Characters, including any pairing(s): Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Inspector Lestrade, Inspector Gregson, Professor Moriarty, Inspector MacDonald, Inspector Peter Jones, Inspector Abernathy Jones, Inspector Bradstreet, various others
Warnings: Assumes knowledge of various canon stories, including The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, and The Valley of Fear; plays fast and loose with interpretation of canon events; lots of room for interpretation
Summary: Inspector Lestrade considers multiple mysteries in the light of evidence over six eventful years.
The sitting room at Baker Street hadn’t changed much in its fundamentals since Doctor Watson married and moved to lodgings of his own. The two chairs still flanked the fireplace, facing each other; the chemistry table stood in its corner; the dining table was wedged in its customary space against one wall; even the writing desk Doctor Watson had used remained in place, with pens in a holder and a stoppered jar of ink next to the blotter. But in other ways, the place had changed entirely. It wasn’t just the few blank spots on the walls where Doctor Watson’s pictures used to hang, or the empty place where he used to set his medical bag by the door. No, the most obvious sign of change was in the stacks of papers everywhere, on every level surface and in piles on the floor, and the general disorder of the room overall. Doctor Watson was one of the most agreeable fellows I had ever met, but even his good nature would have drawn the line at the chaos that greeted my eyes. That, more than anything else, spoke loudest that this sitting room was the abode of one man alone, and not shared with anyone else.
“Ah, Lestrade.” Mr Holmes rose from his chair and came to greet me. Somehow he managed not to rustle a single paper. “I see you’ve been at the docks. The Bowen murder?”
“How did you –?” I broke off and shook my head. “I ought to know better by now than to ask. Yes, I was just there, and thought I would stop by on my way back to the station. I had your wire. Are you interested in the Bowen case, then?” Privately, I doubted it; there was nothing much to it beyond the falling out between two brothers, and the tragic consequences of liquor and knives.
“No, no, not in particular,” Mr Holmes demurred at once. “I wanted to speak to you about a different matter entirely. Won’t you sit down? I can ring Mrs Hudson for tea.”
Such solicitousness was very unlike Mr Holmes. I gave him a sharp look. The man was nearly as unreadable as ever, but I thought I sensed an air of suppressed…I’d call it nervousness in another man, but never him, so perhaps excitement was the word I was looking for. But it wasn’t just that, either. I looked harder, and saw that there were shadows under Mr Holmes’ eyes, as I sometimes saw near the end of a long case. So either he was calling me in to wrap things up officially – which I knew he did, and had given up resenting, as he usually gave me the credit along with the bother – or… or I would learn what this was all about all the sooner if I started teasing it out of Mr Holmes and stopped trying to guess on my own. “Tea would be most welcome, Mr Holmes. It was bitter down at the docks, and I’ve not yet got all the feeling back in my feet.”
He said nothing more of import until after I was seated and Mrs Hudson had sent up tea, but as soon as the door closed behind Billy, the house-boy who’d brought in the tray, Mr Holmes reached for a particular piece of paper from the stack nearest his chair. “I believe you worked the McCann matter last month?”
I frowned, remembering it. “If you mean the Mason Street arson, yes, I did.”
“I see you were not satisfied with the result.”
I did not bother to ask how he knew it, but I wasn’t letting him have it all his own way, either. “I made my arrest.”
“And yet you have doubts.”
I shook my head. “The evidence was conclusive. We near as anything caught him red-handed. But you’re right, Mr Holmes. Something about it just didn’t sit right with me then, and it still doesn’t now.”
Mr Holmes leaned forward in his chair and steepled his hands together. “Tell me.”
Not for worlds would I admit to Mr Holmes that McCann didn’t seem guilty to me. It was a gut reaction, nothing more, and certainly nothing that would stand in the face of the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. But I have seen many criminals over the course of my career. Some of them are utterly plausible. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But very, very few of them react with such immediate, shocked, bewildered surprise when I come to arrest them, or make me doubt my own conclusions the way McCann did. “Perhaps it was nothing more than the case fell into place too easily,” I told him instead. “McCann had opportunity, and he was the only one to stand to profit if the building burned. The evidence all came together like clockwork. If all cases were like that one, we could do with a third less Inspectors at the Yard. But all the same, I can’t seem to trust a case that ties up as neatly as this one did.” Not least because McCann looked as shocked to learn that he’d insured the warehouse as he did when I arrested him in the first place.
Mr Holmes appeared absorbed in thought for a moment, then seemed to come to some decision. “You do not usually show much imagination in your work, Lestrade, but I think you have touched upon that quality here – and all to the better.” He unfolded the piece of paper he held in his hand and showed it to me. It was a map of London, marked here and there with little dots of different colours. “If it will not trouble you too much, I should like to presume upon your faculties of imagination a trifle further. You have one case where all the facts point to one conclusion, but your instincts suggest another. Allow me to share a few more with you, and a possible thread between them all.”
My tea grew stone cold in my cup over the next half-hour, as Mr Holmes told me about each of the crimes marked by those little dots on the map, and spun the most fantastical tale about how they might all be related, my arson case among them. I admit I would have dismissed the entire matter outright if it had come from any other man. I might have even disregarded it coming from Mr Holmes himself, except that every now and then he reached out and picked up a document from one pile or another, showing it to me briefly before returning it to its stack. It was clear to me then that Mr Holmes wasn’t just spinning fancies; he was accumulating evidence. He wanted proof of his theory, and had sought some out before telling me any of this.
It is true what Mr Holmes says: I don’t have much in the way of imagination. Instinct, yes, that has its place, but imagination? Police-work is not the place for it. It is the place for cold, hard facts, for truth, and for the tenacious pursuit of it in the face of all obstacles. And truth be told, if imagination gives such terrible visions as Mr Holmes related to me, I wanted no part of such a gift.
Yet too many times Mr Holmes has shown me that there is a place in police-work for his own particular form of imagination, when paired with an intellect like his. I have no love for books, no background in schooling. That is more in Inspector Gregson’s line. And that bookish intelligence serves him well, as much as I dislike him, and as much as I would never admit it to any living soul. Briefly I wondered why Mr Holmes had sent his wire to me, and not Gregson. This seemed much more the kind of puzzle that would appeal to him, suit his intellectual way of looking at things, and I could see Mr Holmes taking advantage of that. Why bring this to me?
“Can you put a name to this gang you theorize, or the person you say must be behind it all?”
A muscle ticked in Mr Holmes’ jaw, but he showed no other sign of emotion. “No. Not yet. But the pattern is there, Lestrade. It is too consistent to be chance. I can deduce the existence of that man, that mind, as surely as you may deduce a spider by brushing up against a fragment of its web. You might not even see the silken strand, but you feel it, and so you know it is there – and so is the spider.”
Fanciful nonsense, and yet I saw his point. Moreover, I saw something I wager he’d far rather I’d not seen: just a hint of wariness in his gaze. Was Mr Holmes not quite as sure of himself as he wanted me to think?
No, I realized a moment later. He was sure of himself. Mr Holmes always was. But he was not so certain about me: how I would react to all of this speculation, whether I would believe his theory.
Whether I would help him.
Which was not a thought I think he’d ever had before, not for all his imagination. Not since the earliest days of our acquaintance.
“Well, Mr Holmes, this man might well exist, as you say. You might not be able to prove it yet, but it’s clear from what you’ve told me that there are crimes being committed, and that’s enough for me to be going on with to start. It’s far better to be on the lookout for a danger that might not prove itself than to blindly hope that it isn’t out there.” I gave him a small smile. “Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes, and I appreciate your warning. I’ll keep my eyes open for anything unusual from now on. Is there anything in particular you would have me look for?”
Mr Holmes’ eyes gleamed.
The mood in the pub was as sombre and grey as the autumn day outside. Today we’d buried one of our own, and we were no closer to knowing who’d done it than when we’d found poor Inspector Andrews’ body cold in that alley. I knew I wasn’t the only one who’d have trouble forgetting his discoloured, swollen face, or the strangling-cord wrapped so tight around his neck it cut through the flesh.
I was one of the few, though, who had any real suspicions as to why he’d been murdered, even if I was as powerless as any to name the who. For Andrews had been one of the few at the Yard who worked with Mr Holmes on cases…and who, I suspected, had managed to help him some way with something to do with the Spider.
That’s how I thought of him: Mr Spider. I knew now that he must exist, as Mr Holmes had speculated to me nearly two years previously. I didn’t fool myself into thinking that I knew the whole picture, or even a fraction of what Mr Holmes must know, or guess, about him and his operations. Mr Holmes didn’t trust anyone but himself with the whole of it, I was sure. But I’d seen enough in the last two years to believe in his existence, right enough; and to recognize that Mr Holmes had approached a few others at the Yard in matters concerning Mr Spider, just as he had me. Oh, I didn’t know if he’d laid out his evidence for them the way he had for me. I rather fancied not. But some of us, oh yes, some of us knew something. I knew it from the shadows on their faces, the same shadow of nameless worry I saw in mine sometimes when I looked in a mirror.
Inspector MacDonald was one who knew. I was nearly certain of it. That big, lanky Scot had a healthy respect for Mr Holmes, and was one of the sharper minds among our up-and-comers. He was a dour man, with a thick accent that might have stood in his way, except for two things: a genuine talent for the work, and a willingness to learn from others, myself and Mr Holmes both included. And better yet, Alec knew when and how to keep his mouth shut, even with his fellow Yarders, when circumstances required it.
Which was why I was fairly sure that Inspector Peter Jones did not know anything of Mr Spider. He was a good man, and absolutely ferocious when it came to working a case, but he had one serious flaw: his cousin, Inspector Abernathy Jones. If Peter learned something, he’d be certain to tell Abernathy, and Abernathy loved little more than the sound of his own voice.
And speaking of voices, a voice I’d learned never to ignore broke into my thoughts. Inspector Tobias Gregson, sounding as pompous and calm as ever. I looked up and saw him near Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson, who were in the process of donning their overcoats, readying themselves to leave our mournful little wake. I drifted closer to listen. “It’s a sad business, Mr Holmes, Doctor Watson. I know I’m not the only one to appreciate your support at this time.”
Gregson. I knew that he knew, although we’d never said a word about it to each other. For the edge had fallen off of our rivalry in the last few months. Oh, we still traded barbs, but neither of our hearts was truly in it. It was almost more habit than anything. Almost a comfort, a remaining normality in a world that kept growing increasingly strange and dangerous. I almost smiled at that, even as I kept one ear on the conversation.
“…our respects,” Doctor Watson was saying. “I know how difficult it is to lose a comrade in the line of duty.”
But only in the last few months, which also made me wonder a little at Mr Holmes, for leaving Gregson out of it for so long. Even I had to admit Gregson was a thinker, a planner, not on Mr Holmes’ level, but sharp enough all the same. Perhaps if he’d let Gregson in on it sooner, or brought all of us who knew together to plan, to share what we knew, Andrews might still be alive.
Or perhaps not, if knowing was indeed what got Andrews killed. Maybe we’d all be in that much more danger of winding up like Andrews.
“If there is any assistance I can provide, please send word immediately,” Doctor Watson went on. “I’ve already said as much to Mrs Andrews, of course, but she might hesitate, although I told her not to worry about any cost. If you should hear anything…”
“You’re a good man, Doctor Watson.” That was another Inspector, Bradstreet; not in our division, and not someone I knew well enough to guess whether he might know anything or not. There was no mistaking the respectful regard in his voice, however. “I know there’s a schedule set up to look in on Mrs Andrews over the next few weeks. I’ll make sure that everyone knows that you’re to be called if needed.” He tipped his hat to both men. “Doctor Watson. Mr Holmes.”
“Inspectors.” Mr Holmes tipped his hat in return. He looked as grave as the rest of us, and there was absolutely no condescension in his manner as he too offered his services, if he could be of any use. A quiet set of handshakes all around, and then the two made their way outside into the driving rain, arm in arm, talking quietly about sharing a cab back to Baker Street before Doctor Watson continued on to his home and practice in Kensington. As the door swung shut behind them, it almost seemed to me that Mr Holmes was leaning on Doctor Watson’s arm as much as the other way around.
I turned back to go over to where I had left my pint, and noticed Gregson still looking at the door that had closed behind Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson, his face lost in thought as if something had just occurred to him. I wondered what it could be, the expression was so strange. Was he surprised by Doctor Watson’s offer? He shouldn’t be; anyone who knew the man would expect that from him. Or was it Mr Holmes’ lack of arrogance there at the end? That was rather more surprising, true, but appropriate given the sad circumstances. What then?
Then it hit me, and I nearly tripped over my own feet.
Did Doctor Watson know about Mr Spider?
Surely Mr Holmes must have –
And yet, Mr Holmes might have –
I had no idea, not about that, not about anything. Not about whether Mr Holmes had told his friend or kept him ignorant; not about why Mr Holmes hadn’t brought Gregson in sooner, or others at the Yard; or still, most haunting of all, why he had come to me about Mr Spider in the first place and not someone else. I had no answers, only questions: and a scattershot collection of evidence that did not add up to any picture I could recognize.
I did, however, have enough evidence to know one thing: whatever his reasons for telling someone (or not) about Mr Spider, Mr Holmes had them, and his decisions were not solely made on logical grounds. Mr Holmes was just as determined to bring down Mr Spider today as he was when he first mentioned him to me, if not more so. He was still the same hunter, the same logical, impatient, and often infuriating man he had always been. But it mattered to Mr Holmes how he brought Mr Spider down. Some or all of us might yet die in the attempt, but it would not be a matter of indifference to Mr Holmes if we did fall. Rather the reverse, I suspected. He would not have come today otherwise, or looked so grave, or seemed to want Doctor Watson’s arm when leaving the pub. He might never admit it, strive never to show it, but Mr Holmes cared about more than his cases after all. He cared about the people caught up in them, too, at least some of them.
I had evidence enough to believe that, if nothing else.
It was high summer, and all of London was a sweltering steam-bath of stench, misery, and hot tempers. Perhaps some of those from the Yard responded to the call to Battersea thinking there might be some relief nearer the river. More likely, the desire to be in on the end of the Young gang overpowered any well-founded reservations about going to the seedy, industrial neighbourhood where Mr Holmes had traced their lair.
Or perhaps it was Mr Holmes’ presence that provided part of the attraction. It had been several months since his miraculous return, and the novelty of it all still hadn’t worn off, particularly among our younger Inspectors.
Truth to be told, I still caught myself marvelling over it at times, too. The blight that had been Professor Moriarty – Mr Spider – had been lifted in 1891, and a remarkable difference it had made. But the shadow cast by the loss of Mr Holmes was profound, too. Although I’d known how many of us at the Yard consulted with Mr Holmes from time to time, I don’t think any of us had any real idea of how much we’d come to rely on his presence, or how much good he’d done for the Yard and for London in general, until he was no longer there.
Now Mr Holmes was back, as remarkable as ever, and if we all wanted a chance to witness what he might do next, well, we at the Yard are only human, too.
And in many ways it was a lucky thing there were so many of us to hand that day, for it all went wrong at the factory. What should have been a surprise for the gang turned out to be the worst sort of surprise for us instead. We were expected. An ambush had been laid, and Young himself had flown the coop. But Mr Holmes had an idea where he might have gone to ground. Amid all the chaos, first in the ambush and afterwards, I made sure to stick close to his heels, his and Doctor Watson’s both, for of course the doctor was there too. Gregson had the same idea, as did one dogged constable. And so it was that there were five of us conferring hastily in a dark street corner near the nondescript, run-down townhouse not far from the new Battersea Bridge.
“There are three exits from the ground floor alone, not to mention the windows,” the constable said doubtfully, looking at the building. “And there’s watchers at the curtains. We need more men if we want to be sure no one escapes.”
“Young makes a habit of going heavily armed, and he will have at least three others with him,” Mr Holmes said coolly. “He is a desperate man, and escape should be his foremost concern. However, he also possesses a vengeful temper, and he knows me by sight. Perhaps we might use that to our advantage.”
“He does?” That was something of a surprise. Mr Holmes had a remarkable knack for disguise, and the drawings that accompanied Doctor Watson’s writings and the occasional newspaper report looked very little like Mr Holmes in real life.
“Yes, he had the audacity to have one of Doctor Watson’s patients introduce him to both of us while we were dining at Simpson’s.” Mr Holmes looked both annoyed and chagrined. “At the time, I thought he was one of those vulgar autograph-seekers, but it turned out he was rather more enterprising than that.”
“So he knows Doctor Watson, too?” Gregson interjected.
Doctor Watson blinked. “Yes, I suppose so, if he noticed me particularly.”
“And you have your doctor’s bag with you,” Gregson noted with satisfaction. “In which case we might have a plausible diversion in hand. If you were to walk along the pavement in front of the house, bag in hand, looking at the numbers of the houses, you would attract their attention, and possibly be recognized but dismissed as being in search of a patient, not in search of them. And if Young’s predilection for vengeance is as pronounced as Mr Holmes says…”
“…then he might send a few of his men after me, leaving you fewer to deal with within the house.” Doctor Watson nodded. “It could work.”
Gregson looked satisfied. The constable looked both scandalized at the thought of an Inspector putting a civilian at risk that way, and impressed with Doctor Watson’s bravery.
Mr Holmes’ face went utterly still. It was just for a fraction of a moment, so quick that I almost didn’t see it, and I’m certain no one else noticed. Then one corner of his mouth quirked up, and he leaned closer to his friend, his attention entirely focused on him. “Gregson’s reasoning is sound, but it is much to ask. I need not tell you the risk, my dear Watson.”
The doctor shrugged. “It’s not the first risk we’ve taken together, Holmes. I’m willing to chance it if it will give you better odds apprehending Young.” He patted his coat pocket with his right hand; his left held his doctor’s bag. “And forewarned is forearmed.”
Those words reminded me of another conversation, eight years previous, in a cluttered sitting room. There was no time to think more about it, but I filed it away. “We’ll keep watch, Doctor, and move in at the first opportunity if anyone is drawn off. Constable, stay with Mr Holmes. You two shall keep watch on the back door, while Gregson takes the side entrance and I the front.”
Gregson’s plan worked better than we could have hoped. No sooner had Doctor Watson passed the house and turned the corner than three men came out the front door, Young among them, and headed after him like flies after honey. It was a relatively simple manner to ambush them as they’d ambushed us at the warehouse. We brought them to bay before they could attack the doctor. Young proved as desperate as Mr Holmes had warned us, but even he saw reason in surrender when faced with four pistols: mine, Gregson’s, Mr Holmes’, and Doctor Watson’s.
I approached Mr Holmes afterwards while we waited for the wagon that would take Young and his confederates back to the Yard. Doctor Watson, true to his calling, was tending the hurts of one of the miscreants we’d arrested, while the constable stood guard close by and Gregson busied himself directing the other policemen drawn in by the constable’s whistle. “Doctor Watson is a brave man,” I observed.
That iron gaze softened a trifle. “Yes, he is. There is little he would not risk for Queen and country, as anyone should realize with any knowledge of the man.” He glanced over at where the doctor still tended his patient. “Courage is a defining trait of a good doctor as well as a good soldier, and Watson has never lacked for it. He will throw himself into the fray without question when he sees the need.”
“Yes, I saw that with his ready acceptance of Gregson’s scheme. That was a fair bit of thinking on Inspector Gregson’s part, I’ll admit.”
Mr Holmes’ gaze moved from Doctor Watson to Gregson, and his expression grew remote. “Yes it was. It was very logical, that plan of his.” Unlike his expression, his tone was matter-of-fact, even complimentary in his own way.
Gregson must have known full well that Doctor Watson would agree to act as bait if he suggested it. That was the kind of man Doctor Watson was, just as that kind of calculation and manipulation was part of what made Inspector Gregson successful. Calculated and manipulative was, in many ways, an apt description of Mr Holmes as well. I’d seen it before, watching Mr Holmes and Inspector Gregson work together on a case.
Perhaps that was why he’d come to me and not to Gregson about Mr Spider all those years ago. Because Gregson will run risks that I will not. Because Mr Holmes is not entirely like Inspector Gregson. Because there are certain risks he would rather not run, certain people he would rather not put in danger, certain times when he would rather find another way – or be encouraged to find another way. And perhaps, because I do not think like Mr Holmes, or make cold calculations like Inspector Gregson, and have always been aware of both Mr Holmes’s and Doctor Watson’s penchant for risk and done my best to rein them in when I could, perhaps that is why he chose to come to me first.
It was just a theory, but it was as much of an answer as I was ever likely to have. It fit the evidence. And that was good enough for me, at least in this case.