“The Engineer’s Thumb,” or “The One(s) That Got Away”

I thought about taking a crack at discussing Victorian economics, since this story is essentially about a counterfeiting ring and spins on the conceit that times are hard enough for your typical middle-class tradesman or businessman that they will take even the most bizarre job for the right price.  I figured out pretty early, though, that that was a research black hole I may never crawl out of, and the result wouldn’t be a blog post, but a damned thesis.  With bibliographies and citations and possibly graphs.  For my sake and yours, I decided on a different angle.

(The topic may come up again, though, because it is fascinating, especially when you do a comparison of contemporary literary depictions of the economy versus the historic record.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Dickens.)

(That may only be interesting to me, though.  Moving on.)

Remember, around week four, when we had that conversation about failure in the Sherlock Holmes universe?  Watson broaches the subject in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” and tells us that he usually doesn’t talk about his friend’s failures because “where he failed, it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was left forever without conclusion.”  But…that’s not exactly true.  Not the part about the cases remaining unsolved, but that Watson doesn’t write about them.  He wrote about several of them, in fact, just in the stories read so far.

In the twenty-three stories that I’ve covered up until now, the culprit has escaped justice – not out of Holmes’ mercy or compassion, but out of a failure to be caught – five times.  Six, if you count the disappearing maid in “The Musgrave Ritual;” seven, if you think old Hudson killed Beddoes and escaped at the end of “The Gloria Scott“, like Holmes does.  While in two cases, “The Five Orange Pips” and “The Greek Interpreter,” we are told that karma eventually catches up with the perpetrators, the legal system never does.  In the others, the crooks avoid detention and are free to continue their criminal enterprises.  (Yes, I’m including Irene Adler in this list; she fits the parameters, even if it’s hard to call her a crook.)

One of those others is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” the story of an unfortunate hydraulic engineer by the name of Victor Hatherly who, like the clients in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “The Redheaded League” gets taken in by the offer of a ridiculous amount of money in exchange for an unequal amount of work.  Unlike Misters Pycroft and Wilson, the task itself isn’t also ridiculous.  His professional services are contracted to identify the problem with a large hydraulic press in the hands of a suspicious gentleman. While the problem itself is a very simple one, it’s Hatherly’s curiosity and suspicion that winds up costing him a thumb – in the course of his examination of the press, he starts to doubt his employer’s claim of what the press is for, and that leads him right into a desperate escape and a very bloody confrontation.

We meet Hatherly after he loses the eponymous thumb.  He arrives at Watson’s practice, already missing the digit and suffering from blood loss and probably mild shock.  Once the medical issues are seen to, Watson refers him to Holmes – one of only two times, he tells us, that he’s ever done so.  After hearing the specifics of Hatherly’s trying evening, the three of them catch a train and head to Eyford straight away.  You already know how it ends, basically: without the counterfeiters getting led away in handcuffs.  Holmes takes it all remarkably well, even if his client doesn’t.  When Hatherly asks what he got out of the affair besides a missing thumb, the lack of payment, and the villains getting away scot-free, Holmes tells him:

“Experience,” said Holmes, laughing.  “Indirectly it may be of value, you know; you have only to put it into words to gain the reputation of being excellent company for the remainder of your existence.”

Or, basically, “you might be out a thumb and fifty guineas, but just think of the story you can tell at dinner parties now.”

Holmes is only human.  He isn’t perfect; once in a while, over the countless cases Watson only eludes to in the canon and the ones he does share, the Great Detective is going to have to lose eventually.  Statistically, it just has to happen.  Seven out of twenty-three?  That’s still almost a 70% success rate.  While that’s probably not good enough for Holmes, it’s nothing to shake a stick at.  And, if the above is any indication, he learns how to come to terms with imperfection, at least in this case.  I think the fact he failed to protect John Openshaw in “The Five Orange Pips” likely haunted him for some time.

There’s even an argument to be made that “The Final Problem” was setup as the ultimate case of Holmes losing, albeit through self-sacrifice.  He only sees one way to stop Moriarty, and it’s not by outsmarting him, ultimately.  To protect the world and those who matter to him, he has to lose.

Has to appear to lose, anyway.  But that’s a topic for another time.

The Man with the Fat Lip

(Author’s note: it’s late, I know.  I’ve made a habit of running late lately, and I don’t have a good excuse for why.  It’s not lack of time or motivation; more like lack of focus.  Too many other things on my mind, and none of them the kind of thing that inspires creativity. 

But, at least it’s done.That’s saying something, right?)

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“The Man with the Twisted Lip,” or “Fun with (fannish) Cognitive Dissonance”

It’s kind of sad when I start reading one of the canon stories and end up screaming “I know that scene!  It’s from ‘His Last Vow’!” before I’m two paragraphs in, and then spend the rest of the story sad that I don’t actually get Charles Augustus Milverton yet.  Yes, I knew going in that I wouldn’t, but I was still disappointed, because that is somehow possible.  Cognitive dissonance, anyone?  But that’s part of what happens when an adaptation becomes nearly as popular (some would argue the “nearly” in the case of “Sherlock”) as the canon.  If it’s done right, the reimagining takes on a life of its own, and that can make the boundaries a little less clear sometimes.

When you’re a fan of both, with the details of those two similar worlds mingling in your head, those lines blur enough that it can be hard to read the opening salvo of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and not think of the “Sherlock” Series Three finale.  There’s Watson, being dragged out of his house in the middle of the night by a worried neighbor (and the gentle nudge of his wife).  There he is, waltzing into a seedy opium/drug den to drag said neighbor’s husband home after two days down the rabbit hole (with less tough-guy baddassery necessary than Martin Freeman’s Watson required to get the job done, maybe).  And there he is, too; running into a disguised Holmes hiding among the unwashed masses in order to get information for a case – dealing with Milverton in the episode, with another missing husband in the story itself.

This phenomenon isn’t specific to Holmesian properties, of course.  Anything that’s been adapted from one media format to another runs the risk.  Have you ever had trouble remembering if that Harry Potter quote you really loved came from the book, or if it was specific to the movie version?  Is that how that person died in “The Walking Dead” comic?  Did a different character do that thing in Catching Fire?  When you’re a fan of multiple versions of a property, you have to expect a little line blurring.

(And when you’re a fan of period, quasi-historical drama, you find yourself wondering “Did the real George Washington do that, or AMC’s Washington?  Would the real General Washington please stand up?”)

For Holmesians/Sherlockians (yes, those are two different things, trust me, but that’s a different conversation entirely.  I feel like I’ve said that before, though…), there’s over a century’s worth of adaptations that can potentially get twisted around in your head.  Am I remembering this from the Bruce version?  Brett?  Downey, Jr.?  Miller?  Cumberbatch?  Was it in a pastiche?  Canon?   Is he a heroin addict, or is he using cocaine?  Morphine?  Opium?  Wood alcohol?  How flirtatious is the interaction between Holmes and Irene?  Wait, she only worked with Moriarty in the movie, right?  Or was it also the show?  She never met him in the stories, did she?

You need a flow chart sometimes to keep track of the various details that apply to this version or that one just to keep them straight and separate in your head.  (This is how “Elementary, my dear Watson” became part of the lexicon, despite never existing in the stories; it cropped up in a film and suddenly it is Holmes’ most well-known quotation.)  Trust me, I’ve had to apply that filter to my own Holmes trivia when trying to build Charlotte’s world and make choices in some cases – like Watson’s gambling – if I wanted to run with a strict interpretation of the canon or go with a popular theory/conceit.  To do that, I had to sit down and play my own game of “Real/Not Real.”

Or maybe I’m just getting old, or suffering from Holmes Overload.  I read my first non-Holmesian fiction in about four months this past weekend.  It’s possible my brain’s reaching Holmes critical mass.


So, what actually does happen in this story, you may be asking,  since there’s not a world-class blackmailer wrecking havoc on London?  Why was Holmes hanging out with opium addicts and “pretending” to be one?   He’s investigating the disappearance of Neville St. Clair, who went missing the previous Monday from the exact opium den our favorite detective is found surveilling.  Mr. St. Clair actually disappeared right in front of his wife; she’d happened upon that alley and that establishment and saw her husband calling out from the second-floor window of it entirely by chance.

She also hasn’t seen him since, either.  When she stormed into the building with police in tow (after being shoved off by the proprietor on her own), they found a disfigured beggar and the building blocks Mr. St. Clair had purchased for his children in the room and his jacket, weighted down with coins, on the bank of the river behind the building.  Holmes is convinced St. Clair is dead, even when a letter arrives from him to his wife assuring her he’s fine and will explain when he can.  A night of smoking (tobacco, not opium, in case his time in the opium den had anyone worried) and thinking leads Holmes to reevaluating his theory; a visit to the jail later and the whole matter is happily solved.

I won’t spoil it for you, of course.  Let’s just say, to quote the Ninth Doctor, “Everybody lives.”  Also, nobody ends up in jail, but that’s not as unusual in Holmes canon as it can be in the adaptations.  The definition of justice is something else that can get blurred between Holmesian realities.

The Foreign Minister’s Clerk

(Author’s note: I struggled a bit with what to write this week.  Firstly, I finally broke down and bought the “Hamilton” soundtrack instead of just borrowing it from the Hoopla whenever the mood struck and now I’m taking full advantage of being able to listen to it on an endless loop.  Music about an 18th Century figure doesn’t jive well with trying to write a 19th Century character.  At least not in my brain.  Secondly, I spent last weekend elbows deep in edits for Book Two, so my Charlotte-muse was feeling a little burnt out.  However, the other Holmes’ sibling was quick to raise his hand, dance around, and all but scream “I volunteer as tribute!”  [I also finally watched part two of “Mockingjay,” hence the Hunger Games reference.]  Mycroft reminded me he’s got his hands on information he isn’t supposed to have, and we haven’t exactly seen how he get it.  He hadn’t even told me how he got it before now.

Don’t worry, no spoilers.  I’m not 100% sure what the info is, and I can’t spoil things I haven’t entirely figured out myself yet.)

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“The Red-Headed League” and “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Okay, I might have cheated a little this week.  I was supposed to read “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” and “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”  But there’s a better combination of stories that fit together in a pretty interesting way, and figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to switch things around.  Besides, it’s not like I haven’t fudged the schedule before.

They – that amorphous “they” that has an opinion on everything – say that there are a limited number of basic plots in the world and repetition is inevitable.  The specific number depends on who you ask; I’m sure a mathematician handed one of those numbers could plug the figures into some simple formula and tell you how often even that repetition is likely to happen.  Numbers and formulas aren’t my thing, though, and it’s not really all that important to the point, which is this: It was likely inevitable that Doyle would recycle the plot to some of the early Sherlock Holmes stories as he went along.

We’ve seen it before, to a point.  The basic premise of “The Naval Treaty” is similar to the one in “The Beryl Coronet” – a conscientious employee thinks the best way to keep something safe is to take it home, from whence it’s stolen and nearly causes a political crisis.  The repetition is more blatant, though, in “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” mainly because its plot turns on such a unique and specific conceit first seen in one of the earliest Holmes shorts.

Here’s the basic story of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk:” a man is given a completely ridiculous job offer with an uncharacteristically large payday.  The job requirements involve copying out, by hand, excessive bits of otherwise useless information, all in an attempt to keep said man away from his actual job so some shady characters can perpetuate a little crime on the premises thereof.  If that seems vaguely familiar, it should.  It’s also the basic setup of “The Red-Headed League.”

Both stories rely on the desperation and – frankly, the naiveté – of the mark: the poor unfortunate sucker taken in by the promise of an impressive payday for very little work.  In the case of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk,” said mark is Mr. Hall Pycroft, a young man on the verge of starting a new job.  A few days before he’s supposed to start it, a stranger shows up at his house to offer him a better, more prosperous position.  This  unexpected offer starts the next morning in Birmingham, and his new benefactor tells him not to inform his current employer that he’s turning down their offer after all.  It’s important to note that Pycroft applied for and accepted the job in writing; his future employers had never seen him in person.  When he gets to Birmingham, he’s told to scan the Paris Yellow Pages (or the Victorian equivalent) and make a list of all the hardware sellers in the city.  When he finishes that, he’s told to start on furniture ones.

In “The Red-Headed League,” Jabez Wilson is a fledgling pawnbroker whose most striking feature is his extremely red hair.  That one aspect is what lands him in the association of the Red-Headed League, a group his clerk discovers via an ad in the paper.  The purpose of the League is to provide a comfortable bit of nonsensical work and pay for true redheads on behalf of an American benefactor.  For four hours of work a day copying out the Encyclopedia Brittanica by hand, he will receive four pounds a week.  That’s not a bad haul for four hours of frivolous work, which is why Mr. Wilson doesn’t complain.  At least, not until he goes in one morning and finds the office shutdown before he can start on the B’s.

Even the “offices” the dupes are taken to are similar: located in empty spaces without proper signage, furnished with a single table and a pair of chairs.  Both Wilson and Pycroft comment on the bare and unprofessional nature of their spaces; their handlers have convenient excuses for the simplicity and promise something better is coming.  None of the neighboring tenants know anything about the businesses that are supposed to be located next to them, not even when they close.

The criminals in both stories are also somewhat similar.  Both involve teams of two, with one or both of the partners being well-known crooks Scotland Yard has been drooling to get their hands on.  One of the pair, in both cases, is the inside man – the one responsible for engaging and managing the mark.  The other is working elsewhere, infiltrating the intended target.  While both crimes involve a robbery, what is being stolen and from where is different.  How and by whom the teams are caught differs as well.

The main similarity in the stories is the most obvious: Holmes solves both of the riddles with his usual dramatic flair.  This only causes the requisite irritation and banter with a Yardie in one case though; the Yard’s just an honorable mention in the other.

Chronologically, Pycroft engages the denizens of 221B before Wilson does; by publication date, the stories happen in the opposite order.  (The internal chronology of “The Red-Headed League is a mess in and of itself – the months mentioned don’t line up with Watson’s remark that it’s all taking part in the winter, further proof in my book that Doyle really could have used a decent copyeditor).  I was amused, but not surprised, that neither Holmes nor Watson point out the similarities between the two adventures, whichever order you put them in.  They’re both clever boys and you’d think one of them would’ve noticed a second case that’s similar to one Holmes himself refers to as “a narrative which promises to be one of the most singular which I have listened to for some time.”  Of course, he seems to say that about most of his cases.

Hey, at least you were spared a history lesson this week, right?

Invasion of the Body-Snatchers

I am a prodiguous consumer of podcasts.  I have never been a fan of talk radio – maybe because the available topics were always so limited – but I love podcasts.  My subscriptions consist of a strange combination of audio theater (my favorite work-time background noise), craft-related writing podcasts, true crime, fandom-related, odd history, and, of course, the Nerdist (if you haven’t listened to the Anthony Mackie one yet, do.  Right now.  It’s hilarious).  I binge-listened to the first season of Serial (three times) and every season of “Wormwood“.  I’ve been working my way through the first “We’re Alive” story for the past couple months so I can get caught up with the second, “Lockdown,” eventually.

I listen to a lot of podcasts and my tastes are varied, I mean to say.  (And you should listen to the linked ones, too, because they’re awesome.)

All this is meant as lead up to this story, which appeared on the Criminal podcast yesterday.  I spent a lot of time while I was preparing the second Holmes and Watson book researching British resurrectionists – way too much time for such a small plot point, but when I fall down a research black hole I sometimes never emerge.  I enjoy research; it’s probably why I minored in US History and was part of the history honor’s society in college.

The story of “One-Eyed Joe” Frankford is further evidence that, for a long time, the US lagged behind Great Britain in just about everything – including dealing with grave-robbers and body-snatchers.  The problem the UK legislated out of existence (for the most part) in 1832, we didn’t deal with until 1898.  Of course, it took two Edinburgh boys named Burke and Hare who decided it was easier to kill a body than dig it up to help push through the Anatomy Act of 1832.  The criminal trials of Dr. William Forbes of Jefferson Medical School in 1882 and Dr. John Bacon of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1897 helped force the issue in the US.  To Dr. Forbes’ credit, he had a hand in writing the 1898 Act (which was specific to Pennsylvania, but started a more widespread conversation), as well as its predecessor in 1867.

This is the kind of odd stuff that will come up if anyone ever digs through my internet search history.  (This is probably one of the tamer things, actually.)

A Day at the Races

“Isn’t it odd?” I ask, fussing with a preposterous hat that is more spectacle than practical head-wear. I object on principle to the dimension, weight, color, and uselessness of the beast in equal measure. The brim extends at least four inches around me on all sides. It is pale peach in hue with a slightly darker band and bow, neither color being one I typically choose to wear. I’m sure it weighs as much as a decent Christmas ham; it feels like it at the very least. It matches the equally impractical dress Anne wrestled me into this morning for the occasion. I plot, by the second, how best to free myself from hat and dress both and burn them.

All the best of London’s beautiful people wander around us in their most ridiculous finery, the men’s necks draped additionally in the leather straps of field-glasses. The ladies all have ivory or tortoise shell handles of overwrought opera glasses dangling from their gloved hands in lazy, irresponsible grips. All are here to watch the last run of the race season, the Royal Cup. The air is warm and sweet, full of the smell of grass freshly trimmed. We’re lucky that the wind is blowing away from the stands; it means the odor of the stables is kept away.

 “Isn’t what odd?” Watson stands at my left elbow in a natty suit and simple derby. I eye both in diabolical envy: if I could wrestle him out of them and steal them for myself without scandal I’d do so without a second’s hesitation. I’m only leery of scandalizing anyone for his sake.
I perpetrate scandal on my own daily simply by existing.

 “All the low-brow games of chance, the dice and cards and whatnot, those are blights on society if you ask the right people.” I indicate the whole of the track and the stands and all the preening, overdressed masses with a wide sweep of my arm. “But if the bets are being placed on a priceless thoroughbred with a mile-long pedigree trained to run very fast in a circle, it’s an occasion for a garden party.”

“There is a hierarchy even to the vices, Holmes.”

“Only because society creates one.” I stop to adjust the hat, which feels awkward and unbalanced atop my head. Watson swats my hand away from the brim, then rests my palm on the crook of his arm. “It’s the most basic truth of our existence: anything is acceptable if the right people enjoy it. Especially if it costs them too much money.”

“Seems rather ridiculous to me. Of course, most things the upper classes find interesting do.” We approach the grandstand, following the curve of the white rail separating the track from the spectators. A wide swath of grass on the other side of the rail provides a buffer between the well-dressed and the dusty track. As we reach the stands, I turn and shade my eyes to better scan the rows of seats. “I think I spy Colonel Ross ahead, speaking to that sour-faced gent in the navy derby. Shall we commend ourselves?”

“That ‘sour-faced gent’, as you put it, works for the Prime Minister. I doubt we should interrupt them. Besides, you’re not exactly among the people he cares to speak to today. He didn’t appreciate you keeping the truth of Silver Blaze’s fate to yourself as you did.”

I snort, not caring how indelicate the sound is or that the woman passing us in the butter yellow frock and feather-festooned hat glares at me for the noise. “We returned his horse in the end, didn’t we? And managed not to knot up a relatively innocent bystander – “

“-relatively innocent being subjective in this case,” he interjects with a snort of his own.

“Well, he meant the beast no harm, anyway, which is a point in his favor. As I was saying, though, we returned the animal unharmed eventually, and in time for it to win the Wessex for its owner, too.” I lift my free hand to nudge the brim of the hat just enough it feels more secure in place. “He did provide our tickets as well.”

“All the same, considering his parting commentary, it may be best we keep our distance.”

I snort again, but don’t argue further.

The parting commentary in question involved Colonel Ross’ thoughts on how ill-raised I must be, how rude and arrogant and uncouth, as well as a barb or two about my sanity and intelligence. For once, my gender wasn’t touted as reason for my inadequacy, which I appreciated. Anne took some exception to the first half of the criticism; Watson objected on my behalf to the rest. I can’t begrudge the Colonel too much. I did withhold the horse’s location and disguise until the day of the race mostly for my own amusement. I do enjoy a grand reveal, after all.

As Watson guides us to our seats, quite a few rows up into the stands, I say, “Explain to me again why this is supposed to be entertaining? Beyond the opportunity to watch people with too much money make fools of themselves, of course.”

“Being seen somewhere by all the right people?  The excitement of the race? Or making a bit of money off a winning or placing horse, I suspect.” Watson stands until I maneuvere myself and the hat into a seat, then joins me. “Choosing which horse to bet on can be a highly scientific affair, really. Reviewing each horse’s statistics, evaluating the data from their previous races. Factoring in the health and overall fitness of the animal and the skill of the jockey…”

“It all sounds just thrilling.” I fan myself with my copy of the race program. Despite providing an excess of shade, the hat is a stifling affair. “Did you take the opportunity to place a bet while I spoke with that inane Howard woman?”

Watson looks sheepish. “A small one, for the sake of appearances.” His gaze turns out over the field. “Horses aren’t generally an interest of mine.”

“No, you’re fonder of cards and cues, aren’t you?”  That brings Watson’s attention back to me, head tilting in cautious curiosity. My shoulders shift in a half-hearted shrug. “You’ve come home with chalk on your cuff before, a simple enough clue that points at a friendly game or two of billiards. Anne has found betting receipts in your pockets as well. Wins and losses at quasi-reputable gaming establishments. And, well,  I followed you once.”

This admission makes Watson blink, four rabid spasms of his eyelids as he stares at me. “You followed me?”

“Curiosity is a compelling motivator, particularly in my case.” I look about to see whether any are paying attention to our conversation. The stands are still somewhat empty, their owners milling about below, mingling with their peers. Of those that are seated, all seem taken up in the pre-race festivities, watching the horses as they’re paraded past the rail by their jockeys or the other spectators parading themselves past in similar fashion. “It was early on in your time at the brownstone. You would slip out at random times of the day, be gone for a few hours, then return, sometimes in a pleasant mood, others in a dark one. You never smelled of liquor, so I knew you weren’t likely a drunkard. Anne would have recognized those signs herself and dealt with the situation. She’s little patience for such things, since my uncle.” I glance over, not at all interested in the procession of horseflesh. I’m more concerned with the silent man beside me. “Are you upset with me?”

He shakes his head. “No. I’m not upset.” He smiles, a weak lifting of his lips. “A bit embarrassed, perhaps.  Certainly shouldn’t be surprised. But not mad.”

My hand finds his arm, a discrete gesture obscured to those behind us by our proximity. “We all have our vices, John. Some of them possess more potential for ruin than others. I’ve no room at all to judge.”

In the shadow of the hat, he slips my hand off his arm and takes it with his own instead. I wish I’d left my gloves at home; I would rather feel his hand directly under mine, not buffered by white linen. “I appreciate your understanding.”

“In the vein of understanding, and in regards to the particular topic, may I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“You are fully within your rights, as usual, to not answer.”


I shift, not removing my hand from his, offering an apologetic smile to a woman bumped by the brim of the hat. “At the gambling hall, you lingered near the Hazard tables but never approached them to place a wager. You looked almost…sad…as you passed them. Reluctant.  Why?”

Watson doesn’t answer. His eyes drift back over the field, past the pageantry of the horses and people alike. It’s a far-off look, not so much looking at the view as some invisible place only he can see.  It must not provide a pleasant view; his jaw tightens and he swallows roughly, as though pushing down something that hardly fits the narrow span of his throat.  I’ve seen the look before, when we’ve passed a line of soldiers on the street or news of disquiet in Afghanistan makes the front page.  When something inspires his hand to find his knee as if the injury suddenly pains him.  The look is grief; it’s also regret.  An army surgeon who served during an active campaign is likely to have reason enough, I suspect, to feel both.

The silence stretches on long enough that I begin to think the question won’t, or maybe shouldn’t, have an answer.  “Watson, never…” 

“It’s fine.” His hand squeezes mine, a feeble attempt at reassurance. His gaze remains fixed outwards. “War isn’t always battle after endless battle, march upon march. Sometimes there are long stretches of quiet between skirmishes. Soldiers find ways to amuse themselves to pass the time. Cards and dice were popular. A deck of the one or a set of the other fit easily into a pack without adding too much weight. When pay arrived, we played for money.  When that was thin, chores and duties were bet instead.  Those games were almost more cutthroat.”

I don’t interrupt. I nod; I know he sees the motion in his periphery as much as he sees anything else beyond his memory.  I wrap both my hands around his single one and don’t pay any mind to who might see so brazen an act as a man and woman holding hands in public.

“We had a young private. Edmonds. His family live in Suffolk. I keep thinking I should visit but…He had uncanny luck at Hazard. More than one of our comrades accused him of cheating, but none of us ever figured out how. We were in the middle of losing soundly to him when the call came that Ayub Khan’s forces were en route to the Maiwand Pass.” His free hand falls to his knee, the one responsible for his limp. The one I know took a bullet during the very battle he’s talking about. “The last thing I ever heard Edmonds say was that he’d have to wait to earn the rest of our months pay until after we’d routed Khan soundly.  Was a cocky blighter, that one. The young usually are.” He stops and finally turns his head to look back my way. A sad smile tugs at his lips. “I haven’t set a hand on a pair of dice since.” 

“I’m sorry.”  It’s a hollow comment.  It always is when offered out in response to someone else’s pain.  The English language lacks suitable words to do more than affix a bandage to that sort of hemorrhaging wound.

The doctor shrugs.  It is all one can do, I’ve discovered, at times like these.  Then he laughs, a quiet and ironic sound.  “Of all the things her Majesty’s Army taught me, gambling was the least productive, but in the end, the most useful. Cards kept me from going stir crazy in the hospital once I recovered enough from the wound and the sickness.” 

“I think if you’re wounded and ill enough for the Army to send you home, you’ve excuse enough to lie about for a while.  And indulge in mildly improper habits.”  I lean my head – or at least the hat – against his shoulder and chuckle at the awkwardness of it.  Then a thought crosses my mind, bringing with it a wicked grin. My voice drops to a low whisper, even if our neighbors are few and far between. “If you’re worried about your old habits returning to taking too firm a hold in your moments of leisure, I am willing to offer you the same means for distraction from your vices that you’ve offered me.”

The most shocking shade of pink rises in Watson’s cheeks as soon as the suggestion is made. He coughs to clear his throat before turning to see if anyone has wandered close enough to overhear. He is so adorably scandalized and I have to bite my tongue not to laugh. He reads the amusement in my expression and prods a finger into my side.

“A topic for later negotiation,” is all he says, though the threat in his eyes is clear. The poke is the promise of a relentless attack of wriggling fingers and my desperate squealing if I do not behave.  Below, a horn blows, announcing the race will begin soon. “The race is starting. Watch the horses, you brazen thing.”