Unfortunately for my curiosity Holmes was still absent from Baker Street. Fortunately Holmes's indices were still very much in residence so I had the opportunity to indulge in another line of inquiry. My information was scanty – nothing but the nickname "Bunny" and another name that began with "Ra", perhaps "Rabbit?" – and I knew I could spend hours in fruitless pursuit of their identities. It was a long shot, I knew, but I had the time to waste. I took down the "B" volume.
It was as I had feared. There was no entry for Bunny, not even a cross reference. With a sigh, I closed the volume, replaced it, and debated my next move. I could start from the very beginning of volume A and work my way through each entry until I found the men I sought, or I could hope that "Ra" was the start of a surname and not another nickname. I chose the latter.
To my dismay, Holmes's collection of R's might not be as illustrious as his M's but it was nearly as large. I read through to Stephen Raeford before my eyes at last protested at the strain I was putting upon them. I set aside the volume for a moment.
It was that moment that Holmes returned, eyes glowing with excitement and his tattered artist disguise smudged with suspicious russet stains. "Holmes, is that blo – "
"No time, Watson!" he barked. "We haven't a moment to lose. Quickly, now! Get your coat and revolver and get into the cab I have waiting; I shall be with you in a minute." So saying, he all but dove into his room, nearly crushing his fingers in his haste to close the door.
It could not have been much more than sixty seconds before he reappeared respectably clothed even if his collar was still undone and his boots were badly laced. The former he fastened in the cab as we lurched along through the slush.
"What a blind beetle I've been!" exclaimed Holmes as he went about repairing his appearance as best he could given the circumstances. "It wasn't the paintings that were being smuggled, Watson, it was the paint. The paint! I should have realized from the first – "
"Holmes, what on earth are you talking about?"
He blinked in surprise. "Why, the smuggling case of course. Ah, I see now. Terribly sorry, Watson, I quite forgot I haven't spoken a word of it to you. Allow me to catch you up to the past few days' events."
Thus I enjoyed one of the rare times Holmes confided in me the details of a case before its conclusion rather than after. Unfortunately, once I understood the stakes and the depth of the corruption, it did little to appease my sensibilities and much to disturb them.
My fears were not entirely unfounded, as it turned out, and the better part of six hours passed before matters were resolved to Scotland Yard's satisfaction. Holmes had our cab bring me to the very doors of his flat on King's Road with the understanding that I would return to Baker Street as soon as my house call was completed.
The white-haired thief was in fine form, cheerfully greeting me and even going so far as to offer me a cup of tea which I declined. I could not fathom his irrepressible devil-may-care demeanor until I had a look at my patient Bunny.
His hair was plastered against his skull by perspiration and he showed all the energy and brilliancy of a flannel face cloth but the infection was abating. The redness was receding, the swelling half of what it had been, and the purulence minimal.
"You look surprised," the young man called Bunny observed with an expression of askance. "Did you not expect the treatments to work?"
"Not to this extent," I admitted, gently manipulating the limb. "I had not expected progress like this for another twenty-four hours at least."
"Well, that is Bunny for you," put in his companion, "always surprising you because you do not expect him to. Oh come now, dear chap, that is a compliment!" he added at the wry face my patient pulled.
Rather than argue, Bunny changed the subject as I changed his bandaging. "I was surprised to hear that Mr. Holmes is still alive. That last story you wrote a few years ago was so awfully convincing."
"Yes, I imagine it was." Likable though they were, I was not about to tell two strangers – and criminals at that! – precisely why my account of the Reichenbach incident had been so convincing.
"But it obviously it did not happen the way you wrote it," persisted he. "Are you not going to explain to the public what really happened?"
Frankly I wondered that myself. For our safety, Holmes had forbidden me to publish anything further concerning his methods, our cases, or Baker Street. It simply was not safe, given the increased popularity my writings and the personal, even private, details I had unwittingly disclosed. Holmes had given his permission to resume publications upon his retirement. By my reckoning, that meant the next tale of Sherlock Holmes would reach the public in two or three decades at the earliest.
"We shall see what the future holds," I answered at last.
"Do you mean you will not have anything more published?"
The young thief sounded so much like a disappointed child I could not help but smile. But before I could respond, the elder thief laughed softly.
"Why not ceasing pestering the doctor and go back to writing yourself, Bunny?"
"You write?" I exclaimed.
"He's a remarkably literary thing," Bunny's companion confided before the man had a chance to agree or demur. "You know, he's secretly the author of that poem about the Emperor's pearl that came out a couple years back, when the King of the Cannibal Islands insulted the Queen."
I had to cast my mind back but I suddenly recalled the poem in question. "Of course! I remember it now. That poem explained the whole matter to me more clearly than a dozen newspapers. But it's a pity you didn't wait a trifle longer to publish it; you could have added a stanza or two about the attempted theft of it." I had meant it kindly but my words were taken wrong. The young man went a mottled crimson color and stammered and squirmed with embarrassment.
"Now there's a thought, Bunny. You might think of writing up our exploits," the elder thief cut in with a speculative grin. "I daresay they might make interesting reading for some."
My own foray into the world of literature led me to believe such tales would be popular but at what cost? They were criminals, likable though they may be, and to publicize their crimes would certainly bring down the law upon them. "Wouldn't that be a trifle dangerous for you?" I asked hesitantly.
"Not if one uses a literary agent," retorted the older man with a wink. "Eh, Doctor?"
Upon returning to Baker Street, I nodded distractedly at Holmes's greeting and ignored the supper Mrs. Hudson had left out. Instead, I made for the discarded "R" volume.
I knew the details of the recent theft of the Faber jewels had sounded familiar. Now, with mention of the Emperor's pearl and the attempt to abscond with it, following Holmes's question about the Uhlan, the ship on which the theft had been attempted, suspicion burned in my mind. Peripherally I wondered if this was the sort of insightful madness that gripped Holmes when all the pieces of a case come together and the solution becomes plain.
I flipped through the volume forcefully, only half-hearing Holmes's mild remonstration for the well-being of the pages. At last I found the entry I sought. Then I looked up from the words, feeling slightly wild.
"Holmes, can it be true? The man I have been treating is Harry 'Bunny' Manders?"
My friend set down his pipe. "Yes, Watson. It is true."
"And his white-haired companion . . . do you mean to tell me that all this time we have been consorting with Arthur James Ra – "
"Do not be ridiculous, Watson," Holmes interrupted severely. "A.J. Raffles drowned two years ago in the Mediterranean Sea, accordingly to the official reports. Besides, you have no way of proving it. By the time you return there tomorrow they shall be long gone."
"Gone? But why?"
"It is safer for them this way. The less interaction they have with us, the better. Besides, they have established identities separate from 'Raffles and Manders' and to stay away for too long is to draw suspicion upon themselves."
"I would think stealing the Faber jewels would have done that."
At that, Holmes smiled. "Indeed. And that is why it should come as no surprise to me if our paths do cross again some time."
But for once, Holmes was in error. We never did meet the pair of gentleman thieves again in either a professional or social capacity. There were rumors that they were eventually caught up in the Boer War but no proof of that ever came to light.
On the other hand, a few months later in June there came to my attention a short story featuring the names of two men that were strikingly familiar indeed. Two thieves, gentlemen and amateur cracksmen, who preferred chloroform to violence and favored capers that necessitated nerve above all else. The purported author was not known to me but upon making a few inquiries I found the man was not as much a stranger as I had thought. It was but one more reason for to shake one's head in amazement and reflect upon the strange parallels that life offers.