“Oh, Watson—Thank God you’ve come! Another hour and I’d’ve been done for.”
These were the first words which greeted the good doctor as he stepped into the sitting room one fine July afternoon to find his friend writhing on the hearth rug, trussed and bound like a prize pheasant.
Watson’s initial reaction was one of shock, which was, in and of itself, disappointing. After five years at Baker Street, he really ought to have outgrown the ability to be surprised. Compared to the usual parade of police inspectors, tramps, poor-unfortunates and, once, a particularly irate ostrich, this was practically a non-event. Thusly, Watson’s shock gave way to an all-too-familiar feeling reserved specifically for Mr. Sherlock Holmes—a feeling of fond aggravation.
“What in the Devil do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“I,” Holmes began, wriggling himself towards the settee, “am practicing the art of escape. Do you remember last month when we were following those blackmailers down Piccadilly and ended up in the wings of the Egyptian Hall during the performance of The Great Mocata, or whatever he was called?”
“Yes. You will recall I was very much impressed with his sleight of hand, particularly—humph—particularly—argh—I say, would you be a dear and lay that cushion down for me? Thank you…ah, where was I?“
“The illusionist,” Watson prompted.
“Yes, right. I was particularly impressed with his escape tricks. Freeing himself from manacles in a locked trunk, wriggling out of a straight-jacket, all that business. I managed the manacles this morning and the straight jacket by dinner, however I seem to be having a bit of difficulty with the ‘American hog-tie’.”
Difficulty, Watson reflected, was putting it mildly. Prostrate on the floor with his arms and legs bound together behind his back—not exactly a pleasant nor dignified way to spend an afternoon. Then again, one could hardly accuse Holmes of being pleasant or dignified, even on the best of days.
“Dare I ask how you managed this in the first place?”
“I enlisted the aide of our venerable housekeeper. Only, she seems to have overdone it on these knots. Watson, do you suppose she was ever a pirate queen?”
“Quite likely, given her tolerance of your manners.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking my jacket off,” he said, “Unless you have any objections.”
Holmes scoffed. “When have I ever expressed objections to you undressing?”
Stripped down to his shirtsleeves, Watson returned to the settee and stooped to admire Mrs. Hudson’s handiwork. He was no seaman, but nevertheless he could appreciate the use of interlocking friction hitches, like a dual pair of boatswain’s handcuffs. Tidy-looking and effective. Perhaps Holmes was right and she really was a pirate queen, or, at the very least, eager for a chance to have the floors scrubbed and the laundry aired without Holmes’s usual interferences.
“I say, if it isn’t asking too much, do you suppose you could cut me loose?”
“I don’t know… I rather like you like this. So much less likely to cause trouble.”
“You adore trouble,” Holmes mumbled, face resolutely buried in the cushion.
“It certainly is something to think about—rendering your helpless, pliant… I could find quite a few uses for you.”
“Watson, please, I can’t feel my arms!”
“Very well,” said the doctor, fetching his stick from the stand by the door. He gave the knob a twist, drew his blade and, with a quick stroke, severed the lines connecting Holmes’s hands to his ankles.
It took them both working together to uncoil the rest of it. When he was finally freed, Holmes struggled to his feet with Watson’s aid and gave one or two half-hearted attempts at a stretch before collapsing onto the settee. Braided ligature marks in red and purple criss-crossed their way along Holmes’s limbs. Rewards for his fool-hearty attempt.
“You could have chosen a better time, you know,” Watson remarked, sinking into his own chair with a disgruntled harrumph. “Suppose I hadn’t returned for supper, what would you have done?”
Holmes rolled forward, putting his head between his knees, his back making an audible crack as vertebra slid into their proper alignment.
“Ah, that’s better,” said he.
“Of course, you would choose the one day I actually had somewhere to be. Couldn’t possibly have waited until I came home.”
“And how are the fine free-thinkers of the Royal Society?” asked Holmes, “Proffering any new technological wonders with which to revolutionize the medical sciences?”
“Hardly!” Watson said with a smirk. “Mostly a lot of debate about how much arsenic is rather too much arsenic—“
“About two and quarter grains by weight—“
“Yes, I kn—“
“Of course, it usually depends on the size of the victim—“
“But then you never can tell. Do you remember when that Polish viscount slipped it into Lady Eberling’s tea? She swallowed a whole dram and only came out of it with a limp and a bad heart. There’s a stalwart constitution for you, Watson! Tell that to the fellows at the Royal Society.”
“It was more a conversation about whether or not it’s advisable to use green wallpaper in nurseries.”
The settee creaked as Holmes shifted to give Watson an especially side-long glance.
“Green wallpaper in nurseries? Pardon me, I didn’t realize you were attending a meeting of the Englishwoman’s Domestic.”
“Ha,” said Watson, putting his feet up against the fire grate, “ha.”
Holmes was quiet for a moment. Watson didn’t need to look at him to know he was being observed, studied; for all his cunning, Holmes had a stare which possessed the same subtlety as a brick. A stare which brought a blush to the good doctor’s cheek even when he hadn’t anything to blush about and, especially, when he had. It made his cheeks ache.
“And how is Big Joe? Still taking your money?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, a little too quickly.
“After you welshed him at the Derby, I thought we all agreed you’d do better as a spectator than a speculator.”
“I. Don’t know. What. You’re talking about.”
“We are talking about you stopping by the Punch Bowl on your way home and speaking to Big Joe. Presumably to place a bet, since I can’t imagine the two of you have much to discuss convivially.”
“I did no such thing.”
“Come, come, Watson! It’s written all over the soles of your boots. I should recognize that particular blend of sawdust and newsprint after having landed in it time and again. And there’s a bit of cigar wrapper on your left heel—Timothy’s—sort of an unusual brand, rather coarse and woody-tasting. There’s just one bookmaker I know with a penchant for such cigars who regularly works the Punch Bowl public house and, unless I’m very much mistaken, the last time you saw him he threatened to… how did he put it… macerate your innards?”
“In my defense, I thought that cheque would clear.”
“And I thought we agreed your gambling days were behind you.”
Watson raised his head, breaking away from the very serious examination he’d been conducting of his own fingernails to meet Holmes’s gaze. There he recognized an all-too-familiar look—Holmes’s own version of fond annoyance. Rather like a schoolmaster chiding his favorite pupil. The ache in Watson’s cheeks crawled along his jaw and set his ears ablaze.
“Yes, well… I settled a few accounts last week and have a bit of a surplus. Why shouldn’t I lay a wager when the odds are good?”
“A sure thing, then?” asked Holmes.
“As sure as they come.”
“Good,” said Holmes. He nodded and sprawled out supine on the settee. He put his hands behind his head and added, “I only hope your wager doesn’t have anything to do with the match I’m meant to be fighting this evening.”
“Oh, and why’s that?”
“For the very simple reason I’m not going.”
“You’d better,” said Watson. “…I’ve got ten pounds riding on this match.”
“Then I am afraid, my dear fellow, that you have once again thrown your money away. I just spent the last four hours pretending to be a human cartwheel. There is no possible way I could best McMurdo in this state.”
The good doctor smirked. “Who says I wagered you would win?”
It was a low blow—just the sort that made the crowd at the Punch Bowl giddy. Holmes sat up with alarming swiftness and fixed his sights on Watson once again.
“You wouldn’t,” Holmes announced, though it sounded more like a hope than an observation.
Watson shrugged, smirk still clinging to the corner of his mouth.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Holmes repeated. “You said it was a sure thing—when has my losing ever been a sure thing?”
“You have been out of the ring for eight months. And you aren’t as young as you used to be.”
“And that means I’m destined for defeat, does it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you did wager against me?”
“Oh—that marvelous military stoicism! The iron mask.”
“Doesn’t matter now, seeing as how you aren’t going.” Watson declared. There was a crinkling of newsprint as he scooped up The Times from a side table and buried his face in its pages. “Do you suppose Big Joe’ll consider it a forfeit? I—where are you going? Holmes!”
But Holmes had already gone.
That night, the Punch Bowl was particularly detestable. Though the evening was cool enough, calm winds made for an unpleasant indoor atmosphere. With no breeze, the open alley windows brought little relief and thick bands of smoke settled in stagnant air, the smell of rank tobacco mingling with the sickly sweetness of spilled porter and perspiration.
It was early still. Though the ring had been cleared, the crowd was docile as a cart horse. Masses of thick-necked, low-browed roughs in threadbare jackets hovered about in a morose quiet, staring into dirty glasses and muttering to one another in low voices. In the corner, a worn-out little man at a worn-out little square piano beat out an unforgivably tinny rendition of “Asleep in the Deep”.
They arrived in time to enjoy two, mildly-stale beers each before a meaty four-fingered hand clamped onto Watson’s shoulder.
“Ah, Mr. Brownlee, good evening,” said Holmes, drawing his pipe from between his lips. “Watson tells me you two’ve patched things up. That’s very touching, really. They do say to forgive is divine.”
“So they does. And that’s just the kinda bloke I am—forgivin’” Big Joe agreed, his grip on Watson’s shoulder tightening. “You wouldn’t ‘appen to ‘ave the rest of me money with you, would you, Doc? Cash this time.”
“As a matter of fact, I have—“
Watson shook himself free enough to draw the wallet from his waistcoat pocket. Two five pound notes appeared and disappeared in a flash as the bookie snatched them from Watson’s fingers with practiced ease.
“Best let me watch over ‘em, eh? Wouldn’t want you forgettin’ ol’ Joe again. They’ll be ready for you soon, Mr. ‘olmes. Best of luck to you.”
“Thank you, Joe.”
“From what I ‘ear you’ll be needin’ it—they say McMurdo’s up to nearly twen’y stone now. Cheers, gentlemen.”
Someone on the other side of the bar had called out to Big Joe. Watson watched his broad back disappear among the crowd before downing the rest of his beer with a grimace.
“Do cheer up, Watson. While I don’t delight in watching Big Joe take your money, I must admit it will be tremendous to topple McMurdo if he’s as large as all that. Like sinking my fist into a peat bog.”
“Holmes, don’t you think you had better reconsider?”
“And let you collect off a forfeit? No, my dear fellow, I am determined to teach you a lesson in odds. Here, now, be a good boy and watch my clothes, won’t you? It’s nearly time.”
The crowd was stirring now. Gone was the sour-noted piano refrain, replaced with the hum and buzz of speculation and wagers. Watson bundled up Holmes’s discarded things and followed him towards the edge of the ring.
He asked the barman for a gin and, as the fleshy, imposing form of McMurdo joined Holmes in the ring, the doctor swallowed his drink. The two men faced one another, sized each other up. McMurdo did seem larger than ever. Softer, though, a bit stooped in the shoulders. Next to him, Holmes looked like a miniature. A toy soldier with ropey bruises across his arms.
“I’ll give you nine’t’one on the little one!” someone called.
“Nuts to that, I’ll give fifteen!” cried another.
“One’n’four he ends up brown bread.”
The gin swam anxious circles in Watson’s stomach. He looked at McMurdo, then to Holmes. Holmes’s expression was calm, almost beatific. He was never nervous before a fight. Formal luncheons made him nervous. So did crowded opera houses, news photographers and ordering in restaurants. But not this. Not staring down a man who was nearly twice his size with a penchant for knock-outs. Watson ordered another gin.
The proprietor came forward and the crowd hushed a bit. The usual platitudes were said. Holmes's and McMurdo’s fists touched once, politely. The barman pulled the cord and the bell rang—time, please, gents, but of a different sort—and off they went.
It was a short and brutal fight. Fifteen minutes, start to finish, but with enough blood in the sawdust by the end for a championship bout. Watson couldn’t help but recall the time Holmes had sent Mr. Woodley home in a cart. How was it Holmes had put it? A delicious few minutes. A straight left against a slogging ruffian—Yes, that was it. Tonight had been just the same. Unfortunately, it was McMurdo’s straight left and Holmes who was the slogging ruffian. Holmes emerged bloodied, bruised and in such a foul temper Watson was nearly forced to wallop him again, just to get him into a hansom.
“I hope you know, Watson, that this is all your fault.”
“How is this my fault?”
In the light of his consulting room, Watson was pleased to discover things weren’t as bad as they looked. Only a broken thumb, some bruising to the ribs, a split lip. The worst of it was a gash along Holmes’s hairline where his head had collided rather unceremoniously with the lip of a water bucket. Benign, but a wellspring for bleeding and in need of stitches. He mopped Holmes’s brow and set to work.
“I told you I was too tired to fight. I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for your insisting. You… you and your goading and your perfidious wager. You tricked me into fighting.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Shut up? I nearly perish for the sake of your ten pounds and you say ‘shut up’? Tell me, Doctor, do you use this derogatory bedside manner with all your patients?”
“You aren’t my patient,” Watson scoffed. “If you were, I’d be charging you two bob a stitch. Hold still, will you?”
“Two bob a stitch? You aren’t a doctor, you’re a horse thief.”
“Horse thieves have to eat, same as everyone.”
“Tuh,” said Holmes and meant it.
“Perhaps I should start charging you. It would certainly make my creditors happy. Two shillings per stitch, plus consultation fees and materials. Not to mention this is a home visit… Should make this into a very profitable evening.”
“Not that you need it with that tidy sum you picked up off McMurdo’s victory, you traitorous little serpe—ow!”
“Watson! My thumb! Mind the thumb!”
“I didn’t wager on McMurdo. I wagered on you.”
Holmes paused. His brow crinkled, tugging against the fresh stitches. It took a moment for the realization to burn through the punch-drunk fog.
”Ah…” he said.
“Yes,” said Watson. “‘Ah’. And you needn’t tell me it’s my fault—I’m perfectly aware that it is.”
“It is. You were in no shape to fight this afternoon. You even admitted it, which is—well, I shouldn’t have insisted.”
A metallic clank rang out as the needle driver and forceps landed on the bottom of the wash basin. Watson made quick work of tidying the blood-soaked gauze and stoppering the liniment bottle. This, he supposed, was his boxing ring. There was comfort in the routine of surgery, in the familiar smell of antiseptic and ether.
Holmes’s voice was a velvet rumble. Watson glanced up to find his friend looking, in spite of the hand splint, bruises and bandages, quite comfortable. Handsome in his own, roguish way. There again was that look in his eyes that made Watson’s face hot.
“Don’t hate me,” said Holmes.
Watson very nearly choked on his own tongue. “Wh-guh—Why would I hate you?”
Holmes took a deep breath, forgetting his tender ribs, and hissed. He took another, shallower one and sighed.
“I threw the fight,” he said.
“You what?” asked Watson, stunned.
“I threw the fight.”
“It’s a colloquial term. It means ‘to lose on purpose’.”
“I know what it means, you idiot! Why? What possible reason would motivate you to do something so positively moronic?”
The grin on Holmes’s face was a sheepish one.
“It’s actually rather amusing. You see, I thought you’d laid your money on McMurdo. And seeing as how you’ve had the most impressive losing streak this year, I thought I’d give you a little bit of a boon. To whit… I… lost.”
“You’re joking.” Watson sank back against the edge of his consulting table and buried his head in his hands. “Please, Holmes, tell me you’re joking.”
“You don’t think I could have actually lost to that ham-fisted Goliath, do you? I’m just glad I managed to hit the bucket on the first fall. Scalp wounds are wonderfully dramatic, don’t you think? Hadn’t counted on him trampling my hand, though—pity, that. I should say whoever pegged him at twenty stone was giving a rather conservative estimate. Probably closer to twenty-three.” Holmes gave his thumb an experimental wiggle and cringed. “…Do you hate me?”
“No, Holmes, I don’t hate you,” he said from behind his hands. “I could kill you, but I don’t hate you.”
“Excellent. You know, I could always challenge McMurdo to another go next week—the odds are sure to be just staggering after tonight. You could make a pretty bundle.”
“I admit, it might be a bit tricky with only one hand, but I think I could manage it.”
“No,” Watson repeated.
Holmes’s cheek was warm against the palm of his hand and he could feel Holmes’s pulse beneath the tender bruising. They grinned at one another with tired, world-weary grins.
“I don’t want you to do anything for the next week besides rest, even if it means I have to tie you to the bed.”
“Now that, my dear Watson, is an excellent idea.”