Chapter I: Points of Weakness

"I can' t do that!"

"You must, James." The lady's voice was smooth and pleasant, but the man blanched.

"No."

A laugh came from behind her veil. Sweat stood out on the man's face. "I won't, I tell you! He's a good 'un, he is. Doesn't charge poor folk and always deals with me proper, like a gentleman."

"You poisoned that man in Essex, Usher. Will he still treat you proper when you're on trial – or hanged?" The voice was not so pleasant now.

Silence. Then, "You won't kill him?"

"All I need is a few hours," came the soothing reply. "He won't be harmed, just taken out of commission, as it were."

"All right." His voice was so low she could barely hear him.

"Let me see you prepare it." She was taking no chances.

The man straightened for an instant, and glared with fervent hate. Then he turned to his chemicals.

"Excellent, Usher." Then with a touch of malice she added, "I'm sure Mr. Holmes will appreciate the quality of his merchandise."

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A long, lean figure plodded up seventeen endless steps, wearily pushed open the door, and crossed the sitting room to slump into his chair. Sherlock Holmes had lost a case.

The great mind proceeded to think itself into a mood that was not merely black, but deepest ebony. Holmes tortured his Stradivarius till it shrieked like a damned soul; ignored Mrs. Hudson when she complained; let the violin fall to the floor after forty mortal minutes, and stared at nothing.

His client was dead. Killed by a sailor with no earthly reason to bear him ill will – and the seaman had the poor courtesy to die himself not a day later. Garrotted in an opium den off the docks in the East End of London… in itself not an unusual fate for men of his type, but damned inconvenient. He had checked, and it seemed indisputable – William Houston had swaggered in boasting that he had just "done a job on some rich toff," and promptly handed over half his profits to sink himself into a drugged haze. Someone had seen an easy mark, and there it was. His first failure in months.

Holmes' eyes strayed to the small glass bottle on his desk, glinting temptingly. He had bought the morphine just a few hours ago, ignoring the voice of his conscience – which bore a startling resemblance to Watson's. Now he ignored the sardonic tone of his own thoughts, which pointed out that he and that dead sailor were not, really, so very different.

The detective rose, spurred to the effort by the thought of the sweet forgetfulness waiting for him. With long, active fingers he prepared the syringe, readied his arm, and made the drug part of the blood rushing through his veins. He sighed, and barely had time to reach the couch before it took effect. It shouldn't be so strong in such a small dose… But that worry soon floated away. His eyelids fluttered closed, and he would have smiled, had he possessed the energy…

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A/N: First story ever! Sorry it's so short - more will be forthcoming! Please tell me if I've made any mistakes; I don't know much about drugs. :) All reviews welcome – including negative ones.