The snowfall was beginning to ebb when Watson and Baker regained the sidewalk. It was getting late, and they would have a difficult time finding a tavern that hadn’t already closed down for the holiday.
Being carried upon two strong, sturdy legs was such a long-forgotten privilege that Watson did not initially observe that the streets had changed since he entered Baker’s flat. Broken and uneven bricks poked like little tombstones through the sooty snow. Noiseless huddles of people gathered around drums of fire like garish shadow puppets worshipping at the altars of high flames leaping into the air.
“Ah, here we are,” said Baker hospitably, and led them into a poorly lit cave among the labyrinth of small streets that spiraled away from Tottenham Court-road.
Two lone figures hunched in silence over the end of the bar, and the sour smell of cheap barley spirits pierced the stale, smoky air. But Baker pulled up a stool with the ease of someone who treated this place like a second home.
“Evening, Mr. Windegate.”
“Well if it isn’t Mr. Baker,” greeted the landlord. “I trust you’re keeping warm this evening.”
Baker returned his smile and rubbed his hands together, indicating that it was an effort in progress. “I do what I can, sir. This is my friend Dr. Watson.”
Watson thought “friend” might be a bit presumptuous, but he extended his hand all the same.
“How d’you do, sir?”
“Well enough, I suppose. At least, I’m grateful we haven’t seen too much trouble here today. The Professor usually makes his rounds just before the holidays and cleans me out.” A shiver stole through the landlord’s cheerful countenance.
Baker clucked his tongue and shook his head sympathetically. He ordered two whiskys and a pair of pints. Several more patrons hustled in from the cold, mostly a downtrodden lot, with haggard, world-weary faces couched in layers of moth-eaten clothes.
“A Professor owns this pub?” Watson asked. It didn’t add up.
Baker nodded as he lapped up his whisky. “Owns the whole neighborhood. No business occurs here that he doesn’t know about, or hasn’t somehow orchestrated himself.”
“I should think a Professor would aim to keep his establishments in better repair,” said Watson, throwing a scornful glance at the hole in the ceiling above them.
“You know, I’m not entirely certain he’s a real professor,” Baker replied thoughtfully. He started on his ale.
The tavern was beginning to grow crowded as more people sought refuge from the onslaught of another spate of weather. The wind had picked up and snow was teeming heavily from the sky.
“So, just who is this man?” Watson wanted to know what kind of business owner went around masquerading as an academic.
“Who, the Professor?” An alcoholic lacquer was already glossing over Baker’s pupils.
Watson nodded, reminding himself to remain patient with his doddering companion.
“Why it’s Professor Moriarty, of course. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him, as he runs half the city now.”
“James Moriarty is dead,” Watson informed him loudly over the rising din.
Baker coughed a laugh. “I’m sure we all wish that were true, sir.” He cast a worried glance in all directions before leaning towards Watson and lowering his voice. “Listen, I’d be careful with my words if I were you. The Professor has quite a formidable list of brutes on his pay scale I shouldn’t care to mess with.”
Another blast of cold air rushed in when the tavern door blew open once more, and a clamor of shouts from the street clashed with the conversational noise inside.
“I told you to keep away from here!” hollered a well-known voice. Watson looked up in surprise and saw Lestrade in a police uniform, his fist raised towards some unseen nemesis.
“Lestrade!” exclaimed Watson.
“Is he a friend of yours?” Baker asked chattily, unfazed by or simply oblivious to the unpleasantness surrounding them.
“Yes, I’ve worked with him for years.”
Lestrade pulled up a stool at the bar. With a long, defeated sigh, he removed his hat and rested it beside him. “One more impudent scoundrel and I’m going to make an arrest, mark my words,” he threatened no one in particular. He nodded at the landlord who placed a glass of ale in front of him.
Watson slid past Baker and approached the inspector.
“Inspector Lestrade,” he said, “how glad I am to see you!” And he meant it. Watson had seen his share of humanity, but there was something unsettling about all this that was making him start to long for a familiar face.
Lestrade angled his face defensively, pointing a suspicious eye at the doctor.
“It’s Dr. Watson, Inspector. I just parted your company in Covent Garden not three hours ago.” Watson passed his hand over his own face to make sure he was still recognizable.
“You’ll forgive me, sir, if I’ve no recollection of our acquaintance, for I’ve had a most dreadful night. In any case, it’s Constable Lestrade now. I lost my badge a year ago after the wrongful hanging of John Hector MacFarlane.”
“What do you mean? MacFarlane was innocent—Jonas Oldacre tried to frame him for murder.” Had everyone gone mad?
Lestrade winced. “Yes, all that came out later, but I’m afraid it was too late for MacFarlane and for me. It was a disaster for the Yard, and the last straw for my supervisor, who told me he could not abide any more unsolved crimes. I’d have lost everything if the Professor hadn’t negotiated a position for me. Of course, now I’m indebted to him.”
This last statement dripped with bitter disgust.
A comforting possibility suddenly dawned on Watson. “Has Holmes put you up to this?” he asked.
The question further confused Lestrade, but he never got the chance to answer. The large, burly man who had been snaking around the premises with a sinister glare found who he was looking for. When he saw Lestrade, he lunged for him, dragged him from his stool and shoved him against the wall.
“Why’d you send my man to gaol when you understood perfectly well he was to be left alone?” he demanded, his rough, serrated voice every bit as intimidating as his hulking physique.
“But, sir,” Lestrade cried, terror shaking the breath from his words, “he knocked down an old lady. She was defenseless and…and I was assured that there would be no violence.”
“He does what he has to do,” the man sneered. “And you’re paid not to interfere.”
“Please,” begged Lestrade, but it was no use. The man struck him relentlessly until Lestrade was in a crumpled heap on the floor, thick rivulets of blood oozing from his nose and mouth.
Watson reached for his revolver, but it was not there. He was ready to confront the lout with his bare hands, but Baker placed a warning hand on his arm and shook his head. He was forced to submit until Lestrade’s attacker left the tavern.
As soon as he was gone, Watson rushed towards him. “Are you all right? Here, take my…” he fumbled in his coat pocket for the handkerchief Holmes had given him in Covent Garden, but it was empty. He looked up at Baker bending in mild concern over them. He handed Watson a rag.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, but I think it would be best if you left,” Lestrade told Watson as he dabbed his seeping injuries.
“But I’m trying to help—“
“Go. Now. Before there’s any more trouble. You’re out of your element here.”
Baker nodded in acquiescence, and led them out into the cold once more. Watson glanced back only once at the sad, broken policeman they left behind.
* * *
“You needn’t stay Lestrade. I’m sure your wife awaits your presence at home.”
Holmes was still gazing out the window.
But Lestrade had no intention of leaving. Rarely had he seen the detective so discomposed as when they returned from the Yard and found the sitting room dark and uninhabited. He had only meant to stay a moment to thank Holmes and Watson for their assistance that day, but when Holmes began to chatter about the epidemic of ferric hydroxide that was sure to result once the snow melted, Lestrade knew he was not easy in his mind.
“All the same, Mr. Holmes, I’d like to see that Dr. Watson gets home safely tonight.”
Holmes spun around just as Lestrade had the courtesy to lower his gaze to the floor, hat held humbly over his chest. Wary of crediting Lestrade with too much intuition, Holmes supposed his frequent trips to the window had made his discomfort fairly obvious. Nevertheless, he did his best to affect only mild concern.
“Suit yourself, Inspector. But I’m sure Watson is hale and whole, and on his way home at this moment.” Try as he might, he could not contain a few tremulous notes of worry from creeping into his voice. He cleared them away with a tiny growl. “Brandy?”
“If you please, sir,” Lestrade said amiably, shrugging off his coat and dropping into Holmes’s chair in front of the fire. “Can’t remember the last time we had so much snow at Christmastime.”
With a vacant nod, Holmes poured two glasses of liquor from the decanter. He was aware that staring out the window was a futile exercise, much as he felt that was what he should be doing, and accepted the kind distraction that Lestrade was offering. He brought a glass to the inspector and sat himself in Watson’s chair opposite him.
“You don’t think we ought to be out looking for him, do you?” Lestrade ventured when he noticed that apprehension still rippled across Holmes’s brow. “I mean, if he was distraught he might have sought refuge in a tavern or perhaps even a…”
The words fell like cut cloth at Holmes’s feet, and he sipped in silence, refusing to let his already disquieted mind fashion a panicked vision of his friend resorting to ugly means of temporary relief that were well beneath him.
Instead he said very quietly, “I do not think so, Lestrade.”
He took up his pipe from the table next to him. He tamped the stale tobacco and struck a match and did not meet Lestrade’s eyes. If he did, there would be questions he did not wish to hear and could not at this time answer.
Had he been asked yesterday if his Watson was capable of losing himself to a fit of frustrated rage, he would have said no with all due confidence. Tonight, he was not so certain. But as long as he remained here in the sitting room, sipping brandy and keeping conversation, he could convince himself that he was.
* * *
Watson and Baker walked on in tense silence. Watson wrestled with a decision and, after a moment, turned to his companion.
“I appreciate your hospitality and company, Mr. Baker, but I think I’d like to go home now.”
“To Baker Street. The hour is getting late. Can you point me in the right direction, please?”
“I’m afraid they won’t know you there, either.”
Watson had run out of patience with Baker. He was sick of the way his cryptic smiles punctuated statements that didn’t make any sense.
“You may accompany me if you like, but I’m going,” he insisted, pulling a few strides ahead.
“As you wish, sir,” Baker shrugged and fell into step with him once more. “It’s this way. Left at the corner, I think.”
But even the well-trodden streets of Watson’s own neighborhood assumed a menacing façade. Was there ever so much rubbish in the gutters, so many restless shadows between the buildings, so much visible unease among the few remaining merchants who watched suspiciously from their storefront windows?
“Here we are,” Baker announced when they reached 221.
Watson was caught off-guard by the haphazard sign over the door that read “Mrs. Hudson’s Boarding House.”
“I suppose she’s taken on extra lodgers for the holidays,” Watson said, ignoring the inanity of this conclusion. He reached for his keys, but found they, too, were missing. He rapped on the door.
“Mrs. Hudson! Are you at home?” He rapped again. The door finally opened, much to his great relief.
An old woman answered. “Yes? Can I help you?” Her sunken, withered face was partially obscured by a black shawl.
“I’m looking for my landlady Mrs. Hudson,” said Watson.
“I’m Mrs. Hudson,” she confirmed, and Watson could not prevent his jaw from falling open when he recognized the hooded brown eyes squinting up at him. She had somehow aged twenty years since he last saw her.
“I’m—I’m sorry, Mrs. Hudson, I’ve misplaced my keys,” he tried to sound nonchalant as he tripped through the door and wiggled out of his coat. “Has Holmes come home yet?”
“Sir, I think you are mistaken. I don’t know who you are, and no one lives here by that name.”
Watson could contend with the fact that, strange as it was, his landlady seemed to have forgotten him. But he could not believe that the woman wasn’t prepared to admit she knew Holmes.
“Sherlock Holmes! The great detective!” he argued with thin agitation, handing the befuddled woman his hat and coat. They hung from her pinched fingers like a pair of dead animals.
Her pupils darted back and forth in an effort to find something in her memory to appease this intruder. Her brow finally cleared.
“Oh yes, Mr. Holmes, I think I remember him. Tall fellow. Attracted a strange lot of callers. But he hasn’t lived here in years. He didn’t get on with his roomate, and they left me owing three months’ rent.”
“Nonsense…” Watson scoffed, and he started up the stairs. But he already feared for what he would find or, more specifically, what he would not find when he reached the landing.
“You cannot go up there without an appointment, sir!” she called after him.
Watson paid no heed. He opened the door to the sitting room, and gasped.
The room was cold and unfurnished, and the walls were hemmed with silent children swaddled in dirty blankets. A dozen pairs of wide, frightened eyes trained on the doctor standing in the doorway. To them, he was a stranger, but Watson knew these small faces very well. It was the Baker Street Irregulars, every last one of them.
“Is your—“he started to ask, but just then a tall, bearded man came ‘round the corner from where Holmes’s bedroom ought to have been.
“Who are you?” he demanded, his gruff voice chafing Watson’s frazzled nerves, “and what are you doing here?” His left cheek bulged with a plug of tobacco.
“I’m…” Watson was no longer sure how to account for his presence. So he went on the offensive.
“Who are you?” he asked the bearded man. “And what are you doing with the Irreg—with all these children?”
“I’m James Callahan, the proprietor. These urchins b’long to me.”
“Proprietor of what?” Watson parsed the room more closely but saw nothing to indicate that this was a place of business.
“Hiring out the young ‘uns,” the man replied, spitting tobacco juice onto the floor. He jerked his head in the direction of the ragtag group of orphans behind him. “You need some of ‘em for your factory, eh what?”
“Certainly not,” Watson said, greatly shamed by the deplorable scene, “and I cannot believe Mrs. Hudson tolerates this.”
“Oh, she gets paid well enough to mind her own business, I can assure you. She sets up in her rooms downstairs all day and never has to worry for the goings-on in here or anywhere else for that matter. Now what is it you want, sir?”
Watson couldn’t bear it any longer. He fled the sitting room, flew down the stairs, grabbed his coat and hat where Mrs. Hudson had tossed them disinterestedly on the side table and ran into the street.
He was running out of ways to rationalize what was happening to him.
* * *
Holmes and Lestrade both jumped when they heard a knock on the front door. Holmes promptly set his glass on the table and strode to the window. It wasn’t like Watson to lose his keys, but he had done a number of unusual things tonight.
It was not Watson, but a dark-haired man dressed in full mourning. He poked the brim of his hat in polite greeting to Mrs. Hudson, and handed her a sealed envelope. Holmes’s deductive machine immediately set into motion: Young man, mid-thirties, fairly well-to-do. Lost someone dear to him recently. Air of calm resignation suggests the loss was not unexpected. Presence of a wedding band and recently brushed hat dismiss the possibility that he is a widower. More likely it was a sick member of his immediate family. Gold cross on his watch chain identifies him as religious. His errand his not urgent, but it is important. He is here in an act of kindness.
The man nodded in thanks and teetered away over uneven piles of snow. A minute later, Mrs. Hudson appeared in the sitting room and announced a letter had been delivered for Dr. Watson.
“Let me see it, please, Mrs. Hudson,” Holmes said, hand outstretched. “It may provide us a clue as to his whereabouts.” She handed him the envelope, and she and Lestrade studied the detective’s face while he scrutinized it.
Envelope with a black border. Absence of sealing wax. “Dr. John Watson” scrawled neatly on the front. He allowed himself a tiny sliver of satisfaction when his theories were confirmed. Then he paused and let the final conclusions form on their own. Watson lost a patient today. This letter absolves him of any wrongdoing.
“Well, Mr. Holmes?” Mrs. Hudson pressed anxiously.
He glanced up as if he suddenly remembered he had an audience. “The man who brought this letter is in mourning for a recently deceased family member. He is a distant acquaintance of Dr. Watson’s. Beyond that…”
“Yes?” prompted Lestrade.
“Not enough data,” concluded Holmes, handing the envelope back to Mrs. Hudson. If she gave the letter to Watson herself then he would not feel pressed to explain it.
Holmes wandered back to the window, less to resume his vigil than to indicate he desired no further discussion on the matter. Now that he was aware of the full extent of Watson’s troubles, his own heart fluttered in distress. Holmes knew his impatience with the case had surely exacerbated Watson’s guilt-laden conscience.
The kind of anguish that was welling inside him was something Holmes routinely assuaged with the needle, when the mental stagnation between cases became unbearable. Watson never did fully understand about the seven-percent solution, that Holmes needed it to draw a curtain over the crime-ridden world that repulsed him as much as it fascinated him. He wished Watson would try it just once so they could watch from on high together, and laugh at the preposterous human comedy playing out beneath them.
But to Watson, the needle was a betrayal, a compromise of health and friendship. It alienated them when they could be sharing in the satisfaction of a case's conclusion or the fleeting idleness of an empty afternoon. Were Holmes to use it now, it would mean the banishment of his genuine and abiding concern, and no matter how much Holmes tried to convince him otherwise, Watson would see it as the selfish act that it was.
And so Holmes would have to take comfort in its proximity, at most allowing himself to run his fingers over the Moroccan case before he snapped it shut and returned it to the drawer unused. He kept his mind as clear and transparent as the pane of glass before him.
Please come home, Watson, Holmes implored the night sky. It’s the world that needs your forgiveness, my dear friend, not the other way around.