he asked, “Will you lie down?”

I hesitated only a fraction of a second, expecting even that pause had betrayed the welter of uncertainties that flashed through my mind. Resolving that I had ample time to disentangle them later, I answered, “Of course.”

I’d put aside my jacket and collar long before, but I sat on the end of the bed and undid my cuffs and shoes. Sitting there, one of the many thoughts that had coursed through my mind pushed itself to the fore. I imagined young Jean-Marc doing the same and wished I could erase the vision from my mind.

The thought was irrational and unreasonable, but I was too old and, I hoped, too wise to try to tell myself it wasn’t real. Still I pushed it aside as I heard Holmes settle back against the sheets. I made my way around to the opposite side and lay down beside him, willing my muscles to relax.

I closed my eyes and heard Holmes exhale a long breath. I lay listening for the rhythm of his breathing to change to the slow, regular cadence of sleep. After what seemed hours I heard what I’d been waiting for and felt myself begin to drift off.

Sometime in that endless afternoon in the Hotel Dulong, I dreamed. It was a flowing, easy dream of Holmes and I in earnest conversation that made no sense and changed into travel to a very important destination whose name I couldn’t recall. Images flowed through my mind of a town square, a dark curtained room and an unmade bed where Holmes gazed down at me from under a fringe of blue-black hair.

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Part Two

The Gauntlet

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I’d judged Holmes well enough to travel from Lyons after another day so had paid the proprietor and we’d taken our leave. Holmes had apparently already given him a considerable sum on arrival. As he explained it, “Our host’s discretion is directly proportionate to the amount placed in his pocket.” By which remark I could only assume Holmes had had experience of the Hotel Dulong before. I filed that thought away with the many I’d resolved not to examine as I paid the old man for the inconvenience of an extra guest and the laundering of another room’s worth of linens.

On the train to Paris, we talked of impersonal things. Holmes gave only a sketch of his activities in the Maupertuis case. It did nothing to explain the bruises I’d seen, but contained enough exciting details to keep me occupied with questions and admiration.

There were other subjects we didn’t touch upon, of course. I didn’t comment when Holmes nearly lost his footing on the stairs to the platform, when he made a hasty retreat after only a few bites of the soup we ordered in the canteen at the Gare du Nord, or when he dropped off to sleep almost the instant we were seated on the train from Paris to Calais.

He didn’t offer any word of thanks for my trip to Lyons and I wasn’t put out, any more than I was surprised when he didn’t volunteer any confidences about Jean-Marc.

Yet try as I might, I wasn’t able to put Jean-Marc entirely from my mind. I couldn’t help but speculate on the attraction the young man held for my friend.

Many are drawn to certain configuration of features. A particular height or build, hair or eye color. Holmes’s attractions, of course, were numerous. Tall and slim, but with a lean strength plainly evident in his grace and economy of motion, he was possessed of fine, classical features, black hair and smoke gray eyes. Each trait, while remarkable in isolation, was rare and amazing in combination.

His eyes held a special fascination. I found myself imagining what it might be like to see an unspoken invitation there.

I tried not to think of the fair-haired Jean-Marc knowing that pleasure. I tried not to think of the bruises on my friend’s arms. I tried not to think of rumpled sheets and tousled hair and many other things I wanted to push from my mind. But the harder I tried, the less I succeeded and while Holmes slept, soothed by the gentle rhythm of the rocking train, I sat awake, watching him dream and thought of things I shouldn’t.

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Back at Baker Street life seemed destined to resume its old rhythms. When we’d first arrived, Mrs. Hudson, being who she was, couldn’t help but comment on Holmes’s gaunt appearance and the pallor of his cheeks. But she caught my look and quieted as Holmes carefully climbed the stairs. Other than a neutral query about our supper preference (soup for Holmes and beef pie for me) and a whispered “Welcome home” in my ear, she kept her peace.

I felt my first twinges of renewed worry when after two days Holmes still wouldn’t accept more than soup for his meals. He seemed to be gaining strength but his appetite had not rebounded and his color was still far too pale.

My concern redoubled when on the third day he consented to see a new client. It was all I could do to sit quietly by as he leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled before his chin in his familiar pose of indolent attention, and listened to a pretty young woman without a thought in her head talk about missing silver-plate and her brother’s houseguest who was above reproach “apart from that one incident at school.”

To my relief Holmes declined to go back with her to Weybridge and instead advised her to mention to her brother that silver-plate could be traced – a suggestion she seemed to think mysterious, but accepted with many a word of gratitude.

Holmes also declined her invitation to supper (“As I know no one in London and shouldn’t like to go out alone”) and to my intense relief did not volunteer me as substitute but instead recommended her to the ladies’ hall at the restaurant at Victoria.

However, that narrow escape only served to press home the knowledge that Holmes would happily drive himself back to the brink of complete exhaustion, or beyond it, if a challenging enough case should present itself and I knew it was only a matter of time before Lestrade or Gregson or some other harbinger of intrigue would knock at our door.

On the fourth day I hit upon an idea. Rummaging through the welter of outdated correspondences at the back of my desk, I found the one I’d been looking for.

My old friend, Colonel Timothy Hayter, had more than once invited me down to stay at Willow Bend, his place near Reigate in Surrey. Hayter and I had enjoyed a brief but pleasurable understanding for a period after he was discharged from my care at the army hospital in Afghanistan. It had ended by mutual and amicable accord with no word or reason needing to be exchanged and I still had a warm regard for him.

A brief conversation by telegram assured me the offer was still open and would gladly be extended to cover one more guest. If by some miracle I was able to persuade him to go along, I knew Holmes wouldn’t appreciate what he’d consider a breach of confidences so I didn’t tell Hayter my friend was recuperating from an illness and said only we could both use a rest from the bustle of the Town.

On the fifth afternoon as Holmes and I sat variously reading the paper and pretending to read a yellow backed novel, I broached the subject of a trip to the country and casually added that it was a bachelor establishment. Holmes consented to accompany me.

I’d been prepared for any response but agreement. His answer was so quick and so matter of fact I was struck dumb. He returned to his paper, graciously ignoring my confusion and I was soon collected enough to talk through the necessary particulars.

On the seventh morning we boarded the train for Reigate and so arrived in the afternoon to a warm greeting and a hearty tea. Holmes went so far as to have a dish of berries, which I took as a very promising sign, and so we talked as the shadows lengthened on the lawn.

Perhaps it was because he was my senior by nearly a decade, but Hayter seemed not to have changed at all. He still looked every inch the rugged soldier, straight from the pages of novel of high adventure.

He and I ranged on about old times and it was a pleasure to recall the heady days when I was still a raw, untested youth. In the midst of a reminiscence about the execrable coffee provided by the hospital canteen, I glanced over to find Holmes leaning back in his chair, eyes half-closed, his face perfectly composed. The sight so surprised me I became distracted, losing the thread of my thoughts.

I knew that seemingly lethargic posture betrayed intense concentration. I was at a loss to understand the reason for it and as my words faltered Holmes turned to our host and asked a question about his service in Singapore, a subject no one had mentioned. Hayter responded with frank admiration for Holmes’s powers of observation, a reaction that promised to spark warm feeling in my gifted friend, and the conversation drifted on.

But Holmes’s strange engagement continued through the dinner hour and later as we relaxed over brandy and cigars, though Holmes declined both. My uneasiness was not relieved by the fact that his talk seemed to keep returning to the subject of Singapore.

By and by I began to think, whatever his object, Holmes’s questions were beginning to lose their veneer of tact. When I noticed Hayter fumble his cigar and drop ash on the leg of his trousers I remarked that it might be time to retire for the evening.

Holmes watched me from under drooping eyelids and said equably, “Now, Watson, there’s no reason to be disingenuous in front of your old friend. Don’t you mean I should retire for the evening?”

I stared. I couldn’t begin to imagine what would induce Holmes to betray limitation, much less to a relative stranger.

“Now that you mention it, Holmes,” I said carefully. “Yes. I think you may be putting yourself under too much strain. It’s not wise to exert yourself after having been gravely ill so recently.”

Holmes’s eyes narrowed. He drew breath to respond, but Hayter spoke first.

“Have you been down with something, old boy?” he asked in his bluff manner. “I had wondered, you know. You do look a bit peaky. Just poked at your supper. What’s the trouble? Nerves playing up?”

At the seemingly casual remark we both turned to stare at our host. He sat gazing placidly back at Holmes as if the thought had occurred to him out of the blue and sailed back there again with barely a ripple.

I was at a loss how to say I hadn’t mentioned anything of the kind to Hayter without confirming his guess. While I struggled for a suitably defusing response, Holmes turned his gaze on me and I saw steel in his gray eyes as he said calmly, “Just a touch of ennui. Anyone would think having a doctor under one’s roof would preserve one from such inconveniences. I’ve never found it to be the case.”

“Well, Doctors do have their limits,” Hayter put in amiably.

Holmes gave a tight smile. “Yes, I think you’re right there. I am feeling a bit done in after all. You two enjoy your chat. Good night.”

With that he nodded graciously and left the room. I stared after him while Hayter went to the sideboard to refill our glasses.

It was some thirty minutes before I made my own way upstairs. I passed Holmes’s door on the way to my room at the end of the passage. Blue-white light spilled under the door but there was no sound within.

I hesitated there, not because I thought to knock at the closed door, but because I knew his keen senses would tell him I was standing outside. I paused for only the space of two breaths. Long enough if he was going to invite me inside. There was no movement or sound and I continued on to my room.

As I let myself in, automatically stripping out of my jacket and casting it aside on the large bed with its turned oak posts, I thought back over our conversation and felt the heavy, writhing sensation that comes when things have been said that shouldn’t, though I had no idea why.

Lost in thought, I was loosening my tie and vaguely casting about for the trouser press when there was a gentle rap at the door. I spun and stepped toward it before my rational mind could assert itself. When I pulled it wide I saw what I should have expected.

Hayter stood outside, blinking in the electric lamplight. “John, I wondered if you’d care to take a turn in the grounds before bed,” he asked quietly.

I hesitated only a moment. The allure of recapturing a little of the long-gone sense of boundless days and nights stretching off beyond the far horizon was a pull that had always coaxed men to hasty action. I was no different.

A few minutes later found us walking under the stand of willows that gave the estate its name. Splashes of moonlight filtered through the new budding leaves, dappling our skin and glistening on the shining fabric of our evening clothes.

I glanced up at the house and picked out Holmes’s window. It was dark.

After several minutes of comfortable silence, Hayter said “John, would you consider stopping here a while, if your London practice would permit a longer holiday?”

I blinked in surprise. The offer wasn’t completely unexpected, but coming as and when it did, the suggestion was far beyond a vague allusion to renewed intimacy. It was as near to candor in such matters as I’d heard in many years. I found the experience oddly warming.

In phrasing the question, I understood he had given me a way to gracefully decline. Still I considered my response. When I had one, I resolved to give it with equal frankness.

“I can’t answer that today, Tim. The offer’s not unwelcome. But there are other considerations besides my practice.”

“Holmes?”

Again, I felt a stir of surprise. “After a fashion,” I said, feeling my way through the answer to a question I hadn’t yet asked myself. “I do feel responsible for making sure his health is improved before he goes back to London.”

We walked on in silence and I sensed Hayter giving me time to find more to my answer.

“I don’t want my decision to depend on someone else’s actions or lack of them,” I said at last.

“But it does.”

“Yes,” I said simply and recognized I was admitting the fact to myself for the first time.

I saw him nod.

We walked on in silence for a time then he pointed out a glow in the distance that was the moonlight shining on a still pond. We talked about fishing and the best time of year to go after salmon in the Highlands. Our conversation didn’t circle back to his question and it didn’t need to. That the offer was as open as the answer was understood.

When we returned to the house, Hayter left me at the foot of the stairs, moving off to see to the locks. I walked slowly up the stairs and down the hall. There was no light or movement from Holmes’s door. I hadn’t expected it. I was vaguely disappointed all the same.

.o0o.
.

Holmes was seated at the table in the morning room when I came downstairs. He gazed out the wide window that looked over the back lawn, munching complacently at a piece of dry toast. A cup of milky tea stood at his elbow.

Hayter was nowhere in evidence as I helped myself to cold ham and a slice of omelet from the sideboard.

I had barely seated myself when Holmes volunteered, “I’m going back to London this afternoon. This country air does not agree with me.”

I carefully set my coffee cup on the table, fighting the surge of sudden and unreasonable anger that coursed through me.

“Well,” I said evenly. “As long as you’ve given it a chance.”

He pushed away his toast and took a sip of tea, still facing the window. “If you’re going to be some time returning, I could have your mail sent on.”

I took up my fork and tore a piece of ham with unwarranted ferocity. “I’d be grateful,” I answered, fighting not to bite out the words.

We sat in silence for several ticks of the cabinet clock on the mantel; Holmes taking occasional sips from his cup, I attempting not to savage my eggs.

“Do try to take a few days before you go haring off after any more international confidence men,” I said when I thought I could say the words without snapping. “If you can’t manage that at least try to be a little less free with yourself next time.”

Holmes didn’t answer right away. I looked up as his lips parted. Whatever he’d been prepared to say was lost as the door was pushed open and Hayter stepped into the room.

“Looks like we’ll be another for breakfast,” he said briskly. “Young Inspector Forrester is coming up the drive.”

Holmes sat up straighter in his chair. “An unexpected visit?”

Hayter scooped out a generous portion of eggs. “Yes, and I don’t suppose he’s here to see me.” He turned from the sideboard and went on, “I can send him packing if you like.”

It was unfortunate, I thought, he glanced at me before looking to Holmes. I saw Holmes’s mouth set in a tight line and knew there was no power on earth that would keep him from granting the Inspector an audience.

The bell pealed and almost instantly the butler appeared in the doorway. “Inspector Forrester,” he announced.

.o0o.
.

Barely two hours later, the four of us were walking the short distance to the neighboring manor house and the scene of the crime. Inspector Forrester kept up a stream of eager talk as we made our way up the lane.

The Inspector had proved to be a bright young man. His open countenance and earnest demeanor, particularly as he listened in rapt attention to Holmes’s every word, were refreshing and my friend’s mood seemed to lighten, though, no doubt it was due as much to the message as to the messenger.

Forrester described how the local squire of the manor, Alec Cunningham, had been drawn to the window of his dressing room at midnight the night before by the sound of an altercation in the yard. Cunningham had looked out just in time to see his coachman, William Kirwan, struck to the ground by a man all dressed in black. By the time Cunningham had rushed downstairs and out through the side door to the scene of the assault, the killer had escaped.

Cunningham reached Kirwan’s side just as the man was drawing his final breath. The squire had made an effort to revive him, but it had soon been clear the injuries too severe and the loss of blood too great. He’d called Forrester immediately and the two of them had made a thorough search, but no sign of the murderer was found.

There were marks of forced entry on the side door and the prevailing local theory was the man was a thief and most likely a traveler through the district. Kirwan had surprised him, they’d struggled, the man had broken away and run as far as the front of Kirwan’s cottage which sat near to the manor behind the coach house. There the thief had turned and struck, raining blows on the unfortunate Kirwan with a heavy bludgeon of some kind.

Forrester had been openly delighted when Holmes had suggested they go together to the police surgery to view the corpse. Neither asked me to come along and I didn’t pressed for an invitation.

When they returned some ninety minutes later I was frankly curious about what progress they’d made. Forrester was more than happy to provide the details although he seemed to recognize as he reviewed them aloud they were not as full a picture of events as he might have hoped.

“Mr. Holmes said there were some ‘interesting indications’ in the pattern of Kirwan’s injuries,” Forrester reported, consulting his notebook. “And he believes he has an idea the murder weapon was ‘a very specific kind of weighted stick. Not one you would expect to find in the arsenal of a typical sneak thief, even in the country.’ Although he ‘didn’t want to speculate more without further investigation.’”

Holmes had kept his silence through Forrester’s report and was apparently lost in thought as we walked, staring absently at the dirt track. It wasn’t until we came within sight of the manor he seemed to take an interest in his surroundings.

We turned up the long gravel drive to the fine old Queen Anne manor house that ranged in the nook between two low hills. The drive split and formed a wide circle that looped before the double front door. A long carriage house stood on the right-hand side, its white walls and green roof a jaunty contrast to the deep red bricks of the house. Behind the coach house, just peeking around the side like a shy child, was a whitewashed cottage, as quietly lovely as the house was overbearing and grand.

“That was Kirwan’s home,” Forrester said, pointing toward the cottage. “He was found just outside the front door.”

“It’s visible from the manor,” Holmes said.

“Yes, those are Cunningham’s rooms there,” Forrester said, pointing at the wing that overlooked the little cottage.

“And those are the stables?” Holmes said, indicating a series of low stone buildings.

I glanced to my left and found Hayter regarding him with unmixed disbelief, clearly thinking the London detective was far out of his depth. I trusted Holmes to keep to his own methods of teasing out the information he required yet I found myself in the unusual position of being embarrassed for my friend.

“Yes,” Forrester answered, his confusion evident as the glanced toward the outbuildings. A central structure of the kind for box stalls faced the coach house was hard by a running barn and colt shed. “Cunningham has two breeding stallions plus draft horses and carriage mares.”

As we drew close to the end of the looping drive, skirting the front of the coach house, a man who could only be the master of the estate appeared around the hedgerow that traced the curve from the end of the building to the main house.

His thick, russet colored hair called to mind that young soldier on the train to Lyons, but in all other ways Alec Cunningham was as different as could be.

He wore his position as county squire as only one born to the role can. Tall and deeply tanned, Cunningham would have drawn second glances in the Town. In the country where the population was more rarified, he must have been prize of several counties and he was, no doubt, fully aware of it. His smartly cut suit bore little resemblance to the soft tweeds of a country man. Its lines accentuated his broad shoulders and heavily muscled legs.

As we drew closer I noted an insouciant humor in his gaze that might be jovial or cruel and no doubt could veer from one to the other with little warning.

I saw his dark eyes were fixed intently on Holmes as we approached. He met us on the drive and thrust out a hand, calloused from labor, that presented a sharp contrast to his gentrified dress and manner.

“Alec Cunningham,” he said, enveloping Holmes’s deceptively slim hand in his.

I was more than a little surprised when my friend hesitated for a moment before answering, “Sherlock Holmes.” I was more surprised still when he added diffidently, “Down from London.”

Cunningham’s smile widened and he held Holmes’s gaze for an extra moment before turning to the rest of us. His additional greetings were perfunctory by comparison.

The squire showed us through the grounds around the house and cottage. Pointing out the scene of the tragedy and waiting, arms crossed, while Holmes surveyed the ground. His examination was cursory, yet throughout it he stopped and asked questions of our host, each time concentrating on the answers with keen attention. After a time it began to seem as though the rest of the company were mere satellites to their conversation.

I caught Forrester exchanging glances with the Colonel and the latter raised his eyebrows, offering a silent response I couldn’t interpret.

At length we made our way to the side of the manor. Cunningham pointed out the window of his dressing room, overlooking the cottage, and answered Holmes’s seemingly self-evident questions about visibility and the location of the servant’s quarters with an air of tolerant good humor.

The conversation finally turned to Cunningham’s actions of the night before and Forrester chimed in, apparently reviewing the series of questions he’d asked early that morning. Cunningham answered each with a detachment that bordered on disinterest.

Yes, he confirmed patiently, he’d been sitting at his window smoking a pipe before bed. Indeed, he had heard an altercation in the yard. Yes, he’d run out and done what he could for Kirwan. Well, that explained the blood on his clothing, didn’t it? Of course, he had changed before Forrester arrived. Who wouldn’t? But he had preserved the ruined garments because he assumed they’d be requested though what use they’d be he couldn’t imagine.

Through it all Holmes watched him with a gaze that could best be described as fascination.

Forrester came to the attitude and position of the body then asked a question about the weapon used. At this Cunningham showed a flash of temper.

“Really,” he said. “I thought you took notes on this, Forrester. I told you all this a few hours ago.”

“It is useful to hear it in your own words, Mr. Cunningham,” Forrester replied with no change in his placid official demeanor. “Particularly for the benefit of Mr. Holmes and his friends. Now, about the weapon. Mr. Holmes and I agree-”

Without warning Holmes gave a little cry. I looked around in time to see his eyes roll up in his head as he pitched forward. Our host was standing close by his side and reached out with lightning reflexes, catching Holmes around the chest as his knees buckled.

I was at his side in an instant but Cunningham tossed his head in a gesture that said I wasn’t required and he eased Holmes down to a seat on the stairs to the side door.

“Here now,” he said kindly. “I know you London boys aren’t used to much sun, but surely it’s not that hot yet.”

“Watson,” Hayter put in. “Perhaps we had better fetch a cart and send him back to my place for a bit of a lie up.”

Holmes shook his head and ran an unsteady hand across his brow. “No, thank you, Colonel,” he said. “I think I shouldn’t have passed up breakfast. Might I have a glass of water?”

Cunningham had his leg cocked on the stair and was leaning negligently on his knee at Holmes’s side. He inclined his head toward the door. “Kitchen’s inside on the right, Forrester. Be a good lad and fetch out a glass.”

Forrester seemed ready to balk for an instant, but he only nodded and stepped up and through the door.

“What you need is some good country air and a bit of feeding up,” Cunningham said, gazing down at my friend. “A few days here at the manor and you’d be a new man.”

Holmes looked up into his face and answered quietly. “No doubt you’re right. I imagine it would do me good.”

Warring feelings surged within me. I told myself Holmes must have a plan with this strange behavior. That he was trying to flatter Cunningham for reasons obscure to my less incisive mind. Yet the sight of my proud friend betraying such vulnerability before this bluff stranger sparked a fire in me that battled with my self-control.

Hayter cleared his throat. “We could go back to Willow Bend for a rest and come back this evening…”

Forrester reemerged with a tumbler and Hayter’s words were apparently forgotten. Forrester and the Colonel occupied themselves with examining the side door while Holmes drained the glass and offered back to our host.

Cunningham shifted to place it on the stairs as he said genially, “I could harness my trap, if you’d care to follow the Colonel’s advice.”

Holmes shook his head. “No, I feel quite restored. I apologize for the lapse. But I think a short walk might help my equilibrium.”

Forrester shifted as if to help Holmes rise. Cunningham was quicker, hooking a hand under my friend’s elbow and hoisting him easily to his feet.

“I’ll just show him around the outbuildings,” Cunningham said over his shoulder already moving off with Holmes in tow. “I’m sure it will be useful for the investigation. Won’t be long.”

The two men disappeared around side of the coach house without another backward glance leaving the three of to stand looking after them.

Forrester cleared his throat. “Cunningham showed me the view from the dressing room this morning,” he said. “I think I’ll take another look to satisfy myself. I’d offer to show you up…” his voice trailed off as he glanced between us.

“Not at all,” returned the Colonel. “Take your time. We’ll wait here.”

Forrester nodded and disappeared back through the side door.

Hayter studied the clear blue sky. “It sounds as if Holmes might consider moving up the road here for a few days.”

“This morning he was talking about retuning to London almost immediately.”

Hayter looked down and met my gaze. His eyes were a rich hazel in the strong sunlight

“I hadn’t planned to go back with him,” I said and turned my eyes back to the path around the coach house.

Several minutes passed in silence before Forrester returned. “Still not back?” he asked with a note of resignation. “Well, I think I’ll go make some enquiries at the local. It’s usually a good place to hear about tramps and the like.”

We made our farewells. Our young friend’s open countenance spoke clearly of dashed expectations.

Hayter and I waited until the interval grew more uncomfortable than could politely be borne. I was drawing breath to say, “Maybe I’ll just check and see if I can make myself useful.” When Holmes and Cunningham reappeared around the side of the coach house.

My friend looked, if anything, more ruffled than before. His face was flushed and his jacket bore signs of dust. I noticed he was holding his arm stiffly, his hand thrust firmly in his pocket.

I was searching for a way to ask if anything untoward had happened without causing Holmes further embarrassment, when he looked at me with an expression so utterly blank the words caught in my throat.

“The city boy here took a bit of a tumble,” Cunningham offered with bluff good humor. “I’m not quite sure he’s safe to be out.”

Holmes’s flush deepened as the three of us gazed at him with varying degrees of alarm.

“I lost my footing in the barn,” he offered quietly. “It was a foolish mistake on my part. I believe we’ve imposed on Mr. Cunningham’s time long enough.”

“It’s been my pleasure,” the squire answered cheerfully, his attention fixed solely on Holmes. “You’re welcome any time. And that offer stands as long as you’re in the neighborhood. Come out and stay awhile. You won’t regret it. My hospitality is legendary, if I do say so myself.”

Holmes made gave a vague demur and we took our leave. The three of us walked abreast up the lane toward Willow Bend.

The Colonel made several brave attempts at conversation, remarking on the season, the local horses and their bloodlines, and the clouds rolling in that surely portended a heavy storm that evening. Each effort soon tapered off to silence. We didn’t discuss the murdered coachman at all.

.o0o.
.

In the late afternoon, after a lunch of cold mince pie, which Holmes refused, and a tea at which he failed to appear, I was in my room, digging through my travel bag for the yellow backed novel I’d brought along.

I glanced out the window. The lowering clouds confirmed Hayter’s assessment of the weather. My gaze wandered to the porch and I saw Holmes watching the sky.

He flexed his shoulder and in his profile I saw his features tighten in a grimace. There was evidently a noise behind him and he dropped his arm and moved back under cover of the porch roof.

I turned the events of the morning over in my mind for what seemed the hundredth time. Once again I reached the now familiar impasse. Holmes had behaved in a way so out of character I had to assume he was playing a part. And yet, what did I know of his character outside of the sphere where our lives intersected? Visions of the heavily built Jean-Marc reared in my mind, heedless of my attempts to stamp them down.

Renewing my resolve to distract my mind with a novel of no moment and endless adventure, I made my way downstairs.

Holmes was in the morning room. When he saw me approach he thrust his hand into his pocket, but not before I saw the deep abrasions on his palm. I drew breath to voice my concern, but he turned away and the words died on my lips.

“I believe I’ll take a walk back up to the manor before the storm breaks,” he said, gazing out the wide window at the sky.

“Would you like me to come along?” I said evenly, knowing what his answer would be.

“No, I won’t need you,” he said as he turned toward the door.

I couldn’t keep my silence. “Holmes, are you sure this is wise? Cunningham hasn’t been cleared of-”

Holmes rounded on me. His eyes glinted like cold steel. “Have a care, Doctor. Don’t you think you’ve interfered where you weren’t wanted quite enough of late?”

The shock and anger that boiled up within me choked off any reply. My pulse pounded in my ears as I stared at the man I’d called my friend and wondered if I’d ever really known him at all.

Something indefinable flickered across his face then was gone. He turned and walked to the door. “Don’t wait supper on me. I’m not likely to join you.”

He took up his hat and stick by the door and walked out. As he donned his hat, his collar shifted revealing three purpling bruises at the side of his throat. I heard the front door open and close. I stood staring after him, unseeing, the vision of those unmistakable finger marks hanging before my eyes.

.

.

.

Part Three

The Price

.

Rain spattered against the dining room window as Hayter and I lingered over the remains of our supper. The periodic appearance of his butler precluded any effort at conversation of a personal nature and my mood precluded conversation of most other kinds.

Having exhausted the subject of the weather for the second time, Hayter ventured to suggest we adjourn to the gunroom for cigars and brandy.

It passed through my mind to make my apologies and go up to bed. The thought of giving Hayter the chance to bring up subjects I wished to push as far from my mind as possible caused my jaw to clench. All evening I’d been fighting flashes of anger interspersed with an aching sense of loss.

It was hard to imagine looking at Holmes the same way after what I’d seen and heard that day. The vision of those three bruises at this throat hung before my mind’s eye like sunspots. Although the longer I stayed with Hayter, I reasoned, the less time I’d spend dwelling on my own dark thoughts. As it was I didn’t anticipate sleep. I knew I’d lay awake through the watches of the night, listening for Holmes to return.

Hayter took a long draw at his cigar and exhaled a plume of blue-gray smoke. Our conversation had proved to have no more staying power in the gunroom. I bent forward in my seat, resting my elbow on my knee and swirling the golden liquor in my glass. I studied the way the electric light shimmered in the heavy ripples.

Hayter cleared his throat. “The sky’s going to open up any time now. I don’t expect Holmes will be back this evening.”

I didn’t point out Cunningham had a horse and trap ready to harness. It seemed irrelevant to the question. “No, I don’t imagine he will be.”

“I’m glad he had a chance to speak with young Forrester this morning.”

The incongruity of the statement stilled my roiling thoughts. I glanced up.

Hayter met my eyes. “I imagine Forrester must have told him there have been rumors about Cunningham. Even before this.”

I sat up straight. “What rumors?”

“It’s nothing that can be proved, you understand.”

My voice was harsh in the still room. “Tim. What rumors?”

Hayter studied the glowing tip of his cigar and exhaled. “Last year,” he said. “One of Cunningham’s stable hands… A fine young lad. Quick as a whippet. Showed up at the door of our county practitioner with a story about being set upon by a couple of hellions on the road. The boy had certainly been knocked about. Badly. His arm had to be set. The trouble was, he’d come in the same way a few months before. That time he said he took a tumble from the hayloft.” Hayter took another pull at his cigar and spoke as he exhaled. “The boy left the county not long after. Word among the servants was he’d come into a legacy, though no one seemed to know the particulars.” He paused and met my eyes. “Forrester would have told Holmes all this. The lad’s no ball of fire, but he’s bright enough in his way.”

I sat rigid through this recitation feeling my hurt and anger drain away to be replaced by a knot of cold dread. No doubt Forrester had told Holmes his concerns. And Holmes had nodded indulgently and changed the subject.

“Tim, did you ever meet William Kirwan?” I said slowly.

He shook his head. “Kirwan hadn’t been here long. I do recall there was some talk he was an unusual type for a coachman,” he said thoughtfully. “They’re usually largish fellows. But Cunningham apparently picked him out from a service. Brought him down from London.”

I stood and planted my glass on the side table, dropping my cigar into the liquid. It doused with a low hiss. I was already moving to the gun cabinet.

“Are any of these loaded?”

Hayter stuttered behind me. “John, what are you-”

I had already snatched up a Colt revolver and checked the cylinder. It was empty. I jerked open the drawers under the glass-fronted case and snatched out a box of cartridges.

“I need your help,” I snapped. “Which of these is in firable condition?”

Hayter appeared at my elbow. “I cleaned the Enfield two days ago.”

I snatched it up and thrust it into the waist of my trousers, dropped the box of cartridges into the pocket of my jacket and grabbed up the Colt. I was striding toward the door in the time it took to pull free the knot of my tie.

“I’ll follow you,” Hayter called out.

“No.” I turned in the doorway. “Round up Forrester. Fetch a trap. Meet me at the manor.” I turned back toward the door. “And for God’s sake, Tim, hurry.”

I strode past the startled butler, jerked open the door and stepped out into the lashing rain. I thrust the second pistol into the pocket of my jacket and broke into a trot. I was running when I reached the end of the drive.

Mud splashed up from my once shining dress shoes onto the legs of my trousers as I pounded up the lane. I tore off my tie and dropped it to the ground, followed by my collar. The shining black wool of my evening jacket seemed to attract the chill rain, gathering weight by the second. I would have stripped it off as well if I hadn’t needed the pockets.

Breath heaved in my aching lungs as I ran on. Lightning flashed overhead and I skidded on the slick gravel at the entrance to the manor drive.

There was no doubt in my mind Holmes had decided to test the rumors about Cunningham. Full confirmation might lead him to the murder weapon. He had set his trap that afternoon and baited it with his own skin.

I’d seen the pattern before. By Holmes’s reckoning, his own attempted murder would be a favorable outcome of the investigation.

Thunder crashed and echoed among the low buildings. I forced myself to slow as I neared the loop at the top of the drive. The rain might have masked my approach so far, but I couldn’t take a chance now that I was within sight of the windows of the house.

A single light burned in top floor bedroom of the manor, but Kirwan had been found outside. I knew I had to make a choice.

I cut onto the grass that bounded the carriage house and glanced over the outbuildings. Yellow lamplight limned the boundary of the stable’s double door.

Lightning flashed behind the nearest line of trees, burning their tossing limbs in white silhouette. I flattened myself against the wall of the carriage house, blinking to clear my vision as the rebounding thunder vibrated in the stones at my back. I swiped at the rain that ran down into my eyes.

I was in the shelter of the eaves and judged it an ideal place to load my weapons. I tugged the Colt from my pocket and broke open the cylinder. As I slotted the bullets home I peered through the lashing rain at the stable. The double doors were slightly parted. A line of dull yellow light shone between them.

Faced with that still scene, doubts reared up in my mind. Maybe I was being a fool, I thought. It was only an unconfirmed rumor. What if I was seeing danger where none existed? What if there was a danger, but Holmes had it in hand?

What if the light in the barn was Holmes searching for the weapon? If I disrupted his investigation…

I set my jaw. There was no real question. If I’d guessed right, if I knew Holmes, and in spite of it all I couldn’t doubt it, the cost of inaction was too high to consider. It was a price I wasn’t willing to bear.

I dropped the Colt into the pocket of my dinner jacket and drew out the Enfield. As I loaded it I studied the layout of the stable. There were two windows on either side of the double door and more evenly spaced along the wall I could see. All were securely shuttered against the night and the weather. It had to be the door then, I decided.

I slipped the Enfield back into the waist of my trousers behind my hip. The solid weight of the Colt felt good in my hand as I stepped out from under the eaves and moved forward.

As a boy I’d learned to handle a rifle with an easy confidence that was unremarkable among our country neighbors. My skill on the target range had helped secure my posting in Afghanistan. There I’d taken it on myself to learn to handle a revolver and was, certainly by civilian standards, considered a crack shot.

My experience with Holmes had persuaded me to keep my hand in with regular trips to the gun club. Never before had I been so glad of the dangers in which Holmes and I had found ourselves over the last four years.

Bending forward, I made a dash for the wall. An icy rivulet of rain crept under my collar and trickled down my spine. Tightening my grip on the Colt, I was grateful for the adrenaline coursing through me. The cold leaching through my sodden clothes wouldn’t affect my aim.

Lightning flared across the sky. I squeezed my eyes tight shut against the sudden glare and reached out for the stable wall. Thunder cracked, rolling among the trees. The last echo died and in its wake there was a new sound – a rumbling laugh.

I froze, my back pressed to the boards. I was still several feet from the door. A horse stamped and whinnied. It might just be the storm that set its nerves on edge, I reasoned.

Stepping carefully, I edged onto the stone apron that fronted the door. There was a voice, tight and breathy. It was Holmes. I couldn’t make out the words. Another laugh followed, this time louder, then a voice. I recognized the resonant tones as Cunningham’s.

Nothing had clearly indicated menace. Perhaps it was quite the contrary, I thought, feeling a sudden knot of humiliation tighten in my belly. Was there time to stop Hayter? How could I explain my foolish behavior?

But my nerves were still taut with apprehension. I knew I couldn’t turn away without knowing beyond doubt that Holmes was safe.

The slight opening between the doors left a crack open at the jamb. I took another step and resolutely turned to peer through the gap. My heart froze.

In the glow of the lamplight I saw Holmes in his shirtsleeves, crouched on the packed dirt floor. He was bent nearly double and braced on one arm, the other wrapped tight around his stomach.

Cunningham stood over him. He had a dark stick, something like a crop with a flared end, clutched in one hand. With the other he reached down and gripped Holmes’s shoulder wrenching it back. Holmes gasped and pulled against his hand.

Cunningham gave a tight grin. “No, no,” he said easily. “None of that. We’ve got lots of time yet before I have to find your body in the morning. Another victim of the unknown killer. What’s this county coming to, eh?”

I was already moving. I gripped the door in one hand and drew my revolver even as I kicked it back. Lightning split the sky and Cunningham blinked in the sudden glare. A split second later he’d hauled Holmes to his feet, the fingers of his calloused hand dug deep into Holmes’s shoulder, pulling him tight against his chest.

In the time it took me to draw down and yell, “Step back, Alec,” he’d thrust the stick under Holmes’s chin, forcing his head up and back. A stallion plunged and pawed the ground. Holmes twisted in Cunningham’s grasp, choking and clutching at the hand at his throat.

Cunningham shot me a broad grin. “Well done, Doctor. I underestimated you.” He turned his head and put his mouth to Holmes’s exposed throat. “Did you? Or is that why you teased me so long?” He chuckled. “Not long enough, eh?”

Holmes kicked back but Cunningham only sidestepped the blow. “Oh, would you now?” he murmured. “How quickly they turn. Just when the fun starts, too.” He released Holmes’s shoulder and locked his arm around Holmes’s waist. His hand tightened, gripping Holmes under the ribs. My friend stiffened and I heard his strangled gasp. I tried not to notice the blood spattered across the front of his shirt.

“It’s over, Alec,” I shouted over another crash of thunder. “Let him go and move away.”

Cunningham’s grin tightened. “I disagree, Doctor. It’s not over. Not for me.” He gave a sharp jerk with the stick. I heard Holmes choke and gasp for breath. “I knew I couldn’t stay here forever. People do talk in these little towns, don’t they?” He inclined his head toward the double doors at the back of the stable. “I’ve made arrangements. I can abandon this old pile to rot whenever I like.” He took a step back, dragging Holmes along. “Do be sensible. You know you can’t take a chance with that pistol. I really have all the advantages.” He glanced at the door behind me. “But I imagine the cavalry’s on the way, isn’t it? And as much as I’d like to drag this out…”

His arm tightened around Holmes’s waist forcing another gasp from my friend’s straining throat. “Put the gun down. Then bridle that one.” He nodded at the stall beside me where a stallion pawed the ground, chuffing fretfully.

The two of them were nearly the same height and though Cunningham was broader at the shoulders and chest, Holmes was struggling and twisting so I couldn’t be sure of getting a clean shot. Cunningham was right. He had all the advantages.

“Don’t hesitate now,” Cunningham called out. “I don’t have anything to lose, remember. But you do. I think you’d miss it.” He pulled back the stick and put his mouth back to Holmes’s throat. “I know I will. It’s very sweet isn’t it? The bridle, Doctor. And don’t dawdle or I might become desperate and who knows what I’ll do then.”

“Enough,” I hissed. I bent and placed the revolver at my feet then turned toward the nearest stall. It was the work of a minute to quiet the horse enough to slip the bridle over its ears and tighten the bit.

All the while I heard Cunningham moving back toward the door and Holmes’s heels digging into the packed earth. Cunningham kept up a steady stream of murmured talk, clearly for my benefit.

“It was entertaining,” he purred. “Better than you’ve had in a long time, I think. Isn’t that right? It certainly sounded that way.”

I heard Holmes give another strangled gasp and behind the cover of the wall I reached back to slip the gun at my hip into my pocket. I turned the horse and gave it a slap on the flank, urging it out of the stall.

“Very good, Doctor,” Cunningham called out. He’d reached the door and released his grip on Holmes’s waist long enough to reach back and thrust the latch up. He renewed his grasp and kicked back, knocking the door wide before I could reach my weapon. I flexed my hand, hoping he hadn’t noticed the movement. It seemed I’d been lucky. His eyes were on the stallion as it trotted toward the open door behind him.

“Now we’re going through this door and you’re going to stay right where you are.” He stepped back onto the stone apron outside the back door as the horse cantered past. “If you do as you’re told I won’t break his neck before I leave. Probably.”

He grinned. “Although…” He drew in a long breath and his hand tightened on the stick as he stepped back onto the wet stone apron. The rain lashed against them, driven sideways by the wind. Cunningham blinked as it pelted his face.

Holmes kicked out, landing a heel against Cunningham’s braced leg. Cunningham’s foot slid back on the slick stone. His grip loosened and he threw out his arm, trying to right himself. Holmes twisted to the side as I jerked my revolver free. I sucked in a breath and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet hit Cunningham square in the chest with the sound of a harsh slap. His hand relaxed and Holmes dropped to the ground.

The world went very quiet. I fired again. Cunningham’s eyes widened. His lips parted as he reached up to the streaming wounds then he fell back into the night.

I was running forward as sound rushed back. The horses in their stalls were plunging and shrieking in terror. My feet pounded against the packed earth then I dropped and slid to a stop at Holmes’s side.

He was bent double, one arm tight around his middle the other clutching at his throat as he dragged in shuddering breaths. Heedless of the rain that lashed down I gripped the hand at his throat and pulled it away. His throat was raw and bruised, but not crushed.

With a choked moan of relief I released his hand and wrapped my arm around his shoulders, pulling him with me under the shelter of the roof. I propped him against the wall by the door and bent to check his other injuries.

His chest was heaving and his white shirt was half-soaked with blood, his or Cunningham’s it was impossible to know. I began to jerk the buttons free and he reached up and caught my hand.

I looked up. His eyes were wide and fixed on mine. They were the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I bent forward and pressed a kiss to his parted lips.

Wheels crunched on the gravel drive followed by shouting voices. I rocked back on my heels and was pelting toward the door even as I heard Hayter’s voice above the din.

Within moments I’d called them to the stable. I pointed to Cunningham, lying still just outside the door and Forrester took charge of his men, marshalling them to the body. I continued my quick examination of Holmes and, finding no obvious wounds apart from a gash over his eye, no doubt the source of the blood I’d seen on his shirt before, I enlisted Hayter to help me get him to his feet.

Between us we got him across the stable yard and to the side door of the house. It was open and soon we were in the kitchen, easing Holmes into a chair. Hayter turned immediately to stoke the fire in the stove to a blaze.

I went back to stripping Holmes of his shirt. It was soaked and clinging to his skin. I eased it off his shoulder and down his arms as carefully as I could but he drew in a hissing breath as I moved his arm and again as I bent to run a hand along the bottom of his rib cage. I found no breaks and judged it was deep bruising that caused the pain.

Hayter cleared his throat and I looked up. “If you don’t need me,” he ventured.

“Thank you, Tim,” I said. “If you want to help Forrester…”

He nodded. “I imagine we’ll be a few minutes,” he said and held my eyes for another moment before turning toward the door.

I heard it shut behind him as I turned my attention back to my patient. Each mark stood out in sharp relief against his pale skin. A series of darkening bruises crossed his chest and encircled his arms. There was a spreading purple mark and a broad welt at the side of his abdomen. I shifted to move around the chair and saw a set of crisscrossed welts across his back.

“Idiot,” I muttered under my breath. “Idiot.”

I grabbed up the discarded shirt from the floor and moved to clean the blood from the cut above his eye. Holmes reached up and caught my sleeve.

“Whatever it is,” I said, biting out the words, “It can wait.”

“No.” His voice was a strained whisper. “Now.”

I opened my mouth to admonish him not to speak until I’d examined his throat. His hand came up and caught the open collar of my shirt, pulling me down.

His eyes closed and our lips met. It was a soft kiss. Slow and gentle, for as much as I longed to wrap my arms around him and pull him close in a breathless, searching, endless kiss, the rational part of my mind cried out for restraint.

After what seemed only a moment I pulled back. Holmes looked up and I studied his smoke gray eyes.

“Was it worth it?” I murmured.

“Yes,” he breathed without hesitation.

Afterward I wondered if he’d answered the question I’d asked.

.

.

Part Four

The Second Circle

.

It was quiet in the kitchen. The clean, white cabinetry and floors reflected no sound but the crackle of burning wood in the old stove. Outside there were muffled voices. Boots sounded on the back stairs, traveling down from the servant’s quarters, but no steps turned toward the kitchen door.

I’d filled a saucepan with water from the tap and left it on the stovetop to warm while I tugged open cabinets and cupboards. At last I found a small supply of toweling in a drawer by the press.

I returned with it to the scuffed kitchen table, drew a soft cloth from the stack and draped it over Holmes’s bare shoulders. Throughout my search his eyes had followed me, expressionless and oddly distant. I’d ventured no comment for fear he’d take it as encouragement to speak.

As I drew a second cloth from the stack there was a soft step on the back stair then, after a moment’s hesitation, the door was pushed ajar.

A young face peeped around the door, a housemaid, her mob cap pulled hastily over her chestnut brown curls. She spotted me and blinked, her open face betraying surprise then her eyes moved to Holmes, visible from her vantage point only by the black hair hanging damp down his neck.

Her mouth opened in a little ‘o’ and her lively brown eyes darted between Holmes and myself.

“Oh, sir,” she said, her light voice breathless, “Is your friend all right, sir? I heard– I was so frightened, sir…”

“What’s your name, lass?” I said, giving her a small and, I hoped, reassuring smile.

“Suz– ” She blinked and dropped a little curtsey, still clinging to the door as if it were a lifeline. “If you please, sir, Davis, sir.”

“Suzie?” I ventured.

She returned my smile gratefully. “Yes, sir.” Her eyes moved to Holmes again. He sat stiffly in the chair, looking straight ahead.

“Suzie, could you do something for me?”

She bit her lip uncertainly. “The master– ” Her glance darted to the side door.

“Your master won’t be coming back,” I said evenly.

Emotions played across the girl’s open face. I read relief and chagrin there. The loss of a master, without a reference, was a blow to a girl in service, particularly in the country where good positions were hard to come by.

“Suzie, do you know Colonel Hayter?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, drawing her fine eyebrows down in a look of confusion. “My Uncle is in his household.”

“Well, I will mention to Colonel Hayter that you’re in need of a new position, but right now I need you to do something for me. Will you find me a jumper and a scarf? Or two scarves if you can put your hands on them?”

Her face was a picture of delighted amazement. “Oh, yes, sir,” she said, dropping another curtsey. “Right away, sir. Thank you, sir!” She scurried off, her soft soled shoes pattering on the stair.

I turned back to the stove, the towel still in my hand, and used it to lift the now warm pan and place it on the table. Holmes watched me, his expression unreadable.

Dipping the corner of the cloth in the warm water I bent to brush it carefully across the gash over his eye. I was pleased to see the bleeding had almost stopped. I stroked the cloth carefully over the wound and washed away the blood that had run down his cheek.

“How do you do it, Watson?” he said, his voice a cracked whisper.

I sighed. It would do no good, I knew, to continue to nag him to keep his silence. If he were determined to talk, despite the pain it must cause to his battered throat, nothing I could say would dissuade him.

“Do what, Holmes?” I exchanged the bloodstained cloth for a fresh one, moved to the back of the chair and pressed it to his damp hair. I was careful not to move his head more than was required for I knew his neck and shoulders must ache abominably.

He exhaled a long breath. “Your eternal forbearance,” he whispered. “Where does it come from?”

I held the cloth to the fine hair that curled at the back of his neck. There were more bruises there and a long abrasion that seeped a trickle of blood. I held the now damp cloth against it with a light pressure then I moved back to the table and rested my hip on the edge.

I looked down at my friend. My chest clenched at the sight of the battered, torn body that had been subjected to God only knew what demeaning wounds that night.

Holmes regarded me steadily, his gray eyes unblinking.

“It’s not eternal, Holmes,” I said quietly. “I assure you. You have tested its limits today.”

He gave a nod that was barely an inclination of his head and his gaze drifted to a point somewhere over my shoulder. We sat like that for a long moment. The sounds of barked orders in the distance seemed as removed from that still kitchen as the call of seabirds on a distant shore.

There was a patter of feet on the back stair. I looked up as the door pushed open, only fractionally wider than before. Suzie peered in, her cheeks flushed and shining.

She held out an armful of variecolored cloth to me as I crossed to meet her at the door. Judging from the heaped array she had swept her arms through a winter closet, pulling down everything that fell under her small hands. She tried to curtsey as I came close and nearly tumbled over under the weight.

“Thank you, Suzie,” I said as I lifted the burden from her arms. “That’s just fine. You may go see if you can assist the rest of the household. I’m sure they’ll need you. I’ll talk to Colonel Hayter in the morning.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, plainly trying to keep her professional demeanor although the smile that threatened to break across her face shone in her eyes. “Thank you very much, sir.” She dropped another curtsey and turned to scamper back up the stairs.

By the time I heard Hayter’s heavy step at the side door – heavier than usual, I was reasonably certain – I had helped Holmes into the softest of the jumpers in the array the girl had brought and used one of the scarves to fashion a makeshift sling. I was arranging a second scarf loosely around his neck when Hayter pushed through the door.

He shook out the water from his dripping ulster as he said, “Forrester’s on his way.” He gave Holmes only a fleeting glance before his eyes settled on me. “We laid Cunningham out in the carriage house. The horses were going berserk with the smell of blood. Blighter was a bit of a mess.”

I didn’t respond as I shifted to face him.

Hayter cleared his throat. “I don’t imagine you want to make your statement tonight.”

“Not if we can avoid it,” I answered. “May we use a trap? I’ll send it back with one of the boys.”

He nodded. “I’ll fix it with Forrester. Household’s at your disposal, of course.” He shot another glance at Holmes then met my eyes. “Do you need any help?”

I shook my head. “We’ll manage. Go on and catch Forrester.” I held his eyes a moment longer. “Thank you, Tim.”

He inclined his head and moved back out the side door.

After I helped him from the chair, Holmes walked stiffly but under his own power. We passed the carriage house on the way to the two traps pulled up at the top of the drive.

Yellow lamplight spilled through the carriage house door onto the rain-slicked grass. Several dark silhouettes moved about in the glow. I made out Hayter’s shape. He was in earnest conversation with a taller figure. The second shape lifted its head as we passed then turned to the other figures clustered before the door. Over the persistent thud of the rain and the crunch of the gravel I heard an order about covering the body.

I stood close by the side of the trap as Holmes climbed in, bracing his hand against my shoulder. We rode in silence back to the house.

The bustle at Willow Bend was a din compared to the quiet of the manor. I had to shoo away a series of helpful servants as we made our way up to the bedrooms. I kept a step behind Holmes on the way, ready if needed. I noticed an injury he had evidently masked before when his foot caught on the top stair and he nearly tumbled forward.

“You might have mentioned you’d wrenched your knee,” I muttered as I caught him by the hip, only just preventing myself from clutching him around the waist.

“I had not planned on providing you an inventory. If–” His dry rasp broke off in a ragged cough that ended in a gasp. I saw tears start in his eyes as thrust out his free hand to brace himself against the wall.

I forbore to comment as I released my hold and walked ahead to the door of his bedroom. His was the same configuration as mine, I saw, with a tall four-post bed, comfortably upholstered chair and the various odds and ends of furniture one would expect to find in a guest chamber. Neither room had an en suite bath, which I judged to be unfortunate, but not insurmountable.

Holmes did not appear in the doorway, I noticed, and I stepped back into the passage. He had passed the door and was making his way toward the bath at the end of the hall. I watched his slow progress. Out of public view, his steps were shaky and I saw that although his throat must be terribly painful, he carried his head a little to the side, favoring his wrenched shoulder.

I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath, preparing myself for another long night.

.o0o.
.

By the time Holmes returned from the bath some thirty minutes later, barefoot and absent the two scarves I noted, I had requisitioned the supplies of immediate need from the staff. A basin of ice from the icehouse, ewer of water, toweling, and other standard household equipment were arrayed on the nightstand.

The staff had also found my requested alcohol, salts, and various other supplies of immediate and speculative utility. The cook had proved to be particularly resourceful, having raised seven boys and being well prepared to provide remedies not on offer from a high street chemist.

I was drying my hands when Holmes walked past me without sparing me a glance and moved to the edge of the bed where I’d laid out a set of nightclothes. His skin, what I could see of it, was pink with scrubbing. I imagined I’d find it to be consistently so under his clothing.

“We can put this off,” I said evenly. “But it’s as well to do it now before your muscles are so tight you’re not able to help me.”

He opened his mouth to offer some biting retort, but all that emerged was a dry rattle of breath. The fit of coughing that followed had him bent nearly double over the bed, choking for air.

I didn’t move from where I stood. “Perhaps it’s best we start with your throat,” I said equably. “Would you like to change first?”

After a moment he pushed up from the bed, his back a rigid line. He began to tug at the hem of the jumper.

“That’s going to take some time with one hand,” I observed mildly.

His shoulders settled. I heard a slow sigh and he turned back from the bed. His face was a study in detached unconcern as he held his arms out from his sides.

It took more than a minute to ease the jumper up and over his head. He hadn’t removed it completely to wash, I guessed and the guess was confirmed by a streak of dried blood on his still-mobile shoulder. His wrenched shoulder was already too stiff to move without an obvious and considerable effort.

Once the nightshirt was settled around his hips I let him lean back against the edge of the bed while I pulled up the nightstand then I bent to look at his throat. As I’d expected, the skin was raw and swollen.

I judged the pressure of the stick, and probably fingers I reminded myself though any marks were covered by wider bruises now, had caused swelling to the soft tissues inside, but he was able to swallow and breath normally when he didn’t strain to speak so I didn’t alter my original view that there was no need for extreme measures.

I’d selected a shirt that buttoned entirely up the front rather than one that shrugged on so when I turned to look at his shoulder I was able to slip it down his arm with no difficulty.

The injury there was more worrying than I’d at first expected. There was considerable swelling and radiating lines of bruising that showed more than just strained muscle. I feared I’d find a fractured bone, but there was no way to do a more extensive examination before morning by which time the swelling should have diminished.

I washed his cuts and treated them as gently as I could. Holmes flinched as I touched the antiseptic to raw patches of skin, but he made no protest, even when I had to devote many minutes to carefully cleaning the abrasions that covered his palms and still bore the traces of the stable’s earthen floor.

The welts on his back looked fearsome against his pale skin, but they would go down with time. The skin wasn’t broken which was, I realized with a deepening sense of depression, a very small mercy for which to be thankful.

I parted the nightshirt to study the deep purple bruise under his ribcage. Now that it had ceased to spread the shape was obvious. It was an unmistakable boot mark. I wasn’t aware of my heavy sigh until it had escaped. Holmes’s face became, if possible, even more blank as he studied the far wall.

With no further comment I buttoned the shirt and stood back. “Trousers,” I said simply.

He hesitated for only the space of a second having, I gathered, prepared himself for the demand. I didn’t offer to assist, merely stood back and studied the set of three botanical prints that were arrayed beside the narrow window.

When I heard him kick his trousers to the side I turned back. The nightshirt was long enough to protect his modesty for a time and I was willing to let that last while I may. I bent to examine his knee and found, unlike his shoulder, it was simply strained.

With a light pressure on his hip I turned him toward the bed and noted the series of welts and bruises that ran across the back of his thighs. None were of overriding concern. Then with a lack of hesitation that belied the mental preparation that had occupied ever more of my mind as I progressed, I moved his legs apart and continued my examination.

I found what I expected to find. It was no better or worse than I had imagined but somehow it was easier to keep my objectivity than I’d anticipated, perhaps because his eyes were turned away.

Reasoning that it would be less strain for each of us to complete this part of the process as far as possible in one effort, I worked on. Apart from flexing the muscles of his legs he betrayed no reaction any more than I. Still it seemed a very long time before I was ready to rock back on my heels and stand.

I heard him rearrange his nightshirt as I turned away and washed my hands again. For reasons that were much more established than anything that had happened that day, the next phase of the proceedings held as much concern as all the rest combined.

I steeled myself and turned to face him. He was regarding me with a steady and uncomplicated gaze. The mask of neutrality had been discarded and the face he turned toward me was as open as the one he had shown me that afternoon in Lyons, what seemed a very long time ago.

Surprise stilled my voice and it took a moment before I could gather my thoughts enough to say, “I didn’t bring morphine or any drug with me from London.” I left the implied question unspoken.

He gave a slight inclination of his head and turned toward the bed.

The relief that flooded through me, I was ashamed to find, was unmixed by professional concern. Morphine would have been a blessing, I knew, in the circumstances. What my friend needed more than any other treatment was a long unbroken sleep. But my first reaction was the honest one. Knowing he hadn’t brought any supply of drug to Surrey was a wonder, moreover for being unexpected and unsought.

I stirred myself a moment later to offer some assistance as Holmes climbed onto the high bed. It took some negotiation to find a position that seemed as though it might be reasonably comfortable. I sat beside him to assist with arranging pillows and bolster so he might lie on his side with his damaged shoulder supported.

When I moved off the bed and stood back he was watching me curiously. I was confused as to the meaning of his stare until he glanced at the chair pulled up by the bed and back at me.

“Yes,” I said. “I was going to sit up…” I had meant to sit up and keep watch, but it felt odd to say it aloud.

My gaze was fixed absently on the chair when I heard his dry whisper. “Lie down.”

The logic was clear, yet it took a moment for me to realign my thoughts to the idea. I knew any pretense to medical objectivity had been well and truly discarded that day in the space of a gentle kiss.

With no further argument I nodded and went to my room to retrieve my own nightclothes. I was standing in the dim chamber, my hands on my shirtfront, when the hypocrisy of the action struck me. I gathered my nightshirt and went back to Holmes’s room.

His eyebrows rose when he saw me enter in what remained of my dinner wear – a shabby showing it would have made at the table by then – and begin to undress. He didn’t watch but let his gaze go unfocused as it wandered over the botanical prints I’d examined in detail before.

When I was changed I dimmed the lights, stopping at the door to click the latch before I climbed onto the bed beside him. We lay there in the stillness for what seemed a very long time.

There was a renewed bustle downstairs when Hayter came in. The sounds of him dismissing the household, seeing to the night locks, coming up the stairs, pausing at the door and then moving on to his room, were all plainly evident to my jangled senses.

At last the house settled into the rhythms of sleep with only the occasional creak or groan typical of an aging home. I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until I woke.

There was a moment of confusion before the sound that awakened me bore in on my mind. Holmes had given a muffled shout and was now wracked with a coughing fit the equal of the one that had seized him in the hall, the difference being this one was silent as he apparently tried to bite back the noise.

“I’m awake,” I said quietly, rolling toward him. Without thinking I reached up and brushed the hair back from the side of his face.

The coughs subsided to a series of shuddering gasps until he lay still. Because I couldn’t think of a good reason to stop, I continued to brush my fingers through his hair. The rigid line of his back eased. I fell asleep with my hand resting at the back of his neck.

.o0o.
.

Of the days that followed, some were better and some were worse. The bruises, abrasions and welts subsided as did the wounds to his throat, though they continued to cause him pain long after he learned to hide it. It was several weeks before he could fasten his collar without considerable discomfort.

Holmes’s shoulder had sustained a minor fracture. There was nothing to be done for it but to keep it as still as possible. Stillness was never an easy proposition with Holmes, but I knew I had to choose my battles.

The first day I would only let him go as far as the bath at the end of the hall and back.

On the second day he was too stiff to go even that far unassisted, but he was able to swallow a few bites of egg from the breakfast I brought upstairs.

On the third day I came back from the bath to find Holmes had taken the opportunity to make an attempt at the stairs.

It was a mixed success. His knee was no better for it, but the benefit to his mood was incalculable. Afterward he was in such good humor he allowed me to press him to a second portion of tea without a single complaint.

After four days I allowed Inspector Forrester in for an interview. While he and Holmes spoke in the breakfast room, I stood on the porch with Hayter. We hadn’t discussed the fact that I hadn’t used my room since the night we’d come back from the manor. Nor had we discussed when Holmes and I would return to London. The question of whether I would return with him needed no answer.

We watched a teal swoop low and drop toward the pond beyond the willows. Hayter cleared his throat. “John, I wouldn’t think to question your decisions.”

I blinked and turned toward him. “I wouldn’t have thought so,” I said.

Hayter glanced at me and looked away. “Holmes,” he said carefully. “Well, he’s not– He’s a bit nervy, isn’t he?”

“You mentioned that before,” I said without inflection.

“Those hands,” he said. “They never stop. It’s like watching two gamecocks circling. I remember when that sort of thing would have driven you round the bend.”

Turning, I gazed back over the expanse of lawn. “I’m older, Tim. People change.”

“Not you, my boy. Not a jot. The world has changed, but you’re still that rough and ready lad I knew in Afghanistan. Still it’s not my business. Forget I mentioned it.”

I shook my head. “I’ll take it in the spirit it was intended. I don’t know. It’s just…” I puffed out a breath. “As extraordinary as he is, sometimes Holmes needs protecting from himself.”

To my surprise, Hayter gave a low laugh. “I remember thinking that very thing about a young soldier I knew once.”

I smiled at that and we stood together in companionable silence as the shadows lengthened on the lawn.

.o0o.
.

On the fifth day the coroner’s inquest was convened. Forrester presented the black mace, an heirloom of the Cunningham family, as the weapon of murder and attempted murder.

He related how Mr. Holmes had formed a theory about the murder weapon on examining Kirwan’s body and described the scene he’d found on the manor grounds after being called out by Colonel Hayter’s report of a disturbance.

I repeated the evidence I’d given Forrester on becoming concerned when Holmes didn’t return and, fearing the murderer might still be about, had gone to the manor to be sure all was well.

Then I read out Holmes’s testimony for the court, describing events from the point when Cunningham had guessed Holmes was trying to uncover the murder weapon and had decided to blame one more death on the unknown killer.

No one’s testimony was detailed, but it was all that was required. The jury took only minutes to return their verdict and that was the end of it as far as the village of Reigate was concerned.

On the seventh day Hayter was away seeing to business that had gone neglected since the afternoon we’d arrived to disrupt his peaceful country retirement. Holmes and I walked out under the willows.

Holmes was still stiff and he carried his arm at an odd angle, but by then he was able to speak without subsiding into a wracking cough if he kept his voice low. We walked in comfortable, not enforced, silence.

We hadn’t shared a kiss since that night at the manor. Whether it was the memory of those circumstances or the constraint of being under Hayter’s roof or some other impediment I couldn’t name, we had neither of us spoken of it or made any move in that direction. I had just decided I couldn’t ignore the desire any longer when Holmes broke in on my thoughts.

“Perhaps we should walk a bit farther,” he said equably. “You can see this spot from the house.”

Momentarily thrown into confusion, I glanced up and saw the window of his bedroom. On a sudden I recalled the night Hayter and I had walked out among the trees and the chilly breakfast scene the next day.

“Holmes,” I said carefully, “Tim and I…”

“You have known one another a very long time,” he said.

I exhaled. “Yes,” I agreed. “Something like you and Jean-Marc?” I ventured.

Holmes was silent for a moment. “Yes and no,” he said quietly. “Jean-Marc and I do not have stimulating conversations or much to reminisce about. But he is, or rather was, very discreet.”

“Was?”

I glanced over and saw Holmes purse his lips. “I asked him to go to the Hotel Berlioz, where I had made it known I was to be staying, to inquire whether I’d received any messages. I should have been more specific, but I wasn’t feeling quite myself.” He shot me a glance. “I meant to ask him to find out if there had been any messages from you. He came back with an armload of telegrams, each of which I examined carefully, none of which were what I was looking for. Apparently sensing my disappointment, or possibly my dissolution, he went out the next morning and took it on himself to ask you to come. He must have had his message translated at the telegraph office. He is a very… agreeable boy, but it seems his sense of discretion is starting to wear at the seams.”

I thought that over and extracted the question uppermost in my mind. “Does that mean you won’t be seeing him again?”

“I have no plans to,” Holmes said simply.

We walked on toward the pond under the willows and I steeled myself to ask a question that I had tried unsuccessfully to push from my thoughts.

“On the subject of plans,” I began, “That night at Cunningham’s. There are questions I haven’t asked that are… I like to think they’re becoming difficult to avoid.” I hesitated, but decided I’d gone too far to turn back. “Holmes, how much of what happened with Cunningham, before I arrived, was part of your plan?”

He was silent for so long, I began to grow concerned I’d overstepped the bounds of the privacy my friend held so dear.

When he began to speak his voice was assiduously neutral. “In the course of an investigation,” he said. “I’m often called upon to play a role. A person of a particular profession or type or set of habits. I have always found it is easier to portray a thing convincingly when you know what it is to embody it.”

He paused. “For a time, before Cunningham decided he wanted another taste of what he’d enjoyed so much the night before, I wasn’t… sorry I’d chosen that means of discovering the murder weapon.” He exhaled a long breath. “There is a release in not being in control. It can be freeing. It’s not an experience I seek frequently. But on occasion…” He hesitated. “I don’t know that it’s something you could understand.”

I considered my answer. “I think I do understand. Although I can’t say I’ve ever seen the need to complicate something that’s so very simple.”

“No,” he said and I heard the smile in his voice. “You could never be accused of overcomplicating things.”

“Although I’ve never been accused of lack of imagination either,” I offered.

He gave a soft laugh. “No. That’s true. I never get your limits.”

We drew close to the pond, rousing a teal that had been resting in the shallows. Its wing beats were startlingly loud.

“Holmes,” I said carefully. “I want to be your lover. I don’t know if I can be who you need me to be. But you know who I am. And if that might be enough…”

There was no sound beside me and I turned to my friend. He was watching the teal in flight. He looked over and met my gaze.

Holmes’s eyes were the color of the sky reflected in the still pond. The invitation in them was unmistakable and as breathtaking as anything I had ever seen.

He reached out and laced his fingers through the hair at the back my neck. As he pulled me toward him, his eyes drifted closed. Our lips met.

It was a tender kiss at the start. We stood at the edge of the water, touching, tasting, testing the feeling of each new sensation. Soon it grew more urgent as I moved to kiss his jaw, to tease the soft skin below his ear.

Holmes’s hands moved to my shoulders, pulling me closer until we were shifting back under the trees. I distantly noticed we’d stopped, braced against a willow trunk. I reached up to the back of his throat, tugging his shirt down as I buried my face in the skin at the curve of his shoulder, teasing it with my teeth and tongue. His shuddering sigh against my cheek broke off in a sharp gasp.

I pressed forward, feeling him hard against me and heard his deep sigh as if from a distance. I could feel his heart racing against my chest. My touch drifted down to the back of his thigh, parting his legs as I moved, reveling in the feel of his hard flesh against mine.

My hand tightened on his thigh and his answering moan sounded like a low cry. It penetrated my fogged senses and I leant back. His eyes were wide and glassy, staring at me and through me to some point in the distance.

Holmes blinked and focused just as I became aware of the tight grip I had on his bruised skin. My hold relaxed and I drew breath to utter some unformed apology.

I saw his half smile as his hand moved to cover mine. “Never get your limits,” he breathed just before our lips met in another deep and searching kiss.

It was a wholly new sensation. When my hand moved over a place on his skin that I knew to be painful to the touch Holmes drew in a shuddering breath. Each time his reaction was stronger, more intense. I found myself seeking out those places.

Every gasp, every moan, every time he’d twist under my hand, made me want the experience more. I quickly learned the less movement I allowed, the greater the response.

When I caught his wrist and held it tight behind his back he arched his neck with such open abandon it was all I could do not to rake my teeth over the still raw wounds at his throat. The feeling of power was amazing and frightening and strangely intoxicating all at once.

When at last I moved back, breathing heavily and feeling the chill perspiration run down my spine, I took in the sight of Holmes’s flushed cheeks, his heaving chest, his black hair curling and clinging to his sweat slicked skin, and found the fact I had caused such reactions in him was more entrancing than I could have imagined.

Soon my rational mind took hold again and I knew it would be some little time before it was safe to go back to the house. The thought was like a cool glass of water, soothing the fire. I stepped back, giving Holmes room to straighten and button and smooth his clothing

He looked up from fastening his shirtfront and his eyes met mine. He gave me a slow smile. I grinned in response and he laughed. A low, bubbling laugh that was completely unique in my experience. It was pleasing to think that particular laugh would be reserved for me alone for a very, very long time.

A handful of minutes later we were seated side by side on the grass at the edge of the pond. I studied the water. What had seemed a sheet of glass the color of the sky, on closer inspection was alive with water striders and minnows and all manner of life.

There was a movement in the rushes at the far edge then a skittering in the fallen leaves and quiet.

“Holmes,” I said.

“Hum,” he murmured.

“Did Jean-Marc call you a rabbit?”

There was perfect silence. I looked over to find my friend regarding me with narrowed eyes.

“You don’t speak French,” he observed.

“True. But I do occasionally order French rabbit stew.”

Holmes cocked an eyebrow. “Mon lapin. It’s a very common term of endearment. I’m surprised it’s not in your repertoire. What with your vast romantic experience, spanning continents as I’m reliably informed, I would expect you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of local customs along that line.”

I shrugged. “I’ve always found a warm smile would serve just as well.”

He fought back the grin that curled the corners of his mouth. “I dare say you have.”

“Mon lapin,” I tried.

He snorted. “Your accent is atrocious.”

I grinned. “I shall have to practice,” I said as I watched reflected clouds scud across the surface of the pond.

.o0o.
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On the evening of the tenth day our cab pulled up outside the door of 221b. Mrs. Hudson greeted us at the door.

Apart from a lingering pallor that highlighted the dark line marking the cut over his eye and a certain stiffness in the set of his shoulders, Holmes looked not much the worse for wear. Still our landlady, being who she was, couldn’t help but peer closer and ask, “Was your trip to the country restful, gentlemen?”

“It was a distinct success,” Holmes said easily as he climbed the stairs two at a time. “I feel much invigorated.”

I smiled at Mrs. Hudson and she leant up on her toes to kiss me lightly on the cheek. “Welcome home,” she said.

As I started up the stairs behind Holmes she called up. “Your mail is on the table inside the door. Oh, and I put some fresh fruit out as well. The greengrocer had some lovely oranges.”

With a word of thanks we let ourselves into the sitting room. While I deposited my bags on the floor and stripped out of my jacket, Holmes turned to the small table.

I heard a thump and an orange rolled across the floor to stop at my feet. I picked it up, smiling, and turned.

Holmes was staring at an open envelope in his hand. I saw an address in Lyons scribbled on the back flap.

“Holmes?” I said.

He started and glanced over his shoulder. For a moment, it seemed as if he didn’t know me. Then he cleared his throat and stuffed the envelope into the pocket of jacket.

A card fluttered to the floor. Before I could mention it he said, “I’m going out, Watson.” His voice was entirely without inflection. “Tell Mrs. Hudson not to wait supper.”

I hadn’t time to marshal a response before he’d turned and gone back through the open door. It closed behind him with a snap.

It was a moment before I collected myself enough to cross to the table. There was only the usual pile of correspondences. I bent to retrieve the small pasteboard card. It was a calling card, but the name was unfamiliar. It read simply “Charles Augustus Milverton. Agent.”

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-«oOo»-
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To be continued in…

Demons, Devils and Rogues

The Second Story

Milverton

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