THE RETURN OF CULVERTON SMITH
Story by Gina Martin and Maura Kelly
During the many years of our partnership there have been countless dramas enacted upon the small stage at 221B Baker Street. Holmes' expertise as the first and foremost consulting detective in England brought us into contact with many dangerous and desperate criminals. We had seen the face of tragedy, horror and death many times, yet one night's memory is forever etched deeply in my mind. A cold, forsaken midnight, when the best and worst of human attributes were tested. When fear, hatred and revenge warred alongside nobility, honor and love.
The night was bitterly chill. Snow clogged the congested streets; the thoroughfares iced, frosty sheets connecting the great city. Wind howled like a demon through the man-made corridors of civilization.
It was with grateful relief that we entered the warm and cozy sitting room of 221B. We had been on an outing to the theater that night. The trip was an effort to divert Holmes from a self-imposed silence, from whence he had frequently slipped into moody contemplation between cases for the last several weeks. The theater had not distracted his mind from the convoluted thoughts, which preoccupied him. Neither of us paid much attention to the energetic drama of the play. To make matters worse, I feared I had caught a cold from the night's excursion
Many years since he had painfully forsaken the dreaded cocaine, yet a latent, unreasonable fear of a return to the fatal drug haunted my worried mind during these quiet periods. Holmes never exhibited any signs of returning to the habit, yet my fears remained. Holmes automatically moved to the mantle where he filled a pipe. I turned up a lamp then moved to the sideboard and poured out two generous helpings of port.
"Rest yourself, Watson. I shall fetch the port."
Realizing he had noticed my exaggerated, slow limp, I strove to hide the ache in my leg as I crossed the room and placed Holmes' glass on the mantle. I sipped the warming liquor and stood by the fire to take the chill from my limbs. While the burning spirit was comforting, my cold prevented me from savoring the full flavor of the rich port. A prodigious yawn escaped me and broke the silence in the room.
Holmes chuckled. "Too much port, Watson?" he nodded toward my glass. "It was almost noon before you arose this morning," he teased with an obvious glint of humor in his eyes.
Acknowledging the joke with a grin, I defended, "I slept until eleven-thirty because we did not return from Kent until three this morning."
I tapped him on the arm to emphasize the blame was on his shoulders, then crossed to the window
Snow was piling along the sidewalk and houses across the way. Gold-yellow gaslight cast shimmery columns of glistened illumination across the slick-wet street shiny with ice. Fat splatters of snow coursed down the cold glass as coagulated rain. I hoped we would not be called to leave Baker Street for a few days. Persistent aches in my shoulder and thigh reminded me my old war wound and more recent gunshot wound (respectively) were ill companions in the chill weather
I was perfectly aware of what preoccupied Holmes. I wondered how best to break into his thoughts. We had both been reluctant to discuss the subject, yet now I saw conversation might be the only way to extricate him from moody depression, from extended contemplation of a weighty matter.
I felt his presence as he stood near my shoulder and peered out the window. Considering there was no time like the present, I decided to press him for answers
"You have not reached a decision, have you?"
The smile was discernable in his voice. "However did you deduce that?"
"Observation, of course," I responded lightly as I turned to face him. "Between cases these past weeks you have been in an unusually quiet, withdrawn mood."
"Not withdrawn --"
"Yes, withdrawn," I insisted, studying the liquor in my hand. "Since Mycroft's visit you incessantly smoke your black clay pipe. And I must constantly remind you to eat."
I glanced at him in time to catch a momentarily perplexed expression as he removed the pipe from his mouth. I tapped the pipe with my glass. "The black clay means deep concentration. You reserve your brier or cherrywood for your disputatious moods."
"Ha!" Holmes laughed in his peculiar, unique expression of amusement. He patted me on the shoulder. "I never do get your limits, old fellow. Am I so predictable?"
Wryly I responded, "I have had a great deal of time to study my subject."
"Touché." His nod was a compliment. He retained his touch on my shoulder and applied the merest pressure. "You have not come to a decision either."
"It is not my place to decide," I responded quickly, not willing to accept any responsibility. "This is your quandary, Holmes."
"Quandary. Appropriate word, Watson. Indeed a man of letters," he muttered in a tone devoid of his usual tartness when referring to my writing.
Mycroft Holmes' recent visits had been on our minds for some time. He had offered his brother a chance to work for the government in a continuation of the skullduggery Holmes undertook during the three years after Reichenbach. At first, Holmes had refused the offer outright. Mycroft had persisted for months until he had elicited a promise that Sherlock would at least consider the employment.
"This decision involves you, yet you have been scrupulously reluctant to offer advice." His penetratingly keen, piercing green/grey eyes bore into mine. I knew my self-appointed neutrality was about to be jarred to a forced commitment.
"You are my friend, my advisor, my confidant, Watson," he continued in a tone both serious and complimentary. "You have refrained from even the hint of an opinion."
Refusing to let the rare compliments sway me, I clung to my noncommittal stance. "It is your decision, Holmes. This is your career."
"OUR career, Watson. This is a partnership," he countered firmly and emphasized by patting my shoulder. "Have I not made that clear -- certainly in these past months?"
He referred to the traumatic case the past summer when Killer Evans had wounded me. In an impulsive, over-reaction, Holmes had threatened to retire as a consulting detective because of the dangers of the case. After the initial shock of the attack was over, I had convinced Holmes to reconsider retirement. Feeling somewhat guilty about my wound, he promised he would undertake no more dangerous cases for fear of further misadventure to his 'partner'.
He was not so concerned over his own health when not long ago he was severely beaten by Baron Gruner's thugs. Then it had been my turn to care for and remonstrate my reckless friend. Beyond that had also been the chilling dangers of the Milverton mess. My warnings had fallen on deaf ears, as usual. Little wonder I was skeptical of entering into a new career which offered new risks.
Although flattered by the status I held in his eyes, I was reluctant to inhibit his opportunities. Detection was his life and my conscience would not condone limiting his talents. Selfishly, I did not want to give up the adventurous life we had come to relish. So I managed to sway him not to end his career.
His expression was speculative when he continued. "Government service may be less dangerous than dealing with the criminal classes. We would be less likely to encounter the likes of Killer Evans."
"Or Baron Gruner," I said, reminding him of his own near fatal encounter. "A nasty piece of work." Silently I wondered if the criminals were becoming more daring and dangerous, or if we were growing slow and careless with age. "We could encounter far worse."
"You must have an opinion, Watson," he insisted as he crossed back to the mantle to light his pipe. His gaze wandered the sitting room absently as his long fingers went through the familiar motions. "It would certainly alter our lifestyle."
"And your independence in selecting cases," I added casually, assuming the role of Devil's advocate.
He had probably already deduced my reluctance to work with Mycroft. Maturity had brought to our lives a greater appreciation of security and serenity. I was fearful of changing a life which was comfortable and eminently satisfying.
Holmes' back and shoulders suddenly tightened, when his eyes snagged for the merest of moments on something in the shadows near his room. With an abruptness denoting alarm, his whipcord frame spun round and closed the distance between us in a few quick strides.
His face was taut with anxiety. "Someone is here," he whispered, his hands gripping tightly to my arm. "My bedroom door was closed when we left tonight."
I darted a quick glance toward the bedroom and saw the door slightly ajar. I knew Mrs. Hudson was away for the evening. My mind raced for possible explanations, yet I knew Holmes had already thought of any ramifications and rapidly ended with this conclusion. An inner instinct telegraphed a confirmation of the danger, which obviously gripped Holmes.
My eyes shot to my nearby desk. "In the drawer." I edged past Holmes and quietly placed my glass on the desk then reached for the drawer for my Webley
"Stop, Dr. Watson!" a voice shouted. The raspy order echoed through the achingly still room where every breath, every crackle of the fire was magnified in the tense silence.
I froze. A quiet sigh was released from my friend close beside me. For several seconds I hesitated, weighing my chances of reaching my Webley and shooting our intruder -- the unseen threat I knew must be deadly
"Move to the pistol and you die!"
There was a note of panic in the oddly familiar voice. Seconds ticked by as I considered an heroic attempt for the pistol. The villain easily could shoot Holmes or me if I was willing to take the chance. My mind automatically flinched at the thought of the unnecessary peril, which would be placed on my friend with the brashness. Judging the risk not worth the candle I slowly straightened and took my place beside Holmes.
A quick glance at my friend indicated the situation was not as hopeless as I had first thought. His keen, confident expression told me he had identified the visitor. There would be few surprises left. Holmes rarely allowed someone to get the better of him more than once. Certainly not after the blackguard had breached the very security of our home.
"Do come out of the shadows, Smith. You may drop the intrigue and drama. The good Doctor and I have divined your identity."
I hoped I covered my surprise at the revelation of the intruder. I had not recognized the voice of Culverton Smith. Holmes, as usual, gave me more credit for inference than I deserved. He pluraly included me into his deductions. My friend was of a generous nature where my part in his investigations was concerned. I often wondered why he felt I was an equal contributor to the partnership.
I never would have recognized the near cadaver-like form of the man who slowly stepped from the deep shadows and into the light. Years had passed since I had seen the evil Smith. Those years had been harsh to the wicked murderer. The wages of sin certainly preyed against the man who was shrunken and thin; a sickly, sallow pallor tinted his wrinkled face; the hunched shoulders tremored. The hand holding the pistol shuddered with palsy denoting a lingering, terminal illness. I automatically diagnosed several possibilities. Then I peered closely at his face -- his eyes -- and felt a paralyzing chill grip my heart. Madness gleamed from the bright orbs -- eyes directed at Sherlock Holmes. I felt a terrible, strangling fear for my friend.
"It would be superfluous to ask your business," Holmes said with impatient irritation.
"Oh, so clever, Mr. Great Sherlock Holmes!" Smith spat. Each word laced with contempt, hate; poisoned with festered madness and anger. "Yes I am here to kill you -- the one responsible for my torture -- my death! I am dying from the rot of prison where you consigned me! And I shall deliver you to Hell for it!" he screamed, the pistol quaking from a wavering hand. "This night will be your torture and death at my hands!"
I felt the blood drain from my face. A sideways glance at my friend revealed no emotion on his set, angular face. I marveled at his control. Particularly considering the hatred, the evil, our adversary had proven he was capable of inflicting.
Never could I forget the awful circumstances of our first encounter with Smith. Never shall I forget the fear I knew when I was called to Holmes' bedside to find him dying of an exotic, fatal poison. I had been asked to summon Smith, an expert in poisons. I was relieved to find Holmes had faked the illness to trap Smith. Yet the memory of the fear of Holmes' poisoning lingered even after all these years. Perhaps because I had once agonized through the realization of Holmes' supposed death at Reichenbach. That still stark and frightening memory was vividly alive in my mind now as I once more faced my friend's death.
Overcome with the emotions of past fears I protectively pushed in front of Holmes. "You will not kill him unless you kill me first," I insisted firmly, secretly relieved my shaking nerves were not betrayed in my tone.
"Watson," Holmes chastised with a quiet sigh. He tried to pull me back, but I stood my ground.
"No need for your pathetic heroics, Doctor," Smith said with a derisive laugh. "It's too late. Sherlock Holmes is already dead. And you have already fulfilled your wish, fool -- lackey! You are dead as well!"
Holmes placed his long, strong fingers on my shoulder. I could feel the anger actually emanate from his touch. "Mind your impudent tongue, Smith!"
"No need to mind yours, Holmes. You are both dead!"
"You are looking well for a dead man, Watson," he offered with a wry twist, which completely dismissed Smith's threats. Yet his tone was hard as diamonds. From the rigid lines about his mouth, I read the strain underlying the cavalier mask. The green/grey eyes flashed at our opponent. "You on the other hand, Smith, have been dead for years. Evil poisoned your soul long before we met."
Smith's sudden explosion of laughter grated on my already overwrought nerves. The laughter of a madman, yet I wondered why it brought such fear to my heart. For a fleeting moment, I contemplated an impulsive rush for Smith, then reason reasserted itself. I could never race round the sofa to Smith before he returned to his unstable senses. As if reading my mind Holmes moved close enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, his right hand still on my arm.
"Poison is an excellent choice of words," Smith said with an eerily abrupt soberness. With the frightening agility of the demented, he moved from mood level to mood level without transition or reason. He stepped over to the liquor sideboard and tapped the port decanter with the pistol. "I poisoned the wine, fools!" he sneered. "I failed once, Holmes, but now I have you!"
Holmes' grip tightened, his quavering fingers the only evidence of the affect of Smith's piercing words. From the corner of my eye, I saw Holmes glance at his untouched glass on the mantle. His face was unusually pale in the flickering firelight. For the first time that night, fear tinged his not-quite-controlled expression. His anger and frustrated misery was such a tangible presence I imagined his fingers sear my shoulder.
In contrast, I felt oddly relieved. Strange, that I found my own death sentence easier to bear than the thought of Holmes' demise. I had been the only one to drink from the decanter. He would be mercifully spared and this time I would be the only target of Smith's vile revenge. An empty victory for us all.
"It is a slow, lingering poison, Holmes. Yours will be a painful end -- I shall enjoy watching every agonizing moment of your collapse!"
Only a momentary fear for myself flashed through my mind. Soothing relief instantly drowned it. My single thought was that Holmes was saved.
I felt Holmes' intent eyes upon me and met the look with all the courage I could summon. It was a strange moment of silent communication when every thought was clear to the other. I saw the painful regret in his eyes; the recognition when he easily read my own relief that the poison would claim only half of our partnership.
Silent, yet expressive anguish palpably emanated from him. The sting of tears burned at the back of my eyes; this would be so painful for my friend. I knew exactly what he was feeling. Yet, still I selfishly was glad it was I who would die this time.
"It will be quite entertaining to see who will die first," Smith almost screeched with delight. "Will it be the mighty Holmes or his fool lackey?"
"Damn you!" Holmes exploded.
The rare eruption of savage condemnation was as jolting and effective as the intensity of his anger. Wrath reverberated in the room electrified with strained emotions. Obvious hatred glared from him to Smith. "I'll see you die for this!" he promised in a low, trembling voice.
"I hardly think so, Holmes. I shall have the pleasure of seeing you the first one consigned to the flames of Hell!"
He seized the decanter and threw it into the fire. The explosion of glass and liquor shot flames bursting from the hearth. Holmes instantly dashed behind me and lunged for my desk. Two shots cracked even as I dove forward to push Holmes from the line of fire. Before I could reach him, I saw his body jerk from the impact of a bullet.
"Stand clear, Doctor!"
I ignored Smith's shout and grabbed for my friend, who had been thrown onto the floor. With nerveless hands I lifted Holmes by the shoulders. I nearly passed out from the intensity of relief when I saw he was still alive; nearly cried out with joy when I saw his wound was a minor graze on his upper right arm.
My throat was too tight and dry to say anything more.
He offered a slight nod and a twitch of a quick smile indicating he was all right.
Then I realized I had the opportunity to finish Holmes' heroic attempt. Even as I thought of reaching toward the desk, I felt the press of cold steel upon my head.
"Try it, Doctor," Smith challenged in a low, dangerous voice. "It might be amusing to watch your brains blown onto your friend, the brilliant detective!"
I swallowed hard, my bravado drained as I saw Holmes cover a fleeting, horrified expression.
"Don't, Watson," Holmes insisted.
Thoughts of impulsive heroics fled from my mind. There would have to be another plan, another chance. Even if I was under a death sentence, I could not throw my life away yet. How could I purposefully cause my friend such pain in a futile and empty gesture?
Now I had a patient who required my attention. I would focus on that for the moment and place our lives in the hands of fate and Holmes' wit. I had no doubt his agile mind was churning through possible escapes from our trap.
Smith kept the pistol at my head as he took my Webley from the drawer. "Move away, Doctor," he ordered as he backed to the sofa and sat down.
I helped Holmes to his feet. My friend was shaky and pale. The sleeve of his black coat now silkily, fluidly dark from the growing blood stain.
"Get away!" Smith screamed.
"I have a patient to tend to," I muttered without even glancing at the madman. "Sit down, Holmes," I ordered and gestured him to a chair by the table.
"No! Get away or I shoot!"
Losing grip of the thin vestiges of control, which I barely retained I impatiently shouted back, "Then shoot, damn you, and finish it! I am already a dead man --"
"-- finish your deed and shoot! Otherwise I will take care of my friend!"
My back to Smith, I heard the metallic click of a hammer and I held my breath.
"Watson, please ignore your diligent tenacity and do as he says," Holmes commanded sternly.
I ignored them both as I carefully tore at the ripped sleeve. I pressed my handkerchief to the wound to temporarily stop the bleeding.
"Doctor, I'll kill you!"
Holmes seized my wrist with a grip which numbed my hand. "Watson --" Concern for my safety was a naked plea in his eyes. He took a breath and suppressed his momentary emotional outburst with an iron control. "Watson!" He ordered with that commanding manner of which I could do naught but, as always, obey his wishes.
"The wound is only superficial," he assured. A flexing of his hand proved no serious damage, yet I saw through the brave show; saw the pain, saw his face pale and drawn from the shock of the injury and the untenable situation.
Reluctantly I stepped away and stood by the mantle as Smith ordered. I tried not to fidget as Smith stared from me to Holmes. The man was utterly deranged. No way to guess what his next outrage might be. I vowed I would take any risk if it seemed Smith was going to attack Holmes again.
At that moment, I committed my life to Holmes' safety. Much as Holmes must have committed himself to self-sacrifice to rid the world of Moriarity. The only difference now was that my life no longer mattered -- no longer held any value. I was a walking dead man. The only purpose left me was to assure my friend's life was spared.
"I have misjudged things, I fear," Smith admitted, his voice very quiet and calm.
'Join the club,' I thought wryly as I glanced at my friend.
There was an ache of sorrow in my heart for Holmes. I knew well by the look in his expressive eyes that he was silently berating himself for this situation; blaming himself for being fallible, for not having control of this deadly moment. I shared his sense of desperation and violation -- that this nightmare from our past had entered our cozy room and warped our lives with a vengeance we had never imagined. Even if, by some miracle we survived this siege, our lives would be forever scarred by this intrusion. Certainly Holmes would never be the same (nor would I since I would be dead, I thought in a flash of black humor)
"I am entertained you hold some form of affection for your dull lackey."
Holmes snarled viciously. "Not another word of Watson--"
"All these years I thought it was only his mindless devotion to the great detective --"
Never have I seen my friend's face etched with such cold, deep lines of hatred. He leaped to his feet. Fortunately, he held his ground. His tone was brittle and iced with loathing as he leered at the gunman. "As usual, Smith, you have underestimated your opponents."
I felt Holmes tense as if to spring at Smith.
Quickly I interrupted, "As you have overrated your skills with poison."
I was glad to see I had defused a bit of tension from my companion. He continued to stare with malevolence at Smith, yet I knew he had given second thoughts to an impulsive attack. He sank into the chair, apparently spent. Yet, I noted his manner was of a crouching tiger waiting to spring upon his prey
Smith spared only a fleeting glance at me. "You will soon feel the effects of the slow, agonizing poison, Doctor."
"I still feel well," I defiantly snapped.
The retort was for Holmes' benefit. It was a feeble attempt to lessen the desolation I saw in his eyes. He had not surrendered, but he clearly held little hope for our survival. His eyes flicked my way with a silent show of gratitude and acknowledgement. It was as good as a shout to me that all was not lost.
"'Physician heal thyself,'" Smith sniggered. "It will take more than your pathetic ineptness -- more than your friend's ego to save you now!"
A small comfort was that Smith would never know how devastatingly effective his revenge was. Could he ever conceive the guilt and pain he had wrecked on my friend? Holmes would never forgive himself for indirectly causing my death. Aside from my natural instinct for survival, I now found myself desperate to live. How could I allow my death to weigh on my friend's sensitive conscience?
Fine trickles of sweat slid down my neck. I resisted the nervous urge to wipe away the moisture. I wondered if this was the first symptom of the poisoning. I pushed the thought away, not wishing to linger on the possibilities. Soon enough, no doubt, I would have an intimate knowledge of the poison's effects.
"There is one thing you could do, Holmes."
The silky evil in his tone was enough to send chills slithering along my spine. What was Smith about to suggest which was so terrifying I was instinctively afraid to hear? Holmes' expression remained cold and unmoved. Both of us seemed to hold our breaths for the next horror to unfold.
With one hand, Smith dexterously unsnapped the Webley's chamber and shook bullets onto the floor. With a flick, the chamber snapped back into place. Smith came to his feet. With the air of a showman, he carefully placed the Webley on the table near Holmes. Smith pointed his revolver at me as he backed to the other side of the room.
"A shoot-out at ten paces?" Holmes asked without humor. "Duels are hardly your style. Ambush is more in character."
"There is a single bullet in the chamber, Mister Detective."
"Yes, yes," Holmes said impatiently with a wave of his hand. I almost smiled at his characteristic sharpness when someone took too long to come to an important comment. "My vision is unimpaired, Smith."
With a nod Smith glanced at my near-empty glass of port on the desk and Holmes' glass on the mantle
"The Doctor drank more of his poison, Holmes. He will be the first to die. You will have the opportunity to watch him suffer."
There was an irrational glimmer of pride in my heart as I saw Holmes' non-reaction and superb control to the barb, which I knew, was a sharp blade of pain to his soul. I was also grateful we had continued to deceive Smith, who did not realize Holmes had never touched the port.
With his best superior air of impatience, Holmes sighed. "Do get to the point, Smith before my colleague and I are both dead from the boredom."
"Laugh now, Holmes!" he rattled. "Will you laugh when you use that bullet to kill your dullard friend?"
Holmes' head snapped round toward Smith so sharply I imagined I heard the crack of his neck. For a breathless moment, he stared at Smith as he would a diseased, rotting animal. Holmes' face had paled to an almost transparent shade of chalk. There was a rigid tautness in his jaw; tangible emanation of cold, merciless hatred vibrated from every fibre of his being.
"You are mad!" It was a barely audible whispered condemnation. Holmes' voice scraped his contempt.
"You will kill him."
"I will not!" Holmes' enunciated crisply, the shout echoing round the walls of the haunted room. "Well you know I would never contemplate such an act!"
"You will do it!"
"I would sooner place the bullet in my own head!"
Smith kept a steady aim on me; otherwise, I would have risked the folly of jumping the madman. I would certainly risk anything to save Holmes.
As my emotions now bounced from one horror to another, my mind tried to comprehend the awful choice Smith was presenting to my friend. Some terrifying premonition whispered that Smith still had more evils saved for us. I knew Holmes would never kill me and would indeed allow his own death first. His noble self-sacrifices had been already demonstrated at Reichenbach. At this more personal dilemma, Holmes would not hesitate to exchange his life for mine.
I wondered if Smith could read the aggression in my friend's body, could see Holmes was an instant away from snatching the pistol. Holmes was certainly prepared, yet I knew he hesitated because Smith still held the revolver on me.
"Do you need a bit of encouragement, Holmes?"
Smith divided his attention between Holmes and myself as he walked round the sofa and approached me. I tensed, waiting for an opportunity to attack. The only thing keeping me in check was the knowledge that Holmes would be the one to suffer if I was too rash. As long as we lived, there was hope.
Without warning a bullet slammed into my left shoulder just as I heard the report of the pistol. I was thrown back against the mantle.
"Watson!" I heard Holmes cry.
My fingernails scraped on the wood as I vainly flailed to remain standing. A coppery, bitter taste was in my mouth. Cordite stung the air. I was strangely aware of every detail of the moment as I quaked from the shock of the wound and slid to the floor as my legs gave out. Momentarily, my vision washed to black
I heard the scratch of the chair as Holmes leaped to his feet.
"Stay Holmes, or I kill him now!" Smith shouted.
I clutched my throbbing shoulder, my eyes blurring from the hot stinging. As bad luck would have it, the bullet was near my old wound, intensifying the pain.
Holmes had the Webley pointed at Smith. My friend's face was tight with emotion, his eyes shimmering. What prevented him from firing? Smith still held his pistol at me.
Not many months ago, I had seen this same expression of fear when Evans had shot me. It had been a moment when I had seen the rare depth of emotion my friend was capable of revealing under great duress. Holmes hesitated to take the risk of firing while Smith yet had a dead bead on my head. Holmes' marksmanship was not of the first order. Smith seemed to have the edge there.
"I'm all right, Holmes," I lied as soon as I could catch my breath.
I slowly struggled to my feet in a show of normalcy I did not feel. The wound was not serious, yet I was growing too old take these injuries in stride.
"Another twist for this quaint little affectionate melodrama you have provided for me." The revolver still aimed at me; Smith backed away, unconcerned that Holmes would shoot him. "Kill him, Holmes!"
"Never!" Holmes savagely shouted.
I saw this macabre turn had taken my friend off balance once again. For one of the few times in his life he was confused and trapped in a seemingly hopeless web of an enemy. Neither of us comprehended Smith's game. Torture? Demanding us to kill each other? The rantings of a madman, surely, but this lunatic held the power. Worse than our inability to understand Smith, was the lack of control for the situation.
"Shoot him or I will wound him again. I could empty the gun delivering painful wounds not immediately fatal, Holmes. He could bleed to death before the poison takes effect."
Smith's sneer was vicious as he glared at Holmes. "I tire of the game, Holmes. There is no need to stall for time. Do you think anyone will come to your aid? If anyone heard the shots in this storm they would ignore them thanks to your eccentric reputation!"
"So much for indoor target practice," I commented with quiet ruefulness.
I was rewarded with the flash of a thin, quick, mirthless smile from my friend as his intent eyes, darkened with emotion, locked onto mine. "I promise I shall never indulge in the vice again."
"Enough!" Smith screamed. Bouncing from rage to laughter to agitation, the madman was beyond the brink of sanity. I feared what new threat he would produce. "Kill him now or I shoot again!"
"I will shoot you instead."
"And risk my trigger finger popping a fatal bullet into his brain? I think you will not take the risk, Holmes! Not after I have seen you are not completely heartless and soulless. I have seen a glimmer of humanity within you tonight, Holmes! And it will be your downfall!"
Holmes shook his head and dropped the Webley to his side.
Vibrating with anger Smith turned the pistol to Holmes. "Then I will kill you, and your lackey will be left to my mercy!"
"No!" I shouted desperately.
"Then convince him, Doctor. Beg for his life! I will count to three. One!"
"Holmes, save yourself!" I pleaded. Realizing I had almost given away Holmes' safety I quickly added, "Save yourself time, Holmes."
"Stop, Watson --"
I flinched at the pain in his eyes, yet I continued with a bluntness which was cruel. "I am already dead --"
"Enough!" he commanded.
This time my own desperation overrode my instinctive obedience to his personality. "I won't have you killed before my eyes! Do you think I could stand your death a second time!"
Holmes visibly started at the fear in my tone, at the confession, which I had never before voiced. Perhaps the hopelessness of the situation robbed me of optimism and faith for a miracle. Whatever the cause, I was now determined to use my life in trade for Holmes'. A more than worthy offering in my opinion.
"Raise the pistol," I urged, my voice tight, hardly a whisper.
"My dear Watson," said he, tired, drained. "How could I ever harm you?"
I fought to blink back the absurd tears stinging my eyes. How ridiculous that our partnership would end in an argument -- fighting to save the life of the other. The depth of our friendship was a touching testimony of a mutual affection, which would be tragically ended within moments.
Never had I seen such an open expression of love on his face. Over the years, I had come to accept his valued, yet sparse, bits of praise as the only acknowledgement I would ever receive of his affection for me. In turn, out of respect for his reticence, I restrained from comments of my own regard of my friend, allowing most of my respectful opinions voiced in the accolades I gave him in my accounts of our adventures. I abstractly wondered if that was one reason Holmes disliked my narratives. Holmes was such a private person and discussion of any emotion left him embarrassed and off-balance. Odd the emotions bubbling within a mind unable to cope with reality any longer.
To my surprise, Holmes abruptly raised the pistol to arm's length. The barrel was unsteadily pointed in my direction. His resolute eyes stared at me above the sights of the Webley. I was hardly aware of the weapon.
I locked onto my friend's bright, grey/green, glistening eyes.
"I am so very sorry, my dear Watson," he whispered.
My heart wrenched from the terrible hurt in his voice, in his face. In a kind of mental fireworks-burst comprehension dawned in a sickening flash of realization. I suddenly understood what hideous impulse he contemplated -- the impossible ploy, which lurked within the most cunning and brilliant mind in England. How ridiculous to think he WOULD ever harm me. He would, again, choose his own sacrifice in trade for my doomed life. He would try a shoot-out with Smith. With the realization came a simultaneous understanding that he would not succeed.
As if overtaken by a vision -- the familiar sitting room faded away. I was once again on the misty, sodden ground of Reichenbach Falls. With the image returned the painfully acute sensation of grief, despair and agony I had suffered when I thought Holmes to have died at the Falls. My heart ached as I recalled those devastating moments/days/years when I suffered from his death.
Time stopped as my mind raced past those nearly overwhelming memories and sensations to our present predicament. I knew for a certainty I could not live through the agony of his death a second time. I would do anything, risk anything, to save Holmes from further injury, from death. I would willingly -- gladly -- give my life in forfeit, or even along with his, rather than experience again the stark, aching loneliness of an empty existence without my friend. Far better to enter the next dimension together, as we had entered so many other investigations in our partnership.
I had only an instant to act. I seized the glass of port within easy reach on the mantle. The action turned Smith's eyes toward me.
In that second my friend spun round and aimed the Webley at Smith, who saw the action from the corner of his eye and turned back to Holmes. I threw the glass, which smashed against Smith's arm. Just then the revolver bucked as he pulled the trigger in nearly the same instant. From the periphery of my eye, I had the impression of Holmes collapsing back against the table.
"Holmes!" I shouted.
I raced toward Smith. The villain had recovered enough to take aim at me and I realized my time had run out. Even as I charged over the sofa to reach him, I felt the impact of a bullet in my chest as I tumbled atop Smith. My anger, desperation, or hateful rage momentarily numbed the pain and shock from my mind. My single, last purpose was to see Smith in Hell before I left my earthly existence for whatever plane I would be assigned. It mattered not where I spent eternity; I would be comforted for aeons by this vengeance for my friend's blood.
We crashed against Holmes' desk then slammed into the wall. Glass splintered and shattered as our shoulders hit the window. We struggled for possession of the pistol. For a perilous moment, I had the sensation of falling; my mind obliquely wondering if this was what it must have felt like for Moriarty as he tumbled down the abyss to death.
Thoughts fragmented with almost hallucinogenic etherealness: Cold snow blew into my face. Glass sliced my skin. My shoulder snagged on the jagged windowpane. The weight of Smith slipped from my hands. The ceiling of the sitting room appeared as I stared up from the floor where I had collapsed
My vision contracted with black-edged numbness. Parts of my mind, my body, were coiled with pain. My entire chest ached; throbbing, hot, sharp -- agony, which radiated and pulsed with each breath. Some analytical portion of my thoughts instinctively categorized the moistness of blood on my skin, the acrid, burning/stale smell of gunpowder and blood, which permeated the cold room.
The torment was now so engulfing I felt little reaction to the knowledge that I was dying. The blackness pressed closer as I slipped toward unconsciousness. Curiosity turgidly wove through my thoughts and I wondered if Holmes was yet alive. If I had not saved him, then I would gladly slip into the void, for this life would hold nothing for me without my friend. I heard myself calling his name without being aware that I was speaking. With the dream-like resonance of a spirit-whisper I heard the well-loved voice speak my name.
The blurred image of Holmes' face appeared very close to me. I would have thought him a fevered imagining except for the tangible, strangling grip as he lifted me into his arms.
"Watson!" he cried out with desperate anguish, my name a demand, a plea. His eyes filled with tears.
Strange images cluttered my incoherent, jumbled thoughts: Holmes pledging life in trade for Moriarty's. The cold, swirling mists of Reichenbach Falls. Holmes standing in the morgue contemplating death; on the wind-cold Cornish moors facing and conquering death -- the final mystery not even the great detective could solve. Ironic I would solve this mystery before Holmes.
There was so much I wanted to say, but I had no strength left to speak. I no longer had the awareness to think beyond the confused, grateful amazement that I had fulfilled my only purpose in life -- protecting my friend. Knowing I had not failed Holmes would take me into the next world with the only comfort I had ever needed.
I have never pretended to be a chronicler, although I have often teased and threatened Watson that I would compete one day with his accounts of my cases. To take up my pen and note what took place on that cold night when vengeance preyed upon us in the form of Culverton Smith, is a step into a foreign land for me. I have decided to take notes so the details of the tragedy will remain clear and precise for my own purposes. Although I could never forget the burning catastrophe of events which transpired in our once quiet and peaceful sitting room, these notes will keep alive the potency of the drama when time has naturally faded the intensity of emotions
There was a great, unforgettable lesson taught to me on that evening which I shall never forget, which I shall never allow to diminish because it was taught at such a terrible price.
After Watson succumbed to unconsciousness, I held him in my arms for uncounted time. I was unable to move; unwilling to release my grip on my friend, afraid his life would melt away if I separated from him.
My right side ached from where the bullet had struck my cigarette case. The physical bruise was a mere outward manifestation of what I felt inside from the terror which had gripped us this night.
I finally realized I could endanger Watson's chance for survival if I did not act quickly. Reluctantly I released my hold and laid him gently on the floor. I shouldered out of my jacket and used it to press onto his wound.
"Hardly worth the candle," I whispered with a shuddering, hoarse voice. For the first time in my life I cared not about the display of excruciating emotions. Tears slid down my cheeks.
"Watson . . . I need you."
I was worn, shaken and stunned by the series of deadly events which I had miscalculated and misjudged all along the line. Beyond the cold wind blown in through the broken window, I felt chilled to the bone. My hands shook as I lingered to assure Watson still breathed.
How often I reminded Watson I was a calculating, thinking machine with controlled emotions. How empty those words seemed now. How brittle the cold facade when measured with the acts of a madman who had forced me to confront feelings I had hidden even from myself.
I shakily rose from the floor and crossed to the open window. Several people had gathered round Smith's body. Constable Roberts was examining the deceased. Abstractly I considered how this new outrage would upset the neighbors/attract the press/enhance my reputation. A body thrown from a window following a shoot-out was certainty a novelty even for us! I shouted for Roberts to send for Doctor Oakshot of Oxford Street. Sir Leslie was an old colleague of Watson's as well as a physician accustomed to our dangerous profession. The shoot-out, I thought, would not surprise him.
I dashed back to Watson. Blood loss had paled his face and his pulse was weak. I covered him with a rug which had been thrown to the floor during the struggle. I realized my measures were naught more than busy work until Oakshot arrived. I had little medical training for the living and my usually calm nerves were oddly shattered. I had difficulty keeping my mind on coherent or productive thoughts. There was a drained sense of fatigue, mingled with a distracting surge of panic, both of which were a struggle to suppress. How could a controlled, trained reasoner allow his emotions to riot out of order? Now was the time when methodical and reasonable wits were needed to deal with the situation. I found my thoughts disordered and erratic. My feelings were confused with anger, guilt, anxiety and fear.
Smith had held the upper hand throughout the evening. He had anticipated every angle, had beat me to every alternative and nearly succeeded in his diabolical plot. Perhaps he was still ahead -- still winning -- and the thought unnerved me.
I pressed my hand to Watson's cool face. This was so much more frightening than the recent incident with Killer Evans. I had still not overcome the guilt from my oversights and carelessness in that shooting. Now Watson was so much more grievously wounded. If he did not live -- no -- his wound was not so serious.
The blood loss was incredible; splashes of red were smeared across the floor and wall; his clothes, his face. If he was too injured -- I could not even finish the thought for there was no emotional reference, which I could relate or compare. A kind of cold, black wall engulfed my heart as I thought of the consequences. IF Watson did die, then Smith's revenge would truly have been far deeper and greater than he could have imagined. I could hardly conceive of how devastating Watson's death would be. Added to my grief would be the crushing guilt that I had brought this upon my friend -- the realization of my haunting nightmares -- my greatest fear.
How much easier it had been to sacrifice myself in trade for ridding the world of Moriarty. Like some legendary knigh,t I had seen my risks as somehow heroic. My folly in testing the devil's root, my cocaine poisoning, were examples of misplaced reason, ways to protect myself from betrayal. I was too afraid of life to really fear death.
What I had found in this confused existence was that meaning and acceptance had been with me all along, if I had but recognized it. Watson changed everything. I learned whenever I threw myself into the arms of some fate -- Watson threw himself alongside in my wild descent. He refused to abandon me, refused to condemn me, even when I deserved it most. Because of Watson, life held substance and meaning. I was now afraid to face the world without him. The culmination of my most fearful nightmare had been realized. Tonight, too late, I comprehended the true meaning of life and death and I was confronted with my darkest fear. Not just losing Watson, but losing him because he tried to save my life.
Did I ever understand the meaning of heroics until tonight? Did I ever know sacrifice and honor until Watson threw himself upon our enemy to save me? Did I ever understand bleak loneliness, or fear, until now? My recklessness had never seemed so meaningless. My friend's blood had never been so precious.
The running tramp of feet upon the stairs belonged to Doctor Oakshot and another man. They were breathless when they came through the door. I gave them no opportunity to think or act for themselves and instantly issued stern commands. Watson was taken up to his room, and Oakshot demanded I not follow. The imperious command was both rude and insulting and only obeyed in my interest for Watson to receive immediate care.
The second physician, Doctor Moore Agar, (the irritating mental specialist Watson had once brought in for consultation) was visiting Oakshot at the time of Constable Roberts' summons. Agar insisted on treating my own forgotten wound, which now seemed trivial compared with the other blood-lettings of the evening. With ill grace I endured his ministrations in the hope of being rid of him once he thought his duty fulfilled. He expressed incredulity that my life had been spared by the random luck of a cigarette case. He could not know my only source of true luck was lying gravely wounded upstairs.
Mrs. Hudson had returned in the aftermath of the crisis. The shocked landlady hovered about until I issued heartless and brusque orders for her to leave me in peace. Only later did I consider we might be evicted for the night's chaos and my rudeness.
After my arm was bandaged, Agar offered to pour us some brandy --
"The port!" I cried out.
How dense was I to forget the poison! The Doctor must have thought me a prime patient for his specialty, for I instantly leaped from the sofa to Watson's desk where his glass of port still rested. I silently cursed Smith. How many evil surprises were left? There was still no certainty that Watson would survive the bullet wounds, yet he would certainly die of the poison.
Panic once more threatened to cancel my reason, yet I suppressed the mental chaos and fell back on the comforting routine of analysis. Using the remaining port, I searched for a clue to the poison. Already I knew it was not the same poison used by Smith to kill his nephew. Watson's symptoms were nothing similar . . . there were no visible symptoms.
I fell back upon my maxim of eliminating the impossible and judging what remains. Lack of symptoms, poisons available to Smith in prison or in his flight from prison, mild taste to be unnoticed in the port. For the first and only time in that fateful evening, I felt confident I had finally emerged one step ahead of Smith. I thoroughly checked and double-checked my theory. There was no room for error this time. The tests proved there was no poison in the port. Smith had added a harmless flavor extract! A simple ruse, which worked because Watson's cold, prevented him from tasting the extract.
"Hah!" I shouted with joy.
Agar crowded next to me, but I ignored his questions.
I wondered if the simple, cruel deception had been deliberate, or if Smith had been so deranged he had thought the extract a poison.
Then a test tube slipped from nerveless hands as a reaction set in -- my own chemical reaction to the plot. Seething anger, however, overtook relief. There had been no need for Watson to risk his life so impetuously -- he was not dying -- not from the poison.
With hot, impulsive rage I swept glass beakers and tubes from the table. The anger was directed at myself. I should have seen -- from Smith's impatient forcing of gunplay that there was never any poison! The truth brought sober and humbling realization. With or without the threat of poison Watson would have risked his life to save mine. His protective instincts were stubbornly directed at me even when I least deserved such devotion. Indeed, when I was determined to throw away my life: Reichenbach, the Cornish horror, Culverton Smith, cocaine; Watson was there to shield me from my impetuousness at every turn
I wondered why Watson held me in such high regard. Did it never occur to him that it was I who needed him far more than he needed me? More than likely he had come to that insightful realization years before. Emotions were something I suppressed, ignored and thus did not understand. It had taken years for me to comprehend what friendship and loyalty meant even though, throughout our partnership, Watson was a sterling example of those admirable traits. It had taken until now -- past the Ripper, Evans, Gruner, Smith -- for me to truly realize how much a part of me he was. Through this traged,y I understood the meaning in my life; my reason to live, my friend worth my life.
For a blur of time, I stared at the chemical table without seeing anything beyond the swirling turmoil of my dark thoughts. I sunk my head into my hands, overcome with the burden of guilt. I determined that if Watson lived I would put this hard-won survival to good use. There would be no more risks of our lives, no more games of mental agility with criminals who could wipe away the life of someone I valued beyond understanding. I vowed the thrill of the chase would be spent on less vicious prey in future.
Perhaps we would put Mycroft to good use. A momentary twinge of doubt filtered to mind. Watson did not want to join ranks with my brother yet was too polite and tactful to let his feelings sway my opinion. Keenly sensitive in human relations, he felt the chasm still separating he and Mycroft and sensed the dismissal in Mycroft's attitude. Watson had never forgotten the rejection in those three years when I was absent from London; for the false impression of my death, for the restrictions imposed upon him along with the rest of the world. I myself found it hard to forgive my brother for his unfortunate insistence of not sharing my escape with Watson
Reichenbach had left a myriad of lingering ghosts, which we might never dispel.
"Do you think I could stand your death a second time?"
The agony in his tone still echoed in my mind. Until that moment, I never realized that my supposed death was still an open wound to my friend.
Working for Mycroft did not necessarily mean frequent contact with my brother. Watson and I would be among many other minions in the government service. It would offer independence, a chance to leave London -- even the country -- and still keep our hands in matters of mystery and intrigue. Mycroft's concern for my well-being would ensure assignments of relatively low risk. This new consideration, however, was contingent upon the assumption that Watson would want to continue with the partnership after tonight. Contingent upon surviving his attack.
Please God, I would not know the anguish Watson knew at the edge of the Falls.
"Pon my word, Mister Holmes, you look half-dead!"
I spun round, startled to see Lestrade as he barreled into the room, crunching broken glass underfoot. Constable Roberts appeared only steps behind. Their arrival jarred me. I had been so concentrated on my inner thoughts I had not heard the policemen enter. For some reason I felt disconcerted that the Yard representatives would find me at such a disadvantage. My omniscient, infallible reputation would come down a notch or two because of this escapade.
Immediately I was ashamed of my reaction. Watson had been shot and I worried over my standing in the eyes of Scotland Yard! I truly was in some form of shock
"Lestrade, I hardly expected you," I said brusquely.
"Mister Holmes, are you all right?"
My nerves were all in knots and I sharpened my tongue on the easy target of the Inspector. "As you perceive I am fine," I snapped, gesturing round.
"And the Doctor?"
"The physicians are with him now."
If somewhat cold, my voice was surprisingly calm and normal. Strange, since the very question had created a lump in my throat. I was unwilling and unable to offer more details of my friend's condition.
Off balance himself, Lestrade was glancing round the room.
Unable to give the attention or patience to the police at the moment, I brushed past the Inspector. "If you will excuse me, Lestrade --"
"The blood . . . ." He continued to survey the room. "Doctor Watson, then . . . . " his speculations trailed off into stunned silence. "Mister Holmes, I can't tell you how sorry I am."
The Inspector settled into a chair, obviously insistent on discussing the evening's events. He hovered irritatingly close as I paced the small corner of the sitting room, which was farthest from the scene of battle.
"If only I had arrived on time."
His odd choice of words arrested my attention.
I released a sharp sigh of impatience. "What do you mean, Lestrade?" Puzzled, I gathered my scattered thoughts and directed my full mental energies to him. I noted, with some surprise, the drawn, thin face contrite with guilt. "Why do you say that?"
"Smith was being transferred when he escaped, Mister Holmes. Transferred to Bedlam. He was mad, you know. When he so cleverly escaped this afternoon I should have guessed he would come after you and Doctor Watson."
Anger and frustration bubbled within. That this tragedy could have been prevented was enough to drive ME to the brink of madness.
"You knew he was free and you never thought to warn us!" Rage flooded my mind. "Lestrade, how could you be so careless!" I shouted. "Idiot! How --"
I checked further, insulting accusations before they left my tongue and were thus nonretractable. I automatically thought of what Watson would think of my screaming like a fishmonger at the Yarder. It would be so easy to loose my frustrations on this available scapegoat, culpable though he was. How lost was I without my buffer, my Watson. It would be unworthy, however, to place the blame at his feet when it so obviously belonged at mine.
Lestrade's pale, thin face was a visible mark of remorse and self-condemnation. He was well aware of his guilt. My anger had dissipated enough to see reason. Lestrade could not have known Smith would come here, could not have predicted his dementia.
After further quiet apologies, which I ignored, Lestrade left. Too many tumultuous thoughts crowded in my mind to worry about the police Inspector. Rationality boggled at the might-have-beens and permutations of how the tragedy could have changed or even been avoided.
I might have anticipated the danger if I had known. Possibly not. As Watson has often pointed out I am quite blind to matters of my own safety. Smith's appearance was little more than an annoying surprise until I learned Watson (supposedly) had been poisoned.
If I possessed half the deductive skills I claim I should have foreseen not only Smith's mania but also the ultimate and inevitable outcome of the night.
'I thought I knew my Watson,' was a comment I had told him years ago on the brink of my rash devil's root experiment. I should have anticipated his ridiculous predilection for self-sacrifice. He would do ANYTHING -- including forfeiting his own -- to save my life. How could I ever doubt it? It was clear from every crisis we had ever faced together.
"Do you think I could stand your death a second time?"
That heart-rending cry should have been the clearest clew of all! I should have foreseen it all if I had only observed with my feelings and emotions instead of my logic. A glance out the window revealed light tinging the sky. Without interest, I noted someone had placed boards over our broken window.
The grim blood-trails remained as lingering remnants of my friend's valiant struggle. The crimson stained walls were a tangible materialization of the recurring terror of Watson giving his life to save mine. This near-brush with losing Watson left me numb with fear. It had been too close tonight and would fuel new nightmares far into the future
I heard Oakshot's tread upon the steps. For a moment it felt as if my heart was suspended in a beat. Despite the cool of the room, there was a sweat upon my brow. A shadow of fear loomed black in my mind: What if my nightmares came true? What if Watson had not survived? Is that why Oakshot would not allow me upstairs? Had he known all along there was no hope? What was there for me without Watson?
For a breathless moment, I imagined an existence without my friend: a scattering of shattered, random elements adrift in a vast emptiness. Dependency upon Watson was my greatest strength and weakness. From the void, the siren-song of cocaine gained volume, offering false control of a future with none.
When Oakshot entered the room I sprang to meet him at the door.
"He is weak. He lost a great deal of blood. The sedative will keep him asleep for several hours."
I swallowed a dry catch in my throat. "He will live?"
"Certainly," he responded with confidence. "His wounds are not life-threatening, but will take him a time to recover."
Relief left me nearly limp. I probably would have collapsed had I not felt compelled to see for myself that my friend was well. Oakshot attempted to stop me. His shouts about my own health followed me up the steps which I took two at a time. Watson had been shot in the chest, had he not? Perhaps, in the crisis, I had misjudged the angle . . . . Not taking the physician's word for it, I had to see for myself.
'I seldom listen to good Watson's warnings of my health,' I muttered caustically under my breath. 'Why should I listen to yours?'
For a moment I hovered in the doorway, my limbs shaking as I placed a steadying hand on the wall. Watson's face was pale and taut in the flickering gold lamplight. I slowly crossed to his side and leaned over the motionless form for some minutes
Instinctively I reached out and placed my hand on his wrist -- a final reassurance as I checked his pulse. It was a ridiculous, useless gesture, which inexplicably offered an odd peace.
Assured of his steady breathing and good pulse, I was confident Oakshot had diagnosed correctly. I settled into a nearby chair to keep a solitary, pondering vigil.
Confusingly indistinct, blurred images crowded my senses. After some time I distinguished my dull thoughts were from the slow rise to consciousness after experiencing shock and heavy sedation. It seemed long moments before I could categorize and define the various, mingling sensations of pain, warmth and comfort, which pressed, upon my mind.
The nightmarish vision of Culverton Smith tumultuously blended with the images of Holmes gunned down; of the fight with the madman, of my collapse. Thoughts jarred to a level of panic as I wondered if Holmes still lived -- even as my muddled recollections struggled to comprehend the conflicting images of Holmes shot, Holmes clutching me in his arms
I fought the turgid thickness of medication as I struggled to move, yet found I could barely open my eyes.
"Watson, be still."
My eyes snapped open; delighted, astonished, amazed to see the face of my friend leaning very close to me. As he sat on the side of my bed his hand was gently pushing my right, uninjured shoulder back against the bed.
I noticed sunlight shown from a crack in the curtain. I was in my bedroom in Baker Street. At least several hours had passed since our adventure with Smith.
"Please calm yourself, my dear friend. All is well."
Holmes' voice was firm and strong as was natural to him. Yet the dark circles under his serious eyes; the unkempt hair tousled on his forehead, the wan face attested to an unnatural strain.
"You're alive." I croaked harshly.
Holmes helpfully offered me sips of water. My body ached with every movement, but the water was cool and cleared my throat. "You were shot --" It was painful to speak or move. Yet my friend's miraculous recovery was more important than my own suffering.
"Calm yourself, Watson -- please," he implored with an exasperated sigh. "I am well. Truly. Now stop worrying. You have had a far worse time than I."
Holmes had cleaned, shaved and changed into fresh clothes. I noted his wounded right arm was held stiffly straight under his dressing gown. Yet he reached over and gripped my hand in an effort to further reassure me.
There were so many questions to find the answers for, yet my fatigue fought to rob me of consciousness. I was reluctant as well to suspend this contact with Holmes. His presence was far more beneficial than any other factor, which might aid my recovery.
A flash of a smile graced his expression. "You threw him out the window," he said with an unmistakable touch of pride. "I have always called you the man of action, Watson," was his fond comment, "yet this time you went nearly too far."
"A close thing," I added.
"Too close," he whispered.
Gripped in the lethargic cushion of sedatives I nodded, too muzzy to comprehend the full meaning of his comments.
The continuous ache from my left shoulder indicated my injuries were not life threatening. Consistent with his methods, Holmes read the silent ruminations from my expression and confirmed my diagnosis. Both bullet wounds had struck me near my old war injury, my left shoulder and collar bone. There would be weeks, even months of long recovery. Age would slow the healing process, yet I was heartened that my life would not be impaired from the attack
"You have had a sleepless night."
"For more than thirty hours you have kept me awake," he corrected gently yet firmly. "Now cease your professional concern, Doctor. I have been very worried about you, so you must not do anything to impair your recuperation."
I almost smiled at the rare, yet touching solicitude. "I shall be much calmer if I know what happened."
A grin quickly quirked at the corner of his mouth. "Blackmail, Watson? Doctor Oakshot is downstairs. If he finds I have tired you he will ban me from your sickroom." After the briefest hesitation he complied. "Very well, only if you remain still." For a moment his eyes darkened to a chameleon-dark grey, a sign of extreme anxiety. The planes of his face hardened from a haunting memory. "You have been though so much already."
I nodded my agreement. "Yes, yes. Now, how came you out of death's grip a second time?"
Holmes was unusually sober as he replied, "I was never within its grip this time, either."
He paused and I knew we both thought back to those years ago when he had returned from apparent death at the Falls. The memory of our conversation at his resurrection echoed between us.
He lifted his left hand from my shoulder and drew from his dressing gown pocket a familiar silver cigarette case
"You will never know how much your gift has come to mean to me," he said in a raspy voice as he turned the case round in his hand.
The case had been a Christmas present to my friend many years ago. It had weighted the farewell note Holmes left to me on the rock at Reichenbach Falls. I had returned the case the day Holmes had returned from his supposed death. Now Holmes pointed to an indentation on the etched-silver front. "You saved my life again, old friend. Smith's bullet never touched me."
"A miracle," I whispered.
Holmes seemed to study my face for a long time. "Yes, a miracle," he agreed quietly. I had the impression he spoke of something aside from the damaged case.
"But I should be dead," I realized after some moments. "The poison."
Holmes shook his head. "Smith was utterly deranged. There was never any poison. What his deranged mind thought was poison was rum extract poured into the port."
I felt the confusion shown upon my face and Holmes briefly smiled.
"Admittedly a poison," he wryly said, "but not fatal, thank heaven."
Again my thoughts must have clearly registered on my expression, for Holmes once more responded to my silent, terrible, dawning comprehension.
"Yes, it was all for naught. You nearly threw away your life because of his deranged fantasies." His tone was at once bitter and pained. His eyes so intent they seemed to bore into my soul. A visible chill shivered through his body and his hand on mine was momentarily cold.
"It was not for nothing," I countered with as much sternness as I could find in my dry and shaky voice.
"Dear friend, can you ever forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive," was my insistent response. "How could you predict Smith's vengeance?"
Holmes' hand spasmodically, nervously gripped my hand. "He came to claim my life and so nearly took yours instead."
Unsure how to handle his -- embarrassment -- I tried to slough it off. "It is past, Holmes. Don't let it trouble you so. We must forget it." Brave lies I myself could not believe. Never could I erase from my mind the fear and desperation I had known that night
I saw from Holmes' expression that he felt the emptiness of the words. Recognized the frail attempt at comfort for what it was; a hopeless striving to cope with something nearly beyond endurance.
With a trace of unusual self-consciousness he continued. "As I'm sure you noticed, I have difficulty -- expressing some of my -- feelings."› I opened my mouth to comment on this colossal understatement. Before I could speak he placed a finger on my lips to silence me. He leaned close, his entire demeanor intent.
"Watson, please allow me to finish. For the last terrible hours I have been trying to think of what to say." He flashed the briefest of crooked smiles. "I find that I am most certainly NOT the man of letters in our partnership."
In the many years of our partnership few times had I witnessed deep, turbulent emotions openly expressed by my reticent and controlled friend who prized logic and reason above all else. Never before had I seen such anguish, vulnerability and desperation displayed by Holmes as in that moment when he had held me in his arms; the moment I thought my last. Although my mind had been clouded; my memories distorted by pain, shock and impending blackness, I will forever remember those desperate moments which reaffirmed I held a valued place in the heart of my undemonstrative friend.
I was comforted beyond words to see my importance to him. A brief glimpse into Holmes' open soul was enough payment for all the dangers and trials I endured.
Sensitive to his proud nature I understood how difficult this confession was. In an attempt to spare him further embarrassment I said, "Holmes, there is no need to say more. I understand --"
His eyes warned me to silence and he quickly continued. "There IS a need, Watson. Don't ever risk your life like that again!" he admonished sternly. Then his voice deepened with raw emotion. "Can you imagine the -- fear -- I felt at losing you?"
"Yes," I responded seriously. "I know exactly what you feared."
He caught a breath of surprise, evidence he divined my exact meaning.
He leaned back, withdrawing his touch. He stretched out his long legs and for a moment stared at his slippered feet.
"Of course," he said with a quick, sideways glance. "I am sorry, Watson. How tactless of me."
"Holmes, we must put it behind us. We can't allow Smith to continue to influence us after his death. We must look to the future."
"As always, you are absolutely right, my friend. And if you feel up to it I shall take a brief moment to speak of the future."
Thankful that the shadow of anguish had passed from his face I immediately accepted his offer. My medical instincts whispered that it was an important part of Holmes' recovery to converse. Although I felt worn and drained, I fought to keep awake.
"If it is agreeable, Watson, I have decided to accept Mycroft's offer of employment."
It took a moment to remember Mycroft's suggestion for Holmes to engage in investigations for the Foreign Office.
"Because of Smith?"
I felt oddly reluctant to accept this change. Perhaps I saw it would alter our routine, change a comfortable lifestyle I now yearned to return to.
"In part," he reluctantly admitted.
I wondered of my own long range condition. A future of delicate health, a slow convalescence, would inhibit my effectiveness to Holmes. As these last adventures had proved with frightening clarity, danger was an ever-possible threat. Out of kindness Holmes would include me in any investigations, yet I doubted my own worth for future activities. I said as much to Holmes, offering a graceful opportunity for an end to our partnership.
Anger brightened his dark eyes and he snapped out, "Watson! You will never again suggest that!" His hand swept through the air like a knife to emphasize his adamant insistence.
He launched from the bed and for several moments paced the room with agitated, long strides. His breathing was quick and short; long fingers nervously tapping against the mantle when he would briefly pause there before resuming his pacing. Within a few moments control settled on his temper once more.
He drew a chair close to the bed. He leaned back, one leg over the other, arms crossed. His fingers still strummed nervously on his arm.
"This is a new century, Watson. I am tired of criminals. We are too old for these intrigues. It will do us good to have a change. Temporarily, at least, we will throw in our lot with my brother." With a knowing expression he said in an aside, "And I promise all will work out with the difficult sibling the Holmes family." He flashed me a quick smile. "After you have had a long and restful holiday, of course," he insisted firmly.
The explanation was rushed through, the words crowded together as was his wont when agitated or self-conscious. Then he paused, his next words much more paced.
"That is if you are agreeable. I would never consider such a change for this agency without consulting my partner."
Too tired to continue the concentration I simply nodded, "Of course."
"Unless you think we should retire from the field?"
I smiled at the joke. "You could no more retire than you could forsake your pipes," I said with a feeble attempt at firmness.
"You are undoubtedly right again, my friend," Holmes agreed. "Nevertheless," he continued decisively, "we will reveal to the world that I have retired to the country. We shall tell your literary agent you have married again."
Even my dulled mind realized these extreme measures were because of Smith's attack. There was no use debating Holmes' plot; his mind obviously set upon this course. My eyes closed, no longer able to fight the sleep, which pressed upon my mind.
Unaware, I muttered something about embellishing stories with colorful fiction. I could hear the amusement in his tone as he responded with, "Touché'." When he spoke again the light-heartedness was gone and his tone was deep and quiet. I felt him whisper in my ear. "What would I do without you, my friend?"
As I drifted to sleep his words comforted me with an overwhelming sensation of warmth. A warmth more encompassing than the blanket I felt him tuck round me