started May 29, 2008
complete July 16, 2008
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………[ RATED NC17 ]………
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Demons, Devils and Rogues

The Second Story

Venomous Creatures

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 extreeeeemely Alternate Universe retelling of the events described by Doctor Watson in his chronicle The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.

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Intelligibility: This is the second in a three story cycle called Demons, Devils and Rogues and is the sequel to The Squire of Reigate. This is seriously not going to make any sense if you haven’t read Squire and that’s saying something because this here story is already utter nonsense.

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Content Warnings: Essentially consensual violence. Not so consensual violence. Really not consensual at all violence. Just plain violence. Slashy smut galore. Angst. Lust. Deceit. Slippery slopes. Slithery things. Milverton.

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Part One
Among Serpents

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Chapter One
The Fall

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“It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them. It records an absolutely unique experience in the career both of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and of myself.”

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I stared out at the midnight street, thinking back and wondering.

Three months earlier Holmes had disappeared into France on an investigation destined to garner international praise and test his body to the limits of its endurance.

Three weeks earlier I’d gone to Lyons at the behest of a tersely worded telegram to find him holed up in a ragged hotel room with a strong young man named Jean-Marc and within hours of medical crisis from lack of sleep or food or drink for God only knew how long.

Ten days earlier Holmes had nearly been killed at the hands of Alec Cunningham. A man who took pleasure in having power over another. A murderer I’d been forced to shoot at point blank range and had shot again out of an impulse that had little to do with our protection and everything to do with my friend, huddled torn and bleeding at his feet.

Three days earlier Holmes and I had kissed under the trees at Willow Bend. He’d offered me a taste of what it was to be Alec Cunningham and I’d recognized temptation in the darkness.

Two days earlier Holmes had as much as said he’d risked himself at the hands of such a man before. I’d thought of that man and glimpsed what I might do if I had the chance to face him.

One night earlier I’d tried to understand what it meant to be such a man. I’d touched the darkness in myself, seen how fiercely it fought to reign, and still imagined it might be tamed.

Eight hours earlier we’d come home to Baker Street and Holmes had opened a letter from Lyons that had drained the color from his face and caused him to disappear into London as surely as if a hand had reached out and plucked him away.

Eight hours in which to pace from the door to the settee to the window and back again.

Eight hours to wonder when I’d come to feel so protective of a man who was the most gifted and resourceful I’d ever known.

Eight hours to wonder if I’d one day have to protect him from myself.

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The evening after our first kiss under the trees at Willow Bend I’d moved back into my room at the end of the hall.

For a time it had been easy to dismiss my staying with Holmes each night as medically expedient. For the first few days after the events at Cunningham’s manor Holmes couldn’t move about unassisted. On the third day, he’d taken it on himself to venture down the stairs unaided. Still I’d stayed with him.

In those days it had proved a blessing to have the little housemaid Suzie on hand. Hayter’s loyal staff below stairs confirmed, without need to discuss it directly with their master, that she never remarked on anything she had observed, though I knew she had a quick mind and had surely drawn her own conclusions.

But after that kiss it seemed wiser to separate, at least for the sake of appearances. I did not wish to cause any discomfort for our host beyond that already visited on him by the sudden and violent events that had upset his quiet country life.

And I had my own reasons for moving back to my room. From the moment we’d declared our mutual intent, I aloud and Holmes by his actions, to change the definition of what we had always styled our “intimate friendship,” sharing a bed seemed destined to stretch the limits of my already tenuous self-control.

Holmes, not surprisingly, seemed less prone than myself to be lost in daydreams of eros, but more than once I looked in his direction and caught him turning his glance away from me with marked suddenness. For myself, it was a revelation to discover the true depth of my untapped well of desire.

I’d recognized his more obvious charms from our first meeting. All finely drawn lines and feline motion, he seemed to occupy a space a little outside the world. With his classical features, dark hair, blue-black as a raven’s wing against his pale skin, and penetrating gray eyes he might have been designed for the very purpose of igniting passion.

Yet I had never allowed myself to imagine what it might be like to have him as a lover. Now that the key had turned, the hold he had over my thoughts was intoxicating and not a little dangerous.

Any resolve I might have had to wait exploring our mutual desire until Holmes was fully recovered and we were back at our digs in Baker Street was proved a will-o-the-wisp by Hayter’s seeming sudden awareness of important business away from home. The day after our first encounter by the still pond, Holmes and I found ourselves drawn like satellites back to the same spot. Almost on the instant we stopped under the trees, we were locked together in a furious embrace.

I’d quickly learned how to fire his blood. Thrusting him back against the tree that seemed perfectly adapted by nature for the purpose caused his breath to quicken. Pinning him with only enough freedom of movement to fist his hands in the tail of my shirt caused him to draw in a ragged gasp. Capturing his hand behind his back made him give out a shuddering moan.

And as the first time we’d met there, Holmes seemed driven to greater heights of passion each time my touch strayed to his still-tender wounds. I tried to keep a tighter rein on my actions, but when my hand fell on the bruised flesh of his arm or thigh his obvious signs of pleasure exploded my brittle self-command.

Looking back it seemed only willful denial of reality prevented me from recognizing one simple, cold fact – I was taking advantage of the many wounds Alec Cunningham had inflicted. On the third day that self-deception fell away.

I’d parted Holmes’s shirt for the better convenience of lavishing attention on the curve of his neck when my hand fell on the deep bruise at his lower ribs. He writhed at my touch and caught his lip in his teeth to stifle the throaty moan that fought for release.

As he twisted under my hands, his movement contrived to turn him away. I found myself at his back, kissing the base of his neck, bearing him forward so he had to brace his palms against the willow. His back arched and as my hands moved without deliberate intent I gripped the shoulder Cunningham had wrenched hard enough to crack the bone.

Holmes gave a choked cry and even as his voice fell to a gasp I froze, struck with horror to think my careless touch emulated that of a man I’d been forced to kill for fear he might murder my friend before my eyes.

I fell back, aghast. Holmes turned, resting his back against the tree and studying me from under the fringe of hair that had fallen across his forehead. His expression showed less confusion than wary apprehension.

It was then, as I tried to sort out how I could have forgotten myself so far as to cause him real pain, chill realization struck me. His every movement and reaction seemed calculated to subtly persuade me to actions I would have thought alien to my nature just days before. And I, his physician and friend, had played along, reveling in every moment of it.

As I took another step back, clenching my fists at my side, trying to master my anger. Holmes brushed a hand through his hair, his impassive gaze tacit confirmation that he was unsurprised by my response.

“I do not appreciate,” I grated out, “Being treated as if I were a yearling being broken to saddle.”

To my amazement, his eyebrow raised and the ghost of a smile crossed his lips. “Ah. I had thought–” He gave a little cough. “That is certainly an interesting analogy.” Before I could choke out a response, he raised a hand.

“Wait a moment. I said it was interesting. Not accurate. Will you let me speak before you unleash the tirade I see building behind the throbbing pulse in your temple?”

I had little choice but to silently assent for I wasn’t sure I could stem my outrage once it was unleashed. I was grateful, at least, he did not feign confusion over its source.

“I promise you,” he said, ”I am not trying to mold you to suit whatever you perceive to be my desires.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “If you say that’s the case, Holmes, I have to take you at your word,” I said, my jaw still tight, “But forgive me for pointing out you’ve played on my credulity before.”

His lips twitched in a wry smile. “Yes, I always suspected that would come back to haunt me. Though not under these precise circumstances.” He shook his head. “Believe what you like, John, but I am not consciously doing anything at all. I am–” He puffed out a breath and his gaze drifted over my shoulder. “Maybe it is easier to explain with analogy, at that. Do you…” He glanced at me and looked away. “Do you mind if I sit? I confess I’m finding I tire easily just now.”

If it was a statement calculated to instantly defuse my temper, it was perfectly chosen. By the time we were seated on the grass by the water, my indignation had cooled by several significant degrees.

Holmes gazed out over the pond for a time before he said, seemingly to the water, “There’s no way around it, John. I am who I am. But know that I am not always the same.” He stole a glance at me and looked away. “I believe I’m safe in saying, no more than you. I doubt you are the same lover with a man as you are with a woman. Nor the same lover with a young man and with a man of greater maturity. And I am not the same with you and with someone like Alec Cunningham.”

The suggestion he thought of Cunningham as a lover so unnerved me I started and made to speak, but he cut across my half-formed words.

He gave a half shrug. “I do mean someone like Alec Cunningham, Watson. when I said it was something you could not understand, I was not being disingenuous or condescending. I honestly do not believe you could ever understand the attraction such an experience can hold. Nor I was false when I said it’s not a thing I seek frequently. Not in some time in fact. Not–” He drew in a breath. “Young men have a dangerous combination of thirst for adventure and sense of invulnerability, not to say immortality. And I’ve never been accused of having an excess of instinct for self-preservation. As if it needed proving, I believe I’ve demonstrated that, yet again.”

His gaze was distant and he seemed lost in thought. I wanted to interrupt whatever chain of thinking had pulled him so far away. I could find nothing useful to offer.

My own thoughts were suddenly seized by the image of such a man, a man like Alec Cunningham, holding my friend’s body in his hands, ready to wound it or break it according to his whim. An image sleeted through my mind unbidden. I remembered the startled look on Cunningham’s face as he fell back into the night.

When Holmes went on it was a relief to feel my thoughts dragged back from that darkness. His voice was as cool and still as the pond before us.

“You stated it very succinctly. I know who you are. I do not wish you to be someone else. And to this moment I have been pleased…” He exhaled a long breath. “Very pleased to think you were willing to extend me the same consideration. I don’t expect you to live up to my misapprehension.”

“No,” I said in the stillness. “No, you weren’t wrong. But…” I thought how best to phrase something I had no real language for as yet. “Holmes, I don’t wish to change you, but I do feel out my depth. If…” I turned to him. “If there’s something you’d like me to do, can’t you just tell me?”

His lips twitched in another wry smile. “If you consider carefully, I think you’ll find that rather defeats the purpose.” Before I could even begin to form a response he shook his head. “Watson, I’m not trying to make light of this. It’s only that I’ve never had to explain before and I’m finding it… ‘difficult’ is perhaps too small a word.”

I puffed out a breath and settled forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “I do want to understand,” I said quietly.

He gazed evenly at me. “If you think it would help…” He cleared his throat. “If you’d like to try the experience from another perspective…”

It was my turn to offer a wry smile. “I can’t pretend the idea has any attraction.”

His half smile touched his eyes. “I won’t pretend I’m not relieved to hear it,” he said. “Now I think I hear carriage bells on the drive. I’ll wait here for a time if you’d like to go up to the house and meet Colonel Hayter.”

I wanted to reassure him our experiment wasn’t over almost before it had begun. I wanted to take him in my arms and tell him I was sure I would overcome my qualms and find my way through this strange territory. But I couldn’t, in all honesty, say that. Holmes didn’t look up as I stood and turned to make my way back through the trees.

I don’t know if Hayter observed any constraint between us at dinner that evening. I do know his pressing business engagements were less pressing the next day and he was a constant presence, smoking in the library or taking tea in the breakfast room or having an evening drink in a chaise on the lawn. I wasn’t unhappy to have him there as a baffle between us.

All through the day, I turned the thing over in my mind. If I chose to continue on the course we had set I would have to, as Holmes said, accept him as he was.

I fear I was a less than scintillating dinner companion that night. I couldn’t doubt Holmes had drawn his own conclusions from my introspective state. It was made clear when I found myself at the door of his room later that night.

We had all retired early, perhaps because of my reserve and the pall it cast on our post-dinner conversation over cigars and brandy. But as my thoughts kept churning, one idea rose to the surface whenever Holmes spoke quietly in his subtly melodic voice, or laughed that silent laugh, or glanced at me from the corner of his smoke gray eyes.

I wanted him. I wanted him as I’d wanted few others in my life. I wanted him with a desire that surged through me whenever I thought of his passion-reddened lips parted in a low cry. I wanted to feel him under my hands, all of him, and know what it was to cause him to shiver at my touch and push against my grip and pulse in release. I wanted to know the scent of his body at the moment of completion. I wanted to see fires of passion in his eyes cool to luxuriant peace. I wanted to bed him and make him mine.

Late into the evening I sat up my room, thinking and planning and preparing for what was to come. When I thought I was as ready as I was ever likely to be, I rose and stole into the hall.

When Holmes answered my soft rap at his door, I saw his eyes were untouched by the haze of sleep. He was still clad in his shirt and trousers, as if he had been sitting up as well.

He seemed genuinely surprised to find me at his door. I saw him take in the resolve in my eyes and the smile that graced his lips was balm to any lingering disquiet in my mind.

Without a word I reached for his arm and drew him into the hallway. He looked bemused, but followed and pulled the door shut behind him with a quiet click. We walked quietly down the stairs and I made my way to the French doors of the breakfast room, unlatching them and stepping through, knowing without looking that he followed. We made our way across the lawn and I led him through the trees with a sure step.

As we neared the pond I took his hand. It was a unique sensation. We had walked arm in arm before in our rambles through London. We had taken one another’s hand when danger was too great to risk words and touch was safety. This was different.

I felt his pulse quicken against my fingertips and I knew he felt mine do the same. His hand was warm. I felt the rough texture of his palm where it had so recently been abraded against the floor of Cunningham’s stables. The sensation was not unexpected. I had prepared myself for it and more.

I didn’t know precisely what my actions would be. All I knew was the end I wanted to achieve. I trusted Holmes and instinct to show me the way.

The first task I’d set myself was to banish the spectre of Alec Cunningham. It seemed to stand over my shoulder, mocking my every impulse.

When Cunningham had spoken to Holmes that night in the stables it had been a performance for my benefit, calculated and cruel. In it I heard echoes of taunting words ringing down through the hours before I’d arrived.

Cunningham wouldn’t make me afraid to speak for fear of evoking his memory any more than he would make me afraid to caress Holmes in ways that would make him tremble under my hand. Alec Cunningham was dead and gone and his memory held no more power than a dream. So I told myself again and again.

I tried to clear my thoughts as I led Holmes to the spot under the trees we had made our own. When we reached the willow, I held his arm and turned him to face me. The light of the waxing moon falling through the branches touched his hair, kissing it with silver. His eyes were wide and the color of an icy stream in the moonglow.

For a long moment I took in his elegant features, so vibrant in the heat of pursuit, so fine in repose as I’d watched over his sleep in recent nights. I traced my thumb across his cheekbone and his eyes drifted closed. He rested his cheek against my open palm and my heart flamed.

I bent forward and kissed his gracefully curved brow. He exhaled a sigh and I felt his breath against my cheek. I shivered at the ephemeral touch and felt his hands steal to my waist.

Moving carefully, I brought my other hand up to graze his injured shoulder. It was as if my touch had turned a switch. He went perfectly still as if afraid to move.

The fact held no surprise. I put my lips to his ear. “Don’t think,” I murmured. “Don’t act. Don’t behave. Just be. Help me understand.”

I felt him exhale and release tension I hadn’t known was there. He leant closer and his hands drifted to the curve of my hips.

My kiss moved from his ear to his throat and across it, touching the wounds that still showed raw and red. He shivered and his hold on me tightened.

With slow, easy movements I opened his shirtfront. His hands moved to my buttons and I let him do the same. His lithe fingers traced the contours of my chest then grazed my belly and strayed to my back.

His lips found mine and his tongue traced my upper lip just at the edge of my mustache, sparking my unexpected smile. I felt it echoed as his lips moved against mine. Our kiss deepened and my hands moved to his back. When my open palms brushed over the welts that marred his skin his fingers flexed against the sensitive muscles on either side of my spine.

“More?” I whispered. I felt him nod and his breath hitched as I curled my fingers to draw the tips across the raised skin. His hips moved against mine and I felt his arousal, but I held myself back. There was more I wanted to learn.

Caressing the dark bruise on his side made his breath accelerate. I didn’t have to ask then. With a firm, steady pressure I raked my fingertips along his lower ribs. It was impossible not to notice that they were too defined, that he was still painfully thin, but I set the thought aside. There would be time, I told myself, to worry about that when Holmes wasn’t twisting so that my hands naturally tightened on his back and his side.

He gasped and turned his head, exposing his throat to my kiss. I held him still as I drew my teeth gently across his skin and he gave a soft moan. I felt as much as heard him catch his lip to stifle the sound and I spoke in a soft voice. “No one will hear. Tell me how it feels.”

There was only a second’s hesitation before he whispered, “More.”

In an instant, the need in his voice undid all my careful resolution. My breath quickened as my hold on him tightened. My fingertips pressed into his side. He moaned again, louder, and the sound among the silent trees set a torch to my desire. Suddenly I had no greater wish than to hear that sound again and again, echoing between the trees and the sky.

With one hand I kept my grip on his side. With the other I felt for his hand at my hip. I caught his slim wrist and the fact that my fingers could close around it started a new fire in my chest, darker, like a flaring coal. The heat coursed through me and I heard my voice, rough and low, as I pulled his hand away in strange emulation of a dance.

“This is different,” I rasped. “Different than this.” I tightened my hold on his wrist and side in turn.

He only nodded, his cheek, already glazed with sweat, hot against mine.

“Which do you want? Right now. This moment.”

“This. Give me more of this.” His breath hitched again and he pulled against my hold on his wrist. “Now.”

He gave a sharp tug and nearly succeeded in freeing his hand. I was reminded, depleted condition or no, just how strong he was. There was a hidden power in him, coiled like a cat on a hearth.

I gripped his wrist and tugged back, hard enough to wrench him to the side. His lips met mine through no design and as they touched with a single instinct we locked in a fierce and penetrating kiss that left us both gasping for breath.

Through it my hold didn’t slacken and we shared the silent knowledge that no accommodation was required. Neither would exert his full power. We knew we were well matched without having to test the fact. There was no reason for pretense, only restraint.

I bent his arm down and back, flexing to force his hand to the small of his back, moving with deliberate slowness, steeling myself for what was to come.

I had thought it through carefully. I knew it would impossible to explore my own limits without recourse to handling his wounded shoulder. The knowledge didn’t make it easier. My comfort was in knowing I wouldn’t hurt him more than could be borne, and I would not do injury to his healing bone.

When I pulled him close I let him feel me take a deep breath before I reached down and caught his other wrist in my free hand.

His gasp was unrestrained. It echoed back from the trees and the water of the pond. I forced his wrists together tight against his back then dragged him hard against me. My arousal, rigid and pulsing, found equal match. I ground my hips against his as I buried my face in his throat and tasted his salty skin.

He pulled against my grip and I gave a wordless growl, forcing his hands higher on his back. He hissed and I couldn’t decide if it was in pleasure or real pain. When I went still he grated out the single word, “Yes.”

The feeling was like nothing I’d ever known. I was all-powerful, yet entirely at the mercy of his slightest sound. I might have done anything he asked at that moment. I was grateful later I hadn’t had to face that test.

Instead I moved to the next phase of my campaign. Forcing his wrists together, I captured both in one hand.

It was a moment of delicate balance. He could have pulled free. I exerted just enough pressure against the wrist of his wounded arm to let him know I wouldn’t make it easy.

His back stiffened and I held my breath. I gave another sharp jerk then he arched toward me exposing the full curve of his throat and for a moment, just a moment, I forgot myself. With teeth and tongue I plundered the raw skin. Tasting, teasing and tugging at it as he writhed, dragging in deep, shuddering gasps until his second hiss brought me back to myself with a start.

I drew in a steadying breath, but didn’t allow myself the luxury of hesitation. Instead I moved my free hand to his waist. He shivered as I grazed his side, but instead of stopping there, my fingers moved to the fastenings of his trousers.

Working down the fly, I paused only long enough to stroke once along his rigid shaft. This time there was no mistaking the want in his gasp as I hooked my fingers in the top of his underclothes and dragged them down.

I marveled at my own restraint. I wanted to tear the clothing from his body. There was nothing I wished more than to see his naked skin bared to the moonlight and my gaze. But I knew, at least I hoped, there would be time for that. This night was mere prelude to many, many more.

I spread the fabric just enough to fully free his erection then I brushed the hot, tight skin with my fingertips from base to corona. His heart pounded against my chest as I stroked my thumb once across the slick tip. He buried his face against my neck as I stroked down, shifting his foreskin with palm and fingertips.

Then I released my hold. He gave a strangled sigh as I moved, stepping and turning and pulling him sideways all at once until I held him, my chest against his back, his wrists still captured in my hand.

Bending close, I put my lips to his ear and breathed, “This is for me.” I moved his head aside with my chin to gaze down the length of his bare chest to his as I took his straining shaft in my hand.

I’d seen Holmes naked before. We’d shared quarters for years, enjoyed Turkish baths. In recent weeks I’d undressed him more than once. This was different. This time I could let myself see him not as a companion or patient, but as a man.

I knew his shaft was proportionate to his frame. I’d never noticed the supple curve of its length. The way it described the same flowing line as the throat arching back against mine was a revelation. I stroked again and felt him push into my grip. My motions were slow and even at first. Our breath synchronized as my rhythm quickened.

On a sudden, one of his wrists twisted in my hand. It wasn’t a bid for freedom, not a forceful one. With a thrill of surprise, I recognized it as a sort of request. Because it seemed the natural thing to do, I released my hold on his hands, moving to grasp him across the chest, not slackening the rhythm of my grip on his hot, slick skin.

One of his hands came up to grasp my forearm where it held him tight. The other moved to rest on mine as I stroked down. I hesitated, unsure if he meant me to stop, then his fingers tightened around mine and urged me on.

I braced my feet, taking his weight on the arm I had locked across his chest. As we moved together in faster, shorter, sharper strokes, his hand never left mine, not guiding my touch, but sharing it. His chest strained and his grip pulled against my forearm, strong and urgent. His hips beat against mine as he pushed against our combined touch.

A shiver ran down his body collecting to tremble low in his belly. He arched back and his breath caught as he jerked in my hand. He gave a choking cry and I felt the pulse once, twice, and again. My gasp echoed his as his body went rigid. His breath stopped. His release arced out in the moonlight again and again. Then with a tremulous sigh he exhaled a long breath.

His hold on me relaxed and he sagged forward. I felt his perspiration already cooling on my skin. I buried my face in the damp hair that clung to his neck as I gave one final, light stroke and brushed my open palm across to capture the last clinging drops.

I shifted and, still holding him, bent to sit on the grass. With a light touch on his chest I urged him back to recline beside me before I moved to straighten and smooth and fasten his underclothes and his trousers.

Holmes watched me, his eyes half closed, his gaze distant. When I settled back beside him, propped on one elbow, he swallowed once then murmured, “You don’t want–”

I shook my head. “No. Not tonight.”

I brushed back the damp hair that clung to his cheek then leant back on the grass. My hand found his and I stroked my fingertips across the roughened skin of his palm.

We lay side by side in silence. I watched the waxing moon slide along a curving willow branch and sail free. The shadows on its surface described a shape picked out by the ancients.

“Do you know,” I murmured to the sky. “I’ve decided I don’t much care for ‘mon lapin.’ I can’t pronounce it properly and it doesn’t sound right in any case.”

I didn’t have to look over to see Holmes arch an eyebrow. “It is an expression that’s served Frenchmen well for many a year.”

“It can’t be the only one,” I pointed out. “What other creatures could I choose from?”

He seemed to consider for a moment. “Leaving aside the ones I won’t stand for… loutre, minou…” He cleared his throat. “Perhaps, on balance, it might be better to give French a miss.”

I smiled. “Thank you. But I’ll continue to give the question my consideration. For now,” I said, my words slowing as the thought rose up in my mind unbidden. “For now I will opt for the simple and straightforward, ‘my own.’”

Holmes was quiet and an uncomfortable thought arced across my mind.

I glanced over. “There are no prior associations–”

“No,” he said evenly. “None at all. It may not surprise you overly to learn I have not heard many terms of endearment directed my way. At least, not ones sincerely meant.”

As I considered his words and the affectless way in which he said them, I could find no response other than to remark, “Very well. My own, it is. Or rather, you are.”

“Just as you say,” he answered equably.

We lay like that until I caught myself sliding into a dream of moving water and an undulating shape, just below the surface. I drew in a sharp breath and sat up. Holmes opened his eyes.

“I had wondered,” he said. “If you’d thought to lie here until the dew settled. I’d be very put out if I caught a chill on top of everything else.”

I grinned and levered myself up to my feet, restraining myself from offering a supporting hand as Holmes stood with only slightly less grace than his normal, fluid movements.

We walked back to the house and stole back up the stairs, pausing at the door to his room. He watched me, not questioning or inviting, merely curious. I gave him a smile and brushed his hand with my fingertips before turning back up the hall. I heard his door close with a quiet click.

Long into the night I stood by the window looking out over the grass, picked out in silver by the moon as it drifted down toward the horizon.

Now, standing at the window of our Baker Street lodgings, lights dimmed as I watched the silent street, the same thoughts circled in my mind. So much had changed in the days since that first telegram summoning me to Lyons. Our lives had changed, individually and together.

And I had been forced to kill a man to protect my friend. Alec Cunningham was dead and his spirit was banished, as much as it could be while the marks of his hands still remained. Eventually, those, too, would fade away.

But the thought that had troubled me before loomed up again as I watched the empty, moonlit street below our sitting room window. I wasn’t Alec Cunningham. It was ludicrous to think that I might ever do what he had done. But when the last lingering evidences of his brutality were gone, what could I offer Holmes as replacement for that set of sensations?

If it was a question of his desire – his need – what was I capable of? What was I willing to do to please him? After days and nights of wondering, I was no nearer the answer.

At last my thoughts were broken by the clatter of hooves and a dark hansom drew up outside the door. Holmes climbed out, his movements slow and stiff. I was reminded again he had never fully recovered from his exertions in France.

Even his iron constitution couldn’t stand much more remorseless strain and whatever new toll would be exacted by this present case. For it must be a case, I knew, that had pried him away so suddenly and with such obvious alarm.

For what seemed the hundredth time, I took out the small pasteboard card that had fluttered to the floor when Holmes clutched the envelope from Lyons in his hand. There was no clue in the name, Charles Augustus Milverton. It was wholly unknown to me and browsing through the various directories Holmes kept about the sitting room had turned up no more information than an address at Appledore Towers, Hampstead.

It stretched credulity to imagine there was coincidence in the letter’s return address. I thought over what possible reason the man from Appledore Towers would have to contact my friend.

Holmes had told me he’d been in Lyons less than two days before I arrived. I knew he’d seen no one, but his friend – as I continued to think of him in absence of any other term that didn’t cause my hackles to rise unreasonably – Jean-Marc in that time. He’d taken himself to the Hotel Dulong to, I presumed, avoid the deluge of telegrams and visits from well wishers eager to congratulate him on the conclusion of the Maupertuis case.

By his own admission, Holmes had reason to doubt Jean-Marc’s discretion. He had told me the hotelier could be relied on for silence if sufficiently recompensed for it. For entirely baseless reasons, I had my own doubts of both men’s integrity. Moreover, I knew I’d been less than discreet myself as I’d ventured out for food and supplies.

There were many reasons, known and unknown to me I was sure, to think Holmes and his actions had not gone entirely unobserved. Was that somehow related, I wondered, to his bolting from our rooms on the instant of seeing Milverton’s name beside that address?

Holmes had told me time and again it was a mistake to theorize without facts. But I was not a detective. I was his friend and lover and, whether he would approve of it or not, I couldn’t isolate those ideas in my mind. With no reason other than wild imaginings, the certainty settled with an icy weight in the pit of my stomach. Milverton, whoever he might be, believed he held some power over my friend. And Holmes must believe it, too.

The cab rattled away and I heard the lock downstairs and heavy steps on the stairs. The door opened and I watched as Holmes entered.

He didn’t appear surprised to see me. No doubt, I considered, he’d seen me in the window as the cab drove up. I waited as he dropped his hat to the table by the neglected bowl of oranges and shrugged out of his coat. The simple motion took longer than it should have.

At that instant I resolved, if nothing else, I could make sure he didn’t venture out again without me and the best way to do that was to make myself a part of this case, whether he wished it or no.

“Watson,” he said at last as he moved to the settee. “If it will wait until morning–”

“Maybe it will,” I interrupted evenly. “But as I imagine you’re going to sit up the rest of the night smoking and staring into space, we may as well discuss it now.”

I was gratified to see a small smile grace his lips as he shifted the cushions and reclined against the arm of the couch. It was balanced by the uncomfortable knowledge that if he was allowing me to see he was as wrung out as his pallor and drawn features conveyed, he must be truly near the end of his endurance.

He didn’t answer, but indicated with a wave of his hand I should proceed.

I moved to stand with my back to the cold hearth. “First, I want to know how we’re going to stop Charles Augustus Milverton.”

Holmes’s wide, staring eyes met mine. His voice a cracked whisper, he rasped out, “No. He didn’t come here. Not yet. He–”

And with no more warning than that, his words broke off, his eyes shuttered and he pitched forward, tumbling toward the floor.

.
-«oOo»-
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Chapter Two
Tea and Sympathy

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If I hadn’t been standing so near, I couldn’t have caught him. If I had stopped to think what I was doing I mightn’t have kept him from hitting the floor.

Instead I launched myself forward and grabbed him by the shoulders. The effect was instantaneous. His head shot up and he gasped out, “No. I won’t–” The next instant his eyes focused on mine and he caught his breath.

“Watson.” His voice was a rough gasp. His gaze flicked across the walls as if he was unsure of his surroundings.

A wave of cold fear washed over me. My instincts cried out to release him, but I lowered him as quickly and carefully as I could to the floor, bracing his back against the settee before I’d let myself release my hold.

I knelt on the floor before him, glancing quickly over the exposed skin at throat and wrists even as I felt for the pulse at his throat. He twitched away from my touch, but I felt immediate relief at his next words.

“Don’t fuss,” he snapped, batting my hand away. “I require tea. That’s all.”

“I’m sure you’ll understand if I don’t take your word for that,” I said, matching his tone. “Sit. Now,” I ordered in the next breath as he reached back for the edge of the couch, apparently planning to push up from the floor. He gave me a strange look as he sank back again, but I was too preoccupied to devote any attention to interpreting it.

I felt again to gauge his pulse. It was rapid, but strong. His skin was cool and damp, but not worryingly so. A quick glance satisfied me he had no new injuries immediately visible.

At last I met his eyes. He regarded me steadily. I could see an internal battle in the stillness of his face and the set of his eyes.

“Let me up,” he said quietly. “And I will answer your questions. Then you will answer mine. But first, tea.” He must have seen reluctance in my face because he added, “Please.”

I studied him for a long moment. His gaze didn’t waver. At last I exhaled a sigh and moved my hands to his waist to guide him up onto the couch. His eyes narrowed, but he allowed it.

As he sat, he brushed a hand through his disheveled hair and I observed a slight tremor. I resisted the urge to grip him behind the knees and force him to lie back. Instead I rose to my feet.

“All right,” I said. “I will be back in a moment. But I will hold you to your promise of an explanation.” I fished the calling card from my pocket and held it out to him. “You may wish to start with this. It fell out of the envelope from Lyons.” He was still staring at the card when let myself out into the hall.

Making my way downstairs, I moved as quietly as I could across the lower landing to Mrs. Hudson’s kitchen at the back of the house.

It was part of our unspoken compact with our landlady we would respect our separate domains. Still over the years we had found needs must demanded those boundaries be broached. On reflection, it occurred to me each occasion had been in some way for the sake of Holmes. Lost in these thoughts, I retrieved the kettle from its place by the stove. I failed to hear the light tread on the linoleum behind me and almost dropped the kettle at the sound of Mrs. Hudson’s soft voice.

“Did you convince him to eat something, Doctor?”

I turned quickly to find her regarding me from the doorway, snugging the cord of a heavy quilted dressing gown close across her waist. “Mrs. Hudson, I hope I didn’t wake you,” I said even as I noticed her honey brown eyes were unclouded by sleep.

She shook her head, loosening a few strands of gray hair from the loose plait twisted into a twirl of a chignon. “Not a bit of it. At my time of life a merciful Providence sees to it you get a few more minutes of wakefulness each day. I judge it a fair trade. I heard Mr. Holmes come in,” she said, moving to take the empty kettle from my hand. “I think there’s a bit of beef pie left from supper if you’d care to check the ice box.”

I shook my head resignedly when I saw more than half the pie remained. Turning, I slid the chilled plate onto the worn wooden block table at the center of the room. “Mrs. Hudson, I dare say you little suspected what you were letting yourself in for the day you opened your door to us.”

I heard the smile in her voice as the kettle rattled on the stovetop. “It keeps me young, Doctor.” A small dessert plate and fork slid onto the table at my elbow. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I doubt that’s entirely true,” I said, matching her smile. “Indoor target practice is hardly conducive to steady nerves.”

She appeared at my shoulder with a slice of golden cheese on a serving knife. She slipped it onto the plate as I used the fork to cut off a wedge of pie.

“Just a small slice, now,” she said. “We don’t want to give him cause to dig in his heels, do we?”

“No, we do not.” I was surprised to hear the fervor in my own voice.

As she leant to retrieve the pie plate I inhaled the soft scent of rose water. I knew I would always associate that fragrance with her gentle smile. On sudden impulse I bent and touched a kiss to her temple.

She looked up at me, her eyes shining. Her skin was cool against mine as she patted my hand. “You do your best, Doctor. No one could ask more. He’s lucky to have you to look after him.”

I could find no reply to her remark, so sharply did it differ from my thoughts of earlier in the evening.

She studied my face for a long moment. “Doctor, I want you to promise, now, you won’t ever be afraid to call on me. I wasn’t born below stairs at a rooming house, you know.”

All I could manage through the catch in my throat was a quiet, “Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. I promise.”

She patted my hand again and turned back to the stove just as the kettle gave a whistling burst of steam. We were silent as she filled the pot and arrayed the usual assortment china, fresh milk and honey on a tray. She took the dessert plate from my hand and balanced it carefully on the edge.

“Can you manage this all right, Doctor?”

“I can,” I said, taking the tray from her hands. “Thank you. Do get some sleep, now. We’ll likely have an early morning tomorrow.” With quiet good-nights on either side, I made my way carefully back up the stairs with my burden.

When I pushed the door open, balancing the laden tray on my forearm, I felt a frisson of surprise at finding Holmes had made an effort to appear to follow my instructions. He was seated at the edge of the settee, to all appearances exactly as I had left him. I would have been entirely taken in had I not heard the distinct scuff of shoes on the floorboards as I reached the landing.

There was a rebellious set to his jaw as his gaze fell on the tray in my hands. “Watson, when I said ‘tea’ I meant the beverage, not the meal, as you well know. I cannot afford to dull my faculties. I will eat again on Friday. Until then–”

“Enough!” I snapped. He blinked up at me as I hooked the Moroccan side table with the toe of my boot and tugged it forward. I did not fail to notice he made no move to help.

“Holmes, this conviction of yours that starvation sharpens your faculties–” He draw breath to argue and I cut across his words. “May be true to a limited degree. But your faculties are hardly much use when you’re unconscious on the floor. I’m sorry to be blunt, but there it is. You will admit this is not the first time it’s happened.” I deposited the tea tray on the table with no attempt to prevent the resultant clatter.

His eyes narrowed. “I thought you understood that was a performance.”

“I’m not talking about that display you put on for Cunningham,” I rapped out impatiently. “I admit at the time I was so concerned for your sanity you had me fooled for an instant, but I’ve seen you faint. Several times. It looks nothing like that, I assure you.” I sloshed some tea into a cup and thrust it at him. “The honey is on the tray. You may help yourself.”

I retrieved the plate and its burden of beef pie that now appeared vanishingly small. Apparently observing, correctly, I was fully prepared to drop it in his lap, Holmes moved quickly to take it from my hand.

“And I will not be mollified by a pretended interest in my views,” I went on. “I blame myself for allowing you to live on soup and tea for the last several weeks. It’s got to stop. I find that I do still have some scruples as a physician.” Seeing he only stared blankly up at me, I snapped, “Holmes, for the love of heaven, eat something.”

To my unreasonably large swell of relief, he bent to place the tea saucer on the floor by his feet, raised the fork and cut a small piece from the corner of the pie. I watched him in stony silence, arms firmly crossed on my chest as he took a small bite and chewed.

We sat and stood thus until all that remained was the sliver of cheese. I watched him gauge my resolve. When my gaze didn’t waver he retrieved it and, with great deliberation, downed that, too.

At last he exchanged the empty plate for the teacup at his feet. He pulled a face at what was, by then, certainly a very cold cup of tea, but I couldn’t bring myself to muster any sympathy. When he bent forward to replenish his cup and stir in a small quantity of milk and honey a few minutes later, I relaxed my posture at last.

“Perhaps,” I said. “You had best tell your side of events first. It may give some context to the little I have worked out for myself.”

He met my eyes, his gaze as blank as I had ever seen it. “You’ve never heard of Charles Augustus Milverton before tonight.”

I shook my head. “Never.”

He took another sip of tea. His voice was somber when next he spoke.

“Imagine if you can, a man so abominable he is as feared in Whitehall as in Whitechapel. A man who can destroy a life with a word. Who does it not for the sake of greed, for a man like that can be managed, but because he believes it is the decent thing to do. Charles Augustus Milverton will drive a man to self-destruction and his family to penury with a smile on his face because he believes he is enacting the will of a just Providence on Earth. He is a sadistic madman who believes himself a saint. And I have, at long last, the means to end his self-appointed crusade. Do you understand why I will gladly forfeit my strength to this cause and why I cannot let even you dissuade me from it?”

I considered this startling narrative for a long moment. “Tell me the rest of the story,” I said quietly, “And I may.”

As he exhaled a long breath, his gaze drifted to the cold hearth. “As crusades so often do, it started with a grudge. Milverton had some petty grievance against a neighbor. Somehow information fell into his hands. Information he could hold over this man. Anyone would know information has a monetary value. Milverton’s inspiration was the discovery that information is power. The power to force a man to give up his home and business and quit London. From such humble beginnings an empire is born.

“Today he has a vast network of informants, almost to a man beholden to him for the fact that they have not yet been cast into the pit. It needn’t be a criminal offense to attract his attention. Burglary, embezzlement, breach of promise, or youthful indiscretion. It’s all the same to him. Sin is sin in his absolute world. All that he requires is that it be documented. But what makes Milverton unique among dealers in secrets is he doesn’t ask for payment in exchange for his silence. Blackmailers are subject to law. Influence peddlers…” His lips quirked in a humorless smile. “Well, someone must write the laws, mustn’t they? Milverton flourishes in that gray area between the lawless and the lawmakers. He’s protected from above and below. He has to be. If he walked the street unguarded his life wouldn’t be worth a farthing. So he’s styled himself after the pit viper. He only emerges for the kill and only when he considers it worthy of his personal attention.”

He looked up and met my eyes. “I take it he did not actually cross our threshold.”

When I shook my head, he went on. “Small mercies, Watson. But a short reprieve, I think. He’s not unaware of my interest in him. I suspect he has quite a stockpile of information at the ready when he decides the time is ripe.”

My voice was strained as I managed, “So the letter from Lyons-”

His smile was genuine this time. “No, it seems I was too hasty to doubt Jean-Marc. The letter was from him. It seems one of Milverton’s agents has been nosing around and he thought it was something I should like to know. The dear boy is not an experienced letter writer. The words were sweetly out of keeping with the message.”

“It’s unfortunate I wasn’t here to receive it. That cost me several days preparation. I blame myself for making him wary of the telegraph service. If he’d sent a wire it would have reached me at Willow Bend.” His gaze drifted again to the hearth. “But there’s nothing for it now. Milverton’s ready to strike. It may be a matter of days or hours.” His voice dropped to a low murmur. “I must be in a position to refuse…”

His words trailed off and a sudden apprehension twisted like a knot in my chest. I cleared my throat and his eyes focused on mine.

“Holmes, if Milverton doesn’t want money from you,” I said evenly. “What, precisely, is his interest?”

He blinked up at me then, to my astonishment, he shook his head and gave a soft laugh. “Oh, bless you, Watson, if only it were that simple. No one has ever been able to catch him at his own game. Those unwise enough to attempt it learned to their cost his probity doesn’t bend in that direction. He lives in mortal fear of being hoist on his petard.”

“I mentioned his network,” he went on. “He considers his informants foot soldiers and I dare say their loyalty is more secure than men who are held only by money. They provide him all the documentation he could ever require and more. I imagine he’s decided it’s time at last to add me to his lists. If he could force me to put my faculties and resources at his disposal… well, I don’t think I flatter myself in thinking he’d view it as a coup de maitre.”

His voice hardened. “What he doesn’t know is I’ve a snare in my hand. If only I can lure the viper to emerge far enough to put his neck in it I may be able to end Milverton’s one man Inquisition. I’ve been gauging my support in a few quarters, trying to convince Whitehall to link arms with Whitechapel.”

“You’ve managed to get the authorities involved?”

“One authority. A not inconsiderable one. My brother Mycroft.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his hands across his eyes. “I suppose that’s where I expended the last of my reserves.”

I frowned. “But if your brother is aware of Milverton, he must have been easy to convince. He could hardly leave you in such a precarious position.”

His lips quirked in a smile. “Mycroft much prefers blissful ignorance where my personal life is concerned. It’s an arrangement that’s stood the test of time and suits us both admirably. Neither of us was pleased to have it come to an end. But he eventually granted me permission to use a certain illustrious name as entrée. A man who has already fallen into Milverton’s clutches. I’m to act as envoy for this personage. That is how I’ll get close enough to set my snare. But I must act immediately or lose that small advantage. I have managed to secure an audience with my quarry tomorrow.” He exhaled a heavy sigh. “And so unless you have something to add to the narrative…”

At his questioning look, I shook my head. “Nothing that wasn’t readily available in your reference library. That is to say, nothing at all.”

“Well, then.” He deposited his empty cup on the floor by his plate. “As you might imagine, I have plans to make. So-”

“I beg your pardon,” I said evenly. “I think you mean ‘we’ have plans to make. You’re not going anywhere without me.”

He studied my eyes for a long moment before he said, “Watson, I can say unequivocally Milverton hasn’t a scrap of interest in you. Despite a long association with me, you’ve managed to live a sterling life. Don’t imagine for a moment I’ll let you jeopardize that.”

“I don’t really see how it’s your decision to make,” I said, matching his gaze. “Like it or not, our fortunes are linked. I remind you I have Milverton’s address and I’ll not stand on ceremony and wait an invitation. I give you my word of honor I will take a cab straight to his door.”

He studied my face and must have read the resolve there for, to my relief, he nodded. “All right. But you must let me have my way tonight. As you can see,” he waved at the empty plate and saucer, “I have consumed a quantity of tea. As you might imagine sleep is the farthest thing from my mind. For tonight I think you can consider your duty discharged. Get some rest, old boy. We’ve a trying day ahead of us tomorrow and I can’t pretend I won’t be glad to have your strong right arm at my side.”

“You’ll have it,” I said as I pushed away from the hearth. “There’s just one more thing before I retire.”

He looked up at me curiously as I moved toward the settee. I gazed down at his upturned face. Before he could draw breath, I bent, tilted his chin up with my fingertips and captured his lips in a kiss.

I felt his hands steal to my waist as I brushed my fingers across his jaw and cupped his cheek in my palm. He relaxed into my touch and I deepened the kiss. When at last I leant away, his eyes were shining.

“I’ve been looking forward to that for some time,” I murmured as I brushed my thumb across his cheek to his lips.

He inclined his head in evident confusion.

“To kiss you in Baker Street, my own.”

I touched another light kiss to his brow before I moved away and turned toward the door. I left him there, perched at the edge of the settee, a curious smile lighting his eyes.

In the cool darkness of my bed that night, Holmes visited my dreams. His fair skin, clothed only in moonlight, had the translucent purity of Parian marble.

We stood in a glade among spreading trees that formed a black ring against the sky. Holmes walked toward me across grass that should have been silver gray; instead it was a vivid sulfur green.

He stood before me and as I felt his hands steal to my waist I realized I was still fully clothed. He pressed forward, his long shape molding to mine.

My touch traveled down the supple arc of his spine to his hips. I felt each curve of his firm, lean muscled flesh under my hands. As I traced the tops of his thighs, he shivered. His hands moved to my back, pulling me closer and he buried his face in the crook of my neck.

I gazed down the length of his body, so pale against the green grass. Out of nowhere, a thought arced through my mind. I wondered what color blood would be in the moonlight. Would it be gray-black as it should or a brilliant cadmium red?

Even as the thought welled up in my mind, Holmes jerked back out of my grasp. His eyes were wide. I took a step back and the next instant he was on his knees. I hadn’t even seen him drop.

He fell forward, braced on one hand, the other clutched tight across his stomach. With a start of surprise that stung like a hard slap, I recognized the pose. It was just as he’d looked crouched on the floor of the stable at Cunningham’s feet.

His skin was no longer as pure white as marble. Every inch seemed to be marked by a raised welt or mottled bruise.

Holmes lifted his head and stared at me, wide-eyed. Blood ran down his cheek from the cut on his brow. It spattered the grass with vermillion. His voice was thick as he gasped out, “No. John, don’t go. He’s coming back.”

My mouth moved to form the words “I’m sorry,” but no sound emerged. I gave a violent shake of my head and my eyes opened.

The room was shades of slate and charcoal gray. I pushed back the damp covers and stared up at the featureless ceiling. I fell back to sleep a little before dawn. I didn’t dream again.

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Three
The Devil and the Details

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The shreds of the previous night’s dream clung to my mind as I dressed. There was no literal meaning to it. There couldn’t be, I knew. Cunningham had died at my hand. It was a fact I had yet to fully reconcile myself to, but it was a fact nonetheless. But it cast a hard light on a fear that had lurked for days at the edge of my mind. I knew it was a worry I couldn’t afford to ignore forever.

I had no reason to think Holmes and I would cease to be lovers, yet I was old enough to know the end of an affair is often abrupt and final. What if Holmes then sought to fulfill his desires elsewhere? Could I stand to see him come home bruised and battered, perhaps needing my care? My first impulse would be to lock him away, to keep him safe from harm. The idea was patently ludicrous. Holmes followed his own mind and always would.

It brought me back again to the question at the heart of it all. Neither of us wanted the other to change. What then was the middle ground? How far was I willing to bend to give him what he craved? And what if I caused him an injury, even accidentally? Could I wound then heal only to wound again? Could I live with myself if I did?

It was a relief when I heard a step on the landing below. Torn at last from my spiraling thoughts, I completed my toilet and emerged from my room just as Mrs. Hudson was closing the door to our sitting room behind her.

As I made my way down the stairs she looked up at me, a smile lighting her eyes. From experience of Holmes’s keen hearing, she didn’t remark other than to say “Good morning, Doctor,” but there was a world of surprised delight in her voice.

I found myself grinning in return, heartened beyond measure at the prospect of finding the source of her pleasure and by the pat she gave my arm before she turned and descended the stairs with the light step of a woman half her years.

Pushing open the door it took only an instant to discover the cause. Holmes was seated at the small breakfast table before the window, munching thoughtfully on a piece of buttered toast and, moreover, I observed with wonder, sitting behind a plate of eggs and bacon that had, to all evidences, been partially consumed.

He looked up as I pushed open the door and gave me a bright smile. “Ah! At last. I’d begun to think your late night vigil would rob me of your company this morning. Sit down. We have much to do. These eggs are marvelous by the way. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Now. To our battle plan for the day.” He did not wait for me to serve myself before he launched into his instructions.

I strove to concentrate on his words as he described his plan to venture out to make a few discreet enquiries, this time among the merchant class. I found myself easily distracted by the light in his eyes and fervor in his voice, two things made even more striking by the realization they’d been notable by their absence for some time.

I would have liked to claim credit for his animation, but I knew it was the thrill of the hunt that fired his blood. Whatever the source, it was heartening to know the flush of high color that graced his cheeks was excitement and not fever.

My enjoyment of the sight took a blow when he suggested I not hold lunch as he was unlikely to return by that time. He must have seen the suspicion in my face for he gave a quiet laugh.

“Don’t worry. I shan’t go hungry. We will be taking tea out this afternoon.” When I raised my eyebrows he went on, “Oh, didn’t I mention? We’ll be having our afternoon meal with the man himself. What does one wear to dine with Heaven’s emissary to London? Perhaps gray silk will fit the bill.”

With another admonition to husband my strength for the demands of the day, he pushed back from the table and went to his room to dress. A scant five minutes later he reemerged and stepped briskly back to the table. To my delight, he retrieved his napkin, folded it around a large slice of bread then dropped it into his jacket pocket.

On observing my smile, he returned it in full. Then he did something that quite surpassed my capacity for surprise. He stepped to the side of my chair, bent and touched a soft kiss to my parted lips. As he leant away he gave a low laugh.

“Don’t look so startled, dear boy. I’m only evening the score. I trust we’ll soon have need to give up counting.” He grinned. “Not least because there are a great many places I have yet to kiss you and ‘in Baker Street’ shall prove useful only as a broad category.”

And with that Holmes crossed the room, retrieved his hat and stick and without a backward glance was out the door. I resisted the urge to step to the window and watch him down the street like a mooning schoolboy. Instead I satisfied myself by staring absently at the closed door and allowed myself the luxury of imagining our current adventure might come to a speedy and successful conclusion, leaving us free to explore the promise in his parting words.

.o0o.
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Holmes returned at noon, if anything more animated than he’d been that morning. After a quick admonition to change “and don’t dawdle about it, we mustn’t keep our host waiting,” he disappeared into his room.

When I descended the stairs a few minutes later it was to find him pacing on the landing. “Step lively, old man. The cab should be waiting at the curb.”

The instant we were seated the cabman flicked his quirt and we were off to the accompaniment of clattering hooves and the jingle of harness bells.

There was a further surprise to come when I discovered there’d be no need to press Holmes to conversation, although it wasn’t the one I expected. Staring straight ahead in the seat beside me he cleared his throat.

“It looks very dissimilar, you say?”

It took me several seconds to understand his question referred to our conversation the night before. I stifled my smile. “I’m afraid it does.”

He gave a delicate sniff. “Well, I could hardly expect you to appreciate the stagecraft involved. One does sometimes have to sacrifice verisimilitude for the sake of portraying intention. An untutored observer does expect to see certain features.”

“And it isn’t the kind of thing you might study in the mirror,” I offered.

He went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “I can’t recall who I based it on now. It may have been– Yes, he was a much heavier man. Hum. Perhaps if I had you demonstrate…”

“I’d be glad to,” I said equably. “Or we could strew a few cushions about and I could provide critique.”

He shot a look at me from the corner of his eye. “I suspect you of not taking this seriously. I remind you it is a useful weapon in my arsenal.”

“Then I will forbear to point out a great many young ladies might say the same.”

His eyes narrowed. “Thank you,” he said evenly. “Your forbearance is duly noted.”

He sat glowering at the horses for several streets and I had begun to wonder if I’d be required to force the conversation after all when he gave himself a small shake, and said, “We’ll be at our destination in a very few minutes. I need to prepare you for your part. I’ve never been inside Milverton’s lair, of course. But I’ve spent a great deal of time observing it from various vantage points. Not unsurprisingly it’s separated from his neighbors and the street by a wide margin. It’s notable for its pretensions of grandeur as many of these newer manors are.”

“I had meant to ask about that,” I said. “A man can’t live on influence.”

“He’s as rich as Croesus,” Holmes answered. “But he only accepts bounty in the form of so-called ‘gifts’ from grateful clients.”

“But if he never leaves his home, what does he do with it all? Surely not found orphanages.”

Holmes’s lips twisted in a wry smile. “He spends some on pure ostentation. On the rare occasions he deigns to move among lesser creatures he does so in a coach and pair with liveried footmen fore and aft. Most of his riches he hides away. His conviction of the sinful nature of his fellow men extends easily to the banking profession. His home is quite secure. That’s one reason I sought this interview. And I am curious about one other thing. I understand he has an interesting hobby. It may be a fine demonstration of the divine sense of humor or simply a case of like attracts like but Milverton fancies himself an amateur herpetologist. His collection is said to be extraordinary.”

“In kind or number?” I asked with a wary curiosity.

Holmes pursed his lips. “That is a very good question. From what I understand it is small, but select. He doesn’t go in for your run of the mill slow-worm. Nothing so prosaic will suit his tastes. Milverton’s collection comprises every variety of venomous serpent known to man. And some his procurers have discovered for the first time.”

I stared. “What on Earth does he do with such a collection? If he added murder to his crimes there’d be cause to effect his arrest.”

“Quite right. As far as it goes,” Holmes answered grimly.

I felt a welling of cold horror. “Holmes, you can’t mean…”

“Nothing’s been proved, you understand. As I said, he’s wretchedly scrupulous in maintaining his façade of propriety. Still there are rumors. It may only be the sort of legends that accrue around men who inspire fear. They’ve suggested the same of a good many bishops over the years.”

He glanced out at the street. “Almost there now. What I need you to do is to observe everything. Look for a safe. One large enough to hold his storehouse of information. But the slightest detail may prove useful. Mark the locations of furniture. Don’t neglect tables, chairs and the like. And take careful note of entries and exits.”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Do I want to know why you need a detailed floor plan?”

His lips twitched in a humorless smile. “I don’t believe you do, no. Here we are. We’ll have to walk from here. He doesn’t allow carriages within sight of the door.”

I paid the driver and within moments we were making our way down a long drive. As we walked, I saw my companion’s glance dart over the landscape of trees and grounds.

By the time we reached the door his face was set in the impassive mask I’d come to associate with the wary hunter on the scent. He rang the bell and turned to me, I assumed to impart a final warning. Instead, he only flashed a tight smile.

There was a step inside the door and a moment later we were in the presence of the most imposing majordomo I had ever seen. Judging by the state of his ears and his flattened nose, he knew the boxing ring more intimately than the butlers’ pantry.

I forced myself to give the man only a passing glance as he took our hats and sticks. Instead I focused my attention on the surroundings as instructed. The hallway was remarkable only in that it was entirely featureless save for a door on either side and a stairway at the end. The hulking butler ushered us through the left hand door and into a very different world.

It was a long, rectangular room. That much was clear. But the lights were so dim it could only be by design. There was a single electric lamp burning. Its glow was directly squarely at the door.

Holmes had long before taught me the tactic of observing the interviewee before you yourself could be observed so I was not surprised by it. I shifted my gaze quickly from the glare and waited for the afterimage to clear from my vision. As it did a rounded shape solidified from the surrounding darkness.

Milverton sat behind a desk in the farther corner of the room. Even as I picked out his outline, he rose and came forward, his hand extended. He was within a few paces before I could make out his features.

He was one of those men whose plump, hairless face makes him appear much younger than his actual years, but the lines around the glittering gray eyes that peered from behind his almost comically large spectacles marked him as a man looking back on the midpoint of his life.

He was smiling broadly, but it was a smile that didn’t waver. It was plain he wore it as another man might wear a cravat. A snapshot of him might put one in mind of the guileless benevolence of Mr. Pickwick. In life, the effect was quite different.

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” he said. The voice was soft and buttery and as calculated as the smile. “And this must be celebrated author, your friend and constant companion Dr. John Watson. What a pleasure to meet you both at last. Quite a pleasure. Charles Augustus Milverton at your service.”

I murmured some rote pleasantry and touched the outstretched hand. It was as chilly and as smooth as glass.

Holmes appeared not to notice the hand Milverton extended in his direction and I saw the little man’s eyes widen in a mockery of disappointed surprise.

Holmes was brisk and businesslike. “Mr. Milverton. I hope we won’t impose on your time any more than is required.”

“Oh, don’t worry yourself on that score, Mr. Holmes,” our host returned, his equanimity apparently fully restored. “I always have time for my friends. I promised you tea, I think, and it’s so much nicer in the conservatory than in this stuffy office. Much nicer. Please. Come through.”

He ushered us before him toward a door set close to the desk, contriving to turn us toward the glare of the electric bulb again as he did so. I strained to get some sense of the space around me, concentrating on the periphery of my vision beyond the floating blue glow that obscured all.

Holmes, no doubt having trained himself to circumvent the tactics he employed, seemed entirely unaffected. He stopped so suddenly I nearly collided with him as he gazed up at a heroically scaled painting behind the desk.

“Delacroix, isn’t it?” he said blandly. “Of the period of his Crusaders in Constantinople, but not listed in his catalog unless I’m much mistaken.”

“You have a good eye, Mr. Holmes,” Milverton replied genially. “It is indeed Delacroix. The gift of a friend for whom, I’m pleased to say, I was able to render some small service. It is more blessed to give than to receive, of course, but one must allow others to give if they’re to know the full measure of benefit from it, mustn’t one? Do you also appreciate Delacroix, Doctor?”

I had been trying to make out the dimensions of a large frame cabinet against the wall near to the desk. I looked round with an approximation of bland interest casting a quick glance over the painting.

“Very fine,” I allowed. “Though I prefer his Liberty Leading the People.”

“Do you?” Milverton said. “I’ve always thought that work a bit vulgar, but tastes do differ. Tastes do differ. Right this way, gentlemen.”

I had only time to dart a quick glance about the rest of the room and observe a fireplace at the opposite end hard by a curtain that might mask another interior door before he tugged open the door that was our destination and my eyes were again dazzled.

The warm, thick air of the conservatory seemed to magnify the sunlight streaming in through the walls and ceiling. The effect gave one a marked sympathy for an ant under a magnifying glass.

The light was mercifully filtered by the cascading bromeliads and creepers that brushed our faces as we made our way to the table at the center of the room, but their heavy, choking fragrance freighted the air so it felt an effort to draw a deep breath.

I tried to take in the features of the rectangular room as Milverton waved us through. A double door opened onto the lawn visible as a sliver of green beyond. On the opposite wall, near to the door we’d entered by, a second door led back into the house, apparently to a room adjoining the study.

The thick growth of greenery made it difficult to gauge the conservatory’s dimensions and the task was made still more difficult by the hulking glass and mahogany display cabinets ranged along every wall.

Within each at least one, and often two or three, serpents lay baking on flat rocks or draped along dry branches or undulated over smooth river stones. In several of the cases black crickets bounded hopelessly against the glass walls while a snake watched unblinking from nearby, evidently choosing the most succulent as a farm wife might choose a chicken destined for the stew pot.

“It is such a treat to be able to share my little hobby with visitors,” Milverton burbled as he gestured us to seats at the white enameled table. “You know what the Good Book says, ‘commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.’ I have always found it be so. What you see here is the proof. It is an extraordinary collection. The finest set of venomous reptiles in this part of the world, I’m told. I did have several non-lethal specimens at the start, but the true connoisseur must specialize mustn’t he? I’m afraid they all went the way of that little fellow.”

Milverton nodded his head toward a display case beside the second interior door. In it a yellow-green snake unfurled from a crevice under an outcrop of black stone. It was unusually thick-bodied for serpent of its size. As it moved it seemed to swell to fill more and more of the case. Its motion was directed toward a white stone at the center of the sandy floor of its cage.

The stone expanded and contracted and I realized on a sudden it was a small white creature lying perfectly still apart from an irregular, deep respiration. I almost started when Milverton spoke in the sudden stillness.

“The palm viper,” he said in the warm tones of a parent observing a promising child. “Gorgeous, isn’t he? I’ve always been fond of him. Very fond. I gave him a special treat this afternoon. A young hare. I raise them, you know. As protein. Mainly as protein. That one is stunned, of course. Ever so slightly sedated. Just enough to keep him immobile. It wouldn’t do for him to injure the snake in his struggles. Ah, you see. Easy prey. Not much of a challenge. Still wonderful to watch. Such economy of motion.”

I could barely restrain a shudder as the snake opened its jaws impossibly wide and seized its meal. The young rabbit gave a convulsive jerk as with two heaving swallows the snake seemed to inhale the tiny body. In an instant it was gone, visible only as a swelling mass behind the iridescent green head. I shot a look at my friend and immediately forgot the reptile.

Holmes sat perfectly motionless, his wide-eyed gaze locked on the case. He seemed not to be breathing at all and it was all I could do to keep from reaching out to him. As it was, my thoughts flicked rapidly through possible reactions should he slump from his chair. At last he inhaled a single convulsive breath and tore his gaze away from the tank.

The intensity of his reaction had not escaped Milverton’s notice. He peered at my companion with interest before offering genially, “So wonderful that the Creator gave us these beautiful creatures to remind us of the allure of sin, isn’t it? It is quite gratifying, to know the feeling of mastery over such a seemingly indomitable force. It’s not for everyone, of course. It takes a special personality to appreciate the sensation.” He flashed a smile that showed a glimpse of even white teeth “Ah, but I’m afraid I’m imposing on your patience. I must learn to restrain myself from these little diversions. It is a weakness of mine. I really should learn to control it. I’ve never had that sort of discipline. But one must submit to the demands of time, mustn’t one? So to our mutual friend. Oh, do help yourselves. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”

He leant toward the tea trolley parked beside the table. It bore several platters piled high with cream and cress sandwiches and sugar-encrusted sweets. He plucked several sandwiches from the top of the pyramid.

“Do you know, Mr. Holmes, I was glad to hear you were acting as agent for our friend in this matter. Very glad. I have been eager to make your acquaintance for some time. It had occurred to me an alliance between us might be very advantageous. I know you are greatly concerned with the cause of Earthly justice. My own calling is the Kingdom beyond. Together, we might do great things. Great things. I hope we have an opportunity to discuss the possibility, but I wouldn’t want to impose on your time. Wouldn’t dream of imposing. Tea?”

Milverton reached for the silver urn at the center of the table and turned the spout toward Holmes. My friend gave no sign of having noticed and continued to gaze impassively at our host. Milverton gave a glinting smile and turned to me. I followed my friend’s example and sat immobile. At that Milverton seemed to take real interest in me for the first time.

His small gray eyes glittered behind his spectacles. His head inclined slightly to the side and he studied my face as if marking its lines for a portrait.

“I’m very glad you were able to join us today, Doctor,” he said thoughtfully. “After our meal I have something I’d like to show you. I have set up my own research laboratory here and I flatter myself in thinking it is quite up to date and well equipped. I’d be very interested in your professional opinion. Very interested.”

Holmes gave a small cough. “Perhaps we could restrict our conversation to the matter at hand. If we could return to the question of your demands.”

Milverton turned a wide-eyed gaze on my friend. “Demands! Oh dear, I hope I didn’t give the impression of making demands. Nothing could be further from my mind. No, I assure you, my only wish is to help our friend maintain his reputation, his well deserved reputation, for doing good works through charity. As the Word reminds us, charity shall cover the multitude of sins. It is sad to think of that proverb so literally embodied, is it not? Such a shame. More so when family members are affected. I think our friend has a new family, doesn’t he? It’s terrible when innocents must suffer by association. Still it is comforting to know his example may serve as a caution to others. The more people who understand their sins carry consequences, the more people who will act accordingly. Fewer sinners, fewer sins. It’s a natural law, if you will.”

He helped himself to several large spoonfuls of sugar and began to stir them into his tea. “Where I can provide a service is in encouraging a few such unfortunate souls to help me pass along that message. Seeing one sinner helping another to find the light… well, it’s very rewarding. Very rewarding. I feel certain our mutual friend would enjoy the chance to pass along the lesson he’s learned to few a acquaintances in similar straits.” He raised his eyes to my friend, cocking his head to the side. “Two or three, perhaps? Three is a number with a special attraction. Let us say three.”

“Am I given to understand,” Holmes said, his voice tight, “That you expect my client to offer up three other men to your attention?”

“Dear me, Mr. Holmes.” Milverton sat back in his chair and regarded my friend, eyes wide behind his spectacles. “Anyone would think you had no sympathy for men whose baser impulses have led them astray. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be so quick to turn your back on them. Not after the conversation I had with an old friend of yours this morning. I believe you’d remember his name. It sounds as if you two were quite familiar at one time. Almost inseparable. I think you had a falling out. He mentioned you didn’t get on with some of his associates. The estrangement must have left quite a scar.”

He flashed that narrow smile. “But you’ll be pleased to know he spoke very highly of you. He sat right where you’re sitting now and told me some fascinating stories about the time you spent together. They were sprightly. Very sprightly. I mightn’t have credited them had he not taken the trouble to document them so thoroughly. I really have no patience with rumors. I think my reputation speaks for itself on that score. One must always take great care with reputations. They are such fragile things. ‘He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled therewith.’ People are all too ready to take that proverb literally, aren’t they?”

He turned his gaze on me. “I’m sure you know what I mean, Doctor. Men in your profession often have such conservative ideas. I, myself, am a very broadminded man. I think of the words, ‘I will deal with them according to their conduct, and by their own standards I will judge them.’ But friends do have a way of leading one another astray, don’t they? Bad company ruins good morals, as they say.”

My friend’s voice was hard. “What is it you want, Mr. Milverton?”

Milverton looked back at him and gave a slow smile. “Ah, that is a broad question, Mr. Holmes. There is so much that I want. My greatest desire, at the moment, is to do the Lord’s work. I’m always looking for opportunities to expand my ministry, as you know. That’s why I’m so eager for us to join forces. The duties would not be onerous, I assure you. Not very different from the work you do now. And financial considerations needn’t be brought into the matter at all. You prefer to traffic in favors from what I understand. Very wise. Money has such a way of corrupting even the most straightforward of dealings.”

He inclined his head. “With you as my deputy in the field I might expand my mission to the Continent and… well, who knows? There are so many possibilities. In fact, if I could rely on your help,” Milverton’s eyes darted to me and back to my companion. “Both yours and the Doctor’s, each in your way, it would be such a boon to my work I might be convinced to divert attention from a few of my current endeavors. Ah, and speaking of that, this seems a propitious time to show you my newest project, Doctor. If everyone’s finished tea? Oh, my, there’s still so much left. Cook will be disappointed. Well, our intentions were good. Of course, you know what they say about those.”

Milverton pushed back his chair and stood, evidently waiting for us to do the same. Holmes placed his napkin on the table with great deliberation and rose. I followed his example and our host flashed another narrow smile. He turned toward the interior door and said, “Now, Doctor, If you’ll step right through here.”

I shot a look at Holmes, but if I was hoping for guidance, I didn’t receive it. As Milverton pushed open the door, my friend’s eyes were locked on the viper case.

“My laboratory,” Milverton said as he rotated a switch. A bank of electric lamps flickered to light overhead. “Wonderful isn’t it? I confess I’ve spent far too much on it. I count myself fortunate to have so many generous friends. They make my good work possible and I am sure the blessings multiply.”

He looked around with evident delight at the array of shining aluminum worktables and the chemical equipment that seemed to cover every surface. Beakers of fluid in various shades from milky white to acid yellow were interspersed with retorts and spirit lamps. Here and there a slow effervescence indicated an experiment in progress. My gaze fell on a shining steel table with a raised rim and drain as one might see in a dissecting lab.

“Ah, yes,” Milverton said moving to my side. “I thought you’d pick that out. Medical training does tell. Although you haven’t practiced for some time, have you? So many other preoccupations. I understand you’ve recently returned from the Continent yourself. Well, I like to think you’d find my work so compelling you’d prefer to stay close at hand. Right now I’m following a very promising line of experimentation. I mentioned the hares.”

He pointed to the back wall of the long room and I saw a bank of steel mesh cages. In each a number of rabbits sat listlessly staring out at the room or lay still against the back wall. “You see, I work quite a bit with venoms and toxins. I’m interested in more than the deleterious effects. I’ve always thought venom must also hold healing powers. As the Good Book says, ‘They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’ A very inspirational verse, I’ve always thought. I consider it a personal mission to explore its promise. My results have been mixed so far. I have sacrificed quite a few creatures on the altar of science. It is painful to me, personally. I am such a soft hearted man. So soft hearted. I had some dogs at one time. I was quite fond of them. Still one mustn’t let personal sentiment stand in the way of science. It is to the greater good. Of course, you see why I could use the assistance of a medical man.”

As I turned back toward the door, my fists clenched tight in my pockets, my gaze was momentarily arrested by the sight of a door set at the rear of the room. It appeared to be positioned precisely where I’d observed the curtain in Milverton’s study. The thought was so distracting I nearly missed his next words.

“Now, I have to ask you to indulge me one moment more before I let you go. This seems an ideal time to show you my little collection.” He ushered us back into the conservatory and closed the laboratory door behind us with a sharp click. “I must show off these specimens,”

He gestured us toward a tank a little removed from the rest. It was filled with murky green water. It took several seconds to discern the black shapes writhing in suspension behind the glass.

Milverton bent and studied them with evident fascination. “Beaked sea snakes. Enhydrina schistose. From South Asian waters. The most deadly snake now known to man. It’s almost impossible to obtain live specimens. They’re quite difficult to transport. Quite difficult. I had to call on a few friends to help me obtain them. But it was worth the effort as you can see. Beautiful aren’t they? Their undulations are so soothing. Almost hypnotic.” He cast a look over his shoulder at my companion. “I see you agree, Mr. Holmes.”

Holmes seemed entirely unaware of the comment. It was if his world had contracted to the dimensions of that dark tank. I saw his lips part as if he was making effort to draw breath and I stiffened, ready to reach out if he should fall, but he backed away a few steps. His heel collided with the next cabinet and he spun toward it.

“Careful,” Milverton snapped and I recognized the first sign of honest emotion he’d shown since we arrived. He took a quick step forward to peer into the case even as Holmes backed toward the center of the room. “Ah, he doesn’t seem to be disturbed.”

Indeed the serpent coiled on the flat rock at the center of the case was perfectly still. Its bright colors didn’t shift as Milverton stood and flicked the several small clamps that held the glass lid in place then raised it carefully and set it aside, balancing it against the wall.

“I admit I am a bit overprotective of this one,” he said. “He is rather special. Are you familiar with the coral snake? They’re indigenous to the Americas. Beautiful markings aren’t they? Such vivid colors. It’s another of the most deadly creatures in the Lord’s creation. Who would have thought something so lovely could be so lethal. Would you like a closer look?”

To my astonishment he stood up on his toes and reached down into the case. With the assurance of long practice, he gripped the creature behind the head and at the midpoint of its body and raised it out of the case in one fluid motion. He turned back toward us and with a twist of his wrist angled the near cylindrical head toward my friend. A slender tongue flicked out, tasting the air. Holmes went rigid.

Milverton seemed entirely oblivious, burbling on while the tail of the snake twined about his arm. “He’s quite docile when handled correctly. But then most beasts are, aren’t they? Perhaps you’d like to give it a try?”

He thrust the creature toward my friend. An instant before I could jump forward and interpose myself between them, Milverton inclined his head. “No? Well, I won’t insist on it… I won’t insist on it. Not every man has the inclination.” As he turned back to the case I resisted the urge to step to Holmes’s side.

“I suppose I’ve presumed enough on your patience today.” He replaced the glass lid and turned back to us. “I imagine you need time to consider my proposal. And our mutual friend, your client, if you prefer, his affairs have been hanging fire for far too long as it is. Shall we say…” He reached into the pocket of his jacket and retrieved a small brown leather memorandum book. “Oh, that’s right. Your old friend is coming back for a visit tomorrow evening.”

He glanced up. “Do you know, he did mention an interest in renewing your acquaintance, perhaps…” He shot a look at me and flashed that narrow smile. “But it can be socially awkward, can’t it? Introducing old friends and new. Perhaps it would be best if we avoid that eventuality.” He scanned the pages of his book. “Let us say, tea tomorrow? A day should be ample time to consider. More than ample.”

Holmes drew a breath. His voice was tight as he said, “I will require more time. My client will want to consider your request.”

Milverton frowned with a show of regret. “Oh, I do wish I could give you more time. Truly I do. But my work is so important. So very important. No, I think it must be tea tomorrow. So.” He withdrew pencil from the binding of the book and made a brief notation. “We’ll call it settled then.” He looked up and flashed his narrow smile. “I’ll look forward to good news.”

He extended his hand toward the study door and all but chivvied us through. As we passed back through the dim space he touched my elbow. It was only with supreme effort I didn’t draw away in disgust. He lowered his voice in a mockery of a whisper. “Doctor, you must use your influence with him. I dare say he’ll accept your guidance. As his intimate friend, you must find yourself in the position to take the reins from time to time. One must take a firm hand with these headstrong men, I’m sure. Take a hard line with him. I dare say he’ll thank you for it. Now, I’ll let you go for the time being. I’m sure you have much to discuss. Much to discuss.”

The hulking butler waited at the ready with our hats and sticks and within seconds we were back on the doorstep with Milverton’s hearty good-byes ringing in our ears.

We were quiet as we made our way back up the drive. For my part, I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to speak without letting loose such a foul string of oaths it would give some of our East End acquaintances pause.

We were nearing the street before Holmes volunteered in the tone he might have used to comment on the darkening sky or the freshening breeze. “Admirably done, Watson, truly. I was duly impressed with your self-control, though I suspect your fists may not unclench for some time.”

As he said it I noticed my hand was clutched tight to my stick. I relaxed my grip with some effort. “Holmes,” I said as evenly as I could manage, “If I’d had my service revolver in my pocket…”

“We’re fortunate you didn’t, my boy,” he said equably. “I’d have been hard pressed not to employ it myself.”

I exhaled a long breath. “Did you at least learn what you needed to know?”

“Oh, most certainly. Beyond the floor plan – and we’ll compare notes when we get back to Baker Street – it was an invaluable insight into Milverton’s character. It’s difficult to rely on second hand impressions in these things. They’re so often colored by the observer’s own biases.”

“I assume you refer to biases against sadism and unmitigated evil,” I said grimly.

To my immense surprise, Holmes gave a snort of laughter. I looked over to find he was grinning broadly.

He shot me a glance from the tail of his eye. “You’re wondering how long I’ve had a deep and abiding fear of snakes.”

I frowned. “Well, yes, now that you mention it. I’ve never observed it in all the times we’ve visited the Reptile House at the Regents Park Zoo together and-” I stopped in my tracks and turned to him in amazement. “It was a performance. ”

Holmes gave a full-throated laugh. When he looked back at me I saw his eyes were shining with mirth. “Oh, my dear fellow. I really cannot express what a relief it is to know I haven’t entirely lost my dramatic ability where you are concerned. I’m afraid I’m going to subject you to many other such exercises in sympathy on my behalf for the simple joy of disabusing you of them afterwards.” His voice dropped to a buttery drawl. “One must take one’s pleasures where one may, mustn’t one? Indeed one must.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “Holmes, you never cease to amaze me. But why on Earth would you pretend such an aversion?”

“When dealing with a man who relishes power, of any kind,” he said, taking my elbow as we reached the top of the drive and cast about for a cab. “It is always useful to allow him to think you have an Achilles Heel. Some profound vulnerability he can exploit should need arise. It gives a sense of false confidence. The trick, of course, is to guard at all costs against exposing your true weakness. Relinquish that and… well, it’s a tactical error that can prove costly. And there was one other, more tangible benefit to my performance. Did you notice it? I hope not or Milverton might have observed it, too.”

I thought back. “No,” I said slowly. “I can’t think what it might have been. Did it have something to do with your survey of the room?”

“It did.” A cab rounded the next corner and Holmes released my arm to flag it down. “I discovered where he hides his safe.”

I stared at him as the cab clattered to a stop before us. “It’s not in the cabinet in the study?”

“That is the obvious place for it,” Holmes answered equably as he climbed in. “Which is why I suspected it of being a blind. Baker Street, cabbie.”

I settled myself beside him just as the cab started forward with a jangle of harness bells.

“No,” he went on thoughtfully. “I thought it likelier he’d want to keep a closer eye on it. Someplace dearer to his heart.”

I thought that over as I gazed up at the lowering clouds. “In one of the display stands.”

“Excellent!” he said. “You scintillate this evening, old boy. Clearly moral outrage has a positive effect on your faculties. I must remember that. Yes, the hinges at the base of the stand supporting the coral snake’s case were highly polished indicating frequent use. A tap of my heel confirmed it was heavier than it should have been and, moreover, did not sound hollow.”

I regarded him steadily. “Holmes, dare I ask where this line of investigation is leading?”

“At the moment it leads to Baker Street and from there to the next phase of our campaign against the odious Milverton.”

“Which is?”

He looked over at me and flashed a tight smile. “Starting you well and truly on your life of crime.”

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-«oOo»-
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Part Two
A Lamb to Slaughter

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Chapter Four
A Multitude of Sins

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I stared at the lock before me, turning the pick in my fingers.

“Concentration in the face of distraction is devilishly important,” Holmes said. His breath brushed the fine hairs at the side of my neck starting an involuntary shiver.

“Yes, when you mentioned distractions earlier,” I said evenly, “I’d imagined something in the nature of the distant sound of barking dogs. Not,” I positioned the thin strip of metal in my hand at the keyhole before me, “A warm body pressed against my back.”

I shifted toward the demonstration lock balanced at the edge of our Moroccan table and, not incidentally, away from Holmes who was perched at the edge of the settee, peering over my shoulder.

“Would you like me to stand in the corner and bark like dog?” he said, moving forward with me.

“I would like you to manage the lock-picking,” I said. “My knees ache and my legs are falling asleep. Can’t I sit on the couch?”

“This is a more realistic angle,” Holmes murmured, close enough for me to inhale the faint scent of his lime water aftershave. “Why don’t you try sitting Hindu style?”

“Because I assume a demand of the proceedings is…” I inserted the slender instrument into the keyhole and gave it an experimental twitch. “I be able to rise quickly without falling back down with cramp. Why are you so blasted…“ I turned the pick a fraction to the right and felt the slightest resistance against my fingertips. “Cheerful? I think I found the lever.”

“Good,” Holmes murmured. “Now use the second pick. Feel for the pins. I’m enjoying watching you work. I’ve always suspected you’d have a strong, natural turn for this kind of thing.”

“Larceny, you mean?” I transferred the first pick to my left hand and groped for the second strip of metal on the hearthrug before me.

“Skillful handling of finely crafted instruments. It’s best to use your left hand for the turning pick throughout.”

“We can’t all be ambidextrous,” I observed tersely. I moved the second pick into position by the first. “How many pins are there?”

“Five in this model. But we don’t know if Milverton’s safe is a Herring and Company or a Diebold. I would guess Diebold. It’s the more expensive.”

I stared at the nameplate above the lock. “This is a Herring.”

“Yes, Silas Herring himself sent it to me to test. It was designed to be unbreakable.”

“How long did it take you?” I felt a slight give with the second pick. ”I think found one. How do I lift it?”

“One minute and fifteen seconds.” He shifted forward again. “I was wearing gloves. There should be a small lip at the edge. Give it the slightest twitch.”

“Holmes, can’t I just plan-” I shifted the second pick by a fraction, attempting to keep a steady pressure on the first. “Can’t I just plan to keep watch? Even if there is a second safe in the study-” I found what seemed to be a groove at the edge of the pin and gave it an experimental twitch. There was no movement. I repositioned the pick. “You’ll still need a sentry. And you know full well you–” I gave the second pick another push. “Are not going to teach me safe-cracking in a single evening.”

“Probably not,” he said equably. I felt his lips brush my skin.

My pulse quickened and the next instant my hand shifted and the first pick dropped out of position. I ground my teeth and sat back on my haunches, pushing up the sleeves of my shirt. We’d both abandoned collars, cuffs and boots as we got down to the serious work of preparing for our planned raid on Milverton’s lair.

As I shifted resolutely back into position to make another attempt on the green and gold monster, I growled, “I’m sure you find a bit of light safe-cracking a pleasant way to beguile the hours…”

“In fact I do,” he said, leaning forward again, this time actually resting his chin on my shoulder. “And this a marvelous evening for it, don’t you think?”

“It’s about to storm,” I muttered, shrugging him off. Indeed the wind was howling and rattling the windows like a banshee on the hunt.

“Yes, it’s quite exhilarating,” he said. “You’ve got your picks in the wrong hands.” He nuzzled the skin behind my ear.

“Holmes!” I snapped. “If you don’t desist this instant– what is so blasted amusing?” I dropped my hands to my lap as he shook with silent laughter.

“Only that I will desist if you wish it,” he said equably as I felt his fingertip trace the nape of my neck. “But if you hope to quell my ardor, you’re going about it in entirely the wrong way.”

“Perhaps you should leave me to it then.” Hunching forward, I doggedly positioning my tools for another assault.

“No, not the safe-breaking. Though that is surprisingly stimulating. No, there is a quality… If I may?” He reached past me, adjusting the position of the left pick by an infinitesimal degree. “There is a quality about you that is more irresistible than your extraordinarily blue eyes, or your impressive build, or even your very intriguing mustache, although that is a feature that has figured strongly in my imagination. The quality I refer to is quite devastating. Relax your fingers, This is not a golf club. Several times in the last few weeks… Imagine they’re surgical instruments. Like this. Several times in the last few weeks you’ve used it against me so adeptly, if you were an unprincipled man, I would have suspected you of doing it deliberately. You’re not moving.” He leant against my back, reaching past me to pluck the two thin strips of metal from my fingertips.

“I am deeply confused,” I said honestly as I watched him insert the two picks and give each a deft twist. “I have no memory of this. I’ve been doing something devastating without being aware of it?”

“Hmm,” he whispered against my cheek as he shifted the pick in his right hand. “I have even… I am ashamed to say… provoked it… simply for the pleasure… of having it directed at me. I enjoy it… to an indecent degree.” The lock clicked and he gave the handle a tug.

I stared as the small door swung open on silent hinges. “What did you just do?”

“It’s all in the wrist,” he said as he deposited the two picks on the table. His fingers moved to my shirtfront and he began to flick the buttons open one at a time. “I really shouldn’t enlighten you about this particular… weapon in your arsenal… but I’m desperately curious to learn… how you’ll use it against me and if you can do it… deliberately… or if I must continue to provoke you… to it. I almost hope it’s the latter.”

I watched his fingers trace down the front of my light cotton singlet to the waist of my trousers. “What the devil are you talking about? And what, may I ask, are you doing?”

“I am undressing you.”

“I can see that,” I said, my voice a low growl. “You are also pushing the limits of my patience.”

One hand drifted to the front of my trousers and stroked upward. There was an answering tug deep in my belly.

“Holmes,” I growled.

“Yes, that’s it,” he whispered next to my ear. “You, John, have a very commanding voice.”

I blinked. “I do?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Oh.” I watched his fingers trace down the front of my trousers. My blood quickened in response. “You say you’ve deliberately provoked me? When?”

“Other than right now?”

“Yes,” I said, fully absorbed in the steady motion of his fingers. “Other than right now.”

“Recently, not often,” he said. “It hasn’t been necessary. You seem to find me infuriating at least once a day.”

I nodded absently. “Yes, that’s true.”

“And at the moment?”

“Certainly not infuriating,” I confessed, “But…” Despite my every instinct to the contrary I caught his hand in mine. “Holmes, there is one thing-” I hesitated. “I’m not sure what you have in mind, but it may not be a good idea.”

His breath was warm against my cheek as he whispered, “Our cold supper is laid out. We have one and one half hours before we need to hail a cab.” He gently disentangled his hand. “With a half hour to dress we have at least another hour.” He reached past me and grasped a leg of the table, tugging it to the side. “You need to relax. I have an excess of nervous energy. I can’t think of any reason not to exercise a spot of bad judgment.”

“Yes,” I said slowly. “That’s all very well, but Mrs. Hudson…” I cleared my throat. “Holmes, I’m very… verbal. Apparently.”

At his sudden silence I looked back over my shoulder. One eyebrow was cocked at a curious angle.

“Really,” he said. “Well, I wouldn’t worry. I have conducted a few experiments.” At my look of surprise, he smiled. “With my phonograph. I shouldn’t like to put Mrs. Hudson in a position to give evidence against one of our clients.”

“How loud was the phonograph?”

He paused in the act of tugging the tail of my shirt free of my trousers. “Now, you’ve aroused my curiosity. I think I must experience this for myself. May I continue?”

“I don’t seem able to dissuade you.”

“Very true,” he remarked. With the fluidity of a dancer he slipped from the settee behind me and turned so that when he settled again he was kneeling before me. He pushed my shirt back off my shoulders and I flexed forward to let it fall to the floor behind me. He pulled my light cotton singlet free and in two quick motions he had it loosed and tugged up over my head.

He dropped it to the floor and gave my chest a light push with his fingertips. I leaned back as his fingers flicked down the buttons of my flies. As the last came free his hands moved to my hips and lifted and pulled simultaneously so that I found myself propped on my elbows at the edge of the couch. He rocked back on his heels, poised between my feet, fingers hooked in the top of my trousers. Before I was fully aware of the fact my trousers, underclothes and stockings were in a heap on the hearthrug beside him.

I’d gone from fully clothed to completely nude in roughly the time it took to form the thought. Before I could give voice to my astonishment Holmes had pushed forward between my extended legs. His strong fingers parted my thighs as he gave a single low sound, something like a growl, and bent forward. I had a brief impression of his dark hair between my legs and his kiss at the base of my shaft before my head lolled back and all I knew was the sensation of his lips and fingers and tongue as he stroked and pushed and caressed.

I struggled to bite back the words forming deep in my throat. It was useless. When I felt his fingers stroke lower, as if from a distance I heard exclamations of encouragement and instruction ringing out in the still room. “Yes. There. Right there. Harder. That’s right.” The pressure of his lips and tongue ceased and I felt movement between my feet. My eyes fluttered open and I looked down along the length of my body.

Holmes was gazing up at me, a bright smile lighting his eyes. “My heavens, John, this is a delightful surprise.” His fingers were still stroking absently from the base of my shaft to the tip and back again. “‘Verbal’ is rather an understatement.”

I cleared my throat. “You see why I’m, ah, concerned for our landlady.”

“Yes,” he said thoughtfully. He caught his lip in his teeth and gazed into the distance. I could see him considering various options.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Undress.”

He was on his feet in one smooth movement and flicking free the buttons of his shirtfront before it crossed my mind to soften the words with equivocation. I saw the light in his eyes match his curling smile and the thought faded before it formed.

I pushed up and back until I was sitting on the couch, reclining against the low back. I watched as Holmes slipped out of his shirt. It was clear he was taking his time.

My hand moved on my shaft. As I stroked the ball of my thumb over, spreading moisture down the pulsing spine, his lips parted. It was all I could do not to surge to my feet and pull him down but I only watched as he pushed his trousers to the floor and stepped out of the pooled cloth. I held out my hand and lay down on my side. He looked at me curiously and started to kneel, but I reached out to grip his forearm.

“No,” I let my voice drop to a rumbling growl. “Sit here.”

As he sat before me I put the flat of my hand against his chest, pushing him backward. I saw his eyes widen when he understood I meant him to take an opposite position, but I didn’t wait to let the thought take hold before I gripped his knee, braced his upper leg on the back of the couch and dipped my head between his thighs. A moment passed before he echoed my movement; just long enough for me to register it as hesitation and adjustment.

His mouth was firm and quick. I thrust forward in time to his rhythmic pull until I lost myself in the spicy sweet taste of him and the sensation of his thigh against my cheek. I was aware of gripping his hip and dragging him closer, raking his tight skin. When his shaft pulsed against my cupped tongue my belly tightened in response. I felt his throat constrict then his fingers flexed and he pulled me deeper. Before I could think to give any warning I was plunging forward in sharp thrusts. The world vanished in white light and a roar of sound then I shuddered and exhaled a long sigh against his skin. His mouth moved in slowing rhythm and his hold relaxed until only his tongue traced my shaft from base to tip.

When my last pulse was expended he pushed back and started to roll away, but I held him fast and dragged him closer. He didn’t try to pull back, but I felt resistance in the set of his muscles as if he were holding himself still. On a sudden impulse I gave a low growl against his skin and dug my fingers into his thighs. As I forced his legs apart, opening him wide, I let him feel the slightest pressure of my teeth and barely registered his sharp gasp. A series of sharp tugs and he shuddered and arched into me. I felt his chest hot and slick against my belly as I pulled against his skin. A shiver ran the length of his body and he gave a sudden thrust. I heard his low cry as his body went rigid then I felt his release deep in my throat. His pulsing slowed and I gave one last tug before I echoed the stroke of his tongue with a long, steady curl along his skin as I drew back

His cheek was damp against my thigh as his breath steadied. I turned my head and ran a series of slow, soft kisses along the inside of his leg to his knee as I gently turned his hip away. When he was sitting at the edge of the couch I pressed one last kiss to his knee and looked up.

His face was as flushed as mine felt. My hair must have been just as wildly disarranged. His chest was slick and shining with perspiration and I felt my own drying in the suddenly chill room. He lifted his hand to my lips and traced the edge of my mustache. Smiling, I caught his hand in mine and pressed a kiss to his fingertips. He gave a low, bubbling laugh as I pulled him down beside me.

Propping up on one elbow, I arranged him on his back and draped my arm across his waist. “How is your shoulder?” I murmured, casting a glance over the fading bruise that marked the wound.

“John, I-” He drew in a breath then stopped and gave a little shake of his head. “Every moment with you is full of surprises.”

I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that. “You have never…” My voice trailed off.

“The ‘Congress of the Crow’? No. It was an ingenious solution. The best I could come up with in the time was to move to the bed and start up the phonograph. I believe I’ll want to expand my selection of operatic recordings.”

“You’re not naturally verbal, I take it.”

His smile quirked at the corner. “No. Most definitely not.”

On a sudden, I remembered our last night at Willow Bend. “Holmes, the other night. I didn’t mean to make you–”

He cut me off. “No, of course you didn’t. John, there is something you still don’t understand. I am the keeper of the trust. At least, that is the way it should be. You must trust me to protect both you and myself.”

“I do trust you,” I said carefully. “I’m not sure I trust myself.”

“I cannot change that. I can only tell you I trust you and hope that’s enough.”

I traced my fingertip down the center of his abdomen. His muscles tightened. “Holmes. In the past…” His gaze was affectless and open as he waited for the question he must have been anticipating. I decided I could do no better than to match his gaze with my words. “Have there been many like Cunningham?”

He studied my face for a long moment. “That disturbs you very much.”

“Yes,” I answered. “It does.”

His hand drifted to my chest as his gaze fixed on some point in the distance. I wasn’t sure he was aware that his fingers were brushing through the pale, curling hair as he spoke. “John, the liaisons Milverton hinted at, like his innuendoes about you and I, were pure guesswork. He was striking out, hoping to hit on something that would make you agree to his demands. There is only one man who fits the details he alluded to and only one man who would offer me up to Milverton in that manner.” He must have seen me draw breath to interrupt because he went on, “No, it’s better you know from me, than from another Milverton. You need to fully understand what we are discussing in this very civilized and circumspect way.

“In our society, the law demands a dance of sorts. Eye contact, then wary circling to gauge intention, receptivity.” He met my eyes and smiled. “Manifold as your attractions are, I don’t suppose you make a habit of walking up to men and declaring ‘I want to be your lover.’”

I matched his smile. “Just the one time.”

“Good,” he said as his smile quirked at the corner. “I would hope not or I’ll wonder how you’ve managed to evade incarceration all these years. I learned quite early what I wanted and how to get it. It was something of a game for me. That was before I met the man we’re discussing. I was brand new to the Town and already thought myself quite jaded and worldly. He had my measure at a glance. He took me home that night and by the next morning I’d all but forgotten why I came to London.” His hand stilled and drifted to his belly.

“He was- is everything you’d expect such a man to be. Sparkling wit one minute, cool and grave the next. Ridiculously handsome, of course, and with that quality of mystery that makes you think you can learn all about him in just one more conversation. Add to that the quality of concentration that makes you believe he’d like nothing better than to know all about you and you still have no idea how fascinating he can be.

“In those days I mistook attention for affection and he gave me no end of it. He was inventive, patient… an artist in his way. I was completely captivated and hadn’t an idea in the world what he really was. Nor would I have listened had someone tried to warn me. No one could say a word against him. I considered myself exceedingly fortunate to have attracted his interest and my only fear was of no longer being diverting enough to keep it. Eventually he would have tired of me. If he had the thing would have ended quite differently.”

“Did you end it?” I asked. His eyes focused on mine and I knew I wouldn’t get the answer I hoped.

“I’d like to claim credit. I can’t. In the end it hinged on the simple fact–” His lips quirked in a humorless smile. “You may have observed I have a slight tendency to intransigence. That must have been the quality that attracted him. I can’t think what else it could have been. He thought it would be amusing sport to cure me of it. The contest proved more difficult than he expected. He grew obsessed with winning. He was relentless. And even then…” His gaze met mine and flicked away. “This is what is so difficult to explain. Even then, I wasn’t unhappy. I felt like the center of his world. It was, in some ways, everything I’d ever wanted.” His fingers traced idly along a slim white scar that ran across his thigh. If he felt the chill that started on my skin he gave no sign of it.

“It couldn’t last forever. He was making great progress on his objective until the evening he miscalculated. Perhaps he became overconfident, but he made a demand I wasn’t yet ready to accept. While he was… persuading me to his point of view, I accidentally struck him. It was pure chance. I never would have done it deliberately as I’m sure he realized later, but I embarrassed him. He lost control. When I regained consciousness, I was alone. That was his second mistake. Had he been there he probably could have talked me round. Instead I was left with my own thoughts.

“I remember distinctly the moment of clarity when I saw there was only one way it was going to end and realized, to my surprise, what he offered wasn’t worth the cost. I contrived to… extricate myself and I don’t feel I am the worse for having gained an invaluable understanding of life. My actions were my own responsibility and his dealings with me were criminal only so far as ‘Section Sixty-Two’ is concerned.” He hesitated. “No, that’s not true. All the same it’s not a battle I wish to fight.

“I have long considered it a personal mission to remove this man from society, not out of any personal animus but because he’s as relentless in his business dealings as in his private life. What he can’t accomplish by innate skill he’ll see done by other means. There are rumors of every type of crime, yet he always escapes prosecution for want of proof. I don’t know what evidence Milverton has, but if he’s found a way to bring this man down I can find it, too. And if Milverton has a catalog of his sins I mean to lay my hands on it. I’d like very much to lay my hands on it.”

As his voice faded the only sound was the hissing wind outside and the rattle of rain against the window. I could feel the pulse pounding in my chest and wondered if he could feel it, too.

I laid the flat of my hand on his belly. “You won’t tell me his name.”

Holmes studied my eyes for a long moment. “What if I did?” he asked quietly. “What would you do with the knowledge? What would do if you saw him on the street? Or at the theatre? What you would do if you found him here in our sitting room?”

I didn’t realize I was pushing down until his breath hitched. I forced my hand to relax. “I’m not an animal,” I said as much to myself as to him. “I can control myself.”

His fingers closed over mine and he lifted my hand to his lips, pressing a light kiss to my fingertips. “That is why I trust you.” He drew breath as if to say something more then exhaled, turning his head and resting his cheek against my open palm.

A moment later he looked up and flashed a crooked grin. “Time to go demonstrate our bad morals.” He released my hand, slipped from under my arm and rose to his feet.

“Evening dress is de rigueur for this adventure,” Holmes said. “Oh,” He paused in the midst of gathering up his clothing. “Have you a pair of silent shoes?”

I blinked in surprise. “I have rubber-soled tennis shoes.”

“Just the thing.”

“But won’t they look odd with evening clothes?”

“Very. Luckily, we won’t be dining at Simpson’s tonight.” He crossed the sitting room and disappeared into his bedchamber without a backward glance.

I pushed up from the settee and cast about for my own clothing. My mind was roiling with thoughts and images I was afraid to try to untangle.

A flash of lightning drew my glance to the window and I saw our cold supper sitting uneaten on the table. Whatever happened that night, I knew it would take divine intervention to see us through. Thunder crashed, rattling the window as I offered up a fervent prayer the gods still smiled on lovers, madmen and fools.

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Five
The Altar of Science

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“I suppose it would be useless to ask you to eat something,” I said from the doorway.

“Oh, quite,” Holmes said genially, flashing me a grin over his shoulder. “Come take a look at this. I’m sinfully proud of it.”

As I crossed the room I resolutely averted my gaze from our settee. I knew it would be impossible not to lose myself in visions of pleasure shared and the pain of my lover’s revelation of just minutes before.

Holmes met my eyes. His steady gaze told me without words he followed my line of thought as clearly as if I’d narrated it. I gave him a half smile as promise I’d not press discussion until our present adventure was complete then stood at his shoulder and peered down at the variety of tools gleaming in the light of his work lamp.

They were laid out on a swath of black suede as a jeweler might display a fine diadem. Holmes’s lithe fingers brushed over the shining array. “I can say without fear of contradiction the beauties you see here represent the apex of the cat burglar’s art. A nickel-plated jemmy. Introduced just last year by the Rucker gang in the Lewisham Trust job. A diamond-tipped glass-cutter. A self-indulgence perhaps, but well worth forgoing a new dinner jacket. Adaptable keys. A perennial, of course. And here. A bright, shining new set of picks, just purchased from an obliging old gentleman in the Isle of Dogs. I must remember to give him a recommendation. Marvelous, aren’t they?”

“I am certainly willing to take your word for it,” I said agreeably. “Although I do wonder how you propose to make your way through law-abiding society with this collection jangling in your pockets.”

His grin widened. “Ah!” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Good old Watson. Leave it to you to give me the perfect opportunity to astonish. Here is my own innovation.”

He took the upper edge of the black suede and flipped it neatly over the tools then grasped the two ends of the mat and with a few quick movements rolled it up and snugged it tight with a leather thong. With a flourish worthy of a master magician he displayed the end of the bundle where a legend was embossed in gold ink, “Mazzeo and Son, Piano Tuners.”

Holmes inclined his head graciously at my spontaneous applause. “Ingenious,” I said, as charmed by his grin as by his invention.

“Yes,” he agreed happily. “You’d be amazed at what doors this gem will open when coupled with a suitable air of professional hauteur.”

“I’m sure I would,” I said, “Though I hope I never do. I was under the impression we wouldn’t need that kind of thing.”

“No, it’s pure ostentation tonight,” he allowed. “Be so kind as to fetch my dark lantern, would you? I seem to remember last seeing it in the airing cupboard.”

It was and as I returned with it I found Holmes dragging a large black leather kit bag from under the table. He took the lantern from my hand and arranged it and the purported piano tuner’s kit inside.

“No, clasps,” he said as I watched him pull a broad strap over the bag’s mouth and cinch it tight. “Silent as the grave. And now I believe we’re well prepared for tonight’s game. Don’t bother with your stick. We’ll be traveling light. So–”

“Just a moment,” I interrupted as sudden inspiration struck. “What about masks?”

Holmes cocked an eyebrow. “What about them?”

“Have you any?”

He blinked. “No. Not… No.”

“I have a black silk dressing gown,” I offered.

“Have you?” he said curiously.

“Yes, shall I cut a couple of masks from it?”

“Ah, no,” he said. “Let’s not sacrifice your dressing gown tonight. If it turns out we need such precautions it will be because our plan has gone to scratch and I very much doubt masks will be much use if pursuers get close enough to see our faces. We do make a rather distinctive pair and we are down, I assume, as Milverton’s last appointment of the day. Even if we manage to lay our hands on his memorandum book there’s still his memory to contend with. No, we’ll have to trust the plan will come off.”

“Holmes, what is the plan?”

He grasped the handle of the bag and hefted it. “We’ll take a cab to the Heath and walk the quarter mile across to Appledore Towers. If we meet no delays we’ll be at work by one. If luck is with us, we’ll be back here by two-thirty.”

“I’d hoped for more than the timetable,” I said evenly. “As well you know.”

Holmes exhaled a short sigh. He returned the bag to the worktable and waved me to a seat on the arm of my chair. “You’ll have to forgive my reticence. I’m not used to working with a partner on this kind of lark.” He leant back against the table, crossing his arms and regarding me steadily before he spoke.

“We’ll walk the quarter mile along the Heath to the edge of Milverton’s estate. There’s a six-foot high boundary wall, but two active men such as ourselves can manage it handily. It’s topped with edged glass. A little care will see us through unscathed. The guard patrolling inside never varies his pattern. I have it memorized so we shouldn’t be concerned with encountering him.” He flashed a humorless smile. “And apparently there are no dogs to worry about now. The veranda outside the conservatory is some yards inside the wall. We’ll go in that door. I’ll manage the safe while you stand watch by the study.”

“What about the butler?”

“I think you observed he wasn’t bred to service,” Holmes said dryly. “He’s a boxer, known as Roughie O’Keefe in the fancy. I recognized him from the Sidney Street Gymnasium. If his habits haven’t changed he’ll be in his cups by now and it would take a brass band to wake him. To my knowledge the night patrol is the only watch we need concern ourselves with.”

I nodded. “Do you think there’s a second safe in the study?”

“If only for show. And as you failed to complete your course in safe-cracking…” I cocked an eyebrow at that and he had the grace to give an embarrassed cough. “Yes, all right, since I thwarted your valiant efforts at same, we’ll divide and conquer along different lines. Once I have the conservatory safe open, you’ll empty the contents while I move on to the study. If I’ve judged the capacity of the first safe accurately from the size of the cabinet, and I have, this bag should do nicely. I doubt very much the study safe will yield results so I’ll devote a few seconds to looking for that appointment book. By itself it’s not damning but there’s no reason to leave it behind if I can lay my hands on it.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. “Won’t you need me to watch the door to the hall while you’re in the study?”

He gave a quick shake of his head. “If we had all the time in the world, perhaps. But a cardinal rule of the burglar’s art is to take the time you think you’ll need, cut that to a quarter, and then throw the lot out the window because you’ll likely have about six minutes. Houses are naturally busy places. If it’s not a porter who’s just remembered he forgot to turn down the lamp, it’s a hungry cat who thinks you’ve got a kipper secreted in your pocket. I’d like to have you on hand to watch the study door but I’d rather we didn’t end up sharing a cell in Dartmoor wondering where it all went wrong. No, I plan for us to be in and out and off across the Heath with Milverton’s infamous career safely stored in this bag within the comfortable margin of five minutes.”

“We’re taking the papers away with us for destruction, then.”

Holmes nodded. “By morning they’ll be so much blackened ash in our fire grate and we’ll have broken the back of Milverton’s organization.”

“By freeing his victims,” I said.

“It’s more than that, my boy.” His gray eyes glittered in the dim light. “I alluded to the alliances I’ve been forging the last two days. I have assurances from every quarter, high and low, if I can take Milverton’s boot from their necks they’ll not bow down again. They’ll close ranks against him. Freed from his grip, his agents will abandon him. His informants will forget his name. His life’s blood of secrets will run dry and by the time he’s able to open up new channels his organization will be shattered. If we are able to pull off this coup, we may hope to subject Milverton to the same fate as his first victim and I will consider it a defining moment of my career. But it all hinges on our success tonight, which is not at all a certainty. I’m sure you’ve already thought of all that may go wrong.”

“I would have thought of little else.” I gave him a wry smile. “By good fortune, I’ve been distracted most of the evening.”

His answering smile quirked at the corners. “Yes, that’s for the best. Like so many things in life, if you spend too much time considering your actions, you lose the ability to be spontaneous. It’s difficult to adapt to surprises because you believe you’ve thought of all eventualities.” His smile touched his eyes. “How dull life would be if you always knew what to expect.

“But,” he went on briskly. “It would behoove us to prepare for a few of the more disastrous outcomes.” He counted off his points with a tap of his forefinger against his arm. “One, we fail in our mission and Milverton keeps his documents. I’ll have no choice but to accede to his demands. The fact he has no evidence against you makes no difference. You would be tarred with the same brush as I by association. We both know even the hint of such a thing could be disastrous for your career and reputation. Two,” he went on before I could draw breath to argue. “We are caught in the act and the police are called. We’ll be felons in the eyes of the law. You must not bring your service revolver. There is no reason to risk compounding our felonies. That brings us to disaster number three. Milverton may not call the police. He may treat it as additional leverage against us, in which case we’ll be worse off than we were before because he’ll have real knowledge to use against you.” He regarded me steadily. “If anything goes wrong, you are the one who has most to lose by it. If we are discovered and only I am caught you must not try to save me. You must escape if you can. I can’t be hampered in my actions by fear you’ll put yourself at risk for my sake.”

I matched his gaze. “Holmes, you didn’t really imagine I’d accept such a one-sided bargain.”

He exhaled a long breath. “No, I didn’t,” he answered. “But I thought nothing would be lost by trying. All right, from this point forward, we must have a clear understanding. If I am caught you will save yourself and I will do the same for you. I know you won’t break your word.” He stood and held out his hand. “Is it a pact? Swear to it or we’re not crossing the threshold.”

I clasped his hand in mine. “It’s a pact.” We shared a long look then Holmes flashed a grin and turned away to retrieve his bag.

“Don’t look so grim, my boy,” he said as he passed. “Chances are, in a few hours we’ll be sitting before a roaring blaze congratulating ourselves on a righteous task well done. I’ll hail a cab at the next corner. Keep your hat low over your eyes for the cabby’s sake.”

He was out the door a moment later and I heard his hurried steps on the stairs. I doused the light and closed up the sitting room behind us. Only later did I realize I’d missed the opportunity to take my lover in my arms for a last tender kiss before our departure. It was a reflection that would haunt me for a long time to come.

.o0o.
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We were quiet on the way to the Heath. For all my resolve to concentrate on our mission, my mind kept flying back to the story Holmes had told me not two hours before. I found every time I considered it a fresh image formed in my mind. With a regularity to match the steady beat of the horse’s hooves, my fists clenched in the pockets of my evening jacket. If Holmes noticed my preoccupation, he didn’t comment on it. For his part, he seemed entirely absorbed in studying the darkened street before us.

At last our cab drew up at the edge of the Heath. As we disembarked I noticed the rain had subsided. I didn’t ask if Holmes considered it good fortune. I suspected his answer. But I decided to view it as an omen that the heavens were smiling on our enterprise.

As we entered the park, Holmes took our hats and tucked them under a camellia bush. At my curious stare he murmured, “It wouldn’t do to leave potentially identifying items of clothing at the scene of the crime.”

We crossed the slick grass and as the storm-freshened breeze licked at my hair I felt a pleasant tingling just under my skin. I recognized the thrill of adrenaline and was pleased to notice I felt stronger and more keen of wit than I had in some time. I wondered if the electric feeling coursing through my veins was something like the glitter I’d marked earlier in my companion’s eyes.

The stone wall bounding Appledore Towers was just as Holmes had described. We crouched at the foot of it and he risked a flash of his dark lantern to light his watch. He seemed to consider for a moment then gave a brisk nod.

At his gesture I braced to give him leg up the wall. He vaulted over with the grace of gazelle and reappeared an instant later, his hand extended for the bag. I paused, unconsciously reassuring myself he wasn’t straining his injured shoulder. His figure was cast in silhouette, but I could almost see his wry smile at my hesitation. Satisfied, I passed up the bag and when he extended his hand again I let him boost me up to the top of the wall.

I attempted to balance on my toes as I’d seen him do, but my agility was no match for his. My knee caught on the broken glass and I heard fabric tear. If Holmes heard it, he gave no sign. He’d dropped to the ground as soon as I’d mounted the wall and was already haring across the grass toward the hulking shape of the house. I took up the bag and hurried after him, crouching low and moving as silently as I could manage.

It gave me a moment’s alarm to see a sickly greenish glow shining through the glass walls of the conservatory. My first thought was someone must be inside, but Holmes didn’t falter as he made straight for the door so I followed on his heels.

By the time I reached the edge of the veranda he was visible only as a black shape against the glass door. He reached toward me, his eyes never leaving the lock before him. I understood he meant me to pass forward his burglary kit, but even as I unstrapped the mouth of the bag, I heard the latch click. I looked up in surprise.

My friend’s face was shrouded in darkness, but I could see by the angle of his head he was staring back at me. I could almost hear his voice. “I don’t like it, but we can’t turn back now.” The next instant he’d pushed open the door and crept inside. I followed a step behind and became a felon, fulfilling a promise that felt like destiny.

Holmes appeared to waste no energy in such thoughts, but went straight to the cabinet that was our objective. On a sudden I realized he wouldn’t need the dark lantern for his task.

The dim illumination I’d seen from the grounds proved to have its source in the bare electric bulbs that shone from every one of the glass tanks that lined the walls. I guessed they served the same purpose as lamps in an incubator. Whether it was their radiant warmth or the cycle of day, most of the snakes appeared to be drowsing.

Only the corn snake followed our movements. Unaccountably disconcerted by its solemn interest, I averted my gaze as I passed Holmes his packet of instruments. He seemed unaware of it as he unfurled his kit on the stone floor.

I didn’t wait for instruction, but left the leather bag next to the safe and moved toward the study door. As I passed the palm viper’s case I noticed a slim, dark shape resting on the cover and almost started. My first thought, that it was an escaped reptile, evaporated even before I saw the glint of light on the glass barrel inside and recognized it as a syringe case. Remembering the fate of the young rabbit that morning, I had to stifle a shudder.

When I reached the study door, my instinct was to stare at it as I listened, but logic told me my eyes wouldn’t aid my surveillance in the slightest. Instead I allowed myself the satisfaction of watching Holmes work. I felt a glow of admiration as his fingers traced over the sleek instruments. Without need to glance down he selected first one pick then another, applying each to the outer lock of the cabinet. In the space of a handful of breaths, the door fell open under his hand and he pushed it wide.

It seemed only seconds before the door of the safe succumbed as well. He swung it open and I looked for a cue to exchange places, but Holmes didn’t rise immediately. As his gaze fixed on something inside he froze in place.

I watched in mounting confusion, uncertain what he meant me to do. The thought arced across my mind perhaps Milverton had stationed a snake inside as guardian. I’d already dismissed it as wild fancy when Holmes bent forward. He sat back holding a leather bound book the size of small ledger. His fingertips traced a design on the cover then drifted to a small golden clasp at the side. Seemingly without conscious thought he retrieved a pick from the floor and touched it to the lock. It fell open and with the slow movements of one in a trance he parted the covers.

My stomach lurched when I remembered Milverton’s words and realized what Holmes held in his hands. As he turned the leaves, I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I caught glimpses of white-bordered snapshots and fluttering scraps of paper then his fingers stilled. He stared at the page so long it crossed my mind to wonder if I might be forced to pull it from his hands.

Then every thought fell away as a metallic clatter rent the stillness. It came from the laboratory.

Holmes broke from his trance with a visible start. His eyes met mine and I saw a stark dread in his gaze that must have been the mirror of mine. He dropped the book in the kit bag then flicked the suede flap over his toolkit and rolled it in an instant. I saw him rock up on his toes and his taut posture told me to get ready to run.

I listened with every nerve vibrating. The sound wasn’t repeated. I cut my eyes toward the outside door, but to my astonishment, Holmes gave a sharp shake of his head. His plan became clear a moment later when he rose and waved me toward the bag on the floor. There was no question of argument in the certainty of his actions. I could do nothing but move to take his place.

As we passed he caught me by the sleeve. I expected a terse word of instruction, but instead his eyes met mine. He held my gaze for a long moment and the pressure of his hand on my arm was all the message I needed. I nodded once to say I would keep to our bargain then stepped away without a backward glance.

Kneeling before the safe, my mind reeled between visions of Holmes at work in the next room and of the book disappearing under a mass of tightly bundled papers beside me. It was that distraction that enabled me to empty the safe with such tremendous efficiency. I didn’t spare the documents in my hands even a glance as I raked them into the bag. I had dropped the last and pushed the two doors of the cabinet shut before it occurred to me if Holmes hadn’t yet returned it must mean he’d found a second safe.

I glanced toward the study door. A chill trickled down my neck when I saw Holmes had pulled it closed behind him. I knew without thinking he intended me to go out to the lawn and wait for him where I’d be free to run. I felt a frisson of rebellion at the idea but before it could take hold it was washed away in fresh wave of horror. There was a second sound from the lab, this one more dreadful than the first. It was the sound of a door opening, but not the one before me.

My skin went cold and the prayer of an instant died when Holmes failed to bolt through the study door and gather me up in his flight. Instead I heard a muffled thump and two low voices.

My mind screamed to follow my instructions, but I couldn’t force my legs to move. At last rational thought asserted itself with awful finality. I’d pledged to fly and I couldn’t break my word.

I rose, took up the bag and walked as silently as I could on stiff legs to the conservatory door. As if in a dream, I stepped through and pulled it shut behind me. It closed with a quiet snap that was a precise echo of the sound of the study door opening.

Dropping to the ground, I watched as Holmes entered followed by Milverton. I hadn’t even registered Milverton’s tight smile glittering in the sickly green light when I saw the revolver he had pressed against the small of my friend’s back.

Milverton was speaking in his buttery drawl. “Everyone has decided they must return ahead of their time. I feel quite fashionable tonight. Quite fashionable. And do you know, I think we might just have time for you to assist me with a few experiments before I have to play host again.”

From my vantage point I saw Holmes flick his glance over the room. His shoulders visibly relaxed before his gaze turned in my direction. I slid back another step, but by the set of his mouth I knew he’d seen me. On the instant, he went into his performance. He stared at the glass case by his shoulder and staggered back a step, his face rigid with fear.

Milverton heaved a sigh and said, “You do insist on making things difficult, Mr. Holmes.” He transferred the gun to his left hand, reached out with his right and grabbed the syringe resting on the palm viper’s case. He raised it and plunged the needle into the muscle at the back of Holmes’s shoulder, pressed the piston home and jerked it free.

Holmes spun toward him, eyes wide. His lips parted, but before a sound escaped, the drug took hold. His eyes shuttered and his knees buckled. Milverton’s arm shot out and caught him around the waist as he sagged toward the floor.

“My goodness,” Milverton murmured as he dropped the syringe to the top of the case. He shifted Holmes’s weight on his arm and began to half-drag, half push him toward the laboratory door. “You’re even more slight than you look. I suppose it’s just as well for your sake. After all, I’m not a cruel man. No, you wouldn’t call me cruel.”

I watched Milverton push open the door, discarding one impossible action after another. Scenes sleeted through my mind, each ending with one or both of us bleeding on the floor. Just as surely as I knew Milverton was within his rights to shoot us as intruders, I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

The laboratory door swung closed behind them and resolution settled like a stone in my gut. I’d sworn to make my escape if Holmes was captured. Leaving him at the mercy of Milverton and his deranged experiments was not part of our bargain.

In a moment I’d chosen my course. I left the bag aside, opened the conservatory door, slipped back inside and moved toward the study. If I could reach the second door to the laboratory, I thought, I might have a chance of watching unobserved from behind the cover of the heavy curtain that screened it. Once there I could wait for an opportunity to rush into the room and take him by surprise. My rational mind tried to tell me the plan was foolhardy. The warning was easily ignored when from behind the laboratory door I heard rattling metal and Milverton’s muffled voice.

Inside the study I found evidence of the debacle in the doused lantern and the open safe. It held a few brass-cornered boxes such as might hold securities. There were no bundled documents. I kept moving.

The edge of the curtain stood slightly out from the wall. I pushed it aside with glacial speed then breathed a silent prayer of thanks at seeing the laboratory door behind it was open by a finger width. Through the gap I heard Milverton’s voice, too low to make out words.

Holding my breath, I eased forward and put my eye to the gap. My gaze shifted over the room and I spotted Milverton at the center bent over a gleaming metal worktable. Another hope died as I spotted the gun on the counter beside him. He was too far away, I knew, for me to dart across the room and knock him to the ground before he could grab up his weapon. I sought for a second option. My thoughts scattered as he moved aside.

Holmes lay on the metal dissecting table. He was in his shirtsleeves, his head thrown back, as if Milverton had stripped him of his jacket and let him fall.

Even as I struggled to take in the sight, Milverton turned and reached under the table. I heard a rattle of metal and he said, “One should do for now. Ah, just as I thought.” He shifted to the side and I saw a metal cuff in his hand. “An excellent fit.”

As the hinged cuff slipped around his wrist, Holmes shifted on the table. I tensed, seized with the wild hope he would throw Milverton aside. My hope died as I heard a click and Milverton stepped back. He gave a sharp tug on the chain leading under the table and Holmes exhaled a breath like a sigh.

Milverton gave a dry chuckle. “Really now, Mr. Holmes. None of that. I understand you may find such things… provoking, but I must ask you to keep your objectivity. This is science, after all.”

I forced myself to take slow even breaths, telling myself over and over Milverton would soon move away from the gun. When it happened I would charge in and take him down. After what seemed a lifetime, I recognized my chance.

“The palm viper, I think,” Milverton drawled. “Yes, just the one. You found him quite fascinating, didn’t you? Quite fascinating as I recall.”

Milverton turned away and my legs tensed. He’d taken only a step when there was a sound from the conservatory. He reached toward the gun.

“Milverton,” a deep, resonant voice called through the door. “Are you in there?”

“Interruptions,” Milverton muttered. “Interruptions.” He raised his voice. “Yes, come through.”

It was like some kind of nightmare spiraling ever more out of control. Where I’d had one opponent, now I had two. Holmes was bound, our escape was blocked yet there had to be a way, I told myself, there had to be a way.

“You’re early,” Milverton was saying peevishly as the door opened. “I’ve had a surprise guest and I dare say I have you to thank. In fact, I’m sure I have you to thank.”

As he spoke a man appeared in the doorway. I was immediately struck by his appearance. He wasn’t large, but was built on powerful, arching lines reminiscent of a racehorse. His hair and slim moustache were jet as befit his olive coloring and his dark, wide set eyes. The only jarring element was a hard, thin mouth. It marred the effect as a scratch mars a mirror.

All that was forgotten as he moved into the room. My heart turned to lead in my chest when I saw he held our kit bag in his hand. His glance flicked over Milverton then lit on the figure of Holmes. He paused and a slow smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

“My, my,” he said in a voice like a purr. “The things you keep lying around.” He moved to the side of the table and placed the bag by his feet. “You know, Milverton, despite all your warnings, I believe I must be living right after all…” He cocked his head to the side as he studied my friend’s face. “Drugged? That’s unfortunate.”

Milverton’s voice was terse. His guest’s self-assured manner seemed to disagree with his own. “It’s just a mild opiate. It won’t last long. He was being troublesome and I wanted to make the most of the time.”

“An opiate.” The man’s thin smile widened. “No, that won’t last long at all. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to wait.”

“You seem determined to set your own schedule,” Milverton snapped. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”

The man glanced up, amusement in his languorous eyes. “Yes, incorrigible aren’t I?” he said as his gaze returned to Holmes. “I’ve been told so before.”

My skin went cold as I saw him reach out and tilt my friend’s chin to the side. “Well, well.” His fingers traced the edge of Holmes’s collar. “Look at this. Someone’s been having fun.”

At his touch, Holmes showed his first sign of awareness since Milverton had snapped on the cuff. My breath caught in my throat as he turned his head toward the voice and whispered, “John?”

The man shot a glance at Milverton under his dark lashes. “There’s a cardinal sin, eh?” He chuckled softly and looked back at Holmes. “No, pet. Not ‘John.’ Think back now. Here. Let me help.”

He laid his large palm against Holmes’s cheek then drew it back. The sound of his slap rang out in the still room.

My fists were raised and my foot slid forward before I could seize control of my surging rage, but whatever sound I’d made was masked by Holmes’s sharp gasp and the rattle of the trailing chain.

With what seemed a great effort, Holmes opened his eyes. He stared up at the face hovering over his and blinked several times as if clearing his vision. His eyes widened.

“Hello, pet,” the man said in a silky whisper. “Did you miss me?”

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-«oOo»-
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Chapter Six
The Second Seduction

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“Baron.”

Holmes whispered it on a breath. I had no way of knowing if it was a title or a surname. It meant nothing to me. Yet for all that I knew who this man was to my friend.

Even as the knowledge burned into my mind, Holmes’s hands shot out. His free hand thrust against the man’s chest. There was a harsh clatter of metal as his shackled wrist stopped short. His eyebrows drew down and he stared at it in evident confusion.

The man exhaled a soft laugh. “Yes, our friend has been having a game. Who knew he had it in him, eh?”

Holmes turned his wrist in the cuff, pulling against it, his breath quickening. He seemed to have forgotten the hand still pressed to the dark eyed man’s chest until he took it in his own.

His arm twitched as if he was trying to pull away, but the man held fast. Holmes looked up into the face inches from his own and his lips parted.

“Milverton, listen to me,” he said, his voice a dry whisper. “I don’t know what this is. But I know you will regret it.”

“It’s a brave effort, pet,” the man said. “But he won’t listen. Trust me.” He raised his voice. “Milverton,” he said without looking up. “Have you any more of that opiate to hand?” The man’s smile widened as Holmes stiffened and his glance darted between his two captors.

Milverton had been watching with a strange half-smile. He seemed to come to himself with a start. “Eh? Oh, yes. Yes, certainly.” He turned toward the shining silver workbench behind him and dragged open a drawer of the cabinet below. There was a sound of rattling glass.

I wasn’t sure how much more my tortured mind could take. My logic screamed that it would be disaster to charge into the room with two ready opponents and, moreover, with Milverton still inches from his revolver. I could do no better than watch and wait my chance. It would come, I told myself. Before the situation deteriorated further into chaos, my chance would come.

“No.”

Milverton looked up.

“You don’t need drugs, Gruner,” Holmes said quietly.

From my vantage point I could see my friend’s eyes locked on those of the man bending over him. A silent conversation seemed to pass between them.

Holmes slowly lowered his shackled arm. His legs straightened and I realized he’d had his heels braced against the table. After a long moment, his hand relaxed in the other man’s grip.

Gruner lowered Holmes’s hand to the surface of the table and held it there. “Never mind, Milverton.”

“You’re sure?” Milverton frowned. “I understand him to be quite dangerous.”

“Oh, he is,” Gruner said, studying my friend’s eyes. “And very resourceful.” He glanced over his shoulder. “It’s one of his more endearing traits.”

He looked down at Holmes and his thin lips curled in a smile. “I suspect he has something dangerous in mind even now. But we’ve played this game before. Many times. You won’t disappoint me tonight, will you, pet?”

Holmes lay still and Gruner inclined his head. “Very good,” he said softly. “This could prove interesting.” He straightened. “I’m curious, Milverton. To what do I owe this surprising state of affairs?”

Milverton pursed his lips. “I found him attempting to loot my safe.”

At that, Gruner turned to him and cocked an eyebrow. “Attempting? Odd choice of words.” He bent and retrieved the kit bag, stepped forward and dropped it on the workbench at Milverton’s elbow. “I’d say he succeeded.”

Holmes stared at the bag, his lips parted then I saw his glance dart around the room. I guessed what he was looking for and unconsciously shifted back from the gap in the door.

Milverton spluttered as Gruner pulled the bag open and began hauling out handfuls of bundled documents. “But– I don’t understand. That would mean he came through the conservatory…”

Gruner turned the bag up and spilled the contents over the workbench. He studied the avalanche of paper. “Why is that so surprising? You left it unlatched for me.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it,” Milverton said. “He has such a strong dislike of snakes. A virulent dislike.”

Gruner barked a laugh. “He convinced you he’s afraid of snakes?” He looked back at Holmes. “I’m pleased you took my lessons to heart.”

He turned back to the counter and pushed his hand through the spill of packets. “It’s a basic rule. Never reveal your true vulnerability if you don’t want it exploited.” His hand fell on the leather bound book and he hefted it, considering it for a moment before setting it aside. “Some learn that the hard way.”

Milverton’s gaze shifted between Holmes and the scattered documents. “Then what–”

“Now, Charles,” Gruner broke in. “That’s hardly fair. I think you’ve gotten too used to having information presented to you. It can’t compare to the satisfaction of discovering it for yourself. In fact…” His glance flicked over the counter once more then he turned back to the dissecting table. “We’ve got some time. Why don’t we seize the moment?”

As Gruner moved away Milverton grabbed at the tumble of papers and began to pile them into a loose mound. Packets tumbled off and slid across the steel counter. He darted out a hand to gather them back in.

Gruner seemed unaware of the frenetic movement behind him. He bent over my friend, studying his face as if it were a sculpture on exhibit. I felt a cold chill in my limbs and the hair on the back of my neck rose.

“How much are you willing to trade for this plan you’re forming?” Gruner said quietly. I tensed as he raised his hand, but he only laid the flat of his palm against my friend’s chest. “You know what I want,” he said in a low rumble. He cocked his head, watching as Holmes’s tight grip on the table relaxed.

Gruner gave a little nod and his gaze traveled down my friend’s body. “You haven’t changed, I see. Much too thin, of course. That should be corrected.” Gruner drew his hand down slowly.

I saw Holmes’s stomach contract at the touch. “Ah, you know better than that,” Gruner murmured. “Still. Perfectly still. That’s right. Good.”

He raised his hand and traced the edge of Holmes’s collar then hooked a finger in the knot of his necktie, loosening it with a few short tugs. Holmes swallowed as Gruner bared his throat. “Hmm. Crude. You deserve better. I always said so.”

He glanced back at the sound of Milverton hurriedly dropping packets into the kit bag. “You’re not paying attention, Charles. I thought you had an interest in such things.” As he looked away his hand drifted toward Holmes’s shoulder – his injured shoulder, I realized with a hitch in my breath that echoed my friend’s.

Gruner looked down, his eyebrows raised. “Really,” he said thoughtfully. “That’s unexpectedly generous. And what are you hoping for in return?” His hand hovered over the wound. I couldn’t see any change, but Gruner snapped, “Look at me.”

Milverton’s head came up as Gruner lowered his hand. His touch was light at first then his fingers flexed. Holmes and I stopped breathing at the same instant.

His grip contracted so gradually the only outward sign was the rigidity of his arm. A muscle at the corner of Holmes’s jaw pulsed. Gruner cocked his head to the side and shifted his hold. “Not broken,” he said, his voice distant. “That’s good. They take so long to heal.”

My arm began to tremble and I realized I was pressing against the door frame with all my force. I willed myself to relax and tried not to imagine the sound of grinding bone.

Gruner changed his grip and shifted a few steps, moving to the head of the table. He raised his free hand and traced the line of Holmes’s jaw with his fingertips then tilted his chin up. “Never particularly ornamental,” he said. “But not without a certain ungainly charm.” His grip tightened. “You’re doing very well. Would you like to bite your lip? No?”

There was a flicker of movement at the edge of my vision and Milverton stepped closer. He was still clutching a packet of papers.

Gruner glanced up. “He really is very good at this game. You’d have to go far to find better, believe me. Oh, but I forget. You’ve seen my memoirs, haven’t you, Charles? Did you enjoy them? Now that you’ve read up, perhaps you’d care to give it a try.”

I saw my friend’s hand fist on the table. On the instant, Gruner relaxed his hold and Holmes jerked as if he’d been struck.

“Tut. And after I’ve been so complimentary,” Gruner said softly. “I shouldn’t have to tell you this is not the time to revisit that discussion.” He watched as Holmes unclenched his fist, pressing the flat of his palm to the table.

“Better. But I shouldn’t worry,” Gruner said, renewing his grasp. “He won’t join in. It might raise thorny questions.” He glanced up. “You must have imagined it, Charles. You must have imagined a great many things as you were poring over all those sins. Did you tell yourself you were just familiarizing yourself with the tactics of the enemy? Learning to recognize the snares of the Evil One?”

He locked his arm and pushed down. Holmes gave a violent shudder and I saw the sheen of perspiration on his cheek.

Milverton’s face suffused with color. “Have a care, Gruner. You test my generosity.”

“I’d imagine something’s being tested,” Gruner said evenly. “I’d look away now if you wish to preserve those precious self-delusions.” His eyes locked on Milverton’s as he bent low over Holmes and whispered, “Release.”

It was like the snapping of a bowstring. A broken cry tore the air and rebounded from the steel surfaces of the room as Holmes arched upward and fell back, straining against the taut chain.

My fingers dug into the wall as his voice fell to a groan. He gripped Gruner’s wrist with his free hand, curling around it as he subsided into shuddering gasps.

Gruner gazed on placidly as Milverton fell back a step, his eyes locked on Holmes, his hands clenching convulsively.

“You go too far,” Milverton choked out. “Too far. I will not stand by for this– this kind of behavior.”

“Be fair, Charles.” Gruner murmured as he pulled his hand free and idly stroked the damp, curling hair back from Holmes’s face. “It’s this kind of behavior that got you where you are today. It’s a bit silly to take umbrage at this late date.” I saw his gaze flick over Milverton’s rigid body. “And I was right. You do seem interested.” His thin smile curled. “Quite interested.”

Milverton was all but spitting with rage. “I won’t listen to this. You–”

“What? Sinner?” Gruner’s voice dropped to a rumbling purr. “No doubt. But I’ll own my sin. What about you, Charles? Greed, pride. As sins go, those are the acceptable ones, aren’t they? But you don’t stop there. You’re greedy for the sins of others. You seek them out. Gather them. Study them. I’ll bet you replay them in your mind, again and again. Sinning vicariously through others. That’s a whole new category, isn’t it? You’re an original sinner, Charles. That’s quite an accomplishment for such a sordid little man.”

Milverton fell back a step. His chest was heaving. “I don’t have to listen to this. I don’t have to listen.” He reached back, his fingertips groping on the surface of the steel counter behind him.

“Well, as it happens, Charles,” Gruner said easily as he reached into his jacket and drew out a short-barreled revolver. “You do.” He leveled the gun at Milverton’s chest. “Move away from the table. Against the wall.”

Milverton began to shuffle toward the side of the room, his small eyes goggling behind his spectacles.

“You’ve been playing a dangerous game.” Retrieving the revolver from the worktable, Gruner dropped it into his jacket pocket. “Don’t you know you can only taunt an animal for so long before it turns on you? You must have known one of your creatures would take it into his head to fight back. It appears the time was ripe.”

Milverton seemed to be trying to press back through the wall. The flush that had colored his face drained away as Gruner spoke and sweat beaded on his broad forehead. “What do you want?” he rasped.

“Oh, didn’t I say? I changed my mind about our little bargain. I thought it over and decided I like my sins. I’m good at them. And it occurred to me you’re not exploring the full potential of this empire of yours. The essential flaw in your plan is you seem to genuinely want people to give up their wicked ways.” He inclined his head toward the open bag on the counter beside him. “Once you’ve taken advantage of them, of course.

“But to an imaginative person like myself, the possibilities are endless. With your information at my disposal, I’d have a notable pool of talent to draw from. Shave off the dead wood and your army of drones becomes my skilled militia. Do you know, I even considered letting you work for me. You clearly have talents in your limited way.” He shook his head. “But I’m afraid it isn’t practicable. The plain fact is, Charles, you’re a very unpleasant little man. I’m sorry to be blunt, but there it is. And I see no point in continuing this conversation.” He waved the gun toward the scattered papers. “Something seems to be missing from your library. Where’s the rest of my property?”

“I- Holmes has it,” he choked and all but spit out. “He must have hidden it somewhere.”

Gruner looked over at Holmes, still curled on his side, his shackled arm stretched taut behind him. “Is that true?”

Holmes shook his head once.

Gruner turned his gaze back on Milverton. “Try again, Charles.”

“You trust him?” Milverton spluttered.

“He doesn’t lie to me. It’s an understanding we have.” Gruner breathed out a small sigh. “I wouldn’t think I needed to convince you I’m not to be trifled with. I strongly recommend you give me what I want. Would you care to tell me where it is now or in a few minutes time? The outcome will be the same, but it’s not really in your best interests to prolong the interview.”

Milverton stiffened his shoulders. “You know I’ve only to raise my voice and rouse the household.”

“No, I don’t think you’ll do that. This lark would be difficult to explain wouldn’t it? Amusingly, I think I’d come out looking like the hero. But, as it happens, I have it on good authority your staff has been given a night out. It must have been difficult to choose between people who could be bought for money or influence. Neither is really conducive to loyalty is it?”

“I don’t have it,” Milverton gasped. “I- I gave it to an associate. For safekeeping.”

Gruner heaved a sigh. “You will persist in trying my patience, won’t you? Very well. Have it your way.” He waved the barrel of his revolver toward the conservatory door. “It’s an ideal opportunity to put an old proverb to the test. What’s the one about ‘he who digs a pit for a viper’? Come now, you must know it.”

Milverton didn’t move from the spot. “You’re mad, Gruner. You wouldn’t dare.”

“‘Baron,’ please. A little respect is in order under the circumstances. And I think you’ll find I would. I’m not feeling particularly forgiving just now. You didn’t really imagine I’d be pleased to find you indulging your bizarre hobbies like this, did you?” He glanced over at Holmes. “What do you think? It’s all right. You can speak.”

From my vantage point I couldn’t see his face. His voice was little more than a whisper. “Don’t. Don’t kill him.”

Gruner chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m just going to open the door to a spot of divine justice.” He waved the gun toward the door. “After you, Charles.“

Milverton appeared to pry himself away from the wall. He moved on stiff legs toward the conservatory. “You will be judged,” he muttered vacantly. “You will be judged.”

“Very likely,” Gruner said easily. “But not by you. Back in a moment, pet.” He said over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t listen to this, if I were you. I would hate it if you were in a position to be called as witness. It would complicate things between us enormously.”

I’d waited so long for my chance it was all I could do to keep from stumbling from hiding before they’d reached the door. After what seemed an eternity, Milverton shuffled through. Gruner followed and closed it behind him. As the door kissed the frame I slipped into the laboratory and darted across room.

“Holmes,” I whispered as I gripped the cuff on his wrist and turned it, searching for the clasp. “How does this–” My words broke off as he twisted toward me, pulling it from my grasp. He stared, wide-eyed, his face ashen against his wild tangle of dark hair.

“Watson,” he gasped. “What in God’s name are you doing here? ”

I scanned the counters for a tool. “I’m getting you out of here.”

As I reached for the cuff again he pulled his hand away. “We had a bargain.” He grated out the words, his voice a tight whisper. “This was my chance to bring down Milverton’s empire. Now it’s Gruner’s. All of it. You have no idea what he can do with this kind of power.”

He pushed up, braced on his shackled arm. The chain rattled and he shot a glance at the door. “It’s too late to set it right. If you take the papers now he’ll use me to make you return them. If I can’t retrieve them, I’ll find a way to destroy them.”

“There’s no time to argue about this,” I hissed. “I have to get you free.”

“John, listen to me.” His eyes shone like gunmetal in the hard electric light. “I’m not going with you.”

My skin went cold. “No.” I stared from him to the door. “You can’t. I won’t let you.”

“Don’t be a fool. You’re not a part of this now.” He wrapped the chain around his wrist, pulling it taut. “He wants a chance to finish what he started. I mean to give it to him.”

Outside, a keening cry cut off in mid-breath. Gruner barked a laugh.

Holmes slid back off the table and stood. “Just this once, do as I ask and don’t interfere. You can’t help me and I can’t protect you.”

He hesitated, studying my face. “I am truly sorry,” he said quietly. “I would have spared you this if I could.” He gripped the chain. “Don’t look for me. You wouldn’t like what you find.”

I saw his plan a split second too late. Before I could react, he jerked his arm back, dropping into a crouch as the table tilted and crashed to the ground. The sound echoed around the room.

I stood rooted to the spot. He gazed up at me, his face a perfect mask, and breathed, “Hide.”

Turning on stiff legs, I started walking toward the back of the room. It felt as if I was pushing through molten lead. Behind me I heard Holmes kick hard against the table.

The door handle turned and I slid to the floor behind the last row of cabinets. I fought to stifle my gasping breath and the pounding of my heart.

The door thudded against the wall and steps crossed the room. “Here now,” Gruner’s voice rumbled. “Have a care. You’ll injure yourself. Just stay there. It seems he was doing a bit of light reading at his desk. Through here I think.”

The curtain behind the door to Milverton’s study rustled. I pulled my legs up and stared straight ahead. I was facing the bank of rabbit cages. The cacophony had apparently disturbed them. They were moving restlessly in short, pulsing steps. Several paddled their feet against the bottom of their cage.

In a handful of seconds, Gruner was back. The floor vibrated as he crossed the room.

“I gather these are your tools. Anything else–”

Holmes cut him off. “I saw the book.”

“Oh, yes,” Gruner said easily. Metal clattered on a countertop. “Of course. What can I say? I am a sentimental man. You know that. And I dislike being alone. We’re very alike in that way, aren’t we? We always had so much in common.” The chain rattled. “Stop that. I’ll get you loose. You didn’t seem so unhappy with me a few minutes ago.”

“You didn’t give me a choice.”

“That’s true. But you know you would have disrupted my meeting and I’d been looking forward to it for some time.” His voice moved away. “I confess I may have taken advantage of the situation. It was rather irresistible. Milverton’s first and last generous act. Where did that idiot leave the key?” Drawers clattered open and shut. “How many hiding places are there in this zoo?”

The table scraped on the floor. “I said ‘stop.’ Don’t make me repeat myself. I’ll just improvise, shall I? There was a–” Metal rattled. “Yes, this should do the job. Why on earth would he have this on hand? We’ll never know what went on in that bizarre mind of his.” The chain jangled. “It’s bolted on. Did he tell you the story about his dogs? I imagine he’d claim that’s why he had these installed. It’s always the righteous ones, isn’t it? Tell me, why did you leave me so suddenly?”

“You know the answer.”

“Yes, of course. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. A cat can’t help having claws. I would have made it up to you. You know that. I have thought of you often, pet. I have such pleasant memories of our time together. There’ve been others. All very decorative, certainly, but none so… spirited.” He gave a soft laugh. “And so headstrong, right to the end.”

His voice dropped to a low rumble. “I could easily be convinced to reminisce a while. And I have an idea you wouldn’t object. We both know you didn’t have to offer me your shoulder. Naturally I’m curious to see what else you’re hiding. You could tell me. Or you could let me find out for myself. A little game for old time’s sake, eh? I think…” He gave a low chuckle. “I think I’m getting warmer.”

I heard Holmes draw in a sharp breath.

“Yes, there it is. Let’s get a closer look. Well, well. This is a nasty bit of work. Is this your John’s creation?”

“Don’t.”

The chain rattled. “Don’t be coy, pet. It’s not becoming. I’m afraid you still have to rely on intelligence over allure. But I confess, this shoulder of yours is fascinating… It’s right on the edge, isn’t it? Just a little more pressure to make a break. A little more pressure. Right here.”

Holmes exhaled a shuddering sigh.

“You know you really shouldn’t keep putting yourself in the way of amateurs. Or was it in the line of duty? I’ve been following your career. It does look wearing. I wondered if you didn’t need a rest from all that. Tell me, do you remember this?”

“Yes,” Holmes whispered.

Gruner chuckled. “Yes, I thought you might. Keep still. Very good. I’m pleased to find I still know you so well.” The table scraped on the floor. “I remember you used to particularly enjoy… Ah, that’s it. That’s nice, isn’t it?”

Holmes gasped. “Yes.”

“Yes. You know, it doesn’t have to end. I could take you back with me. No decisions to make. No illusions to maintain. Nothing but you and I. It would be just like old times. Do you belong to anyone else right now? Don’t be afraid to tell me. Is there anyone I ‘d need to speak to?”

“No. No one.”

“Ah, that is a pity. I hate to think of you being neglected. It’s just my good fortune wit is not as valued as beauty. As it happens, I’m at loose ends myself. Would you like to come home?”

“Yes,” Holmes breathed.

“’Yes’ what, pet? You know you have to ask. I’d never force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“Yes, please. Take me home.”

“Well, now I think that’s worth a kiss. Would you like to kiss me?

“Yes. Please.”

I stared straight ahead, unable to close my eyes for fear of what I’d see.

There was a crash in the conservatory and the sound of splintering glass. Gruner heaved a sigh.

“That has to be the most tedious man alive. Loosely speaking. Well, I’m ready to be on my way now I’ve got such prospects for a pleasant remainder of the evening. Let’s see–” Metal scraped. “I can clip it here, I think.” Gruner gave a short grunt and the chain clattered. “There we are. Hmm, that’s a fetching bracelet. I like that. All right. Where’s your jacket?”

“There.”

“Good. Wait a moment while I get these papers stowed.”

I heard the documents thumping into the bag.

“It was very considerate of you to gather this together for me. It made my job easier. What were you planning to do, destroy everything? So like you. You always were an idealist. It’s an endearing trait. Up you come. That’s right.”

Two sets of footsteps moved toward the door. I huddled on the floor staring at the rabbits.

“Good Lord, Charles,” Gruner said in the next room. “Are you still alive? You are tenacious, I’ll give you that.”

“No,” Holmes said. “Don’t shoot him.”

Gruner chuckled. “No, perhaps you’re right. It wouldn’t look much like an accident, would it? I imagine it will be a moot point in a few minutes. Good-bye, Charles. Give my best to the Evil One.”

Footsteps crunched over shattered glass. A door opened and closed. In the sudden stillness I heard rattling breath in the conservatory.

Pushing up to my feet, I looked around the empty room. The dissecting table was still overturned on the floor, a short length of chain hanging down the back.

Out in the conservatory, Milverton lay in a scattering of broken glass. The blood draining from his nose and mouth was black in the greenish light. He stared up at me, unseeing as I knelt at his side, feeling for a pulse. It trembled under my fingertips and went still. I heard a splash to my left and looked over. The black sea snakes lay in a thin pool of dark water. One thrashed weakly, slapping at the floor.

I found Milverton’s memorandum book in his breast pocket. As I rose, I raked a last look over the room. I could see no other signs of our passing.

Outside, a light rain was falling. I stood and looked for a watchman. Nothing stirred in the dark grounds.

I saw no reason not to go out through the gate. I reached the top of the drive in time to hear a clatter of hooves in the distance then all was quiet. I’d walked a few feet toward the next corner before I sank to the ground and put my head in my hands. It may have been the sound of a morning bird beginning to sing that finally roused me. I pushed up to my feet and started toward home.

.o0o.
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I stood in the center of the room staring at the settee for a long time before I walked to the window and pushed back the curtains. The street below was silent.

Letting the curtain fall, I turned aside, drew back my fist and thrust into the wall. I studied the blood pooling on my knuckles as I hooked my heel behind the leg of a chair and dragged it out from the table. It was vaguely surprising, I thought, that I could feel the sting of the broken skin. The rest of my body felt entirely numb.

Our untouched supper lay spread out on the table. Thin gray light seeped between the curtains and fell across meat that curled at the edges. It was only when I heard Mrs. Hudson’s step on the stair outside I realized I was still dressed in my evening clothes. I considered examining the tear in the knee of my trousers to see if it might be repaired then decided it wasn’t particularly important after all.

Mrs. Hudson took some time clearing away the meal. I felt her eyes on me as I went to the hearth and filled my pipe from the slipper of tobacco. It was clear she wanted to ask questions, but something in my face must have warned her against it. When she asked if we were ready for breakfast I just shook my head. As the door closed behind her I replaced my pipe on the mantel and went back to the chair by the window.

When the second edition of the paper arrived there was a half column on the death of Charles Augustus Milverton, recluse and keeper of a strange menagerie of poisonous reptiles. The evidence showed he’d been careless with one of his pets and had paid the price. The remains of his collection would be transferred to the Reptile House at the Regents Park Zoo.

Picturing the yellow-green palm viper sliding over a rock in its new home, I wondered if the rabbits would find temporary refuge at the zoo. The weight that had settled in my stomach rolled at the thought and I had to gulp back the heaving in my throat.

At two in the afternoon a messenger came for Holmes’s violin. He had nothing to deliver. As Mrs. Hudson let him out to the street I came onto the landing and told her we’d need no meals for the rest of the day. She drew breath to speak, but I only stepped back into the sitting room and shut the door.

I stared at the ladder back chair by fire where the violin had rested and realized I hadn’t heard Holmes play since he’d left on the Maupertuis case three months before. Now he had a badly damaged shoulder that would doubtless require complete immobility to heal even as far as it had done in the days since the injury. His palms were still raw, his throat was still tender. He had no business attempting to play his violin.

A wave of dark fury welled up in my chest. Holmes had told me – asked me – not to interfere. The result of my failure to keep my promise to save myself and the documents was evidenced by the empty chair. If I failed to obey his instructions again I couldn’t know how much more I might endanger him.

In the stream of reasoning my fury ebbed away and the numbness returned. I moved on stiff legs back to the window and stared unseeing at the carriages and strollers passing by in endless, oblivious procession.

It was half four in the afternoon before I gathered the energy to go upstairs to wash and dress. I returned to the sitting room to sit by the window with my unlit pipe and consider the many actions I could not take because I had betrayed a promise.

It was seven in the evening when I heard a knock at the door to the street. Light footsteps ascended the stair and there was a rap at the door. I opened it to find a slender young woman with auburn hair.

“Doctor Watson, you don’t know me,” she said. Her voice was stronger than her pale, delicately shaped face might have presaged. “My name’s Kitty Winter.”

As little as I was prepared to play host at that moment, something in the way she held herself, with her pointed chin jutting forward and her small fists clenched tight at her sides, made it hard to turn her away.

I stepped aside and gestured her to a seat before the hearth. “I’m afraid Mr. Holmes-” I began and found I had to clear my throat. “Mr. Holmes isn’t in. If you’d care to leave your card…”

Her large hazel eyes were dark. “I know Mr. Holmes isn’t in. I ain’t here to see him, am I?”

I drew a hand across my brow and was distantly aware my raw knuckles still burned. “Miss Winter,” I said evenly. “Please, how may I help you?”

She gave a toss of her head that caused her small gold earrings to catch the light. “It’s like this, Dr. Watson. Porky– that is, Shinwell Johnson, we’re old mates. So when Mr. Holmes didn’t turn up today like he should then Porky heard this cove was wandering around the station trying to make himself understood… Well, whenever anybody’s asking after Mr. Holmes it gets around pretty quick so the boys, they put him on the right track and asked me to step on ahead. That’ll be him now.”

As she said it, there was a knock at the door downstairs. I heard Mrs. Hudson repeating something several times and a low male voice in brief response then heavy steps ascended the stair.

Kitty Winter watched me intently as I crossed to the door. I pulled it wide at the sound of the first rap and found myself confronted by the sight of a powerfully built young man with bright blue eyes and a mop of wheat colored hair.

I recognized him instantly. I’d thought of him often since I’d opened the door of a shabby hotel room in Lyons three weeks before and walked in to find him sitting at the edge of an unmade bed.

He flashed a broad smile, seized me by the elbows and gave me a light kiss on each cheek.

“Docteur Watson,” he said, his deep voice strangely loud in the still room, “I would like… em… to see my friend. He is Sherlock Holmes.”

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-«oOo»-
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To be concluded in…

Demons, Devils and Rogues

The Third and Final Story

The Intimate Client

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