(Author’s Note: This is a silly little story that took a week and a half to write, because I got halfway through before realizing it was depressing as hell and not at all the story I wanted to tell. So, I scrapped it all and started over.
Watson would not give up and wither just because Holmes died. Because John Watson is a survivor, damn it. Just ask the bullet in his shoulder. Or leg. Or wherever Doyle put it this week.)
4th May, 1896
It is five years today.
I try not to think about it too often anymore, what the date represents. What loss it commemorates. Lesser men die every day; there are cemeteries full of them, and battle fields, too. Old graves stacked ten deep with bodies ripped apart, souls left untethered, dreams forever unfulfilled… What is one more, even when that one is great? If we spent our time forever mourning every passing spirit, we would never have time to appreciate the living ones. And yet…
(I nearly wrote “greater” men, but my pen refuses to scribble the word even if my brain attempts to force it to. The inanimate object knows better; it recognizes the lie and refuses to let me tell it.)
I sit in front of an unfamiliar vista performing a very familiar ritual. A glass with a swallow of scotch in it waits on the arm of my chair as I watch the ocean rise and fall just below my window. A small table serves as resting place for this journal. My proper desk is half an ocean away now; even if it wasn’t, it has remained untouched these last few years. It is a physician’s furnishing full of medical texts and doctorly things. I left all that behind some time ago. Quite literally now. Doctor John Watson perished when his wife did, as seemed only fitting. If a man can’t even save his own wife, prevent his best friend’s death – I won’t debate how little effect my training may have on a struggle and plunge over a cliff face – what good is he to the profession of medicine? Besides, I have other work that requires my attention. Better work, perhaps. Unfinished work.
When I moved back (home, says the pen; this one I refuse to allow it, for the sake of my Mary’s memory) I initially thought to do away with the old reminders – the vacant chair, the abandoned desk, the spare place setting at the table, forgotten correspondence forever secured to the mantle with his jack knife. Sentiment prevented my doing so. Some memorials must remain. Those items in that sitting room served his memory better than any granite marker. There were times early on when I swore I heard the strike of a match or smelled the flare of a newly-lit cigarette in that room; caught the acidic odor of some chemical or another or found a book dislodged just so from its previous position, and I thought to myself, “Holmes is back. The Fall was only a ruse after all.” But whatever trick of the senses confused me eventually faded and left only an empty room and dust-covered relics that pointed to the simple truth that Sherlock Holmes is dead and nothing can ever undo that.
And now I, too, have left all of those memorials behind.
To the point, however, free of the day’s melancholia –
Crimes may be solved less quickly without Holmes to run down the perpetrator, but criminals still receive the punishment they require. I didn’t immediately, or even knowingly, step into Holmes impossible-to-fit boots, but I eventually found myself at Inspector Lestrade’s feet, begging to assist him. To carry on Holmes’ work. To do anything, honestly, to stave off the drudgery of my newly simple existence. It took time to wear him down of course, but he eventually realized the asset he had in me. I had actually learned quite a bit in my time working with Holmes, more perhaps than even I had realized. And I had, much to Mary’s chagrin, retained a taste for the hunt. Bless that poor woman; she endured quite a lot of nonsense as a cost for loving me.
This is all relevant, I promise you. It sets the scene for the events that led me to this steamer and this particular voyage.
Four months ago, while assisting Lestrade with the small matter of the Whitfield Carriage affair, my path unexpectedly crossed with that of an American constable by the name of Edward Walsh. Mr. Walsh was in London at the behest of his employer, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The Agency’s client had an interest in the resolution of the Whitfield matter as well. While their agenda ran a bit counter to mine – they sought the gold stolen a few months earlier in New York suspected to be in the hands of one of the carriage robbers, and were thus less interested in the death of the driver – there was sufficient overlap that we could work together on obtaining the individual.
Milton Lange, the mastermind of both affairs, eventually led Detective Walsh to his gold and spent his time in the dock answering to the Yard’s charges. The papers were abuzz with the case immediately after, disproportionate in my mind to the actual crime. A large amount of stolen gold will always grab the public’s attention, however. Lestrade received a commendation for his work on the case; I stood back and allowed him the attention, as was my way. Holmes appreciated the notoriety. He didn’t crave it, but he enjoyed the variety of crime and criminal it allowed him access to. I am not so compelled by the unique nature of the crime so much as simply wishing to solve those that come my way. I learned many things from my friend. Modesty, however, I brought with me.
Walsh found my humility amusing. His last night in London, I invited him to dinner at 221B. Mrs. Hudson hadn’t had anyone but me to fuss over in quite some time and appreciated the opportunity a guest presented. In the case of the dinner, “opportunity” translated to a substantial roast accompanied by stewed potatoes and carrots, fresh bread, and tea cakes she ordered from the bakery especially for the occasion. It had been so long since we’d allowed ourselves a reason to celebrate or display the slightest bit of joy. I dusted off the last two bottles of scotch I’d received prior to my wedding to mark the event as well. The three of us spent the majority of the evening telling tales of our various adventures, most of mine involving cases I had worked with Holmes, with Mrs. Hudson interjecting commentary or details I left out, intentionally or otherwise. Walsh told stories of his early years with the Agency and working with its founder, Allan Pinkerton.
“The James case was bad business,” he said, puffing away at a cigar as we let the meal settle. Mrs. Hudson had excused herself to start the cleaning up. She looked a bit somber after all the reminiscing. “Lesser men may not have come back from that. Allan was made of stronger stuff, though. But, by God, how he did hate to lose.”
“I have a feeling Pinkerton and Holmes would have got along quite well.” My eyes drifted to the empty chair in front of the fireplace. Walsh must have recognized the look I wore; he reached for the second bottle of whisky, then my glass, and topped me off before doing the same for himself.
He raised his glass in a grandiose and, honestly, slightly drunken toast. “To absent friends. May they be sitting in the hereafter, comparing successes and nitpicking our methods.”
“And claiming they could have solved each other’s failures as well, I’m sure.”
“If fisticuffs ensue, they have only themselves to blame.”
“God help all of heaven.”
“May it still be standing when we make it there ourselves.”
I raised my own glass with a muttered “To absent friends,” and then swallowed a hefty portion to wash down a sudden wave of familiar sadness.
Walsh, being a sturdy American, drained his glass in one long gulp and replaced it on the table with a thud. After a moment, he sank heavily into his chair and turned an oddly curious look my way. “Allan offered Mr. Holmes a position, you know.”
“And Holmes refused it. I was never sure whether he objected more to the thought of working under someone else, or the possibility of moving to America.” I chuckled, the sound a bit slurred even to my ears. “I think he may have forgiven the wilds of the colonies before allowing himself to be supervised.”
He set his glass down and leaned forward in his chair. Some of that haziness I attributed to the scotch faded from his expression. “What are your thoughts on ‘the colonies’ and supervision?”
I lifted a wayward shoulder and swirled the remnants of my drink within my glass. “I’ve never considered either.” I looked up then. “Why?”
“Because we could use a mind like yours in our organization.” When I continued to stare, he chuffed out a short laugh. “You seem inordinately shocked, Doctor.”
“I’m not exactly Sherlock Holmes,” I said, and felt the need to set my own glass down before I did something undignified, like drop it. “Hardly a fit replacement or substitution.”
“No, you’re not Sherlock Holmes. You’re something different. Better even, possibly. You’re the man who filters the lessons of Sherlock Holmes through the lens of more practical thought and a far superior grasp of human emotion. Plus, Inspector Lestrade informs me you possess quite the superior medical mind.” Walsh stood, his unsteadiness belying his intoxication, and reached into his coat pocket. “Think it over, John. No rush of course.” He sat a rather simple card on the table, next to his glass. “The change of scenery may do you good.”
The card remained on the table for something like a week. Meals were served around it, dishes and abandoned newspapers collected without disturbing it. I summarily ignored it, or at least as well as someone can ignore the small and silent elephant standing in the middle of their dining table. My neglect was made more difficult by the sheer lack of cases in need of my attention and a peculiarly healthy week amongst my few remaining semi-regular patients. Somehow, though, I managed to avoid dealing directly with it until the seventh day. The Lord may have chosen to rest then, but Mrs. Hudson and her need to meddle did not.
We made it as far as lunch before my cold plate was disturbed by Walsh’s card landing on top of it. I looked up and found Mrs. Hudson standing beside the table with her hands firmly set on her hips.
“Not now, Mrs. H,” I said, flicking the card out of the way. “Serious conversation disrupts my digestion.”
“It’s just going to have to be disrupted then.” She plucked up the card once more and stuck it under my nose. “Because you’ve got less than a month to figure out what to do with yourself, whether you like it or not. I’ve sold the flat and we’ve just that much time before the new owner takes possession.”
I nearly choked on a mouthful of milk. “You did what?”
“I sold it. Likely as I should have down five years ago, instead of letting you and I turn it into some half-hearted shrine. We’re wandering among the dead here, John. And that’s hardly anyway to live, and not at all what Mr. Holmes or Miss Mary would want.”
“And going to America is?”
She tossed up her hands. “Moving on is. Going on with life, instead of sitting here playing at doing so. As the man said – a change of scenery might be just what we need.”
I blinked at her and realized how frequently I’d used that gesture of late. “We?”
“Well. I can’t let you go alone, can I? You’d be dead of starvation or neglect in a month. You boys never could take care of yourselves.” When I continued to stare at her, she shook her head. “Eat your lunch, Doctor. You always think better on a full stomach.”
And now I find myself here, on a steamship ploughing across the Atlantic. London is several days behind me now; New York still several ahead. I am very nearly at the midpoint of this journey and feel no surer of the decision than I did the day Mrs. Hudson and I stepped aboard ship. Turnabout is no longer an option, though. The house on Baker Street has sold. Its contents have been either packed for transport with us, for storage with Mycroft, or donated to the Yard for their archives.
There is nothing left for me in London. Perhaps there hasn’t been for some time. I have come to realize how desperately I was clinging to something long lost by staying. I can’t conjure Holmes or Mary back from the brink by remaining and retracing their faded footsteps, no matter how much I wish I could. All I can do is move onward. Forward. We can’t ever really go backward anyway.
America and new adventures await. I, for one, am (mostly) ready for both.