by Katie

I hate three o'clock in the afternoon. 

Always have done.  Three o'clock in the afternoon is long enough after lunch to be weary and far enough from eight pm to be miserable.  I was filling out papers, that Tuesday.  Mountains of them.  I hate paperwork, but no one ever bothered to tell me that when a man takes his job seriously, moves up through the ranks, does the gritty work, and becomes a police inspector of some distinction, that the Yard will then reward him with towering cliffs of paperwork.  Well done, Inspector.  Really first-rate policing, and we've promoted you to a plainclothes detective.  Now, here is a hellish way to fill your hours.

It isn't their fault.  The legal system has to be served.  And there are merits to having a good filing system.  I know it myself, because when I need a record of a prior case to help with a fresh one, it's easy enough to find.

But God, how I hate three o'clock in the afternoon.

"Suspect observed breaking glass of window at 212 Maiden Lane at 11:48 pm by PC Richard Ness," I wrote.  My hand was beginning to cramp.  Reaching out, I took a sip of hot tea with a squeeze of lemon.  It burned my fingertips through the cheap china, but it was better than the pen.  "PC Ness, when calling out to the suspect to--"

My door opened.  No knock.  That meant one thing and one thing only.

Frowning darkly, I set my pen down.

It isn't that I mind seeing Sherlock Holmes in my office doorway, precisely.  It's that I mind that he doesn't ever knock.  I mind that he stands there and takes off his tall silk hat, the same exact shade and sheen as his hair, and smirks at me as if to say, I am here.  Aren't you the lucky one?  I mind incredibly seeing him at an ungodly hour like three in the afternoon.  I mind very, very much that I'm always seated when he bursts in, and that I can never decide whether to stand so as to gain a little height or ignore him entirely.  It might not be his fault, but I also mind that even when standing, I'm just shy of a full foot shorter than he is. 

I try never to think about it.  The not-quite foot problem.  But believe me, I mind that a good deal.

"Mr. Holmes," I said.

His eyebrows shifted.  The man can make common courtesies--like saying a fellow's name--seem like ridiculous statements of the obvious.  Well, I didn't say another word, not at three o'clock on a bad stretch of Tuesday.  I have my standards, same as him.

"You're looking bright and fresh this afternoon, Lestrade," he sang out, meaning the opposite.  I know he's mocking me when he trills the r in my name.  "Have you been dragging the Serpentine again?  That always gives you a certain healthy glow."

The last time I saw Sherlock Holmes, I had been trying to find the body of Lady St. Simon.  Mr. Holmes suggested that I might as well have dragged the Trafalgar Square fountain as the Serpentine.  He was right.  He is almost always right.  But being right doesn't stop him being off his head.

"That's a bit rich," I said coldly, "seeing as how it was the note I found in the card case from the dress pocket that put you on her trail at last."

"Well, well, my good Inspector, we cannot expect ourselves to do everything, now can we, but merely each to play to his own strengths?  In your case, finding evidence.  And in mine, comprehending it."

It was bad, that day.  Already.  And him not twenty seconds through the door.  He sat down without asking, setting his hat on my desk's corner.  I mind that he sits without asking.  Meanwhile, the tone of voice the man gets when he's trying to ride me nails over a chalkboard.  Not less clipped, nor less smooth, nor yet less high and melting, but it goes through you like dozens of tiny arrows.  Not painful.  But intolerably irritating.  He doesn't speak like a regular Englishman.  His accent shows him off the bat for a toff, a very educated toff, but his cadence is all wrong for Britain.  The Doctor once told me he was half French.  That would explain everything.  If there's anything more irritating than the French nation, it's Sherlock Holmes.  In Paris, they'd have made him a king.  He would like that.  Tremendously.

"What I'm struggling to comprehend just now is what you're doing here," I said, trying to make it at least half a pleasantry.

"Yes, you do struggle on occasion," he sighed.  "I looked in to see if anything's stirring."

"Criminally speaking?"

"I was not referring to culinary or agricultural or mathematical or scholarly or navigational or nautical stirrings, no."

Mr. Holmes tugged a white cuff down that hadn't been out of place in the first place.  There's something very odd about the man, and more than just the surface.  He intrigues me, I'll own up to it.  When I first met him, he'd barely the money to pay for a shabby wreck of a room in Montague Street.  And whenever we'd find ourselves at a pub, he'd order a tall glass of porter and make it last for half an hour or longer.  I stood him for cab fare once, and he actually blushed, which was terrifying.  He's pale as an oyster shell usually.  It was plain to see he hadn't a pair of shillings to keep each other company.  But his togs, is the only word.  Mr. Holmes is monstrously tall and very thin, and everything is tailored in greys and blacks and creams and whites to slide over him like butter.  Police know the look of good cloth, and good tailoring is harder to come by than a good cook.  So where did he get it all?  He's had an inheritance recently, or so the Doctor has hinted to me, but the clothes have been his for years.  Sherlock Holmes is a mystery, in more than one sense.  It's one of the reasons I put up with him.

"Nothing stirring that would interest the likes of you," I returned dourly, picking up my pen and going back to my notes.  "The only things stirring barely interest the likes of me."

"Then they would tragically disinterest me, I grant you," he said, looking as if I'd taken a piece of cake away from a toddler.

"Whatever happened in the St. Simon case?" I asked him absently.  "Did she go back to America?"

Mr. Holmes blinked.  "Mrs. Francis Hay Moulton?  However would I know?"

People go right out of his head like wisps of smoke when they're not tied to an active case.  Like they never existed.  He forgets them entirely.  I never do, though.  I like to think of people I've helped over the years, people whose lives have touched mine by accident.  I don't like to think that they forget me, either.  I like to think that sometimes they remember the PC or Inspector Lestrade who caught the man who stole their life savings.  Or kept their daughter from getting attacked in the worst way.  So I check up on them, as a courtesy.  Mr. Holmes thinks it mad.  But that doesn't bother me.  I think him three quarters of the way to the Hatter in that children's story.

"Never mind.  Haven't you anything better to do than stare at me?"

"Believe me, if I could scare up better company for myself, I would set about doing so at once," he drawled.  But he didn't mean it.  Not exactly.  Mr. Holmes doesn't stay anywhere he doesn't want to be, or go anywhere he doesn't want to go.

"Where is the Doctor, then?"

Mr. Holmes threw one pinstriped leg over his opposite knee and reached into his frock coat for his cigarettes.  "He is at home, doing as little as possible.  To be frank, he is quite...entirely indisposed, at the moment."

I looked up in surprise. 

I'm as ready as the next man to admit that parts of Mr. Holmes' personality give me fits.  But he isn't disloyal.  The man could have faults a mile long, longer even than his real ones, and he still would never abandon a friend in dire straits.  Not from negligence, still less from squeamishness.  I couldn't picture him a very good nursemaid--in fact, the thought gave me rather a fright--but if Dr. Watson was bad off, neither could I picture him...anywhere else.  I didn't say, then why are you here, but I did prompt him further.

"He'll be all right?"

"Of course he will," Mr. Holmes scoffed.  Having lit the cigarette, he waved it in sarcastic plumes of smoke.  What a ridiculous question, one of the wisps said.  You have missed my point entirely, wafted another.  "It is a temporary problem.  I am in hopes he will be quite himself again within a few days."

Thinking about Dr. Watson as I tapped my pen against my papers, I realized what Mr. Holmes was doing.

For one thing, he had just delivered that information in about as dismissive a voice as I've ever heard.  I knew how fond Mr. Holmes had grown of the Doctor.  Everyone who met the Doctor was fond of him.  I was myself, tremendously.  Dr. Watson is pleasant enough to hear and to look at, that's true, but more than that, he fixes you with his eyes when you're talking as if he's never heard a word more interesting in his life.  You feel at ease around him.  Once he likes a fellow, or respects you, he laughs at jokes because he knows you want him to even when they aren't very good.  Decent doesn't even approach it.  He's a model of a good fellow.  Mr. Holmes puffs up around him like a great gangling lad in short pants.  So Mr. Holmes was not being dismissive because he didn't care.

He was worried.

It isn't a comfortable feeling being the only Yarder who can see straight through Sherlock Holmes.  It's dashed disconcerting, actually.  Here's what it's like: it's like being in a room full of blue coats and brass buttons and PC numbers, and there's a giant violet elephant in the corner of the room, and you're the only man who can see it.  It's like being that crazy, on my word.  Worse than that, you can't stare at the violet elephant, not by a long stretch, because that violet elephant has eyes like a hawk and would crush you just to hear the sound of your bones cracking.  For sport.  So you're the only one who sees the elephant, and you spend all your energy ignoring it.  Dashed disconcerting, as I said.  But I went back to trying to puzzle out why the violet elephant was sitting in my only spare chair.

"Is it something he picked up in the War?" I asked next.

Mr. Holmes nodded, his very square chin tilting toward the single thin carpet.  He wasn't looking at me.  I was glad enough for that, for Sherlock Holmes' eyes are pretty alarming when he wants them to be.  A queer pale colourless colour.  Not the sort of eyes you see very often, even in a town big as London.  "He contracted enteric fever when he was wounded in action.  There are occasional relapses, unfortunately.  They are not life-threatening."

Now he did look at me.  Sharp as a whip, with those black-as-black pupils and grey-as-clouds irises.  Daring me to contradict him.  I'm smarter than that.  He'd have bit my head off for even thinking it.

"I see," I said slowly, because I did.  "He's a proud man, the Doctor.  He doesn't like an audience."

I'd surprised him.  I could tell, because sorry enough as it makes me, I can see plain through the man.  The edge of his mouth ticked up a fraction, and not in sport or derision.  In the back of his mind, he knew he looked surprised, because then he took a pull from the fag between his fingers to cover it.  Not quite soon enough.

"I was given my marching orders," he admitted, giving me a smile when his hand dropped back to his knee.  Mr. Holmes gives out smiles as if they're gold doubloons.  As if you ought to be sending him a Thank You card by the next post for the honour of viewing them.  As if he has only so many to give in one lifetime, and you're a lucky bloke, aren't you, to have seen one this close?  It had always annoyed me.  But on that afternoon, it didn't.  "In perfect fairness, I have been underfoot for three days by this time.  This is rather a worse instance than any of the others I have observed.  At the moment, there is nothing I can do."

Oh, hell I thought to myself jarringly.

It was the way he said "there is nothing I can do."  Casual, oh so very casual, far too casual, but underneath that...lost.  Like a man praying or a man pleading.

I'm interested in all sorts of crime.  I have been all my life.  But there are a goodly number of crimes I'm not interested in, as well.  Not in the slightest.

One of them is prostitution.  Those poor souls have little enough as it is without me dragging them off to spend the night shivering in a cold cell with one moth-eaten shawl wrapped around sad bony arms, sweating the gin out.  Whores don't trouble me, and I don't care who knows it.  London has always had them.  London will always have them.  When a customer hits one of them, blacks her in the eye, then I'm interested again, and very willing to haul the blackguard off in darbies.  But there'll always be poor women, and so there'll always be whores, and I just can't be very keen on arresting them.

Sodomy is another crime I'm not partial to prosecuting.

Why in blazes didn't I see it before? I thought, my brain flashing on images from the preceding months.

Sherlock Holmes stepping out of a cab, reaching behind him without even needing to look for the Doctor's elbow.  Sherlock Holmes cocking that masterful black head of his at a bit of interesting evidence, his temple always pointing towards the Doctor.  Sherlock Holmes walking ever so slightly slower on those giant stork's legs when Dr. Watson was visibly exhausted.  Two years they had lived together now.  A little more than that.  Twenty-six or -seven months.  And Mr. Holmes about ten times more courteous and less crazed than he'd been before.  Barring that Norbury matter, which was a bad business and no mistake, Mr. Holmes was thriving.  During the Norbury business, he'd been white as a sheet with ashen, bloodless lips and a problem keeping objects in his hands without dropping them to the floor.  Sweating like a stevedore for no good reason.  You could practically see the morphine pulsing through the blue veins along his wrists.  That's another mystery about Sherlock Holmes.  He's an addict, and a rare one.  I don't know the reason.  But if he'd fallen in a cold heap during that ghastly Ku Klux Klan business, I wouldn't have blinked, though I'd have fetched the Doctor in a heartbeat.  Maddening as he is, I've never wanted Sherlock Holmes dead.  But he was past that.  Afloat.  There was colour in his face and lean scraps of meat on his bones. 

And when the Doctor spoke, Mr. Holmes never smiled as if he had precious few to spare.

"What on earth has gotten into you?" he growled impatiently.

Lie, Geoffrey, I said to myself.  Lie and make it a good one.  You're a hell of a fine liar.  Any good policeman is.  Lie like the very devil or you'll ruin your own career, because Mr. Holmes is very useful and he'll never be able to look you in the face again.  Lie, Geoffrey, and make it stick.

Then I thought of something, and I didn't have to lie at all.

"I don't like to think of Dr. Watson suffering," I replied.  And it was true.  "He's a credit to his country, is what he is, a war hero like that.  It isn't right."

Mr. Holmes' lips parted.  A little dash of colour feathered across his cheekbones. 

"No," he said softly.  "It isn't."

I exhaled slowly.

If ever you dodged a bullet, Geoffrey Lestrade, it's keeping dark over knowing Sherlock Holmes takes the back staircase.  And Dr. Watson's, at that.

It made sense, so much sense, now I had seen it.  For another mystery about Sherlock Holmes had been how in Christ's name a man could content himself being that lonely.  He likes people to think he's above all that--human company, that is.  Clients' names when a case is solved.  Girls who flirt with him (there are quite a few--he's a handsome devil in a pale, rakish sort of sense, the sort that leaves lasses in a family way without a new last name).  Friendships formed over a game of darts and a pint of bitters, now he'd the money for it.  But that's all a bunko game.  Mr. Holmes likes to be praised.  He likes to be noticed.  He loves to be admired.  And everyone in the world loves to be loved, don't they?

"The Doctor's a strong young fellow with a will like a draft horse," I pointed out.  "You're right, Mr. Holmes, he'll be right as rain in a few days."

"Of course he will."  Resting the hand with the cigarette on his knee, Mr. Holmes looked thoughtful, his eyes staring a few feet ahead at thin air.  "Do you know, he once saved a man's life during the Maiwand campaign by ripping apart a dead commanding officer's dress jacket?  They still had a few field dressings left to them, but no more morphine, and they had run clean out of thread.  So Watson worried at six buttons sewn onto a deceased sergeant-major's coat until he had six three-inch lengths of string, which he then tied carefully together.  He had stopped this fellow bleeding to death in the meanwhile with packed compresses, and once he had the thread he needed, he immediately sewed the lad up again.  By this time he had been awake for three days, I believe, and could barely recall his own name.  It was before he was wounded, obviously, but his being shot in the shoulder was mere hours away and he was already frayed beyond what nearly any man could tolerate and keep going.  And he insists that the only thing he can manage to be proud of himself for on that day is that he doesn't think he was so very exhausted and worn that the stitches were bad or irregular or too wide.  He says he doesn't think it left a scar.  That's what he's proud of, Inspector."

"I've never heard that story," I said, smiling.

All the while I was madly thinking, so that's what Sherlock Holmes in love looks like.  I actually choked back a laugh. This was insane.  Him with his dark lashes drooping very slightly and forgetting he had a cigarette in his long fingers.  All his angles softening a little, from the hard curve of his hooked nose to the hard curve of his bold jaw.  Bragging like a horse trader about his fellow lodger.  And when I thought about it, Dr. Watson often enough looked just the same way. 

Do you know, Lestrade, that Holmes once told me he can say the word "murder" in three hundred languages? 

I've never felt that way about anyone, but maybe I will sometime.  When the workload isn't so heavy.  I'm a young enough man, and not so bad to look at that a girl would turn up her nose.  Anyway, I like nice girls, not the sort who'd turn their noses up at anyone.  For being a cad or a coward, certainly.  But not for being too plain or too short.  I like nice girls with a ready laugh and a curving sort of figure.  Full in the bust.  Blonde is a preference.  Maybe one day I'll talk about one to Mr. Holmes like that.  It isn't impossible.  Maybe talking with Sherlock Holmes won't always be such a rowboat over a waterfall sort of feeling.  Yesterday I'd have said he was a lunatic genius crime-solving monk and today I know he's an indorser.  So anything can happen.  It's not easy seeing an invisible violet elephant, not by a long shot, but maybe it'll prove to be worth it.

"Here's one," I offered, threading my fingers together.  "He told me that when he was a boy, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, he was walking down an Edinburgh street and saw a cat that had been run down by a carriage.  Common enough sight, to be sure.  So the Doctor--well, before he was a Doctor, but at any rate, that's what I'm coming to--goes up to see if the poor creature's still alive, and turns out it's only stunned, with a smashed leg.  So the Doctor has been studying steam engines, meanwhile, during the past week.  And thinking about the design of an engine, it isn't a far stretch to think that he has to stop the bleeding or the cat's for it.  He wonders if he can do it.  So he carries the alley cat off before it's awake enough to make a fuss, wrapped in his muffler, and sets it on the kitchen floor, and he takes a big butcher's knife and he finishes what the carriage started.  Just as cool as you please.  The cat's alert enough to set up howling by this time, so he pours some laudanum down its maw.  Doesn't want it suffering more than it has to.  And that quiets it proper.  Then he washes alcohol over the wound and makes a tourniquet and ties up the stump just as neat as ever you please with a bandage and shuts the poor creature up in the closet of his bedroom."

Mr. Holmes smiled at me.  Not like he'd only ten left and I was squandering his supply.  That smile was one of the best smiles on any human being I've ever seen.  Bright as a smoking bull's-eye.  Pulling in a breath, I went on.

"He's so worried that it might not have worked that he keeps checking on it, every ten minutes or so, and forgets he's left blood all over the kitchen.  Then the cook screams bloody murder.  Why is there a pool of blood on the floor?  And he thought from the looks of the cook and the way his father was glaring that he'd take a beating for it, but when he told them what had happened, he didn't.  The cook gave him a saucer of fresh cheese and a few bacon scraps, and the father gave him a medical textbook that Christmas.  It was all he ever wanted to do afterward."

"The cat's name was Lazarus," Mr. Holmes observed mildly. 

"Was it?"

"Yes.  It didn't quite rise from the grave, but Watson wanted something suitably dramatic.  It lived in their stables and was apparently a mouser of no mean skills."

We fell silent.  I glanced at the clock on my desk.  Soon, it wouldn't be three in the afternoon at all.  Soon it would be four and I would have a single biscuit and more tea.  I'd forgotten my tea.

"Would you like some tea, Mr. Holmes?"

"I ought to be going," he answered, looking at his fingernails.

"Ah."  I looked at my report.  It was still there, waiting.  Still deadly dull.

"Oh, hang it," Mr. Holmes said suddenly.  "I discovered, just prior to the final conclusion of the St. Simon marriage affair, that there is a shop not eight blocks from here with the best cold woodcock I have ever eaten.  Even the Americans were unable to resist its charms.  They also have an excellent wine cellar and a few tables and...and I am going there anyway.  I was already planning on stopping by.  Watson likes a good Burgundy and we're nearly out.  Not that he...when he feels better, he'll want a glass or two."

I can see through Mr. Sherlock Holmes pretty well.  But violet elephants don't generally hint awkwardly at asking one out for a drink in the middle of the day for no real reason.  Not to discuss a case or take a well-earned pint after a stakeout, but simply to keep each other company.  At least, that isn't the way violet elephants generally behave.

"I've a report to--"

"Bugger your report," Mr. Holmes enunciated clearly.

Well, you're the expert on that front.

"Why are you smiling so oddly?"

Lie, Geoffrey.  You had better get used to lying.  Or tell the truth again.  That worked like a charm.

"Mr. Holmes, I'd mistake you for a dock worker some days if I didn't know better," I pointed out, smiling.

He stood smoothly to his feet, smirking like a cat with cream on its whiskers.  "That's just what my brother says.  It hasn't done him a bit of bloody good to complain about it either.  Are you coming?"

I stared at the clock again.

I wished, for the first time in my life, that I was puzzled over a matter.  A criminal matter.  I had always before been annoyed when a case was all dark to me.  It was humiliating to be shown up constantly by a giant spider-legged upstart with no formal training and a smug grey eye.  I hated feeling I couldn't handle a case by myself.  No matter how useful Mr. Holmes is, and he's one of the more useful men on the planet, when it's my case, I'd prefer to solve it myself, thank you very much indeed.  But that day, for the first time ever, I wanted to be confounded.  I wanted to give the poor man something to do.  It had cost him five years of his life just to hint that he wouldn't refuse my company over a glass of French wine and some cold fowl.  And if he felt a little better, a little less lost, it would please the Doctor.  I'd walk a long lonely mile in the dark for Doctor Watson.  Not even because I know him so very well, for I don't.  But because he would walk a long lonely mile for me, I think, and for no good reason.  That's the sort of man he is.  If I was a fellow who liked the notion of two men carrying on in bed together, I might have loved him too.  Seems an easy job.

"I'm stretched a bit thin this week," I said truthfully.

"I'll pay for it."  He dropped the fag end in my wastebin, after carefully crushing it against the side.  "I'm tremendously wealthy these days.  I'll tell you all about it."

"Let's go, then," I said, reaching for my hat.

Maybe next week something will happen I won't understand.  A murder or a robbery or a kidnapping or an embezzlement.  And I'll go straightaway to see Mr. Holmes about it, because now I know he doesn't do very well when the Doctor is ill.  Maybe I shouldn't care so much as I do.  But for some reason, I don't want to see a man like that brooding.  I don't want to see the pained set of his jaw and the way his eyes fade to a leaden colour.  He's intolerable enough when he's happy, for God's sake.  Mr. Holmes, when the Doctor is faring poorly, looks as if he'd spend all the gold from Solomon's Temple to switch places with him.  A man like that ought to be done a good turn now and again.  Meanwhile, the crime victims will be well served.  And I'll be well served myself, if he lets me share the credit.  He always does.  He's very good about that.

I hope I'm confounded sometime soon.  I'll see what I can scrounge up.  And Mr. Holmes was right.  Best woodcock I've ever had.