Holmes's request could not have come at a worse time.
A dip in temperature always saw a spike in illness, and Watson had run ragged that particular week attempting to shuffle through all the patients he found upon his doorstep. By and large they all retained the same symptoms—cough, aching, vomiting, and so forth. The doctor listened to their complaints of ailments and sent them on their way, biting back a sigh of frustration.
He asked Holmes whether he ought to come with him and close up the practice for that day, but the detective took one quick, sweeping glance at him and responded in the negative. When pressed, the smaller man merely gave a brief smile, lips twitching up and then easing back down again before repeating his instructions and nearly running Mary down as she stood in the doorway.
The woman had brought tea in herself, and Holmes took a cup—Watson's cup— and downed the hot liquid with a wince of regret, replacing it upon the tray with a flourish and a bawdy wink at Watson. He danced around Mary, calling over his shoulder for Watson to join him later, and disappeared out into the cold.
The doctor huffed out a breath, steeling himself for the slight chill before heading out to make a few house calls.
* * *
Holmes slipped his hand into his pocket, retrieving the watch that nestled within, and he fiddled with the knob atop it, anxiously rubbing his thumb against the grooves.
Just after five. He replaced the watch back into its nesting spot and tried to halt the frown currently spreading across his face.
Raised voices reached the detective and he crept closer to the circling of men gathered a handful of yards away. Four brutes lurked in the warehouse, and what they lacked in intellect they made up for in the strength of their fists.
“I do believe that wraps things up nicely,” T. Jonas said, absent-mindedly scratching at the edge of a scar that cut diagonally across the entirety of his face. “If you've any questions, a telegram can sort it out.”
He listened to the shuffling of their feet on the stone, recalling the quick observations he made upon first seeing the men. One possessed a limp that could be exploited; a sweep of the leg or a direct blow to the knee could knock him down, buying Holmes a few precious seconds as he turned his attention to the other three men.
With the element of surprise, he could do a thrust of his elbow back into another's nose. The man would reach up reflexively to protect or soothe his face, and Holmes could jab his abdomen. As he doubled over, a fist upon his neck would lay him low.
That accounted for two of the men, but at that point, the fray would grow tricky. The remaining pair would hardly stand around and wait for him to mete out violence, and while the detective considered himself a proficient fighter, the odds were stacked cleanly against him.
What to do?
He hesitated only a moment before making his decision, rising lithely and flinging himself into the group of men as they passed the spot where he previously crouched.
He took down the man with the limp, and felled the next as he predicted. They responded quicker to his presence than he anticipated—perhaps they had dealt with gawpers in the past—and he reeled back, narrowly missing a fist that could have put a pretty kink in his nose. He blocked a second, rapid-fire punch and grabbed the man's wrist.
Manoeuvre to the side. Place arm against elbow. Apply force. If done correctly, the man's elbow would break. Should the brute withstand the pain, Holmes would only have to deal with one hand rather than two—a huge boon. That would free him up to deal with the last ruffian.
Before Holmes could sidle to the side, however, a heavy blow landed across the back of his skull. He released the fellow he currently engaged, attempting to turn to defend himself, yet was struck again.
Probable gun. Better to be belted than to be shot; it showed a reluctance for outright murder. Still, it did little to help the detective, who stumbled, knees hitting the cold stone floor.
Thoughts scattered and the room tilted as he succumbed to the third strike.
* * *
Watson shrugged out of his jacket, draping it over the rack and then trekking into the sitting room in order to sink with a sigh into the seat that fairly shouted for him. He turned his hands over, detachedly staring at the blood that flecked his fingertips and soaked into the grooves and whorls of his skin.
The last man he paid a visit to had moaned about the pain he was in, and Watson discovered the culprit to be an alarmingly large boil that had grown by and large unchecked beneath the man's shirt collar. Lancing it had also released a copious amount of blood and pus, and the doctor had grimaced but mopped up the resulting mess.
“You look tired,” a voice sang out from behind him.
“Exhausted,” he corrected, and he heard gentle laughter before hands covered his shoulders and an affectionate kiss was planted atop his head.
“I can tell,” Mary said quietly, and she began to massage him as he shut his eyes, leaning back into the seat. “You could do with a bite of dinner.”
“Perhaps a little more than that,” he smiled. “Is it ready?”
“No,” she said simply, and he frowned.
“Cruelty from one's own wife! How can I cope?”
“Perfectly fine, I imagine. But aren't you forgetting something?”
It was strange of her to mention that; he did feel something needling in the back of his mind, prodding and poking at him. The image of running and then soaking in a rather hot bath took precedence over any other thoughts, however, and he nestled deeper into the couch.
“An appointment, perhaps?” she coaxed, and he scoffed.
“No, I finished those an hour past...” he began, and then broke off, sitting up quickly and knocking her hands away in the motion.
Holmes! What time was it?!
He pulled frantically at his watch chain and realised he had lost his watch. No, not lost. Earlier that day Holmes had patted his front, remarking that he had gained seven pounds, grinning whenever Watson batted his hand away with a grumble and a scowl.
Of course he had taken it.
Watson's eyes darted instead to the grandfather clock, although the action proved pointless when it began to chime out in a chipper fashion. Five!
“Ah! Mary, I must—”
“Leave,” she supplied as he fairly leapt up from the seat.
“I need my—”
“Revolver,” she said, as he made a move for his jacket. “I'll send a message out for Mr. Lestrade.”
He slipped his arms quickly into the sleeves, and Mary disappeared from sight, returning promptly with the aforementioned weapon.
When he took it from her, she brushed a hand against his cheek. He knew that she would kiss him, and admonish him to be careful.
The woman leaned forward, kissing his jaw softly and speaking the words into his neck. “Go. Mr. Holmes will need you.”
Well. Close enough.
* * *
Patches of memory returned to Holmes. He recalled rousing in a cab. An overly large hand held over most of his face even as he scrabbled and clawed at it until fading once more. Throbbing ache spreading out like a spiderweb from the back of his skull toward the front.
For a moment, he felt a stab of fear. Could he have suffered enough trauma to lose sight? Possible, but it was more likely that they had placed him in an area with no light source.
He pricked his ears to listen for any sound that would identify his location, but all he heard was his own ragged breathing. Odd. Unless he found himself in a remote location, he would have anticipated—expected—the noises accompanying a bustling city. Talking. Hooves clattering on cobbles.
Attempting to put his hands up, he discovered they were bound together at the wrist. Coarse material. Rope, presumably. The more immediate problem lie not with his limited limb mobility but rather in his confines. His hands rested upon his chest, and when he lifted them a fraction, his little fingers bumped against something.
Experimenting, he thumped his boots forward, finding the tightness of space ran the length of his body.
A small room like a pantry? No; had he been locked in a room and left to lean against a door, the door would certainly have given slightly to his banging.
A strip of foul tasting cloth had been jammed unkindly into his mouth, and any efforts to dislodge it were made in vain. An exercise made in humility rather than necessity, as Holmes had quickly realised where he was.
Holmes had gathered enough evidence to prove that T. Jonas had a habit of making people disappear—it was as though they simply vanished. Rumours abounded in certain circles in particular pubs that the man had a private pit with a mountain of bones belonging to the men who crossed him. Ridiculous, but sometimes glimmers of truth crouched in absurdity.
Where could a man put a body that would invite no suspicion?
It was simplicity itself. Jonas disposed of men who cross him, or get in his way, and a few of his lackeys then dug a pauper's grave. The detective had not yet pinpointed the exact graveyard that Jonas utilised, and realised that there would be immense difficulty in providing any evidence without exhuming numerous graves until an identifiable corpse was uncovered.
Holmes held proof that Jonas had committed at least two murders, but he wanted the bodies. So he jumped Jonas and allowed himself to be taken in, hoping that he would react in a thoroughly predictable fashion. He had.
Watson, too, played his part admirably. Holmes could see the fatigue etched in his face and dragging at his eyelids that morning; another heavy workload would delay him slightly, enough to keep him from wandering into the fight. It most likely did not hurt that the detective had slipped a couple men a few shillings to draft illnesses out of the air and tie up Watson's time.
Now he waited.
That was the simple part, and yet a gnawing fear grew within him. He had not anticipated to feel so trapped, and although he knew he could not rationally push his way free, that did nothing to stop him from pressing up against the wood with his balled fists, breathing quick once more in his ears.
* * *
Watson jumped down from the carriage, asking the driver to wait as he took strides forward that lengthened into a jog. Inside the warehouse remained a man who seemed to have pulled himself up into a sitting position with the heavy aid of a crate nearby.
The doctor judged from the man's heavy blinking and slow glancing around that he still suffered from some trauma. Blood coated the ground and soaked into his shirtfront, and his nose twisted out of shape, needing to be set lest it stay that way.
“Where is Holmes?” Watson asked brusquely, seeing no point in skirting the issue. The man looked up at him, then touched a hand to his nose before scoffing and looking off to the side.
“Dunno what you're talking about.”
“Who did that to your face?”
The man said nothing, and irritation warred with worry within Watson. He produced his revolver and levelled it at the brute, who placidly stared back at Watson before having the gall to actually smile at him.
“I doubt you even know your way around somethin' like that,” he said, and he spat blood out onto the floor for good measure.
The doctor pointed the gun at the fellow's right hand. “Tell me where Holmes is. Now.”
Holmes was not here and it did not follow that he would have left when he requested Watson to bring Scotland Yard. Ergo, he must have done so under duress. The doctor could not afford to let minutes winnow between his fingers.
The man made another noise of derision, and Watson fired the revolver. The blighter writhed upon the ground, screeching and clutching at his hand.
“You bastard! You shot me!”
Watson crouched in front of the man, who glanced at him with a look of pure venom. “I'll ask you again—where is Holmes?”
“What'll you do, shoot my bleedin' head arf? What good'll that do you?” he cried, grasping his hand close to his chest.
“A bullet in the hand isn't nearly as messy a clean-up as this,” he said, words calm and belying his inner turmoil as pressed the barrel of the gun against the man's trousers.
To his credit, the fellow blanched at the threat, yet still he did not say anything.
“Ah, best listen to Dr. Watson, here. Mr. Holmes has spoken on my tendency to overlook numerous details, after-all,” a voice said behind Watson, a tinge of glee in his tone.
In the presence of Lestrade, the man broke, sobbing slightly as he pulled his hand ever closer.
“A cemetery. That's all I know; I only just started in with Jonas.”
“Doesn't help us all that much,” Lestrade grumbled, stalking back and forth behind their captive. “There's plenty of those and not many of us to search them.”
“Beggin' your pardon, sir,” Clarkey said as Watson rose, putting his revolver away. “If I wanted to get rid of someone, I'd want to do so at my earliest convenience.”
“Yes?” Lestrade said with some agitation, gesturing to one of the law men that they should cuff the bleeding man.
“Well, I wouldn't want to travel a great distance to do so. There are four cemeteries within a ten minute distance. I'd start my search there.”
“Start with two then,” Lestrade said, and Watson balked at the suggestion.
“We should separate and cover all four at once!”
“An admirable idea, but we would be spread far too thin. We can search a cemetery quicker with three, four men apiece rather than one or two combing the grounds. You can come with Clarkey and myself. The best and brightest Scotland Yard has to offer, eh? We'll find him quick as you please.”
Watson appreciated the clap upon the shoulder that followed Lestrade's words, but it did little to assuage his concern.
* * *
How much time had passed since the warehouse incident? Holmes could not say. His head ached as though he had just received a pummelling, and he groaned, trying to shift in his coffin. There was a sort of morbid humour in the fact that Jonas respected him enough to place him in a box for proper burial rather than just throw him bodily into a hole.
Or perhaps he wished for him to suffer longer. Jonas did not seem the type to dole out kindnesses, no matter how small.
Alone with his thoughts, the detective wondered if he had incorrectly surmised how events would turn out. Watson might be caught out overly-long with his patients. By the time he arrived at the warehouse, Jonas's men could have cleared out, leaving him baffled and wondering where Holmes was.
Worse yet was the notion that they deduced the general location Holmes resided, yet had trouble locating him. They could stand directly above him, pondering if they had the right hole even as the detective took a last gasping breath and expired.
Perhaps he should not have relied so heavily on a touch of the dramatic.
His breathing quickened again, and once more he pushed upon the lid, as though it might give and allow him freedom. Should it do so, he would instantly be buried in dirt like snow in an avalanche. He could hardly tunnel free with the state of his hands, and his heart beat rapidly in his chest at the thought of procuring liberty only to be snuffed out by soil.
Shutting his eyes, he breathed deeply and then exhaled, choosing instead to listen to the pocket watch that he borrowed. He counted out a full minute.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
Each beat of the clock signified to him that his time drew shorter with every passing moment, and his breathing hitched at the thought.
Watson would come.
* * *
Watson roamed the graveyard, doggedly searching the plots. This cemetery seemed a longer shot; this resting place unofficially belonged to the rich, and so most plots were large, garish mausoleums that took up enormous amounts of space and cast long shadows beneath the light of the dying sun.
“Halloa! Dr. Watson—have you had any luck on your end?” Clarkey called from a distance, voice faint even as he cupped both hands round his mouth to amplify the sound.
“No. None,” Watson shouted back bitterly. The closest fresh grave he spotted had bits of grass growing up from the dirt tentatively, undeterred by the promise of approaching cold temperatures and frozen ground.
“Have you...have you considered that the fellow in the warehouse lied...lied to us?” Lestrade panted out, suddenly behind Watson, who jumped at his unexpected presence.
“What would you have us do, give up and hope that Holmes returns with some excuse for his absence?” Watson responded with a bit of a snap, and Lestrade waved a hand in the air, sucking in air and straightening.
“Of course not,” he grumbled, and then raised his voice. “C'mon, Clarkey! We're chuckin' it in and heading to the next one!”
“Right, sir,” Clarkey called back with a wave, hustling over to join them.
* * *
Wriggling slightly, Holmes managed to bring the tips of two fingers to his neck, pressing lightly down on a vein and feeling the beating of his heart. Pulse elevated. It thrummed, and Holmes lowered his hands back onto his chest.
It seemed as though someone sat atop him, or perhaps held a hand over his mouth and nose, leaving him struggling for breath. When he ruminated on the fact, it only made him want to inhale more greedily in a vicious circle.
He thumped his fists against the lid, and the cloth in his mouth swallowed his voice as he called fruitlessly for Watson.
* * *
“In we go,” Lestrade said, hand upon the wrought iron gate. He had no need for command, however, as Watson could have bowled him over in his haste. The doctor was keenly aware of the passage of time; there were tales of men being buried alive, rescued only by the ringing of bells alerting a cemetery keeper that someone had been placed in the ground prematurely. Stories of days spent beneath the ground were absurdity; a person had only a limited supply of breathable air which depended on the size of the man and how calm they kept when mistakenly interred.
Holmes was not the placid type.
“It's just about dark, sirs,” Clarkey said from behind them.
“Thank-you, Clarkey,” Lestrade responded peevishly, and Clarkey grasped one of the bars thoughtfully.
“I only meant...isn't it a bit odd? It's not locked up, and no one's come round to greet us or tell us it's after-hours.”
Watson and Lestrade shared a glance, and the doctor allowed hope to spark within him as they went looking for a keeper. The small hut that held tools of the occupation lie vacant, however, and Lestrade procured two bull's-eye lanterns.
“Couldn't find a third. Who will share?” the inspector wondered, snapping open the cover and bathing in the light as Watson did the same.
“I'll go alone.”
“Never anticipated I'd be lookin' to dig someone up when I woke this morning, but I suppose that's the life one leads around Mr. Holmes,” Lestrade said with something approaching affection as he held his hand out to the doctor. “Good luck.”
“And the same to you,” Watson responded softly, shaking it before they parted ways.
The cool air of night, coupled with all the running about that he had done that day, played havoc with the doctor's leg. It throbbed, threatening to seize, yet he grit his teeth and pressed on, lifting his lamp and casting light upon the graves that stretched out in front of him.
Each one that he passed only added to his mounting anxiety, and he heard the men of Scotland Yard calling to him like hounds baying as they chased down prey.
“Have you spotted something?”
“No!” he cried back, the frustration in his voice ringing in his ears.
Exhaustion wore at Watson. Over an hour ago he had wanted nothing more than a bath, a nice meal, and an early turn-in, and now he combed through a cemetery frantically. Perhaps in futility.
No. He mustn't think that.
But what if he could not find Holmes?
The thought of Holmes, clawing at the lid of a coffin, calling out for him until his motions grew weaker and he finally succumbed, stabbed at him.
“Holmes!” he shouted even as he knew it to be foolish. “Holmes!”
When he glanced down at the grave to his right, he halted. As he held the lantern high, his hand shook, light bouncing upon the plot. The ground was freshly disturbed, and better still the dirt appeared to have been shovelled in haphazardly; mounds remained clustered here and there rather than having been carted away cleanly.
“Halloa!” he cried out. “I've found something!”
Lestrade and Clarkey joined him promptly, although it felt as though an eternity passed as Watson debated with himself. What if he merely followed a false lead? What if they dug down and produced a corpse while Holmes languished elsewhere? What if they had found Holmes, but it was too late?
“Clarkey. Return to that hut and bring us shovels. Three if you can manage, but grab what you see.”
“Yes, sir,” Clarkey said, springing off in possession of Lestrade's lantern.
Watson shoved his own bull's-eye into Lestrade's empty hands, and before the inspector could question him, he dropped down to his knees and began to frantically claw at the loose soil of the grave.
Hold on, Holmes.
* * *
Holmes lie stretched out on a cold park bench. To his surprise, Mary sat with him. In fact, he nestled the back of his head against her left thigh.
He attempted to sit up; he had difficulty breathing, and surely it had to do with the fact that he rested upon his back. Mary halted him, however, placing a hand against his chest and forcing him back down gently but with the hint of pressure should he resist.
“Relax, Mr. Holmes.”
“I shouldn't be sitting here,” he said, voice thick.
“What ought you be doing?”
“I...” he faltered. He could not recall. He did not, in fact, remember going to the park at all. It frightened him, but he chose not to admit it, keeping it to himself instead.
“Rest,” she implored, fingers smoothing down his wild hair, and he allowed his eyes to shut. She smelt of scented powder and, vaguely, the scent of lavender soap that Watson preferred.
“Your husband is late.”
“Is that not what you intended?” she asked gently, and Holmes blinked.
It was his fault. But his plan would not have worked should Watson have come, unless he allowed him to be savaged as well. He would not. He would accept a thousand blows before purposely putting Watson into danger, no matter what gain awaited.
“Perhaps I did not consider the foolishness of such a plan,” Holmes admitted sheepishly, and he smiled faintly when Mary laughed.
“No, I imagine you did not. But you wished to keep him safe...”
“I did,” Holmes said hoarsely, startling himself when tears threatened to burn at his eyes.
“Oh, Mr. Holmes,” Mary clucked, brushing a finger at the edge of his right eye. “What brings out such emotion?”
“I...have miscalculated,” he lied.
His plans were in ruins. He could see it now. He would die. How could he expect Watson to fly in and rescue him? How could he pin such a failure on the doctor, knowing the guilt he would shoulder?
He would not see the man again, and one of the last things he uttered to him had been a dig at his weight.
His heart—an organ which he often told people he lacked—ached at the thought.
“He will come, Mr. Holmes,” Mary said firmly, fingertips light against his scalp.
“What compels you to speak with such certainty?” he asked raggedly, struggling to breathe. Each inhalation seemed to hardly draw air into his lungs at all, and he gasped again once he had finished with his sentence.
“Because he loves you,” she said, and Holmes shut his eyes.
* * *
Clarkey had returned with two shovels, sussing out that one of them would have to hold the lantern aloft so that they might see the work they did. Lestrade and Watson had each taken a shovel, digging down into the dirt as quickly as they could.
“I would wish for more hands, but I suppose they would only get in the way,” Lestrade said by way of conversation, but the doctor ignored him.
He focused only on eliminating the dirt that remained between them and the coffin beneath the ground. He moved mechanically, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as he tossed scoop after scoop of soil out of the hole.
“Ah! Here we are. The blaggards didn't have time enough to dig out a proper grave—good luck for us, hm?” Lestrade muttered, and Watson puzzled over his meaning until the tip of his shovel struck against a lid.
“Hurry!” he urged, and the inspector grumbled in a voice just loud enough for Watson to overhear.
“I thought I'd just take my time.”
They thrust the dirt away and then tossed their shovels out onto the grass.
“Clarkey! Set the lantern down and help us lift this out,” Lestrade remarked sharply.
The constable did as he was bid, and between the three of them they exhumed the coffin, setting it down carefully amidst the piles of dirt. Watson prised the lid off, hands trembling as he prayed silently that they had found Holmes.
Holmes lie within, hands resting upon his chest. Had he not been bound, it would have been a glimpse into nightmares that often plagued the doctor. Holmes, dead, with Watson standing over him, unable to do anything to bring him back again.
“Holmes!” he said, slipping fingers against the detective's throat and finding the man's pulse to be a rapid tattoo. Watson next found the knot keeping the cloth in Holmes's mouth and undid it deftly, yanking it free.
As he worked at the ropes looped round Holmes's wrists, the smaller man gasped, and rocked back in his coffin. He choked, coughing, and blinked, dark eyes darting across Watson's face before meeting his gaze as he sat upright.
“Holmes...” Watson began, fingertips fluttering against Holmes's cheek, but the man spoke over the doctor's hesitancy.
“Always...always nice to see you, Watson,” he said, voice breaking, and when Watson hauled him into an embrace, he dug his fingertips into the doctor's back, allowing himself to be pulled closer.