Chapter VII: The Stage Is Set

At long last! I apologize for the unconscionable lateness of this update, which is due partly to my college homework but mostly to my own laziness. I would like to dedicate this chapter to Tristan-the-Dreamer, whose support has been a great help to me. In other words, she was the one who got me to actually sit down and write this chapter when I was clean out of ideas!

Watson rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "And who might that be, Holmes?"

The detective had leaped up and was pawing through his files. "Clotilde Murray is the name of a woman I encountered some years ago, while investigating – " he broke off with a curse. "1879. Watson, you were just organizing these, where are they?"

"They should be there, Holmes."

Half an hour later, their eyes met across several reams' worth of paper. "Watson, I do believe we've discovered which file was taken."

Holmes set Watson to work looking up Lady Murray in their Who's Who, while he delved into his common-place book, where he claimed he knew he had an entry on her.

Wisely, the thief had not wasted time attempting to decipher Holmes' common-place book, and it was untouched. Though it was largely incomprehensible to outsiders, the detective found it very useful in recording his own notes on people as well as any relevant articles on them; cross-references to cases usually followed each entry. Perhaps it was just as well that it was unintelligible. "Aha!" He pounced on a notation and read it with a feral smile. "Found yours yet, Watson? Then let us hear it first."

" 'Lady Clotilde Murray. Born in Prussia, 1854, maiden name Beck. Moved to England 1861, married Sir John C. Murray 1875. Widowed 1879, has not remarried.' No children are mentioned." Watson knew enough to omit her titles and the various other noble trivia that Holmes deemed unimportant. "What have you discovered?"

"That my memory was correct, though the chestnut wig gave me a bit of difficulty. She was connected with the Thunder Tom case early in my career."

Watson's eyes lit up, and he leaned forward with much the same attitude as Holmes when he learned of an intriguing new problem. "I have not heard you speak of it before."

"There was no reason to. I never came to a satisfying conclusion, though I suspected much that I could not prove."

"And what was Lady Murray's involvement?"

"Well, if I am to tell you that, I must first give you a rapid delineation of the case." He took his pipe from the mantel, lit it, and settled in his chair. "I was never actually consulted on it; my involvement was entirely of my own volition, and none of the parties concerned knew of my investigation.

"You see, I knew the murdered man. 'Thunder Tom,' they called him; his real name was Thomas Sutherland. He was a boxer, a cunning fighter if not a particularly imaginative one. I became acquainted with him in the ring, where as you may recall I am still considered a worthy opponent. We were never close friends, but I knew him well enough to smell a rat when he was arrested for the murder of Sir John Murray."

Watson gave a cry of surprise, and Holmes grinned around the stem of his pipe. Occasionally his love of the dramatic resembled what he called Watson's romantic flourishes rather too closely. "But I thought Sutherland was the murdered man!"

"Call him Thunder Tom, my dear fellow. Only his bank and the court called him anything else." The smile faded from his face. "He was murdered, Watson; but that came later. As I said, at the time of the arrest I suspected something was amiss. To my knowledge he had had no previous dealings with Murray, and though the money he was carrying at the time of his death had been found in Tom's lodgings, that seemed too weak a motive. I tried to speak to him, but he merely repeated that he had reserved his defence for the trial. When I pressed him, he refused to say any more, and indeed would not allow me to see him again. The trial date was set for three months later." He took a long draw from his pipe, and blew the smoke out slowly.

The faraway eyes promised a long pause, but Watson's curiosity was piqued. "What happened at the trial?"

"There was no trial, Watson. He was killed not a week after I spoke to him."

"What!"

"In prison, by one of his fellow inmates; Bates, his name was. He claimed it was revenge for an old gambling debt, but I have no doubt that he was hired to silence Tom. The court, however, was not interested in wild theories and considered it an ordinary case of one ruffian turning on another. Bates was later hanged, but even at the gallows gave no other explanation." Holmes' face was expressionless, but there was a tension about the eyes and mouth that spoke of many nights of guilt and anger. Watson said nothing, and they both sat straight and still, gazes not quite meeting. For a few moments neither spoke.

"Well, that was the end of the matter," Holmes said suddenly, "as far as the police and the courts were concerned. But there were too many unexplained facts and half-motives for my mind to be at ease. It was clear to me that Thunder Tom had some strong grounds for killing Murray, not least because he was not naturally a vicious man. He was, however, easily impressionable, and perhaps not as quick mentally as he was in the ring."

"I suppose there is no doubt that he perpetrated the crime?" Watson's voice held little hope.

"None, I fear. An anonymous note brought him to the attention of Scotland Yard, which conducted a search of his lodgings and found not only the money but also his own bloody clothing, shoved under a settee. He never was a very creative thinker." Holmes' voice was cool and analytical, and seeing his calm, thoughtful face Watson could not help but be repulsed at the cold-bloodedness his friend sometimes displayed.

He opened his mouth to say as much, but caught a hint of something else in the hard grey eyes that made him change his comment to, "What made him do it, then? You said before that he had no obvious motive."

"That is precisely what I asked myself at the time. If he had nothing to gain by Murray's death, then another must have urged him to it. This anonymous protagonist then eliminated Thunder Tom as a precaution, though certainly he showed no signs of revealing anything to me. This in turn suggested that the hold on him was not coercion, but something stronger. The balance of probability, then, was that the influence was female.

"Added to this was another factor. Though it is doubtless repellent to your romantic nature, your experience with our little problems has no doubt taught you that the usual culprit when a spouse is murdered is the victim's better half."

"A repellent thought indeed, but I have seen too many unfortunate proofs to doubt it." The doctor's brow was furrowed in distaste.

"Quite so. I had my suspicions at the time, and now I am nearly certain. Lady Clotilde Murray benefited most from her husband's death, and not only monetarily, though his fortune was certainly a large one. There were rumors at the time of considerable infidelity on her part, and there is a limit to even the most forgiving husband's patience."

"If you guessed so much, Holmes, how is it that the matter was not settled then and there?"

"Good heavens, did I not tell you?" exclaimed Holmes. "I must be falling into your habit, Watson, of leaving out some vital point of the tale along the way. Don't be offended, my dear fellow," he added hastily, "you know that I am quite impersonal in such criticism. In any case, the smokescreen Lady Murray threw up was simple but effective.

"She took to her bed, pleading grief and nervous prostration, and I could not interview her. She then developed brain-fever, which I confirmed by speaking with her physician. He had a solid reputation, and I accordingly removed her from my equations.

"But now… I wonder…"

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Watson could not stay at 221B forever. Already Anstruther had discreetly inquired how long he might be expected to minister to two practices' worth of patients, and Mary's visit to her old employer ended in two days. So it was that the next day Holmes found himself saying good-bye once again to his friend, who felt that the detective was now out of danger from any after-effects of the morphine. In fact, Watson had known that for days, but the lure of the new case had been too much for him. The old hound had picked up the scent, and was reluctant to leave it; but needs must, and Holmes could always rely on him to come in answer to a telegram. Or so he told his friend, standing in the doorway leading out to Baker Street.

"I know, Watson," Holmes replied with a wry twist of his mouth. "I know; and I shall take full advantage, never fear!"

Back in a dirty boarding-house in the East End, a pale, handsome man with dark red hair was paying for his lengthy stay. Though his clothes were worn and his hat nearly shapeless, his neatly combed hair and clean-shaven face coupled with his masterful air betrayed a man accustomed to both cleanliness and power. As he hailed a cab outside, he crumpled a telegram in his pocket into a ball. The wrinkled paper read: DOCTOR BACK HOME STOP AM READY STOP WHEN DO WE STRIKE QUERY

"Now, my love," he whispered to the darkness inside the cab. "Now."

A/N: My apologies for the inaccuracies I'm sure are there. Also for the long scenes of sitting and talking, which must be getting a little old. *shrug* But there's no shortening a backstory, and Holmes insisted on talking away! Also I sincerely hope that boxers went by "stage names," at least some of the time. A line in here also appears in Retired Colourman; a cookie to whoever finds it first! And yes; finally, the reason for the title is revealed. :)