“You are aware that blindfolding me was really quite futile. I know precisely where we are.” As his blindfold is removed by a man (boxer; hired thug; paid a pittance but in debt to his boss here in a way that does not remotely involve money) who quickly exits the room, Holmes blinks his grey eyes against the light cast from the lamps of the study, two of which are clearly directed straight at him, leaving the other figures in the room in the shadows and him at a clear disadvantage. Still, he knows that there are two men; one a little over six foot who stands behind the other; military bearing but ex-military, certainly; broad-shoulders; calm, cool – dangerously so. The other… he sits, hands clasped together in front of him, resting upon the silver top of a cane. Thinner; shorter than the other; this is the one they call Professor Moriarty, but the name is as much of a front as his harmless old professor façade.
“Indeed,” says the man, nodding slightly. “Had I truly wished to bamboozle you I would have drugged you – and I assure you that no matter how careful you might be I could have done so with perfect ease. Call this a… flirtation, if you will.” He leans forward a little, putting his goatee-bearded face half into the pool of yellowish light cast by one of the lamps.
Deviltry, thinks Holmes, remembering stage shows and séances; exhibitionist feats of so-called diabolical mentalism and mind-reading that astonish the audiences and leave them almost rapturous (Holmes, of course, was able to see most of them for what they were without even trying – parlour tricks; sleight of hand; the observation of trifles; the use of subtle intonations and gestures to influence the participant and an ability – an impressive one, certainly, but not a supernatural one as many of the audience members believe – to read human body language, rather than minds).
The man wears a dark, expensive suit under a black frock coat; his gloved hands clasp the cane; his silver watch-chain glints against his waistcoat. His hair, though already short, is neatly pomaded down (and though his hair is thinning on top, he is not balding as he appears to be when playing the professor). He looks respectable and when he smiles it might invite trust, if Holmes did not know him to be a very dangerous man indeed.
“I know who you are,” he says. “I have long known it.”
“Indeed?” The man who sometimes calls himself Moriarty chuckles. “Dear me, Mr Holmes, perhaps I have been lax. So who, pray tell, am I?”
“Your real name is Derren Brown. You are a trickster; a charlatan.” Holmes is aware of countless cold, unseeing eyes fixed upon him. The room is filled with dead, stuffed animals – some the positive zenith of the taxidermist’s art; some… rather less impressive. To his right, in the corner, he can make out a fine specimen of a tiger, mouth open in an endless, silent snarl, its glass eyes gleaming in the lamplight.
“You insult me,” says Brown, but his eyes twinkle and again he gives a tiny nod of the head, whether it is consciously done or not.
“A stage magician.”
“On occasion, though I assure you I am far beyond the tawdry theatrics of most of those petty-minded entertainers. Pulling doves out of one’s sleeves and rabbits out of hats? Pah! Children’s games! My ‘tricks’, one might call them, always have a higher purpose.”
“Oh?” Holmes leans back in his chair, pressing his fingertips together beneath his chin. “And what is that?”
“To prove just how weak-minded the average human being may be. How gullible; how malleable their insipid little minds may be in the hands of a skilled operator. You and I though, my dear Holmes, are better than they are.”
Holmes finds his gaze drawn briefly by the movement of the other man behind Brown, who stands leaning both hands upon Brown’s chair, and he knows who this fellow is too. Colonel Sebastian Moran – ex-British army; superb marksman; hunter of man-eating tigers, and of men.
Brown too seems to note the colonel’s sudden movement and swiftly lifts one hand, placing it over Moran’s. “My dear fellow,” he says, his tone kind and almost paternal in tone, but there is something infinitely sinister about it even so. This is a man who could bend the minds and wills of men twice his size and strength just by using the right tone of voice or the most innocuous of words, after all. “Do not take offense; I most certainly regard you as better than most men also.” He pats Moran’s hand, lightly, but then continues to cover it for a few moments more while his gaze fixes upon Moran’s.
“Hm,” is all Moran says, sounding far from convinced, which would suggest that the man is not as easily manipulated by Brown as many are. Brown though would not be paying Moran six thousand pounds a year if he did not value the colonel’s brains and core strength as well as his skill with a rifle, Holmes knows. He has conducted his investigations and turned up a few such titbits of information as Moran’s salary, even if Brown – or the professor – covers his tracks with skill (and that he has left any tracks for Holmes to follow… it struck Holmes as queer, certainly; it were almost as if he wished for Holmes to follow the trail to him).
Moran says nothing further; only gives a nod in response to Brown’s sideways flicking of his eyes, and when Brown releases his hand he moves to adjust the lamps slightly, so that the light no longer falls so firmly upon Holmes. After doing so he moves and sits down in an armchair that is the twin of the one Holmes is seated upon (though rather smaller than the one upon which Brown sits). Moran’s fierce blue-eyed gaze rests upon Holmes’ face. Holmes meets it without fear, sure that the colonel is evaluating him; sizing him up for later reference. When Holmes does not look away Moran smirks faintly, before finally looking to Brown.
“What is it you want from me, Brown?” Holmes asks, finally directing his gaze back to him. “Because I am afraid I am really quite busy at present and if you do not intend to kill me today then I would prefer it if we could get directly to the point and cease this… courtship.” He raises a dark eyebrow at Brown, who gives him the faintest smile in response.
“You are direct, Mr. Holmes; I appreciate that, yet do you not wish to take this opportunity to question me about so many loose ends? So many unsolved little cases – paltry, all of them; commonplace little murders, truly not worthy of your great talents, but which irk you with their incompleteness, nonetheless.”
“They do not irk me so much as they irk Scotland Yard,” Holmes remarks. “I know who was behind them. Scotland Yard simply cannot bring those responsible to justice because of an uncanny habit that so many men and women have of springing forth to provide iron-clad alibis for the main suspects, or, suspect.” He directs another brief glance at Moran; again Moran smirks. “This, I think, is hardly my problem, however. I have done my best, after Scotland Yard has done its best to obliterate all the evidence I might have found.”
“I would doubt very much,” says Moran, his eyes locking onto Holmes’ again, “that you would find anything had you been called even a minute after the deaths.”
“You say this lightly, Holmes – that it is not your problem,” Brown remarks. “And yes, perhaps such matters are so trivial as to concern you no more than a fleabite apiece. Yet, cumulatively, they become rather more… bothersome.”
“Yes, well, I have noted certain patterns in the apparent chaos, one might say, and this, indeed, troubles me and this caused my attention to be pulled in certain directions. He killed Mr. Josiah Jones.” Holmes’ gaze is directed once again at Moran.
“I cannot comment,” says Brown.
“And Mrs. Lauder.”
“And Mr. James Murphy.”
“No, you’re wrong there, I’m afraid.”
“Then I am correct on the others, and somebody else under your command killed Murphy.”
Brown gives that tiniest nod of his head again. “Perhaps; perhaps not; I commit myself to nothing.” He reaches abruptly across to the desk and picks up a small black leather-bound notebook from it. This, he carefully opens.
“Then what point is there to this conversation, if you intend to deny all accusations?” Holmes queries.
Brown gives an indifferent shrug. “Perhaps merely to annoy you further.” He glances over a page of the notebook. “You have become rather prone to annoying me, of late. You have foiled one or two of my plans.”
“I would have entirely foiled the Aston assassination attempt too if Lestrade had had the sense to call for me sooner.”
“Oh bless you, Holmes, but I doubt this.”
“Lestrade has the would-be killer in custody – a Mr. Augustus Levin.”
“Yes, I read something of this in the papers,” Brown remarks. “You may give your Inspector Lestrade my congratulations then on solving the crime so quickly.”
“You are aware that the crime is far from solved. There is the matter of motive – why a man would try to murder a stranger, as Aston was to him, in cold-blood, in public view. There is also the issue of his amnesia.”
“The human mind,” Brown says, glancing up from his notebook, “is an infinitely complex thing. Surely though it is hardly unheard of for a traumatic event to trigger amnesia – you should ask your dear Dr. Watson if he has any experience with such matters.”
“I am fully aware that you somehow manipulated Levin into shooting Aston.”
“Coerced a complete stranger into being the possible murderer of such an esteemed man as Aston? Did I whisper instructions into his ear to coolly murder him – in public - and then, what, obliterated all memory of my involvement from his mind with my astounding mesmeric powers?” Brown laughs.
“You are skilled in hypnosis.”
“Tut-tut, Holmes; you know that hypnosis cannot possibly force a man to do something that goes so against his nature, and it would go against this man’s nature. This Levin… a family man, I believe, from the newspapers.”
“A loving husband and father, and brother. No criminal history. His financial situation is stable, if not prosperous. It is claimed that he is always kind to everyone, and that he is something of a mouse; rather meek, and without a malicious bone in his body. Some might also say his only failing is that he was apparently a rather poor marksman, who missed a very easy shot. Aston was very fortunate that this was the case.” Moran chuckles at this remark. “A good person, though, Levin, by all accounts,” Brown continues. “And as such, hardly someone who could be coerced to kill under hypnosis.”
“If anyone can do such a wicked deed,” says Holmes, “then it would be you, Brown – manipulating him until he is utterly pliant; planting thoughts and suggestions in his mind; setting a trigger, perhaps a certain sound or the wave of a peculiarly coloured handkerchief, to send him into action; another to wipe all knowledge of his actions from his mind.”
“You flatter me.”
“I never flatter.”
“No.” Brown snaps the notebook shut, and smiles to himself. “No, you don’t. Perhaps I might flatter you however, if you will permit me?”
Holmes waves a hand airily.
“You have less frontal development than I should have expected, true,” Brown remarks, “yet it is incontestable that you have immense intelligence. You would be an asset to me, you really would.”
“Spare your words, Brown; I have no interest in joining you. We are on opposite sides of the line; this shall always be so.”
“A pity. Ah, well, I hardly expected more from you. You are intelligent, yes, but so narrow-minded. My dear Holmes, you abhor the dull routine of existence and yet you exist in a cage of your own making. Your life is full of commonplace occurrences. You thrill over bizarre and recherché little cases, but still resort to artificial stimulants because in the end, your cases are never sufficient to truly try your brain. If you crossed the line and cast off all the restraints of the law though… just think what you might achieve.”
“Crime is so much more thrilling, is it?” Holmes says dryly.
“Toying with people? Treating them like little lapdogs, making them do amusing tricks?”
“Or grandiose ones. I lived my life once as you did – abiding by all the rules. Well, almost all of them, and it was infinitely tedious. Now I am not like dear Sebastian here, whose true love is staring death in the face, and then conquering it; creeping about in the depths of the jungle, stalking after ferocious beasts. He is a much more physical, sensual creature than I, aren’t you, Colonel?”
“If you say so,” Moran answers.
“My pleasures are more… intellectual; I would rather leave out most of the emotional considerations, not to mention all the mess.”
“To what end?” Holmes asks. “Simply to prove how very, very clever you are compared to everybody else? Amusing yourself with your own magnificence?”
“Well I am rather magnificent.” Brown laughs; the sound echoes through the room somehow.
“Your elderly professor routine; why do you do that?”
“I am not without some skill at going about in disguise, after all, and you, surely, Holmes, are aware of the value of disguise. A woman may find out things a man cannot; a drunken labourer will surely hear of things no gentleman will ever know about, and an elderly professor of mathematics is guaranteed to learn of things that a stage magician and mentalist can never be privy to. Of course having to shave off my beard for the occasion is rather irksome but then the professor so rarely makes public appearances these days that it is tolerable, and it soon grows back.”
“And the oscillation of your head?”
Brown smiles, giving a slight nod of his head as he does so (and that, thinks Holmes, is his real tic manifesting itself again; perhaps the almost reptilian swaying is an attempt to counter that and distract from it when Brown wanders about in disguise as Moriarty). “An affectation, for the sake of amusement. People do find it so disconcerting – well, ordinary people do. Ordinary, boring human beings – of which you are not one - who can never truly value you, as I can. Why would you persist in taking their side against me?”
“Because you are evil; a menace to society.”
“That depends on one’s viewpoint, I’m afraid. To countless families I am their saviour; their protector, keeping them from the workhouse or from prostituting their children.”
“I will not join you.” Holmes leans forward now, meeting Brown’s gaze fiercely. “In fact, I have made it my aim in life to bring you down.”
Moran gives a faint snort of derision. Brown too appears more scornful than concerned. “Do you think that you can merely come into my home and threaten me, Holmes?” he asks.
“As I recall, you brought me here.”
“Idle threats though, for you have not a scrap of evidence to support your accusations. I have the weight of a mighty organisation at my back but you… what do you have? Ah… yes, Doctor Watson.” Brown’s voice is filled with amusement as he utters the doctor’s name. His gaze meets Holmes’ intently, reading his face – seeing past that blank mask that Holmes pastes upon it - as if it were made of plate glass and he were looking right through into Holmes’ mind.
If you lay a finger upon Watson, I will end you, with my bare hands if needs be, and I don’t care if I hang for it, Holmes might have said; making threats out loud. He has no need to. Brown knows.
“Dear me, you have stooped, have you not? To care?” Brown chuckles. “Oh don’t concern your pretty head, Holmes; your doctor does not interest me in the slightest bit.” He darts up out of his chair and steps towards Holmes. “Let us try to keep it that way, hmm?” He smiles, his eyes glittering with amusement, but the weight in his voice; the heaviness of the threat that flows in the undercurrents is unmistakable. He holds out a gloved hand to Holmes, who declines to shake it. “As you wish. Sebastian, would you be so kind as to show Mr. Holmes out?”
Moran gets up from his chair and roughly seizes Holmes by the arm.
“Thank you, I can manage,” Holmes says sharply, brushing Moran’s hand aside as he steps out of his seat.
“Until the next time we meet, Holmes,” Brown says, watching Holmes exit with his sharp, keen eyes as he stands leaning with both his hands upon his cane, and he grins.
Smug arrogant git, thinks Holmes.