It was one of those occasions in which you realize too late that your eyes have locked onto a subject, and that subject has since noticed you. Blinking into focus, I had the odd sensation of recognition at the figure waving to me across the tables of the café’s terrasse. “Stamford?”
He stood and brought his coffee to my table. “Hello, Watson. May I join you? A familiar face in the wilderness of London is such a pleasant thing.”
“Of course, please,” I welcomed, moving my own sugar and milk aside for his cup and press.
“Whatever have you been doing with yourself?” he chortled, his silverware twittering as he finished arranging himself. “You are thinner than I remember. I would be concerned were it not for your medicinal knowledge and how dark like a nut you’ve become.”
I smiled. “A great deal can happen when you get on the wrong ship.”
His cheerful disposition faltered. “You’re serious? Good heavens! Where were you intended and where did you go?
“It doesn’t much matter where I was going, so much as where I wound up. The lovely Orient.”
Caught mid-way, his cup paused on his lip. “You’re joking. Where exactly?”
“Various parts. China, mostly. India first.”
“Poor devil!” he exclaimed. “However did you manage? I feel quite dyslexic, trying to make top or bottom of their symbols.”
“Because you’re too old to learn a new language,” I accused kindly.
The man’s brows lifted acquiescently. “This is true — but wait, you mean to say you learned the tongue entirely?”
“When one finds themselves to be a minority, they become the ambassador of their people. With such English imperialism, I would be an embarrassment if I had mimed my way home.”
Stamford chortled. “Oh-ho, I suppose you may be right. We are such a proud lot.”
“What about you? What I’ve lost, you seem to have gained. Successful reunion with the wife?” I teased.
He harrumphed as he touched his abdomen. “You’re putting it kindly, Jane. I have taken what you lost and more. Though I can’t complain. My wife’s pastries improve with every draft of the recipes. My only complaint is her insistence to be near her sister. I am much ready to retire to the country. I haven’t the youth, as you do, to appreciate this metropolis.”
The very mention made my empty coin purse ache. I sighed, “Yes, well, I may find myself leaving as well, soon.”
“Why? Oh, my apologies,” he realized with a sorrowful meeting of my gaze. “I don’t suppose many hospitals are hiring?”
I smile again to dispel the tension. “Typically, but I am not without other skills. What I am without, is an affordable lodging.”
His expression changed. “Really? Well that is…a coincidence. Would you hear of a possible flat mate?”
“You know someone?” I asked, certainly receptive.
“Oh yes,” he huffed in a strange way. “The figure was making a great deal of noise, bemoaning over such matters just this morning. Our paths crossed at the hospital, as they often do; he enjoys using the chemist laboratories — I assume you are not averse to male proximity.”
I cannot help but let my laughter bubble forth. “I know more about male anatomy than they typically know themselves. The male affliction is not so much a physical superiority but a mental illusion.”
But something in his features changed again into something I had not seen in a long while. Something akin to fear, with something else mixed in. “Mental,” he chuckled anxiously.
My own face relaxed. “Does he visit the hospital out of necessity?”
“Hm? No, no, not out of necessity. On the contrary, he is an enthusiast of certain sciences.” He smiled warily. “I only hesitate.”
“You hesitate why?”
“Well,” he took a breath as if to steel himself. “I say he is male, but the fact is, Sherlock Holmes is a very different creature entirely.”
“Do you mean a transvestite?” I asked with a dubious look at my own trousers.
“No, no I mean possibly deranged,” he answered rather quickly.
I paused. “Deranged?”
“He has a sort of…well, he’s brilliant,” Stamford reiterated. “But with genius comes a particular…he is a little queer in his ideas. Might we just meet him instead? You are a better judge of character than myself.”
So we went. On the way I continued my interrogation as to the man I was to meet. “As far as I know he is a decent enough fellow,” Stamford reassured in the cabbie.
“Is he a medical student?” I asked.
“No — I have no idea what he goes in for. I believe he is well up in anatomy and a bit of a master chemist, if his handling of the tools is of any significance. I doubt he’s ever taken a proper medical class. He wouldn’t since…his studies are desultory and eccentric.”
I could not help but laugh. “A mad scientist?”
Stamford tipped his head and harrumphed against a bump in the road. “He certainly has amassed an out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish such professors.”
“You think very highly of him,” I appraised. “Why did you never ask him what he was there for?”
“He is not a man who is easy to draw out, though he can be…communicative enough when the fancy seizes him.”
Another expression which was foreign to me passed over Stamford’s face; this one akin to humour. If nothing else, curiosity drove me to finish the journey to the hospital. “What is his name again?”
“Sherlock Holmes,” he answered.
I made a sound of acknowledgement but was content to let the conversation slumber until we arrived. No sooner did we, however, then Stamford interrupted the silence. “You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him. I know nothing more of him than what I have gotten from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory.”
“You’re awfully sure I won’t like him, for having proposed such a meeting,” I wondered with some amusement.
“It is only that I think highly of you and I am recollecting my own first impressions of the man,” Stamford defended. “It was not a display for polite society.”
“I am not a display for polite society,” I disregarded and ordered, “You better elaborate on that.”
“It was nothing short of scientific,” he assured, “but beating a corpse in order to see how it bruised is also not a far cry from vulgar.”
My stationary position on the pavement kept him from moving into the hospital. “Beating a corpse,” I repeated, deadpan.
“Oh yes,” he insisted, yet apologetic. “I believe he was comparing the results to a victim of homicide, as members of Scotland Yard were loitering about.”
Whether the last bit was true or provided for my comfort, I could not know as we ascended the hospital steps and then further into the laboratories, which needed bright sunlight and ventilation.
I heard him before I saw him, although I was not to know the noise was our destination until Stamford asked a passerby and received a jaded expression glancing back toward the sound. It was a violin, rather well played despite the…manic quality of it.
I only saw a glimpse of an arm sawing the bow as a man rushed out of the room to stop us. His suit was well pressed despite the fatigue on his face. His silver facial hair was trimmed around his mouth, though it was quick to grow everywhere else after this morning’s shave. “No, no, I would not interrupt that.”
I could not help but laugh as the men shook hands. The man looked at me with open curiosity while Stamford asked, “Back at it, is he?”
The man’s focus returned to Stamford with a rush of air through his lips. “He is always ridiculous, but this — I can’t complain when my boys dislike him because he goes off the handle!”
“What is he doing, exactly?” I asked, moving around him to see through the laboratory window. The blinds were down but poorly concealed the man moving around the room with impressive speed.
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
Stamford provided, “Ah, this is Dr. Jane Watson. Jane, this is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard.”
The quick dart of his eyes to my attire and the puzzled hand that reached out as a result of greeting someone with trousers wavered since this person was a woman. I took his hand and gently shook it before the offer expired. “Considering you’re not putting any effort into arresting a drug abuser, I don’t have to worry about you arresting a cross-dresser?”
He blinked, flustered as he realized he had been staring. “Uh — it’s more common than you might — or you know. We only really uphold that law if they’re causing a ruckus. Erm, did you say ‘doctor'? Do you know Sherlock?”
“I am about to,” was all I could say as I twisted the knob to get this over with. The man in question, however, made absolutely no signs of realizing there were others in the room. Watching him, he seemed to be physically playing his violin as well as mentally working through something deeply intricate. However this was bodily expressed with frantic snippets of a song while he paced the room, and then abrupt silence as he muttered to himself.
Looking him over, his crisp black trousers and white shirt were clean at least, regardless of the black jacket thrown over the beakers and his shirt buttons open above his chest. His shoes were expensive when they were new, but had long since been worn to soft, wrinkled comfort. He was either good at his washing or had someone to do it for him. He may have been looking for a flat mate but he had money somehow. I was not sure my money matched his. In fact, I was sure of it.
“Sherlock!” Lestrade barked. “Sherlock, come on, man, you have company.”
Instead, the bow lifted from the strings for the hand to scratch at his errant dark curls. Well. I say curls. His hair was the only part of him that gave away his lack of upkeep, and based on how he ruffled and scrubbed at his scalp, it was clear why.
“SHERLOCK,” Lestrade tried again while I gave the man a wide berth as I surveyed the laboratory. “This is Dr. Jane Watson. Jane.”
“You don’t need to stress that,” Stamford comforted. “Watson—”
Under the long window running across the expanse of the wall was a counter ending in a sink, but along it were various plant specimens in the middle of being cut on a sturdy wooden board. Carefully using the knife to scrape them off without disrupting the piles, I picked up the board, feeling its weight, and then swung it like a cricket bat.
The violin clanged inharmoniously to the tiled floor alongside her owner. I could see Lestrade gaping in my peripheral vision but I wasted no time turning the stunned man over.
“I-humph…nails, it’s the nails…” he moaned. Without seeing me, he swatted me away. He was strong, granted, but slim and intoxicated. Catching his hands and pinning them under my knee and shoe, I sat atop him while I pried his eyelids open. Glassy, hazel irises found me, almost dark green.
“Sherlock. I need to know what you took.”
“The nails…” he sighed again. “Paint in the skin…”
“More on that later,” I hushed. “You’re damn near overdosing on something, and I need to know what it is.”
“No,” he moaned, not unlike a child as he managed to roll his torso onto his side to escape me. “Too stupid.”
“Try me,” I remarked, pushing his shoulder back down.
“The NAILS!” he suddenly yelled. “The PAINT in the SKINsssfrom the NAILS.”
“What has he been on about?” Stamford asked.
I peered around at Lestrade. “Have you had a victim with crescent marks on their body lately?”
The man’s eyes widened. “Yes. Yes, in fact. It’s the case we’re working on now, but I don’t see what paint and nails have to do with it unless the murderer is an artist or a workman.”
“Or a prostitute,” I supplied. “They like to paint their nails.”
“YES!” Sherlock cried. “Ugh!”
Lestrade frowned down at him. “You mean fingernails? You think a prostitute murdered her? Why would Mrs. Eldridge be with a prostitute? A dispute with her husband? I thought he was…well, it’s no secret he fancies men.”
“Stupid…stupid…stupid…” Sherlock breathed beneath me, lolling his head from side to side.
“Oh,” I said, both in realization and smirked at Lestrade, “really?”
“What?” he remarked, dumbfounded.
“Come on,” I teased. “You know about transvestites and homosexuality but this does not extend to women? Or male prostitutes?”
The man’s nose scrunched up with confusion. “Well of course I know of the men in the business, but…there are — women and women?”
I stood from the relatively calm Mr. Holmes and inspected the bottles on the shelves before selecting one and finding a clean syringe. “Are you married, Inspector?”
“Yes…nearly twenty-six years,” he nodded.
“Do you actually like her? Or was it more of an agreement?”
“I…” he stammered, more confused than ever. “Of course I like her. I am fortunate enough to have married for love. I daresay she likes me much the same.”
I cannot help but laugh. “Then it is some relief that you do not know much about prostitutes, although in twenty-six years, I hope you’ve managed to understand that women can very much enjoy sexual intercourse as much as men, and we don’t need a man to do it. Why should men be the only ones to enjoy homosexuality? You should probably also realize that women are just as capable of killing someone as a man is, and men paint their fingernails. What a curious age we live in. Take those clues and do what you will.”
Stamford was chuckling to himself while Lestrade blundered for words, settled on silence, and then blushed like he was a green youth. I, however, returned to the man on the floor. Since he had stopped moving, the drug seemed to have finally weighed him down. One of his shirt cuffs was already unbuttoned, so I moved it up to find the vein in his elbow. It was…not consoling to see old scars there, some of them scarlet and new.
“Sherlock, I am going to inject you with fluids to help wash this out of you.”
He made no sound of acknowledgment but his eyes struggled to find me.
“You will be imposing on Inspector Lestrade to take you home, and there you are to rest for the next forty-eight hours. What have I told you?”
He blinked, delirious. “Boring. Boring...boring.”
“Charming,” I finished. Standing up, I handed a fresh syringe and the bottle to Lestrade. “Are you able to administer this when you take him home?”
“Of course,” he agreed, taking the items while I wrote down the amount. “If I may ask, why were you here?”
“To meet him,” I said with some incredulity. “If all goes well, I will be his new flat mate.”
“Good lord,” he breathed, taking the slip of paper. As I moved to leave, he called, “And you’re not discouraged after today?”
“My current circumstances do not allow me the luxury of being particular,” I replied, “and I would be remiss as a physician for refusing his company. See you.”