"My dear Watson, Professor Moriarty is not a man who lets the grass grow under his feet."
Tea steamed in the pot by the window—Mrs. Hudson's welcome back from his trip abroad. In return he had passed to her a sachet of lavender and was trying to hold the peace at Baker Street by not soothing his nerves in ways that would damage the housekeeper's. That meant bullets were out; it was a deep pity. He wondered if Moriarty's people would hesitate to attack him if they could hear another V.R. being added to the walls.
If change in plan, come to Oxford rendezvous.
If no change, I will see you at our agreed location.
Sherlock Holmes dropped the day's Agony Column—and with it Patterson's ciphered ad-to the breakfast-table with a pensive expression.1 It added more years to his face than the absent Watson would have wished—Holmes personally had little concern for trying to look younger than one's years. This was just as well. He was ageing at a sorry rate this fateful spring.
Patterson's caution was justifiable, but standing in the comfort of his own rooms with soft spring airs breezing open the lace curtain (but not standing too close)…Holmes wondered if it was advisable to make the rendezvous.
They were all being watched; Holmes sensed eyes in all directions as soon as his foot left the French ferry and set upon English soil. At this point, no one had yet accosted him, but Patterson was in a precarious position. Perhaps even more precarious than himself. Holmes did not pretend to omniscience, but Moriarty was still struggling to divine the identity of Holmes' 'Man in the Yard.'
Patterson's importance was still minuscule in the scheme of things. To all appearances the man was beneath his reptilian contempt: a prematurely aged, brittle man bearing scars in his mind and soul from too much work under deep cover. That he had been regulated to tasks of the most superficial importance spoke of that damage. He had no appearance of being a man in charge or responsible of a case of longstanding powers. Common gossip as well as reports said the man was little respected by his own peers. Even the hard-shaped older police avoided his company. Years of work had gone into this deception, and Holmes had helped it every step of the way.
It was another reason for which he was grateful for the tapering-off relations between himself and Watson. Watson was a good man; his wife admirable. The two deserved peace and quiet. They certainly did not deserve to be under the chill gaze of a criminal spider within his web.
There was a bedrock weakness to Moriarty's brain: the man believed Holmes worked largely alone and had little use for the Watsons of this world. What love did Moriarty keep of sentimentality, or affection and deep friendship? Nothing, for he had no comprehension of such things. That Holmes had all but stopped his connexions to Watson meant to Moriarty's brilliant if flawed mind, that Watson was no longer important to Holmes, if he had ever been.
A biographer, a tamed teller of tales, a blind harper in the halls perhaps—he left Watson alone because he had mistaken this war as that of a purely intellectual one.
Holmes hoped Moriarty did not see the mistake in this assumption, and yet to him it was as clear a logic as seeing through clean water. Against a war of pure wit, Holmes would be doomed to fail under Moriarty's hand because Moriarty had an army at his command. Therefore, if he were to even those odds, he must needs keep a different sort of army. An army that was invisible to Moriarty's fathom.
That would be the bonds of the irrational, the honest friendliness, and the intangible.
Moriarty has enjoyed this game as much as I, but for different reasons. I have long craved a challenge of my worth…but for him? He sees me no more as an intriguing little distraction from his usual work. What a mind, to be so cold! It is all a game of Magic Squares to him-the beauty of finished numbers inside cages and boxes, creating a pattern...while I must spoil his lovely arithmetic by taking his numbers from him. War is the only outcome of this insult to his intellect. And if he truly understood what I was planning, he would act with far more speed than he is now. I would not have been given the courtesy of a greeting and a chance to back away.
A glass bottle tumbled out of a passing cab, it burst and he flinched. His reflexes were strung high, not unlike piano wire. He was still wearied from his trip abroad. The notes he had sent Watson probably misled him into thinking he was still there. Yet not a moment after sending the second wire in Nimes, a strong feeling of apprehension had caused him to change his plan.
London's April was colder than that of France's and Holmes felt the thin chill sinking into his bones; the Professor's visit had unsettled him to his very core. He needed to rest but he also needed to have some peace and quiet.
If only this were but a confrontation between himself and Moriarty! But Moriarty had achieved his status as criminal mastermind by manipulating many people to work as one unit under his control. Each of his men stood as a separate tendril upon a monstrous web. Holmes' employment upon others was nothing upon this level of organisation. He used the small, the forgotten, and those who were weak if clever and able to remain invisible. And Holmes had no interest in risking another's life.
At last, Holmes weighed no better or worse in his mind, and reached for his hat. It was turning the midday of a clear and warm April day, and there would be some bit of refuge within the mass of four million citizens.
…"I went out about midday to transact some business in Oxford Street."
His luck held for many long minutes. He knew the city well, but the living macrocosm was disturbed; his nerves prickled under the strain of mere walking as each step created and destroyed infinite possibilities of his personal future. The chaunters' cries rang against his ears, pressing more and more feverishly for sales against their rivals. Holmes tightened his lips, knowing the evening papers' release would be a repeat of this chaos. He hurried as best as he was able through the uneven stream of humanity.
He stopped several times, merely waiting in discreet places where a single man might observe without being himself being observed. It was an old habit of his, and the familiarity comforted his unease. Not for the first time he thought of Watson's steady presence at his side. Give the man a task and he would do his best, single-mindedly and hard-headedly.
How he missed him.
Even now his old friend was an absence in his rooms like a missing pipe or broken lamp by his chemistry table. So accustomed to his habits, Holmes would reach out his hand for either object without thought; he found himself doing the same for Watson.
But these were not the old days. Watson was better fit with his slow-mending wounds dissolving with time, but he was older. They both were.
Missing Watson may have helped to save his life. His nostalgic loneliness kept him moving—wandering, almost, without appearance of aim. And his nervous sensation had not dispersed as he passed the busy corner of Bentink Street to Wellbeck Street.
As I passed the corner which leads from Bentinck Street on to the Welbeck Street crossing a two-horse van furiously driven whizzed round and was on me like a flash. I sprang for the foot-path and saved myself by the fraction of a second.
When the van rounded the same corner on all but two wheels, Holmes was already moving quickly; he moved faster, sprinting for the other side even as he clutched his walking-stick for futile protection. Eight metal-shod hooves pounded the brick all the way to the lost Westbourne River beneath. He reached safety without a moment to spare; about him people cried out in variations of indignation and fear. A woman screamed. A man swore. The hot breath of foam-flecked horses passed by a hair, steaming the back of his sweating neck.
It was over as quickly as it started. Holmes blended in with the dazed crowd, listening to the confused demands for the van's number or had anyone seen them before; what of the horses?
Holmes said nothing, absorbing the dwindling chaos.
He didn't recognise the horses, but he had gotten their symbolism all the same.
They had been a perfectly matched pair of blacks.
The preferred horses for funerals.
His hands were too tightly wrapped about his stick. He made himself stop and release one hand; he reached for his handkerchief. He wiped both hot and cold sweat off his face.
There would be no going to Oxford now. He was not sorry; in this storm-charged atmosphere it would be unsafe for himself and for Patterson. Patterson would merely go along as they had originally planned.
He would keep to the pavement, and take a slightly different route. Already he thought twice of heading back to Baker Street.
No, not Baker Street. Not safe for himself or for Mrs. Hudson and whoever would be helping her. Best to keep the personal warfare private. He would go to Mycroft. Eventually.
Holmes swallowed and adjusted his hat and collar, shot his cuffs briskly and started walking. No cab. A cab would be foolish if he could not trust the driver. He would have to make other arrangements.
PC Church was too long a policeman not to know Sherlock Holmes by sight. Every form of plainclothed detective needed constables with them for their work, and every detective needed to put upon the advice of the man sooner or later; Church had seen the man twice in the line of duty and countless times as he was patrolling. The man was hard to miss; he was a striking gentleman, and Church thought of hawks whenever he caught that pale, thin face among the crowd. Hawks were hot-blooded birds, but they had cool eyes.
Vere Street meant much to PC Church; it was amusing but true that his name was tied to his reason for loving his beat; Marybone Church (in all its variations of spelling and pronunciation), had history that drew people right and left. Plenty of curious folk came from all over the world to see the chapel; the Duchess of Portland had married herself here back about a hundred years ago, leaving her name behind for Bentinck Street; people were drawn to that too. Men and women liked a good story, and she had been the richest woman in the country. Possibly a bit of a daft collector, but she had been the keeper of the Arundel Marbles, and Church could expect to hear the gawpers talking about the pieces—the closer one got to the chapel, the more the gawping. With spring men thought of love and women of marriage; in between was the sermon, and the draw of the memory of Vere Street's children such as the holy Frederick Dennison Maurice.
Church was a self-taught historian (he knew which side buttered his bread), and someday he would have to find out if it were true that his Vere Street was named after Aubrey de Vere, who likened one of Maurice's famous sermons to eating pea soup with a fork. If so, it would be a tit-bit of cheerful gossip good for a tip or three. For now he strolled his beat, being sure to look neat and trim within his long moustaches and buttoned-up coat.
Today had been a profitable day for pleasing the sight-seers. The warmish weather had brought in a few groups—young people mostly—and using the excuse of April and a little history lesson as cause to display the new season's colours. Church was fond of these, for if one was properly respectful they were generous with their rewards. Young men liked to impress their ladies, themselves, and each other in no particular order. The extra coins rattled in the little bag he kept sewn inside his coat; the three shillings meant the week's butter and flour were taken care of and the Missus would be pleased. They might have it in their potatoes tomorrow.
Church was thinking of potatoes because his shift was ending soon and his feet hurt. It therefore surprised him to hear a whistle go off across the street and down towards the commemorative sign of Rysbrack's.2
He was surprised just a bit to see the ruckus was coming from Sherlock Holmes.
I kept to the pavement after that, Watson, but as I walked down Vere Street a brick came down from the roof of one of the houses and was shattered to fragments at my feet. I called the police and had the place examined. There were slates and bricks piled up on the roof preparatory to some repairs, and they would have me believe that the wind had toppled over one of these.
The gentleman was standing stiff as iron with his back up against the wall of one of the fancy brick houses, hands spread apart at his sides as if he could press himself into the wall. Church trotted forward, his eyes narrowing to a bushy frown for it seemed odd that there be such a large pool of no-people around him. Vere Street was busier than this at any given time, yet here he was standing by himself like he had the plague.
"What's this now, Mr. Holmes?" He called out before he finished puffing up the street.
Mr. Holmes shot a pale face up and there was something tight and ferocious about his eyes. Calm as ever, cool as you please but he wasn't happy.
"Constable Church," he declared—the man always sounded like one of Church's old Sunday school teachers. "I believe there may be a problem." As Church joined his side, he moved the toe of his left shoe to the side; fragments of brick rattled against the concrete and set stone of the pavement.
Church looked without fully understanding. "Looks as though you got lucky, Mr. Holmes."
Holmes almost—but not quite—blinked. "Yes," he drawled slowly. "One might think so. And yet I would like to have the cause for this…fortuitous accident…examined."
Church had almost forgotten how Holmes talked. He re-listened to the words in his head until he was certain he understood it. "Are you suspecting foul play, Mr. Holmes?" Even as he asked this, he lifted his own hand and whistled for the next man over—ought to be Jamison today.
"I am saying that at this point my brush with death does not have a clear cause. For my own satisfaction, you would understand that I would like to rule out foul play."
Church thought this over, even as Jamison panted up to his side. The two policemen discussed the particulars quickly, and Jamison volunteered to enter the building and examine the roof. Through it all, Holmes stood stock-still, his hands upon his walking-stick as though he intended to use it. Twice he glanced back up to the roof, and Church was almost certain he saw the man shrink backwards each time.
"I'm sure there's nothing, sir." Church said the moment Jamison tapped on the front door and was given entrance. "Repairs are always going on in London; sometimes they don't hire the right sort of worker for the job I fear. Mistakes, they happen."
"Mistakes most certainly do happen." Holmes answered back. He looked as though he were speaking of something else. Those cool grey eyes were far away into the crowd. "Nevertheless, I feel I should satisfy my curiosity."
Church chuckled lightly. Laugh it off, he'd been advised time and time again. Laugh it off. Even if it is something, and it probably isn't most of the time, you don't want people scared. "As you say, sir, but accidents happen to people as much as the blackguards do."
Both Church and Holmes craned straight up; Jamison was leaning forward, the winds battering the folds of his coat as he stretched his long neck down.
"There's no one up here, gennulmen!" Jamison screamed down over the rising wind. "Just some bricks and slates piled up for repairs! Wind must've knocked a bit over!"
"That," Holmes grumbled, "would be a considerable wind indeed."
"These things happen." Church assured him. "Especially if they was placed wrong."
Holmes turned his head slowly, and measured Church with his cool, grey hawk's eyes.
"So you say." He answered quietly. "Nevertheless I expect you to make a full report to your division, Constable."
"A report? For this?" Church started to laugh, but stopped. "You're serious."
"As you say. It appears to be an accident. But accidents kill as much as blackguards." Holmes sounded as if he were biting off each word with great effort. "It would bring me comfort, Constable, if a report would cause greater caution upon this street." He lifted one swift, white hand as Church opened his mouth. "I am an unattached man, Constable. And I have swift reflexes. I hesitate to think of what would have happened if it had been a woman or child walking past this same spot."
Church went white to his chin-strap. He swallowed hard. "Yes, yes you're quite right about that sir." He pulled out his notebook and pencil with due haste. "At what time would you estimate this accident?"
Of course I knew better, but I could prove nothing.
1 Ciphered notes, telegrams and Agony Column ads were quite common in an era of telegrams and hand-delivered notes—both open to the scrutiny of strangers and it was a way of passing confidential information in plain view..
2 John Michael Rysbrack, a famous Flemish artist who died at his Vere Street address in 1770.