Due to Formatting problems, I have been forced to move the first chapters of "A Test of Professionals" to "An Ordinary Meeting." I am sorry for the confusion that will inevitably result. It really is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul! In lieu of apology, I've expanded with footnotes, and fleshing-out of characters while correcting mistakes.
Pot Luck (Christmas 1893; before the events that lead to THE ADVENTURE OF THE EMPTY HOUSE).
Gregson did his best, but a smile crept out of the corners of his broad face as he held the hat that had collected slowly and steadily the tithes of the Yard throughout the course of 1881 to 1893. "Here you are, Inspector. The dubious rewards of a most risky bet are now yours." He lifted his voice to everyone. "For I think we all admit, if Dr. Watson hasn't left his, ah…luxurious lodgings with Sherlock Holmes by this point, because of Sherlock Holmes, he never will!"
Lestrade wondered how much was actually in there. The sheer weight of coin had stretched the hat in its tenure of confinement as a lottery-bin. He knew Irish Tinkers who would insist on re-shaping the hat before it honoured their heads.
"Drinks are on Lestrade!" Someone piped up. It was probably Hopkins.
"So long as I get to pick the drinks!" Lestrade shot back, to a universal groan.
"You know those boys carry a fatal allergy to everything but malt." Bradstreet scolded. As his face was already pink from young French wine off the Alsace, he couldn't really scold with impunity.
"They knew the risks when they signed up." Lestrade poked around in the bottom and fished out three of the filthiest florins he could pass on to Gregson. "I believe that squares us for the races, Tobias." He smirked. Oh, I'll pay for this later, but carpe diem. He felt justified; with a new baby on the way that Clea insisted was the long-awaited daughter...well, no one could hardly blame him for his attitude.
"Ever a pleasure, Ratty." Gregson gave the coins an askance look, perhaps to make certain the minting stamp still existed, and slipped them in his pocket. "These things had better not melt when I put them in vinegar." He warned, sotto voce. "Or I'm after you for plus-interest."
"I accept your terms." Lestrade retorted comfortably, and returned to his glass of port.
The Inspector was feeling good despite the context. Christmas usually carried with it an entirely unique packet of trials, tribulations, and a slightly maniacal energy that countered brief periods of lassitude among the policemen. It was difficult to keep one's mind on work the closer one got to the holidays. Christmas trees caught on fire from the dangerous candlelit ornaments, people's tempers could flare like cannon fuse in their search for the perfect gift, and of course, a little thieving hit new and creative heights in the efforts to make good with their friends and family.
"—so his family asked if they could bring him a roasted bird for the holiday, and of course I said yes. Terrible enough to be behind bars away from your family." Youghal cleared his throat. "But when two sweet-faced moppets bat their lashes at me and ask to take their present to Papa, there was just something a little too treacle-y about the whole mess…"
Lestrade caught himself listening to Youghal with interest. Youghal was not known for his intuitive abilities. Far from it. As deficient as Lestrade was in that ability, he had little on Youghal. While a lessor man might feel smug in comparison, Lestrade only felt worry; Youghal rivaled Hopkins in his youthful exuberance and inability to understand things like departmental consequence.
"…wouldn't you know, there's a little something in the stuffing besides bread crumbs and sage!"
Lestrade opened his mouth to guess it was either a flask of brandy or a ball of opium (the usual items smuggled through gaol), but the room shivered with the peal off an empty platter smacked with the punch-ladle.
"Good…God!" Hopkins hissed while clutching the jaw that harboured a sore tooth. "This is Christmas, Bradstreet! Belsnickle's starts on the 6th!"
"Who's ready for another bet?" Bradstreet's face, red for all the holiday cheer, lifted his glass to unanimous roars. "I propose a challenge to see who truly is the best man in the Yard—Gregson or Lestrade!"
"God save us all." Lestrade said without thinking, and proving it truly was the season for miracles, Gregson echoed his mind. Stunned, they permitted themselves to be slapped into high-backed chairs and to the last lowly clerk, the attending staff of the Yard thundered out of the room—presumably to secure the means of the test.
"I don't like the looks of this." Gregson muttered. Despite the flush of a crabapple wine, his face was a little pale and moist from anticipation. "They've been planning this."
"How do you know?"
"Lestrade, for God's sakes, use the brains you have." Never let it be said that Gregson would forget to re-affirm his mental superiority over the other man. "Those hellions put their brains together and in the sake of their amusement at our expense, I've every faith they've discovered something we are universally bad at."
"We could always slip out the back." Lestrade pointed out.
"Already thought of that, ratty1. Bradstreet pushed the W-Z filing cabinet into the stairwell. The only way we can escape this is if we sprout wings and fly up the vent."
"How the—how the devil did he do that??"
"I've no idea, but my New Year's Resolution, which I'm starting right now, is not to anger him past the point of control." Gregson covered his nerves by lighting one of his cheap cigarettes. "Maybe he pulled the Warburton file2 out to make it lighter…God knows that took up most of the top drawer…"
"Button up, Euclid. Here they come."
The two Inspectors slapped neutral expressions and faced forward to the coming terror.
They knew it would be bad when they saw Baynes.
Baynes was not popular on the force. It wasn't out of any particular bad qualities he possessed. No one alive wrote such meticulous reports and turned them in ahead of schedule as consistently as the Surrey Inspector. It was just that, of all the men who broke their backs on a daily basis, Baynes' personality resembled Holmes the most.
Somehow, the resentment was compounded by the fact that Baynes never flaunted his skills to his fellow comrades—to non-policemen, yes. Absolutely. Smugly, even. But he never did that to his mates. The toll paid in this display of manners was the strain it took on the Yard, which never stopped waiting for the Damoclean Sword to drop on their heads. It was a universal truth that Baynes was utterly wasted in the country, but his lungs simply could not take the soot of London for more than a few days. That he was here for the holiday and standing as judge, jury and executioner was a measure of his loyalty to his duties.
That and a good heavy front keeping the pollution down in the streets.
"Seeing as how this should be a match of fine qualities," Baynes cleared his throat in a mockery of self-importance, and manfully ignored the heap of bobbies who were clinging to each other for support as they sniggered into their sleeves. "We propose a simple test of one's ability to retain composure in the face of adversity."
Lestrade looked at Gregson. Gregson looked at Lestrade. Their palpable confusion (tainted with terror) was quite noticeable.
"The first contestant will be decided by the toss of a coin." Bradstreet held up a rather large disk in his hand.
"That's a slug." Lestrade protested. Privately, his thoughts were elsewhere: How am I going to get back at Roger for this?? He knew that best friends were the best ones for plumbing the soft spots, but really...
"So it is." Baynes noted with aplomb. "And a potential credit to Inspector Lestrade, for noting the latest street-talk for a counterfeit coin." He tossed it lightly in the air and caught it. "I have noted in my studies, that if one were to toss an ordinary coin, the 'heads' side has a slight disadvantage, it being slightly heavier than the 'tails' side."
"We'll take your word for that, Baynes." Gregson said in a strained voice.
Baynes flipped, and the coin was caught by MacDonald.
"Heads." Lestrade said in resignation. Odd aside, he had a fairly equal chance of being humiliated.
"Tails." Gregson declared.
"To Gregson goes the first test!"
A new cheer wafted up. By now Lestrade was really starting to feel alarmed, but at least he could sit back and watch his enemy.
Baynes stepped forward with a copy of the Strand. Gregson groaned out loud at the too-familiar publication. "Please tell me this has nothing to do with Holmes."
Baynes managed to conjure an almost reasonable facsimile of injured feelings. "Why, no, sir. Not at all. This is a test of fortitude in the face of adversity. Might I inquire if either of you need reading-glasses?"
"No, certainly not."
"Very well. Inspector Lestrade, if you would be so kind as to face forward so the audience can see you…Inspector Gregson, if you would be so kind as to take this…" Baynes carefully snipped several large squares out of the Strand and handed the first one to the puzzled Gregson. "Your assignment, sir, will require a great deal of iron will—as will Inspector Lestrade."
"Just...get it out, man!" Gregson gnashed his words out through his teeth.
"Inspector Lestrade, your task is to listen to everything that Inspector Gregson reads without losing your composure. Inspector Gregson, your task will be to read aloud without losing your composure. Each of you will take a turn reading from this most fascinating account."
Gregson cleared his throat and looked down. "An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction."
Lestrade felt a mental groan bubble up in his brain.
"Not that I am in the least conventional in that respect myself." Gregson forged on ahead gamely. "The rough-and-tumble work in Afghanistan, coming on the top of natural Bohemianism of disposition, has made me rather more lax than befits a medical man. But with me there is a limit, and when I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs." Gregson strangled to a stop.
"Oh, dear. Inspector Lestrade, it's your turn."
Gregson passed the paper over with relief. Lestrade gulped hard and soon found where Gregson had left off:
"I have always held," Lestrade said in a thin voice, "that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime…" Everyone sucked in their breath as Lestrade struggled—hard—to keep his composure. Gregson was slowly changing colour for the worse. "And when Holmes, in one of his queer humors—Oh God, I can't do this." He hurriedly passed the paper back to Gregson, who turned even darker.
"…would sit in an armchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a panoptic V. R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it."
By this time, no one in the Yard (save the slowly expiring contestants) bothered to stay silent or serious. Bradstreet was hanging off Youghal, tears rolling down his usually sober face. MacDonald had lost the ability to stand under his own power some time ago. Hopkins was nowhere to be seen, but if the Clown Crime Ring of 1889 was any indication, he was probably hiding behind a desk, curled into a ball and giggling like a schoolgirl into the cracks between the floorboards.
Gregson slapped the papers to Lestrade again.
"Our chambers were always full of chemicals and of criminal relics which had a way of wandering into unlikely positions, and of turning up in the butter-dish or in even less desirable places." Lestrade froze, rather like a frog in a torchbeam about to receive his destiny at the wrong end of a gigging spear. "My god," he exclaimed. "I'm glad I always had tea when the doctor was present!" Brief visions of an accidental poisoning on part of Holmes' precocious carelessness danced through his head. Watson's presence took on a new level of importance in that light. He hoped the man still had a good stock of ipecac syrup on hand.
This, he realized, was going to be a long, arduous test.
There had to be some way of getting back at Watson for this.
1 In my world, Lestrade and Gregson have taken their sniping to the world of Watson's observations. Gregson borrows from the "rat-faced" description, while Lestrade calls Gregson "Euclid" in honour of his fat, square hands.
2 A tip of the hat to Watson's reference to Colonel Warbourton's madness.