What Really Happened:
"I think he's going to live!"
"Thank goodness." Lestrade said before thinking. Mrs. Kroger flashed him a look that was every bit as dangerous as the calf-eyes she'd just been giving him—only they were dangerous in a different way. "Less paperwork," Lestrade stammered—Good heavens, he still wasn't thinking. "He'll be wishing he were dead at the end of this day, Mrs. Kroger, I assure you."
Oddly enough, she seemed to accept that. "Well, I understand you wouldn't want to do any more writing than you needed." She said generously. "Bein' it's hard to be any good at it." The almost-widow pointed to the detective's still-open notebook, which was covered with his shorthand account. After intensive training, shorthand made sense. Without it, it looked like a small child had been trying to draw with live earthworms. "You know, the public schools now charge no more'n five-pence for a week o'teaching. You should think about taking a few classes."
"I'll…er, keep that in mind, Mrs. Kroger…" Lestrade swallowed dryly. "Thank you."
"There we are!" Watson breathed out, as did his patient. Flat on his back, saliva running down his face, his colour slowly bleeding back into his tissues and wild brown hair tumbled over the wet earth, the man didn't look frightening any more, just…very large.
"You Gammy dodger!"
Mrs. Kroger whirled, her blanket sweeping behind her. "Roddy!" She exclaimed in delight. A man stalked forward from a narrow snicket between buildings off the larger street. He was (thankfully) not as large as Webster, but there was a look to him Lestrade did not like at all—it was the look of a certain Roderick P. McAlpin, seasoned Newgate Garroter who had as many suspected murders to his name as he had verified ability in wiggling out of charges. Even Holmes couldn't find anything on the slimy—he was stampeding forward.
"You philanderin' midge!" Roddy was shouting. "I leave for a bleedin' cigar and I find your hands all over three men!" Watson was closer; square hands with long fingers telescoped forward; a length of piano wire stretched between, aiming for the doctor's throat.
The Official Story:
"It isn't as terrible as it sounds, gentlemen," Lestrade felt obligated to say. "He took a rush at the patient's husband, and, well, he sort of missed in his eagerness. Watson went into the drink, and he went for me, but he tripped over Watson's patient—I mean, his patient who was the patient's husband—and I went into the drink too."
"That was an excellent uppercut you gave him, by the way." Watson pointed out.
What Really Happened:
Watson yelped as Roddy tripped over the prone body of Mr. Webster. Mrs. Kroger, in the meantime, had opted to seek protection from the policeman in the lot; Lestrade found his hands full of her as she fell against him. As horrific as this was getting, his mind noted that his wife would kill Mrs. Kroger for getting the smell of badly-cured kippers on the coat she'd bought him for Boxing Day. Clea Lestrade had more prohibitions, bans and rules on the coat than the Irish tragic hero had gaesa. He barely had the courage to walk out the door with it.
"Doctor!" Lestrade thrust Mrs. Kroger away with relief as Roddy threw Watson into the river. The man spun, his cube-like face warping with the delight of one down, and one more to go.
"Mr. McAlpin, you are interfering with the due process of law and the person of a Scotland Yard Inspector!" Lestrade bellowed; he was good at that. "I'll thank you to—" His fist connected with Roddy's chin once, then twice. Roddy blinked and took a step backwards.
If he wasn't hanging on to the stilted bank for dear life, he would have been astonished to hear the precise, careful Inspector call his name without the title. That is completely out of character, the doctor thought—as if what he was doing was any less so. Somehow, one knew without a trace of doubt that were he on his deathbed, Lestrade would still refer to Holmes as "Mr. Holmes."
Watson sputtered slightly, wincing at the grit of the Thames between his teeth. Just the possibility of what he might be swimming in at low tide was enough to give him a grotesque case of phantasies. "He—"He choked as water splashed against his throat. "-ere!" He strangled out. Just to be on the safe side, he clenched his stomach and threw up what he'd just swallowed. The side of a floating algal mat, complete with humming insects and part of a green sausage made it easy.
"Hold on!" Lestrade's voice sounded far away; Watson couldn't see a blessed thing above the steep bank—why was it, he wondered frantically, the Royal Engineers decided the solution to everything was a nice steep trapezoid?
"Stop!" Lestrade was shouting. "Stop right there, sir! You are under arrest—"
Watson felt a cobble give slightly under his fingers and held on for dear life. The current tugged at him, thankfully with nowhere near the force of the High Tide. A gun went off, still invisible but nearby. A woman screamed as Watson's heart froze. Was that Mrs. Kroger?
"Mrs. Kroger!" Watson shouted. "Are you there?"
A second gun-shot. Watson was trying to lift himself out of the water, but the river had soaked his winter clothing to the extent that he now weighed twice his normal lot; with his bad shoulder he simply couldn't pull the weight up. He needed help.
So did Lestrade, if the sounds were any clue.
And then, Lestrade's bedraggled features popped over the edge. He was missing his bowler and his hair was far from the proper sleeked-back appearance the Yard preferred to see, but he was alive and obviously relieved to see Watson. "Thank God!" He breathed. "Doctor! I was afraid you were drowned!"
"Not yet, but I'll be glad to get out!" Watson struggled to lift his good arm. "Help me, please…my shoulder…"
Lestrade blanched with that I-forgot-he's-crippled look Watson knew so well. Watson could recognize that expression in his sleep. "I beg your pardon, doctor," the detective threw himself flat on his front and reached with both arms. Watson gripped tightly and breathed. Then a strange sound rattled behind Lestrade. Watson saw the little man glance behind his shoulder, and then whip his head back around, a look of panic in his dark eyes. "Watson, hurry?" He gritted. "We don't have much time—"
Correction: any time. A loudly swearing Roddy, handcuffed to a groggy but just as reluctant Mr. Webster by grace of Lestrade's Derbies, lurched on the horizon.
Watson was, at heart, an optimist when it came to women. It went against his grain to fathom a woman not being intelligent, or at least sensible enough that she wouldn't pay court to men who were too stupid to not fight each other while under arrest at the very edge of a riverbank. Truth could be brutal.
Roddy was much smaller than Webster, but Webster was just so…blooming large that Roddy's fists and kicks and blows made no more sense than a terrier attacking the stone lion off the library steps. If anything, Webster was paying too much attention to swearing at his wife's lover to even notice he was being assailed. Language scorched Watson's water-logged ears.
One moment, Lestrade was pulling Watson up with all his might. The next, a large boot accidentally stepped on the detective while kicking him in an attempt to keep his balance. Watson was never certain on the logistics of the maneuver later, but somehow, all four of them were now in the Thames.
The Official Report:
"So what happened to the patient—I mean, the patient's husband, and the patient's lover who was attacking you?"
"Wellll, they went into the drink tooooo." Lestrade said very slowly.
"Both of them? How did that happen?" Gregson was not ashamed for staring.
"Er, that's not important." Watson said in the most unconvincing of tones. "Is it, Inspector?"
"Certainly not." Lestrade said firmly.
What Really Happened:
"Where'd they go?!" Watson peered in the water but the handcuffed hooligans were nowhere to be seen through his water-logged eyes. Grit settled behind his eyelids, rendering him all but blind.
"Down there!" Lestrade pointed with the hand that wasn't helping hold Watson afloat. Watson was both impressed at the little man's strength and guilty for making him do such a thing, but if Webster's copper-toed boot had been enough to knock Lestrade in, they had also been enough to knock the doctor half-silly with a head-blow. Hot blood trickled down the back of Watson's neck, and he privately mourned the scolding Mrs. Hudson would give him tonight. She abhorred bloodstains and the laundress always charged extra. "I think they're…" Lestrade locked his hand into a crumbled and probably illegal mooring-ring that must have dated back to the last ruling female monarch. "They're up by the docks. I think—oh, for the love of God, no!"
"She's pulling them out!" Lestrade exclaimed.
"No, the blooming Princess of Herrings! Yes, it's Mrs. Kroger! Oh, good God, I don't believe this!" Lestrade watched as the little woman solicitously directed her two menfolk into the maze of shacks and withy-huts down the walk. "I'll arrest her myself," he said under his breath. "Even if I have to make up a new word for the charge."
"Let me know if you need help coming up with that word," Watson vowed. "I'm getting rather good at writing lately."
"I imagine you are." Lestrade said with feeling. "How many synonyms did you come up with for 'infuriating consulting detective?" At the sight of the woman walking off, hand in hand with both (albeit shackled) men, Lestrade hemorrhaged into a new mode of language.
"Heavens, Lestrade!" Watson was horrified. "Does your wife know you can talk like that?"
Lestrade passed him a look of well-deserved contempt. "Who do you think taught me?" He wanted to know.
The Official Story:
Holmes had, in the meantime, found the absolute line between what his nose could tolerate and proximity to Watson. He was studying both men with a strange blend of expressions on his face. "Then what happened after both of you fell into the Thames, my good fellow?"
Watson needed to think about it for a moment. "Well, it got a bit muddled for a bit, Holmes," he began carefully. "I'm afraid I can't be completely pertinent with all the details."
"Just…do go on, Watson. Do go on." Holmes was puffing furiously on his pipe. Perhaps it masked the smell coming off Watson.
"Right…well…we thrashed about for a bit, and a cabin nearly ran us over a few times, which I thought was perfectly redundant as they were also trying to shoot us, but we managed to straighten all that out when Lestrade explained we had nothing to do with my patient's husband or her lover…"
What Really Happened:
Watson blinked sooty water out of his eyes just in time to see looming death, coming up behind Lestrade. He gasped and ducked them both under the water just in time. A bullet hissed the water and took a chip of stone off the bank inches from Lestrade's face. The little detective came up for air as angry as Watson had never seen him. If humans could be given an analogy to animals, Lestrade would be a hydrophobic hedgehog.
The cabin was turning; a young man with ashy brown hair and the familiar sallow complexion of a "London lifer" was steering broadside to the floundering swimmers. His left hand was trying to aim the revolver at them while his right hand managed the boat. Behind him, a grossly fat man in oilskins perched on a pile of strange, filthy-looking hides and drank from a gin bottle.
"You—"The steersman bellowed something; it made Mrs. Kroger sound like the epitome of fine speech and clear erudition. Watson had no idea what was being said; he was only conversant in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and worse of all, Edinburgh English.
"Lestrade, what the devil did he just say to us? And why is he trying to kill us?!"
Lestrade spat water out. "He thinks we're Webster and McAlpin!" He sputtered.
"You understood that?" Watson was impressed down to his bones.
"I understood the gestures!" Lestrade drew a visual bead on the struggling left-handed sniper, and didn't even bother to duck as the shot went wild. He sighed. "Bloody hell, now he's blocked the river!!"
Watson had no idea why Lestrade would place priority on a boat aligned athwartships with a river channel compared to being shot at by someone who couldn't shoot properly.
"It is illegal to perform obstruction in highways, bridges or rivers!" Lestrade paused again to spit filthy water out from the middle of his diatribe. "If you feel the need to perform such an activity, you must first file for a permit at your public Police-station!"
For some unfathomable reason, it worked. The steersman blanched; he hurriedly stuffed his revolver into his coat and used both hands to wrench the cabin back to align with the current; he over-compensated; the cabin rocked against the opposite bank and bounced, ever so slightly. The drunken man on the pile of questionable things lost a few drops of gin and started swearing.
Lestrade caught Watson's expression. "They'll break the law, but paying a fine is a different matter," he explained wryly.
"Hold on, Inspector," Watson gasped. His hand sank into a weak spot in the bank and the lack of purchase sent him under again. In the meantime, the fool-headed steersman of the cabin was veering off down the river; the backwash of water came upon them in a wave and crested over their heads.
"Son of a—" Lestrade burst into some of the ripest language the doctor had yet heard from the lips of Homo sapiens. Were circumstances not so severe, not to mention frightening, he would have been pressed to catalogue them for future reference. Perhaps a listing would be enough to pull Holmes out of his next Black Mood. "You flat!" He abruptly elevated his language to a higher plane: Said under breath: "("You sorry flummut flat!") Out loud and quite loudly: "It is in violation of the Thames Conservancy Act, 1864, to commit assault upon a man of the law in the River Thames, and subject to a fine of no less than five pounds!!" One last backwave threatened to dislodge the little detective, but he was holding on admirably; a tiny barnacle against a whale.
"Inspector," Watson gasped, "Are you trying to intimidate their pocket-books?"
"You'd be amazed how often that works!" Lestrade panted. "Where the sodding Sam Hill is Division K when you need them?!" A wave made him cough. "One more player to this mess and we'll have a qualified riot!"
Watson wondered where Lestrade had picked up a phrase like "Sodding Sam Hill" and decided that the 'vacation' he was at last year had something to do with Pinkerton Yanks. If that was the case, it was no wonder he returned from said 'vacation' looking much worse than he had before.
The Official Story:
"Explain nothing," Lestrade snapped. "You forgot to mention the captain of that bloody cabin was your patient's brother! Wouldn't that make a bit more sense in your recollection??"
"If you want to be wholly pertinent," Watson shot back, "you could mention my patient's father's role in all of this too."
"The (curse word) I will!" Lestrade exclaimed. "This is unbelievable enough!"
"It's still the truth," Watson riposted. A fresh wave of what had been triple-distilled French plum brandy emanated outward.
"Watson, do you have any idea what this is going to sound like in front of a jury?" Lestrade was dying to know. "All right, we'll discount your patient's father--for now. The bottom-fact is, we were trying to stay afloat without getting driven under the Thames by the cabin, and once the fool stopped trying to steer over us, we had managed to get to the bank when the (explicative deleted) suffragists started throwing their bloody cricket bats at us—" Lestrade gulped for air.
What Really Happened:
"My God," Watson said in wonder. "He's actually turning away." They watched, amazed as the wooden juggernaut slowly managed its way up the river. Lestrade prayed the wind would not shift and bring him back. "You know, Lestrade, I don't think that man was completely right in the head."
"Do tell." Lestrade said with an admirable self-possession. "Shooting left-handed to the right, while steering right-handed is what clued you?"
"Well, not that specifically…he had the slight…he looked like he was a bit on the mentally deformed side." Watson made the gesture, one-handed, to indicate a birth defect.
"I'll keep that in mind when I'm arresting him, doctor…Up you go." Lestrade braced himself with his good foot and made a stepladder of his laced fingers. Watson grimaced at the indignity of not being the one to offer the service first (policemen and soldiers were unapologetic about their rivalry), and conceded the point. He stepped awkwardly upward, hanging on to every purchase he could find with his cold hands. Lestrade could grip harder, but he still had on his thin leather gloves.
More or less, they staggered to the bank and gasped out their relief. For a few moments—or minutes—the men just rested there, staring up at what passed for a cheerful London sky: an impression of the sun existed behind the cloudbank.
Lestrade recovered first. He sat up and fumbled in his pockets. "Here." He produced a small hip flask. "I'm not a doctor, but I think we should try to kill some of the germs we ingested in the river."
Watson sniffed the flask suspiciously, no doubt thinking of the rumors of what Bradstreet carried in his flask, and popped his eyebrows up. "White brandy? My word, Lestrade."
"If it's expensive, I'm less tempted to indulge." Lestrade pointed out. "Besides, it was a Christmas gift. Half of it is yours."
"Sconce." Watson saluted, and promptly obeyed. He visibly relaxed as he handed the flask back. "Good heavens, Lestrade. There shouldn't be a germ alive in my body now."
"Here's to you," Lestrade topped his own portion. He too, visibly relaxed; both men were thinking of the hostile bacteria in their bodies, aggressively smothered out by a substance even worse.
"All right, then…" Lestrade got to his feet—Watson wondered where the devil he could find his energy; perhaps small people carried less pull of gravity? He pulled out his gun and stared ruefully at the uselessness of the weapon now. River silt and clay had clogged the barrel. "We need to go find K-Division's Inspector Lewis. He'll know how to round up these sterling examples…" He lifted his head, suddenly alert. "Watson, when you saw to Mrs. Kroger's treatment, where did you find her?"
Watson waved backwards. "She was standing in the doorway of that withy-hut woven between those two buildings."
"But that's the same hut Webster came out of," Lestrade protested. "Why did she ape all vague on us?"
Watson frowned. "I…that's a good question, Inspector."
"This is starting to stink, and I don't mean fish or low-tide." Lestrade grumbled. He reached for his missing bowler, and settled for just marching to the hut, bare-headed. Watson's paranoia about the safety of his fellow man sent him to the little man's side.
"Well, if that just doesn't suit it all," Lestrade was kneeling inside the shack, his voice muffled.
Watson peered over his shoulder. "What is it?"
"Dog-skins." Lestrade held up the hide of a stone-heavy dog. Where the feet would have been a loop of leather went around, almost like a cuff. "It would appear Mrs. Kroger and her husband are working for a dog-smuggling ring."