Actions

Work Header

The Better Part of Valour

Work Text:

Dr Watson is as much a liar as ever, God be praised. In my heart I never lost hope that it was so.

He has dubbed his new work "The Adventure of the Empty House." I finished reading not half an hour since, and I am shaking. I am delighted and relieved, of course, but heartache is also stirring. The story has revived my memories too vividly.

I think it's time to write things out at last, if only for my own peace of mind.

 

My neighbour, Mr Mycroft Holmes, had quite a crooked nose. It slanted sideways sharply enough to appear out of joint; that was one of the first things I noticed about him. Perpetually tipping like a friendly hat, it brightened his general mien with a sly dash of approachability.

Slight acquaintance served to correct that impression. His manners were reserved, and the expression of his eyes seemed sometimes wise but always distant. I'd never encountered a more contented hermit. Perched in the suite directly above him in our comfortable but aging Georgian terrace, I had not been settled a week before noticing that the sounds of argument and entertainment from downstairs were striking in their absence. In time I learned that he never kept company beyond the elderly servant who seemed to be more dependent on his care than the reverse. Over the course of four years in relatively close quarters, he conversed no more with me than the occasional stairwell civilities required.

Nevertheless, he carried an air of assurance about him to which I had conceded without noticing. There was a promise of safety in his presence that I must have grasped intuitively. On the morning after the first genuinely dangerous night of my life, I knocked on his door.

Unfazed by my wild tale of kidnapping and terror, Mr Holmes took the situation in hand with an ease that seemed odd for a mid-level government accountant. I soon learned, however, that he had a detective for a brother and so brushed shoulders with criminology from time to time. He advised me to begin by alerting the police and determining what professional help, if any, could be had. With this poor man, Kratides, held hostage and in imminent danger of losing his life, a warrant and a bevy of constables might make all the difference.

I walked home from the Westminster station after five wasted hours. The first two I spent waiting for an inspector to hear me out. The last three unwound in a series of ostensibly civil but unmistakably dismissive interviews. I had lived in England long enough to tell when I was being addressed as a gentleman and when as a foreigner. This inspector read my admittedly frantic manner as either hysteria or some more generalised unreliability. Furthermore, he considered my story too vague to be actionable. I knew nothing of this unfortunate man except his name, nor could I say where he was being held, so what could the inspector or his constables be expected to do? There was nothing I could say to change his opinion, but I tried for longer than I should have.

He fobbed me off in the end with a lie about opening further inquiries, and I left without complaint. There was no point in arguing with policemen. I made much of my living in the courts translating for the poor devils who learned that lesson too late.

Mr Holmes had told me he would be taking tea at his club, so after changing my collar and running a hasty brush across my trousers and jacket, I went to the address he'd given. It was just across the street from our rooms. The interior was palatial but maintained a stifling atmosphere, more reminiscent of a library than of the boisterous billiard and card rooms just a few doors down at the Rag. The spread served up at Mr Holmes's table was more luxuriant, though, than many I'd seen in the officers' coffee room. Serving myself busied my hands and reshaped the afternoon into a semblance of normalcy.

My neighbour commiserated with me over the frustrations of the police station and promised to invite his brother around to see what more could be done. He sipped at his tea, careful and steady, the cup and saucer dwarfed by his large hands. He checked his watch and leaned forward with an elbow on the table.

"Mr Melas," he said. "I have now to make a suggestion that does not sit well with me. To be frank, it is a riskier venture for you than I could wish. But if we act in the next half hour, we have time enough to get a notice into all the evening editions sharing what intelligence you gathered last night and offering a reward for further information.

Were the situation any less dire, I would not advise so direct a course. I have full confidence that my brother, given time, could track down the location of the house where this man is imprisoned. Sherlock’s inquiries would be discreet and far less likely to call down retaliation on your head. But the fact is that we have no time to lose. This man has been placed under torture, and whether his body or his will breaks first is immaterial – the break will come, sooner rather than later. If we hope to save his life, we must find him again as soon as possible. I believe we are more likely to do so through advertisement than investigation.”

“Yes. Yes, of course,” I murmured. I could not weigh any of the risks involved; I seemed to have lost the ability to think more than one step ahead.

Mr Holmes could see that my acquiescence was a sign of bewilderment rather than courage, for he held up a warning hand. “Don’t approve this in haste, Mr Melas. You are only sitting here, alive and well, because these criminals believed that threats would be enough to secure your silence. It is because I fully credit them with the ruthlessness they avowed that I fear for the life of their prisoner. By the same token, it is a serious matter to publish proof of your defiance across half a dozen newspapers. That is a decision that you alone have the right to make.”

I nodded and sat considering in silence. A few crumbs had dropped from my plate, and I absently brushed them from the tablecloth onto the floor. I had no idea how to evaluate a threat to my life. On the one hand the prospect of violence seemed nightmarish and unreal; on the other, it had already happened once and some part of me remained braced for a new and more horrible sequel. My imagination skittered away from the thought of those men returning for me, but my vitals were threaded through with fear that lost no immediacy in this tea room, or the police station, or my bed. I was exhausted and not even a day had passed.

The spectre of reprisal felt at once impossible and ever-present, an uncertainty that slipped out of focus when held up against the certain death awaiting Paul Kratides. Last night we had spent a few hours trapped together in the same hell. This afternoon I was sitting at tea, hesitating over placing a notice in the papers while he continued to starve in captivity. I did not know what I was doing, but I knew at least that I could not leave him to die in the dark without trying my best to send help.

I met Mr Holmes’s gaze and agreed again to his counsel, this time with resolution. He clapped his hand on my shoulder, and I was sure I did not mistake the approval in his eye. He took care of the details and the expenditure, writing out the ad and waving over an errand boy to make copies and deliver them around to all the printers. At the same time, he sent a telegram to his brother in Baker Street.

“There is no chance at all that he will refuse the case,” Mr Holmes told me as we strolled back across Pall Mall to our apartments. “Tomorrow being Monday, I’m afraid I have a full schedule at work, and in any case we are not likely to receive a response to our notice immediately. Let us plan to congregate in the evening, sometime after six. I’ll make the introductions, and you will lay out the situation to my brother just as you did to me. There are no safer hands in which to place the problem, I assure you.”

We took the stairs together and prepared to part on the landing in front of his door. But anxiety tightened at the base of my throat. I suspected that, despite having grown queasy with fatigue, I would find it very difficult to sleep. I touched my hand to Mr Holmes’s arm as he pulled out his key on its chain and asked, half-embarrassed, “Could you not tell me more of this brother of yours? You say he is a detective, an unofficial one. Has he much experience?”

As soon as I’d spoken I realised that it sounded as if I were questioning his qualifications. In truth I had only been searching for an excuse to put off retiring alone for a little longer. But Mr Holmes was neither insulted nor defensive on his brother’s behalf. On the contrary, he smiled. He was one of those men who could not look pleased without likewise looking amused – perhaps it was the tipsy nose at work. In any case, his smile was a strikingly open and undiplomatic expression; no wonder he indulged in it rarely. With a quirk of his head he invited me in once again.

His rooms were laid out upon a plan that mirrored my own, and we passed through the familiar foyer and parlour, then down the corridor to a door that, in my own quarters, marked a small guest bedroom. Mr Holmes had converted his into a home office, its walls lined all the way round in rosewood bookshelves fronted by plated glass. They were overflowing with eclectic volumes, correspondence, manuscripts, and files. My neighbour was evidently as shameless a packrat as myself, and his library felt lived in as the remainder of his public rooms did not. With every wall occupied by shelves, his desk and chair stood in the centre of the rug beside an ornate standing lamp. This arrangement left scant space for the two of us to circulate, but the effect was still more cosy than cramped.

I ran my eye over scientific, historical, and economic titles while he lifted the glass on one section to our left and began pulling out periodicals. Translation comes so naturally to me that I did not initially realise I was employing it. But halfway through a shelf of Cyrillic I blinked and re-evaluated the variety of languages represented in the room. “Why Mr Holmes,” I cried, “you are as much a linguist as I am!”

He snorted. “Hardly that, Mr Melas, hardly that. I have a retentive memory, that’s all.” He swung the glass plate back down on its hinge. “It’s good practice to exercise a spectrum of vocabularies. But, as I’m sure you know, literacy is a far sight from fluency. I cannot speak half so well as I read, and I’m hopeless with anything vernacular.” He shuffled back with eight or ten issues of The Strand tucked against his arm which he then passed over to me. Of course I’d seen its lamppost cover for sale at every newsstand, but I’d never gravitated toward the type of lightweight magazine that specialised in gossip, oddities, and fiction.

“My brother,” Mr Holmes explained, “has a biographer. A friend who assists him in criminal investigations and writes up their more memorable cases for the public. The stories didn’t find many readers at first, but over the last several years they’ve grown quite popular. They’ll answer your questions about Sherlock far better than I could.” I must have looked sceptical, for as he walked me back to the front door he added kindly, “They will take your mind off of things, I expect.”

That they did. I read through most of the night, swept up in the science of deduction and its remarkable practitioner. It was a relief to escape for hours into something other than my own calamity. I finally fell asleep halfway through a grisly account of two mismatched, severed ears in a box and didn’t wake until the late afternoon. I bathed and dined, and at a quarter to seven I received a note from Mr Holmes inviting me back to the Diogenes. Awaiting me in the Strangers’ Room were Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.

The younger Holmes was as vibrant as the elder was serene. He was not so well-made a man as his brother, having never lost the spindliness of youth. This boyish impression was compounded by his clean-shaven face, and he spoke in a timbre that avoided the squeak of reediness by a hair’s breadth. Nevertheless, his was an arresting and expansive presence. The sensitive mouth; the broad, cerebral forehead; the hands never fully at rest – all appeared just as promised in the stories and illustrations, and together they conveyed a powerful impression of leashed energy. Here stood a man, I thought, whom no emergency could disarrange.

His companion, Dr Watson, did not catch the eye so forcefully. His features and figure were cut along conventional lines, strong and square – quintessentially British – but far from artistic. At first glance he looked the type to play tennis and shoot grouse. He was handsome enough, and no doubt an adventurer, but he made no show of it. His manner was buttoned down and unobtrusive, betraying none of the enthusiasm or romance so distinctive in his prose. After a brief introduction he stood back again some little distance, content to observe us as I described the terrible events of the night before last. Dressed all in grey and resting his arm atop a wicker chair, he might have faded from my awareness had not his friend’s eyes sought him out so frequently.

I poured out my narrative, doubtless making as much an exhibition of myself as I had at the police station.

Mr Sherlock Holmes listened without making any interruption and, waving off any suggestion of a fee, he took charge of the case. It was a terrible relief to hear him badgering his brother over what steps had been taken and what ought to be done next, and to feel that the responsibility no longer rested on my shoulders. A sensation of lightness overtook me, and I slumped back in my chair, weak with gratitude.

When Dr Watson approached to join in the Holmeses’ discussion, his friend unthinkingly reoriented toward him. Watson stopped at a respectable distance; his friend took a half-step closer and brushed a hand down his arm, lingering just above the elbow. He touched Dr Watson with the same absent-minded constancy as he looked at him. It was rather charming.

On paper, the doctor expressed a degree of devotion that skirted indiscretion. His effusions had certainly attracted my notice and curiosity as a reader. In person, the effect was precisely reversed – Mr Sherlock Holmes was the more incautious of the pair.

Perhaps he was the more in love. But I thought it likelier that he was comparatively brazen because, unlike his friend, he’d never lived abroad. He relied just a tad too much upon the preconceptions with which he was generally surrounded to do the bulk of misdirection for him. He probably didn’t realise how naked his attachment might appear to those whose experience had developed along more continental lines.

Even had I not been cut of the same cloth, I would probably have recognised the signs in him. I’d studied in Sicily, lived three years in Paris, and summered since childhood in Istanbul where the laws attached no direct criminality to men of our ilk. Professionally, I answered travellers’ summons to hotels of every stripe at all hours of the night. Even before I understood my own nature, I’d left behind any illusions about what ‘wasn’t done’ between men, including Englishmen.

Still, of Dr Watson’s disposition I remained a little in doubt. He’d written affectionately of a wife and wore a wedding ring. Half a dozen possible scenarios might explain it, but without knowing him better I could not judge which was nearest the truth.

I was in the midst of this idle speculation when Mr Sherlock Holmes, having decided upon the next steps of his investigation, half turned and caught my expression. Apparently it told him the direction of my thoughts, for he flinched in shock. For a moment he stood petrified, dismay churning through his eyes. He composed himself rapidly, but the pit of his fear transferred sympathetically to my stomach. I straightened at once in my chair, lifting a hand to indicate there was no cause for alarm.

“I am struck, Mr Melas,” Mycroft Holmes interrupted calmly, “when I consider this troubling case, by how fortunate a coincidence it is that we are neighbours.” The stress he placed on the term was quite subtle, but it conveyed his meaning. The row of terraced houses I shared with him was home to many bachelors. The young came and went, but those of us who stayed on into later life shared certain assumptions about one another.

“Indeed, Mr Holmes,” I agreed.

Sherlock Holmes’s glance darted to my left hand. I wore my grandfather’s ring, for I had no wish to lose the patronage of clients who considered it disreputable for a man my age to have remained unmarried. It simplified matters to be thought a widower. I tapped the gold band with my little finger, then covered it casually with my opposite hand.

The atmosphere of the room relaxed immediately. I thought to myself: what a cloak and dagger existence we lead. It struck me as funny, though probably only as an effect of recent stress.

Restored to equanimity – though perhaps rather more shaken than he let on – Mr Sherlock Holmes took his leave. Before departing with his friend, Dr Watson stepped over to my side. I thought for a moment that he might intend to revisit the waters we had just circumnavigated, but no. He pulled a police whistle from his waistcoat pocket and pressed it into my hand.

“In case of emergency,” he said. All the anxiety that had lifted from me over the course of the afternoon crashed back down in a rush. “Do not try to fight,” he advised. “There’s no need, and there’s no shame in doing your best to avoid injury. If anything goes wrong, just blow the whistle as loud and long as you can. Whitehall is right around the corner – there will always be someone on duty to hear you. Don’t take any jobs for the week. Don’t allow yourself to be lured to corners of the city where neither your friends nor the police can easily find you. Sit tight at home, only answer the door to voices you know, and keep this always in your pocket. Help will come if you call.”

I nodded mutely, clutching the whistle tight.

“I hope very much that you’ll never have cause to use it.” He shook my hand. “I’ve been working with Holmes for quite some time, Mr Melas. You are only the second client I can recall who’s come to us on behalf of a stranger, moved by no impetus other than humanity.” He made a slight bow and added, “I wish there were more gentlemen like you, sir.”

He was a generous soul.

I repeated his compliment to myself on the way home, sincerely pleased. The whistle I tucked into my trouser pocket. There it sat as I washed up; as I read the conclusion to the cardboard box mystery; as I ducked out to the landing to answer a call from our landlady; as I saw my kidnapper, his eyelids twitching, smile from below and pat cheerfully at the bulge where a bludgeon distorted the line of his overcoat; as he herded me, frightened past comprehension, out the door and into a waiting carriage, chatting amiably with my housekeeper all the while.

He drew up the carriage windows – still papered over – and searched me. The sovereigns that he’d paid upon our first encounter were still in my waistcoat and he languidly reclaimed them. He was even more pleased with the police whistle. Slipping it out of my pocket, his face broke into an unfettered grin. He raised it to his lips and blew a light, mocking trill before opening the door a crack and tossing it into the street.

 

Perhaps it is banal to say so, but dying was worse than I'd imagined. The literature across my many languages prepared me but poorly for the crisis. There was no tragic clarity, no eloquence. There was only that diminutive goblin of a man laughing breathily at the trail of piss I left on the floor as he dragged me, bound, to the corner of the room nearest the brazier. Kratides lay there already, moaning. With my nose to the dirty floor, the stench of his long captivity was overpowering.

Our captors stepped back and looked over us. Kemp polished his spectacles and Latimer touched his burning cigarette to charcoal time and again. Once the briquettes caught, he flicked the cigarette stub at me. It rebounded off my thumb, scattering orange embers.

Blue light flooded the bare floor, the blank walls. It washed over us in nauseating waves, bleaching the sunken, plastered face of my poor companion. His eyes met mine in anguish as we heard the key turn in its lock. We breathed our first lungfuls of smoke, smothering and foul.

We lay side by side, his heroism curled about my cowardice. In this case, stout resistance and inglorious surrender were destined to meet the same end. He was starved nearly to death and had no strength. But he leaned to my ear, which was wet with blood from a blow to the head that I barely remembered, and whispered in our native tongue, "window."

I stared at him dumbly before turning to follow the line of his sight. The room before me blurred, but, squinting, I made out a curtained window set in the far wall. It appeared to be closed and latched but not nailed down or jammed. The villains who had locked us here, complacent in their sadism, had chosen a slow poison. Clearly they'd expected that his emaciation and my weakness would leave us paralysed while they escaped and we asphyxiated. But if I could crawl across the room and force the sash up, I could begin to clear the air and perhaps funnel the worst of the fumes outdoors. Whether it would be enough to stave off death, I could not tell, but it would buy us time.

One knot of rope circled my hands, another my feet. I was wheezing, muddled, and retching. But the task was not beyond my strength; or rather, it shouldn't have been.

I understood that if I wished to live, I must move. Move quickly. But I could not. I sat and shook, helpless as a child. My breath came too fast and shallow. I coughed and cried and knew my pusillanimity for the crime it was - it would be the death of this noble man and not merely myself - but I had not the fortitude to overcome it. I whispered, "I can't. I can't move. Forgive me, forgive me," and covered my face.

A hand brushed against the back of my head, unexpected. It moved lightly, its gentleness perhaps a mixture of frailty and compassion. Paul Kratides had been hopeless for so long, I think, that resignation settled readily upon his soul. He did not rebuke me, nor did he beg or curse. Instead, he guided my head to his shoulder. "It's all right, my friend."

I sobbed against him as he repeated the reassurance. He patted my arm tiredly while the air blackened. His voice was parched and ugly, slurring. When I thought we were both too sick to speak, he pressed his cheek, still dotted with sticking plaster, to my temple. "God raise us to life everlasting.” It was his last coherent thought, though he kept calling his sister's name and cried mercy even as his thin arms fell slack and he slid toward insensibility.

Never in my life did I feel such gratitude and awe as in that moment. I lay pierced on the one hand by a ray of absolution and on the other by a bolt of panic the likes of which I'd never known. Where previously the dread of death had left me blank and enervated, this fresh terror revived me. My rational mind lurched back into command of my body like a ship captain unexpectedly routing a mutiny. I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket and dragged it over my face and that of Kratides, both wet with tears. I held the damp cloth to my mouth as I began to crawl, squirming worm-like on my stomach, elbows, and knees. The air nearest the floor was less choked with fumes than that above, and though my eyes refused to focus, I had only to feel my way along the wall to the corner and around.

I was disoriented and exhausted, seized by coughing fits that, at their worst, put a stop to my progress. But at last I inched my way to what I judged was the approximate position of the window. I held my breath, shut my eyes, and reared up onto my knees to scrabble with my tied hands, feeling for the latch. It took several tries to undo it, and several more to find the strength to lift the sash. But the next moment my head was through the gap, and though a cloud of smoke rushed out around me, I could gasp at fresh air as the wind reached my face. I pushed with my shoulders, urging the window as far open as I could.

I managed a few breaths, but my head was spinning, my knees weak, and my ankles still tied. I fell backwards, sprawled on the floor once again. The back of my head throbbed distantly. I struggled to sit up. A vague but urgent instinct told me I must get back to looking out the window. But I was tired and confused.

I felt I must be ill. Better to sleep.

 

I woke already vomiting. I was seated on a sofa and someone held me from behind, tilting me forward over the edge of the cushions. A shout sounded just behind me – my head hurt too terribly to identify the voice, the words, or even the language – and the grip around my shoulders tightened. I heard my name.

It seemed to me that many minutes passed before I could stop coughing long enough to answer, but then again, my sense of time was askew. It was Mr Sherlock Holmes, I eventually recognised, who sat with me. He had pulled me out of that room while his friend and brother had carried Kratides between them. Mr Holmes asked me simple questions, time and again, to confirm my consciousness and prod my memory. But my voice could barely scrape past the wreck of my throat. Mr Holmes fetched a cup of water, assisted me with tiny sips, and rolled the dirtied rug aside whilst I faded in and out.

I was distracted by the racket next door. There were thumps and creaks and urgent voices. I heard “…seizure, hold his arm.” I heard, “Mycroft, lift the lamp higher.” I heard, “He’s stopped, he’s not. He’s not breathing.”

Dr Watson continued giving orders in a steady voice, but I couldn’t bear to listen. Kratides was dying – was dead – and it was my doing. I wrenched away from the supportive arms behind me, turned over, and curled into the upholstery with my arms covering my head. My eyes were too red and swollen to allow tears, but sobs shook my chest into an uncontrollable spate of coughing.

Mr Holmes at first remained by my side, but eventually he rose to shut the door between this parlour and the dining room where Kratides was laid out on the long table. His body was still being buffeted under the doctor’s labours. I caught a flash of Mr Mycroft Holmes’s hands pressed down against the corpse’s chest in forced compressions and then the door swung closed.

There was no light in the room save that of the moon shining through the windows. It must have been past midnight. Mr Sherlock Holmes returned and seated himself on the floor at the foot of the sofa. I remained tucked in the opposite direction with my back to him.

It was some time before he spoke. “Nothing that has happened was your fault.”

I shook my head. With his powers of deduction, he must have taken the measure of my ignominy. He would have retraced the night’s events through our clothes, our injuries, the positions in which he’d recovered us. He knew I had not rallied myself for the slightest effort of escape. He knew that I had watched Kratides suffocate before managing so much as a crawl.

Muffled noise continued to slip under the door. Sherlock Holmes drew a deep breath and held it.

“I’ve never been afraid of being wounded,” he remarked in a neutral tone. “No, it is firing a weapon that undoes me.”

I frowned into the crook of my own elbow, still tucked over my head. Slowly, I lowered my arms, rolled over, and stared at him. In the faint, pale light he looked threadbare.

“I used to be quite cavalier about it. I thought myself a fair shot, and I wanted Watson to notice.” He confessed to this flirtation as another might confess to theft. “He was so visibly a veteran then; one could never have mistaken him for anything else. And though his sufferings had stripped soldiery of the glamour it once held for him, in my eyes its attractions were enhanced by the marks it had left on his character. In time, I understood that Watson would have proved a noble, valiant man in any walk of life. But on first acquaintance, I attributed too many of his best qualities to his martial service.

So I played with guns in his company. I shot patterns into our walls to advertise my proficiency and somehow convinced myself I was being less gauche than to brag. And then, less than a year into our friendship – just after Watson had begun accompanying me regularly on my cases – I tried to clip a robber we were chasing through Southwark. I aimed low, hoping to hobble him before he got away. But Watson was too close behind him, they were moving fast, and I was not the sharpshooter I fancied myself to be. My bullet hit the wrong man.”

Holmes’s voice wavered briefly; then he fell back into recitation. “It tore through Watson’s calf and cracked his tibia. He had only just regained his health after Afghanistan, and this injury set him back another six months. Worse yet, it left him with a second lingering wound to ache through cold nights and disturb his sleep every time the weather changes.

It has been nine years. It’s long been clear that no better healing awaits. The Ghazi may have ruined his shoulder, but it was I who mangled his leg.” Holmes shook his head, slow and disbelieving, with his eyes fixed on the floor. “In his stories he writes as if it were merely another war wound, indistinguishable from the first. Perhaps he even thinks of it as such. But it was no one’s fault but mine.”

He offered this secret shame to me as if in reparation, though I could not see that he owed me anything. It was I who had unthinkingly exposed a sheltered corner of his soul earlier this evening. He had no reason to trust me with more, and yet.

“Since then,” he confessed, “I’ve had difficulties with firearms. Severe difficulties. It’s not a matter of having learned my lesson. I am not more careful now with guns; I’m merely useless with them. I cannot aim, I cannot fire, even in the face of immediate danger. Even when that danger is not limited to myself, but threatens an innocent client or Watson himself. It’s a pathological response and cannot be reasoned away.

My only viable choice in a gunfight is to bypass any attempt at returning fire and rush in near enough to strike a blow. Running at gunmen is, of course, a strategically terrible prospect, and I know that it drives Watson mad to see me so reckless. But he cannot mend the scar in my mind” – here he touched a long, thin finger delicately to the centre of his brow – “any more than I can remedy the ones in his limbs.”

He rummaged for a moment and pulled a light, short-barrelled pistol from the pocket of his coat. He handed it to me. There was an engraving on the frame featuring a pair of chained hands. “I still carry this for the sake of appearances. I’ve cracked it across the head of more than one criminal. But I stopped loading it years ago.” He nodded expectantly, and I cracked the cylinder forward to expose the chambers intended to house the rounds. All six were empty and dark. “The occasional shots I’ve fired in Watson’s stories have been deliberate fabrications on his part – blinds to make my handicap less apparent. So far we’ve been lucky, and the criminals of London haven’t caught on to their advantage.”

He quirked an eyebrow in false levity. “But sooner or later one of them is probably going to shoot me. Or worse, shoot Watson in front of me. And God only knows what happens then.”

What could I say to that? These hushed fears were terrible, as this whole night had been terrible. Yet I was humbled – comforted – to see so guarded a man exposing his weaknesses in solidarity.

We relapsed into silence.

Shortly thereafter the door swung open and Dr Watson stepped through from the dining room. I started at the sight of him, for his shirt cuffs were missing, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, and blotches of blood stained his hands.

Perhaps answering my stare, he explained, “I performed a tracheal incision. Mr Kratides’ throat had swollen shut, but the surgery has kept him breathing. The tube will need to remain in place until the inflammation recedes. He’s unconscious, but temporarily stable. Holmes, can you fetch the carriage? We should get him to a more sterile environment as soon as possible.”

I stared at the doctor as he stood framed in that doorway, slow to comprehend. Gradually, though, it dawned on me that I had not killed my fellow prisoner. He was, incredibly, alive. I made some broken sound that Dr Watson mistook for distress, for he came to kneel before me, examining my face with concern. Voicelessly, I mouthed, “You saved him.”

He patted my hand. I didn’t mind the blood.

“That honour, Mr Melas,” he said, “belongs chiefly to you.”

 

When Mr Kratides was released from hospital, he came to stay in my small guest room. Being a stranger in London, he had no one else to whom he could turn. He still spoke hardly a word of English. The arrangement suited me as well, for I found it increasingly difficult to remain alone in my rooms. Having been kidnapped from them twice in quick succession, I had a tendency to jump at harmless sounds. Nerving myself to answer the door had become an ordeal. Though no fault rested with my landlady, I found it difficult to speak to her. So it did me good to have someone else, someone who understood, nearby for company.

Initially, I enshrined my companion in my mind as a hero and martyr. But a man’s deathbed, it turns out, is no place to form an accurate estimation of his character. I found it oddly cheering to discover that Paul Kratides, when not in extremis, was a combative and heartily caustic bastard.

Dr Watson visited regularly to attend to him. He monitored his healing incision for infection and worked gradually to reverse the malnutrition that had ravaged his frame. Kratides did not take kindly to the doctor or to the mealy diet that his compromised throat and weakened digestive system required.

“The English have only one recipe,” Kratides informed me from his sickbed. “They boil water. It is their answer to every appetite. They boil it to drink, they boil it to eat. It would not surprise me to learn that they make love in it like dying lobsters. Nothing escapes.” He prodded his spoon into a bowl of mushy carrots, his brows drawn close in grim distaste. “Starvation was kinder.”

Dr Watson remained perfectly polite and professional through each visit, but from the occasional twitch in his cheek, I suspected his Greek was better than he let on. For Kratides, I translated Dr Watson’s medical directions, many of which he ignored.

“You’re not to have any tobacco. Doctor’s orders.”

“Burn in hell,” he answered brightly and coughed for the entire length of his cigarette, undissuaded.

Kratides was vital, fierce, stubborn, and wry. But beneath it all surged the blackest grief, for his sister was still at the mercy of these villains. Before her accidental encounter with her brother, they had left her apparently unharmed. But who could say what abuse she might now be subjected to, or how long her life would be safe in their hands?

Again and again, Kratides insisted that he must resume the chase. But it was obviously impossible; he was too weak even to walk down the stairs unaided. I tapped frequently on Mr Mycroft Holmes’s door to receive updates about his brother’s continuing efforts. From a few comments that my neighbour let slip during these conversations, I formed the strong impression that he, too, was making use of political connections to spread descriptions of the fugitives to European police, consuls, and border guards.

It was just possible, I thought, that he was not in actuality an accountant.

After a month of medical visits, Dr Watson asked if I would be willing to act as a translator for him while he explained an idea to Mr Kratides. He had a proposal, he said, that he hoped both Kratides and I would consider.

“I have worked for some years as an assistant to Mr Holmes,” he began, “and my writings are a tool in our trade like any other. Generally speaking I have no wish to mislead the public, but my first duty is to protect our clients. When they’ve been threatened by criminals still at large, or by dangerous organisations too sprawling to be brought to heel, they’ve sometimes found it useful to disappear within my pages. Over the years, I’ve grown rather proficient at fictional murder.”

I mentally reviewed the mysteries from Dr Watson’s pen that I had read, trying to guess which of the many tragedies they chronicled might have been invented for the sake of tactical advantage.

Dr Watson noticed my curiosity. “My first victim,” he said, “was a blameless young gentleman who found himself harassed by members of a vicious American clan.”

“The Five Orange Pips!” I exclaimed. “Oh, sir, I am glad to hear it.”

For Kratides’ benefit, Dr Watson clarified. “In pursuit of some incriminating papers, fanatical Klansmen murdered two of this man’s relatives and threatened to do the same to him unless he returned their documents. But there was no guarantee that fulfilling their demands would avert their vengeance. Foiling one attempt against his life could just as easily provoke another. We were in no position to root out the whole of the vile secret society, and short of that, what surety could our client have that their grudge against his family was forgotten?

So, with his permission, I invented an unhappy end for him and published it after submitting a false obituary to The Times. We hoped to dissuade any further assassination attempts, and we succeeded. He changed his name and his address, and has since lived untroubled as a post-master in Surrey.”

Dr Watson leaned forward earnestly in his chair. “Your case is rather more complicated. These criminals already believe that they have killed you both, but they fled because they expected that the law was close on their heels. Holmes believes they have gone to ground, and until they emerge from hiding, we are at an impasse. I have tried to think of anything I could do that might improve our chances of finding them. Tell me, what if I were to publish an account with the goal of convincing them they are no longer being pursued?

They do not consider Mr Melas a threat; they are only frightened of the investigation he started. If I emphasise in print that Mr Kratides is dead, that the police have been nothing but obstructive, and that Holmes himself believes the villains to be dead or otherwise beyond the reach of justice – who, then, would be left to hunt them down? Who would still be looking for Sophie? Such an account may lure them out or put them off their guard. It’s a long shot, of course, that such a story will have any effect at all. But it seems to me worth trying.”

Kratides looked unconvinced, but shrugged to show he had no particular objection. “I don’t see how it could hurt,” he said.

"The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" proved to be just as popular with the public as any previous instalment in the ongoing memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Several months after its publication, Sophie Kratides appeared on the doorstep at Baker Street. She had escaped from Latimer and Kemp a few days before when they finally moved beyond their string of safe houses and attempted to board a train with her. She broke away from them in the crowd at the train station, rushed into the ladies’ room where they could not follow without making a scene, and appealed to the other women there to remain with her until she could contact the authorities. Clustered together, these women accompanied her to the station master, who in turn contacted the police.

Latimer and Kemp had made themselves scarce as soon as they lost hold of her. Mr Holmes did not give up hope that they would eventually be recognised and arrested, but for the time being, the freedom of their prisoners would have to serve as happy ending enough. Sophie reunited with her brother, stunned and overjoyed to find him alive. Once he was well enough, they returned to Greece, and we have all three remained close correspondents ever since.

I found it too difficult to remain alone in my rooms after their departure, and so moved clear across the city. Gradually I eased back into my work and trusted time to wear away the cruellest edges of residual fear. Life went on.

 

I first read of the murder of Mr Sherlock Holmes on the fifth of May in the screaming headline of a Hyde Park daily that had been abandoned in the lounge of the Grand Royale hotel. I was deeply shocked. Grieved. Angry. I attended the public memorial service – there was no coffin, for the body was never recovered – and wrote my heartfelt condolences to Mr Mycroft Holmes, and again to Dr Watson. Beyond that, there was nothing to be done.

It was some months later that Dr Watson published "The Final Problem." At first I resolved not to read it. I struggled with fits of depression enough as it was; no good could come from picking over the bones. Predictably, my resolution barely outlasted the day. I genuinely did not want to know more about Sherlock Holmes's death. But these parting words from the man he’d loved were my last chance to know more about his life.

Once I began to read I fell headlong into the tense contest between Mr Holmes and this titanic criminal mind against which he had set himself. I soon reached the scene in which Professor Moriarty walked straight off the street to threaten Mr Holmes in his own rooms, and I had to fight down a nauseous burst of déjà vu.

And then, with a very different sort of lurch behind my ribs, I stared down at the page where Dr Watson had recorded the first conversation between these deadly rivals. Professor Moriarty looked at Mr Holmes and said, “It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one's dressing-gown.”

Loaded firearms. Loaded firearms.

I actually laughed aloud. Professor Moriarty, the great criminal mastermind, had been wrong in his very first deduction about Sherlock Holmes. He had been bested from the beginning, and never knew it.

I made my way through the story, page by page. And as I read, alongside my grief and poignant appreciation, a strange, unsubstantiated hope began to twine through the back of my mind. I knew that Dr Watson wrote strategically. He had told me himself that, when criminals remained at large and sinister criminal organisations proved too large to account for, sometimes the best form of protection was fictional murder. There had been no body at Mr Holmes’s funeral.

I still cried at the conclusion of the tale. For all I knew, it was the truth. I would never ask Dr Watson or Mr Mycroft Holmes about my suspicions. I would drop no hints, share no theories, and make no inquiries. Physical courage I might never attain, but secrets were safe with me. I put "The Final Problem" in a place of honour on my shelf. For years it rested there, an unasked question.

And now the answer has arrived at last. With luck, with time, with the help of those around us - our endings can be rewritten.