The Scarlet Pencil
by M. Christian
“You don’t know Moriarity yet...”
“You...” A fading, echoing shout from a faraway point, far-flung behind, the tone diminished by distance, diffused by the cracked bricks and the crumbling mortar of the tunnels.
Immediate, present and loud, also echoing but instead with the alarmingly lurid slaps of turgid sound, soft fecal accompaniments of Moriarity’s boots in the thankfully shallow drafts of Parisian waste. More pressing, more urgent: the reason for clutching his mouth and avoiding at all costs breathing through his nose lay ahead: the more fervent splashes of Jean Valjean.
The cracked bricks and crumbling mortar were not only those of the Parisian tunnels but of a chessboard: pieces sliding in gambits and strategies along passages of feces and urine, blocked by rats and collapsed pavements instead of a field of white and black. A game of sounds, of cocked heads and pricked ears, to perceive and feint the pursued and the pursuers and those who would aid either him or his adversary.
The voyage — thankfully, and not just for the fetid and foul streams he was forced to forge — was not a long one. His piece was at a disadvantage: not only did he have to escape the pursuing police, he had to do so with the body of another man.
No, Moriarity reminded himself as he put forth a gloved hand to check that the darkness ahead of him was simply absence of already scarce light and not a plunge into hundreds of feet of empty space. He was not a piece on a board and was not playing a game. He was following a figure from his history, a player on his stage.
He had come to admire and truly respect Jean Valjean from his earliest chapters to the point in Valjean’s story, where the fugitive was making his way through the twists and turns of the subterranean labyrinths of Paris with the injured Marius. So far, he had succeeded, though there had been brushes with his adversary, brief moments of near-disaster that had threatened to twist the pages and pull down the chapters into a tale of needless darkness and cruel futility.
Moriarity’s hand encountered slickness overlayed on soft stone or brick. Nausea came, and he pulled in deep breaths to keep from letting it overcome him, focusing instead on that fact that — whatever disgusting terminal result of a Parisian’s meal he’d encountered — it was far superior to a gloved hand reaching for a grasping, though disgusting, purchase and instead finding nothing but a tumbling fall into a sea of much more liquid and, no doubt, horrifying death.
Again, he paused to try and find his acoustic bearings, and again he found that while the maze was worthy of a fecal minotaur, he was able to determine that Valjean and his burden were only a few dozens of meters farther along, and that those who pursued him were much farther behind, putting him, Moriarty, the unknown and invisible protector, between the two.
But then another splash: a telling sound that spoke not of the natural foulness of the place but, instead, the landing of another book into another pool of rank fluid.
He was not alone.
Thankfully, the noise that bounced, breaking as it came down the tunnel, was fractured by not only the degeneration of the sewer walls but by distance: not as far removed as the first speaker from the police, but still behind where Moriarity was making his cautious way — and far behind Valjean.
That was all he needed, all Moriarity desired, for this time, these pages, his gambit — and his finely-wrought and precision-honed mind failed him for a moment by retreating to the familiar territory of pieces on a board and not to his struggle to protect the life of Jean Valjean — was one of stalling, to keep the relentless authorities from moving faster through the fetid and foul tunnels and thus apprehending Valjean before he could arrive at the locked gate...
But, more importantly, Moriarty’s gambit would protect Jean Valjean from him who would aid them to rewrite and change the tale, to twist and turn it to his own fiendish ends.
Another splash, more waste in turgid — and worse — fluids, from behind. Moriarity steadied himself, forcing all the powers of his intellect to focus not only on the location but also on the direction and potential further positions. The tunnel was tight, easily touched with outstretched arms.
The liquid underfoot would make movements sluggish and unpredictable, yet the upwardly curving brickwork would pose even greater difficulties with their decades of grease and fecal slickness. It would be a stratagem of knowledge over than skill. It would be a battle of knowing where his opponent lay before he struck rather than practice with method. Moriarity waited with sharp-edged perception for his opponent to make a crack in the naturally guggling orchestra of the sewer.
But then there was a new sound, a grating, jarring reverberation of corrupted iron that blazed through his ears and mind like a flare on a starless night. With it came a momentary betrayal of control: a tight, sly grin beneath the cloth covering Moriarity’s face.
“You win this time,” came the voice in answer to Jean Valjean’s arrival at the locked gate.
Far too close, much too close: a meter, maybe a less beyond, almost within range to strike if Valjean had made one step less, the smallness of delays in his travels through the Parisian sewers.
“This time...” repeated Sherlock Holmes.
* * *
“Don’t...” An admonishment, a warning caught in brittle Russian atmosphere. The assembly of the word, or perhaps just the volume, made Moriarity turn. But all that was revealed was the purity of a seemingly unwritten Saint Petersburg morning, the blankness of its world an overlay of snow and ice.
No. He allowed himself a pause in his stride to turn completely to look behind him. There was no one. Russia — the geography of its lands and the topology of the minds of its people — was familiar to him. It was a richly elaborate domain, a vibrant one, for such a space on the shelves, tomes of myth, fable and story.
Despite his knowledge, Moriarity allowed himself an expression matching the weather at that moment. Understanding and respecting were one thing, appreciating was another. The people were boisterous, rose-cheeked, roaring and vigorous, but the landscape — while vast and ancient — was as bitter and biting as the snow and ice on which he constantly had to concentrate to keep from slipping and falling.
Fortunately, concentration was a faculty he had developed to a phenomenal degree. And that was why the speaker, the voice on that Saint Petersburg morning, left him with a chill beyond the temperature.
He admonished himself with a slow shake of his head that there was no time for aimless and doubtfully unimportant anomalies. While the tale was early, the first few pages turned, a key moment had to be preserved for Raskolnikov’s crime and punishment to reach its designated conclusion.
Moriarity allowed himself the words in thought: it will begin with the pace of a Mister Razumikhin, the stride of the man who must arrive, who must be there for it all to continue.
A chilled street, in a chilled city, in a chilled land, in a chilled tale: Moriarity moved to one side, apparently to allow other pedestrians room to pass. In reality he shifted his keen perception to allow for even greater concentration. This time, he knew, this place would be key. A delay, a postponement and it would all tear and crumble to nothing, a much more dour gap where existed a beautifully dour work.
Moriarity’s mind hummed and moaned with clear precision: in his mind, his thoughts did not have words, or even the fleetest of images. He looked and saw and knew without doubt or hesitation, with the approach and departure of every man, woman, and child on the street, the essential natures of each.
A woman was suffering the horrifying suffocation of a loveless marriage, and the equal horror of being too diminished to find even a momentary departure of sadness in the arms of a lover.
An intellectual held the crippling awareness of the limits of his own mind. A soldier wounded in spirit more than in the one leg he dragged behind. A child learned the bitterly cold lessons marking the departure of innocence and the arrival of weary wisdom, a mask wearing a man...
Still without a thought, without conscious choice, Moriarity had stepped from his vantage point and into the befurred pilgrimage of cold Russians. There, he knew without a doubt, was not Razumikhin — who was not due to walk down the cracked and slick streets for another minute yet — but the man for whom Razumikhin was a target: a proxy, a piece employed where the hand of the other player would have been too obvious against the white unwritten land of Saint Petersburg.
Weaving, moving, sliding between the pedestrians, Moriarty worked to keep his face into the performer’s mask he had selected: an average man with an average life walking down an average street on an average purpose.
He would not reveal to anyone, and especially not to the man he approached, the distain that had managed to weave through his precise intellect. Proxies, agents, provocateurs ... there were no rules to the game they were playing, and had been playing for so very long. The strategy made Moriarity despise his adversary all the more: he was effective, to be sure, but he revealed a hand and mind lacking in civility and honor.
And yet, Moriarity had to admit to himself as he stepped closer, he should have expected the unexpected. The game was all, and even though he had so far managed to best his adversary without exception, that meant he had opened himself up to complacency.
The man was invisible in the reality of Russian averageness; merely another in thick fur, clouds of breath flowing and popping from out beneath a clumsily groomed beard. But, to Moriarty, he was a painfully bright reflection from the crisp sun overhead: he cast a shadow that might as well be holding a knife up and down, ready to strike.
It was a game — even if, this case, played by proxy — that could be one of near-invisible subtlety: a battle of careful metaphor, sly construction, deft language... Or it could be pistol and knife, bomb and fire. He had the healed wounds of the latter: a sword’s shattering during a duel in the rolling depths of Theseus’s galley, a scar from a blade meant for Lady Dedlock, a searing burn from a dragon’s breath, a pistol ball still lodged in an upper arm. But, on that Russian street, it would be a move of...
“Excuse me,” Moriarty said in flawless Russian as he gently body-checked the man in the thick coat, twisting and turning his prey away from the eddies and flows of the crowd.
In answer, a face was raised from out of the collar of a thick coat, revealing more of the spotty beard. With this revolution came one from the man himself: a colder-than-that-day understanding that despite his invisibility he had been revealed by the one he had been told never to be revealed to.
The man’s expression shifted again, but for the last time it would do so. Strings cut, he sagged down to his knees. Still standing by his side, Moriarity’s reflexes caught the fellow’s great furred beast of a coat as he slid farther and farther down and then, fluidly, out of it.
On this cold Russian street, people were only just beginning to realize that all was not well, that there was something wrong with the man who had collapsed into a tumble of lifeless arms and legs.
Moriarity threw his gaze along the back of the dagger, to see, on the far side of the slowly alarming crowd, a thin visage. Sherlock Holmes responded with a cruel slice of a smile before sliding back into the invisible anonymity of Saint Petersburg and its people. Holmes left Moriarity kneeling, as the page was turned, beside the dying man, his head lowered, his eyes closed...
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by M. Christian