The Scarlet Pencil
by M. Christian
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“Know...” A crack of verbal lightning in the still quiet of the deep Constantinople night, an expression, a statement without owner or direction: there one moment and fading into oblivion the next. The source was a puzzle, partly, Moriarity suspected deep within his consciousness a larger puzzle for pieces with similar acoustic tabs and knobs. But, as before, the moment of now was far more immediate.
The dark skyline of the city, minarets blocking the sharp pinpricks of stars, told of not only the architecture that surrounded him but in silhouette of the great city’s history: a world of years spoken in the outline of twinkling night.
But he could not pause. Not only because the rope gripped tightly in his hand was losing all-important friction from his damp palms, or because the policeman he had so carefully timed would be strolling past far beneath him, but because the slyly diminutive form of Joel Cairo would soon be sliding along the rooftop above him.
It was all about time, precise formulas of action and consequence: the policeman’s rounds, the sum of his climbing speed and the distance from the street to the tiled angles at the top of the outer wall; Cairo’s furtive gait; the weight of the statue carefully swaddled in the pack on Moriarity’s back; the precise moments it would take once he ascended to slide from Kemidov’s exterior defenses to the inner perimeter and to where the bird itself was kept. And Cairo was not the only one to avoid.
Moriarty’s hands found purchase, the same edge his carefully thrown hook had also located. Without pausing, he was soon coiling up the cotton rope which, according to the precision chronometer that was his mind, would vanish into the dark Constantinople sky a quarter second before the policeman came by. The policeman would be into his third — off key — whistling of “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” an apt, if painful, kismet at which Moriarity could not resist a wry grin.
Rope coiled and hidden, he calculated that Cairo was still more than fifty steps — fifty-four, to be pedantically exact — behind him. Moriarty’s erstwhile partner, the fetching Miss O’Shaughnessy had given Cairo a moderately exact layout of the General’s home. In this moderation, Moriarity had found his opening: a gap in Miss O’Shaughnessy’s otherwise perfect recollection of the estate’s dimensions. It would not be enough to prevent Cairo’s entry but it would be enough in its inexactness to delay him just long enough.
But the factor he could not determine exactly was the one that bothered him the most: agent or personal, from a distance mirroring the profiles of those shapely towers or around the next dark cornice, his adversary was waiting. And, as so many pages before and no doubt in the far future, the game was to Sherlock’s advantage.
All Holmes had to do, after all, was to prevent the Falcon statue in Moriarity’s satchel from replacing the one in Kemidov’s safe. If Moriarity succeeded, then the rest would play out perfectly, from Constantinople to ship, ship to San Francisco, an uninterrupted voyage of betrayal and murder. If he failed in his deception, then there would still be treachery, deaths would still occur... but without irony, without the stuff that dreams were made of.
With perceptions sharpened by both meticulously-forged intellect and primal instincts, Moriarity made his way along the sloping tiles, unconsciously judging each step against potential clicks of lose ceramics or a perilous slide and fatal plunge of broken ones. He sought the most expedient way of crossing the outer wall to the single architectural weakness of Kemidov’s choice of retirement residence. His goal, a window set far too close to the edge of the compound’s perimeter, was in immediate sight. It was slit by the heavy, vertical iron bars, illuminated by a single, orange shared electric light.
Here the game became a new order of complexity, for he had to achieve a careful — and most of all — absolutely silent leap while, at the same time, dealing with the thick fingers or wrought iron. And he had to do so in a way that would give the approaching Cairo a much easier entry.
Fortune, though, came with experience, and it arrived in tandem with self-training. His body and mind, became instruments of careful calculation and perfect execution. The jump was less of faith and more of inevitability.
The bars, however, proved to be agents of chance as an unexpected cold slap of far-early morning dew caused them almost to escape his grasp. But the basics of human survival rewarded him where precise intellect had almost failed, and he managed to gain a good grip on the iron, more than enough to use his masterful dexterity to reach past them to the inherent flaw in the window’s lock.
But, as he worked at the mechanism, that same ancient lineage whispered to the deep structures of his intricate mind: Danger, it said, in the language of the hairs on the back of his neck. Immediate danger.
For a moment he paused, judging the time required to try to identify the possibility against the approach of Cairo, allowing himself the comfort that Cairo, while skilled, would be making his own approach much less subtly than his ruthless adversary.
When nothing that could have been the source of his alarm came to his consciousness — which he found less than calming — he returned to his task. Soon, the window was breached, and the heavy iron bars swung aside.
Moriarty examined the study in no more than a fraction of a seconds to learn and memorize the layout as well as to observe the minutiae of owner’s existence. He turned his formidable perception to the object of his midnight expedition: the safe was old, heavy and simple, but it could hold far too great a challenge to Cairo. Again, it was a night not just for breaking and entering but also to lay a path to make the route easier for the small man following him.
For someone with Cairo’s experience, the tumblers and mechanism of the Chubb could eventually be defeated, but not in time. Carefully lowering his swaddled satchel to the parquet floor, Moriarity knelt down to place his cheek against the cool steel of its door.
It would be easy, he allowed himself the thought, to drop away from the expedience of being in Kemidov’s home, moments ahead of the approaching thief, a few seconds from a failure that would derail, corrupt, and destroy the tale to be spun ahead and simply be viewed as a game: a cup-and-ball whimsy of opening the supposedly unbreakable safe.
As soon as the distraction arrived, it was dismissed. Too much was there with him: both the actions to be played out and the ones far beyond the correct flow of narrative. The great game, the one he played — and would always be playing — against the chaotic machinations of Holmes was to achieve the immeasurable beauty of the tales, the stories, and the grander domain beyond, the world of those turning the pages.
The safe was open, the falcon revealed to be within. It was lacquered black but over gold and jewels, an encrusted thing of dreams. The next was simplicity, a pedantic action of replacing the true falcon with the worthless leaden one he had lifted up the wall, carried across the rooftops, and brought into Kemidov’s study with him.
* * *
“Greetings, old friend.”
Moriarity’s body, the meat and skin and bones of him that would — despite the crafting of his mind and will — always be a vehicle of flesh and blood humanity, reacted with a skipped beat. But that single hesitation of biology was all that he allowed it. Within the next second he had an instantaneous grasp and control of the situation.
“A term I would not use,” he said, turning and simultaneously straightening to face the door.
“Fair enough,” Holmes said, closing the study door behind him. “It was merely an attempt at civility.”
“Attempt noted,” said Moriarity.
“We never talk, you and I.”
“There is, after all, not much to discuss, Holmes. Your actions have always spoken far more than any discussions we ever could have.”
“As have yours.” Holmes moved further into the room, though clearly not close enough to pose a direct threat or become an equally direct opportunity. “Don’t you tire of all this?”
“It is, no doubt, you who you should be weary, Holmes.”
“It would be easy for you to make that error, wouldn’t it? Appearances and all that.” Holmes turned away to pretend to be fascinated by some small element of the General’s study. “By the way, you might as well take a moment to relax, one of my agents has delayed Mr. Cairo for a few moments. And, no, nothing like that; merely a non-interventive pause in his approach.”
“With a goal to...?
“Just this: the briefest of chats between old acquaintances.”
“A pleasure, then. What would you like to discuss?”
“This... all of this,” Holmes waved an arm at the room but clearly indicating all that was beyond its immediate confines. “Your keeping it all up, my attempting to pull it all down... Time and time again. Dreary and tiring, wouldn’t you say?”
“Far from it. Though if exhaustion is plaguing you, please feel free to take a leave of absence.”
Holmes laughed without humor. “No, I think not. Though you may consider a sabbatical of sorts. Perhaps bee-keeping? I understand apiculture can be quite peaceful. No? Well, I suppose that such pursuits are simply not for fellows such as you or me. Though you may change your mind shortly.”
“I doubt that will ever occur.”
“No, well consider this: a word, spoken but without a speaker... Come on, my dear fellow, I know you’ve heard it. But not just heard it, correct? Not merely a fragment of conversation caught and carried by the wind. Heard but also felt. No? Perhaps a reminder then? What must feel like ages ago, perhaps just after Troy fell. Or was it when Gilgamesh was pining for companionship? And then this very night, as you so daringly scaled those walls? The word know... I’m correct, aren’t I?”
“You... you are, though how, I must confess, leaves me...”
A laugh again, but this time with caustic humor: “The legendary Moriarty, the brilliant Moriarity, the Moriarity of intellect and deduction, taken aback. My word, this is momentous!” The acidic mirth departed, replaced with a shivering click of exact speech: “Brilliant, intelligent, heroic — or so how he might have been remembered — no longer.”
Moriarity felt the room’s temperature drop, and with it the exacting elements of his intellect climbed in analytical velocity: “You have been playing another game.”
“That is the Moriarity I remember, though I shall be the only one. You and I are very similar, as you are more than aware: equally matched in many things. But, in this game we play, there is more than one way to score a victory, and only one way to score a lasting one.
“While you have been moving yourself across the board, mating and matching me on each and every page, of each and every story, of each and every book, I have been working my own hand on the one title that you have neglected. It is a clever, if I do say so myself, enterprise of editing that will preserve one of us in legend, and the other, shall we say, in a less than favorable illumination.”
* * *
“Cleveland...” The word arrived with the same volume, the same weight as had all the others, but as Moriarity wound his way through the humid and fragrant Havana afternoon, a few steps behind the sheepish trudge of James Wormold, he allowed himself a tense grin: the move had been a clumsy one, far below the already falling standard he had come to expect from his adversary.
As always — and forever — he still had to maintain the edge of his keen deductive intellect but, not for the first time, he harbored a deep reminiscence for times when the game had at least served as a pretense to challenge.
With that thought arrived a further, far more resonantly poignant one: his tales of Sherlock had been written — a pardon to his own mind for a slip in inaccuracy — rewritten, but where he lay, and how he, Moriarity, was depicted, within the world of the words did not matter when the greatest game was still, as always, afoot.
* * *
Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine-glass. “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said. “Perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion...”
— A. Conan Doyle, A Study In Scarlet (1887)
Copyright © 2015 by M. Christian