The Case of the Second Slipper

By andros janicek

Mystery / Drama

Chapter 3

"I knew you'd be brave enough to venture into this foul neighborhood, my dearest Watson," he grasped my arms warmly. "Come in, you are most welcome."

My host, also in evening dress, made way for me to enter into the large attic room with vaulted ceilings, many of them with panes of grubby glass. Some of the walls were in the midst of being painted a more wholesome white, and the rest of the space bespoke of a busy optimism.

There were some easels and paints set up with canvases upon them, and the walls displayed exotic tapestries and a few paintings even my poor eye could discern as very fine.

That luxury contrasted with the large bathtub that dominated the back part of the room, with a small passage further down, and, of course, the squalid building that was mostly given to small shops.

An alcohol stove in the corner had a kettle on it, and there were various trunks of books and clothes in the process of being unpacked into some dressers and a bookcase. Cushions were strewn about in every corner, except for one where Bruno's familiar hand-case had come to rest with a small crucifix and a statue of the Virgin set atop the worn leather surface.

The most settled part of the attic was the bed—curtains modestly hid its interior, but there were several reading lamps on crates and one fine glass globe hung from a chain on the ceiling. It was to this last that I tried to attribute the warm glow of the humble abode, but a good part of it also seemed to be coming from my friends, who were watching me anxiously.

"In here one leaves the city behind," I said. "This could be an artist's den anywhere in the world. I take it that is the identity you use here, Holmes? Though I suspect you must have had a hand in the housekeeping, Bruno, for Sherlock Holmes' dens are never this clean."

"The paintings and wall hangings were my contribution, Watson, or rather, that of Lyndley Darwood, dissolute artist," he put on a robe and long wig lying to one side and became a Bohemian of unwholesome complexion before my eyes.

"You find it pleasant? I am glad," Bruno said happily. "One cannot choose what happens in one's life, but it is important to have some dignity while you're living it."

"I hardly call a bathtub in the middle of the parlor a sign of luxury, but it was a detail that did not bother me overmuch when I was merely spending an occasional night on my bundle on the floor." Holmes had come up to the—ex-priest, it was odd to think of him that way. "But then Bruno does everything so gracefully, even falls from grace."

Bruno took on a pained expression, and Holmes embraced him.

This improved both their outlooks immensely, even more so when they saw my eyes looking for somewhere safe to land.

"It's all right, Watson, this is very new to me as well."

"Please sit," Bruno urged, pulling himself and Holmes down on some cushions. "We have not had very much time to acquire things such as chairs." They had gotten so far as to find an evening jacket for Bruno, and it was hard to tell if it did not fit him properly or if I couldn't reconcile myself to him in a layperson's outfit.

At any rate, the oddness of perching on the floor while wearing dinner dress did not distract me for long. I returned to Holmes' earlier comment on his new situation.

"Which is why, as a scientist, you borrowed my set of treatises on—the mind, and other intimate matters."

"Just so," he beamed. "If you have questions, there is a rather good essay in there on the subject."

I blushed, and Bruno handed me a glass of wine. "Do not worry, we are having dinner sent in," he said, gesturing to the row of cabinets around the bathtub that must constitute the kitchen. "I went straight from my mother's kitchen to the seminary and never learned much about cooking."

"I've made him my excellent Welsh rarebit a few times on Baker Street, but we wished to have a real dinner for you tonight," my friend said. We heard steps coming up the stairs and then someone who knocked three times.

Holmes let in two waiters wearing the livery of Pagani's celebrated restaurant. They unpacked a whole series of covered dishes along with more wine. "Come by tomorrow and pick everything up. Not too early," Holmes said with a novel grin as he left a handsome gratuity.

"How did you manage to get Pagani's to deliver here?" I demanded.

"On one occasion I neglected to mention to the police that the owner had allowed some fugitives to spend a day in their cellars. Come, come, Watson, my morality has never been all that rigid."

They turned over crates and upon them we had the excellent dinner. First Bruno intoned his prayer, and then over the meal he spoke a little about his plans for improving the attic. I could scarcely listen, because it was as though I had been thrust through the looking-glass and I could not get my footing.

"Watson, swallowing all those questions is sure to affect your digestion," my friend observed.

"Let me state what I believe to be true, and we can start from there." The other two men nodded. "You really were a priest, obviously."

"How could you ever doubt?" Bruno asked with a note of reproach.

"I don't know, there was something—else."

"Precisely, Watson. You perceived right away what took me days to untangle. Bruno was a priest—and something else. I took his story of belonging to an elite corps at the Vatican to be true, because who knows what really goes on there. But the prayer was something that bore looking into."

"It's not a standard prayer," Bruno admitted. "Our sect has our own habits."

"But it is a prayer, with the unmistakable sound of something with a life of its own, many times recited. That made me very curious," Holmes said.

"At that first dinner you had the look of a man who had seen a ghost, Holmes," I ventured, and then explained for his companion's benefit, "I had never before seen Holmes find reason to turn away to master his expression, which he did while carefully fixing the drinks. Something about meeting you unnerved him like never before, and I struggled to put aside your friendly manner and understand who you really were."

Bruno looked touched. "You felt our first meeting so strongly?" He touched Holmes' hand.

"My head was a very eventful place to be that evening," the detective acknowledged. "By morning I had decided to lead Watson on his own parallel investigation so that I could spend time with you. In private observation."

"It wasn't very nice of you to send me on fool's errands all over town," I reproached him. "I'd rather you'd sent me to the country."

The two men stared at each other. "They weren't fool's errands," Bruno said.

"If the jewels were to turn up, then our friend would have a far better dossier to back his claim that they really belong to the church. And they are out there, which is why Bruno and I spent some time trying to locate them in the various thieves' networks." Holmes' eyebrow arched in my direction. "What did you imagine us to be doing, Watson?"

He released his booming laugh at my discomfit. "I assure you, until last night Bruno treated me as a perfect gentleman, and since you are so interested in my virtue, that it remained intact until he was well and truly defrocked."

Bruno got up and replaced my wine glass with a whiskey and a look of sympathy. "If you think you are confused, imagine what my life was like, moving from mask to mask, never feeling entirely at home."

"Are you the only one of your group who is—of your inclination?" I inquired. "The fellowship I met today seemed to be family people. "

The Italian underwent one of his rapid shutterings. Holmes moved his chair over and clasped his arm tightly around the man. "Bruno risked everything to try and reconcile his desire to stay a priest with the strong urge to continue his parents' line as they so fervently wished. He found others who believed the same, he went searching for a wife—"

"And found myself utterly unsuited to the task," Bruno finished ruefully. "For someone who always planned on being a priest and has lived in the seminary since boyhood, I never had reason to think of what my direction my desires lay in. My group preaches fidelity, and I have only indulged once—I felt I had a right to be sure this is indeed what I am."

"And the strumpet he met in Spain betrayed him," Holmes said with a possessive clutch of his lover's side.

"It was a very unlucky scandal," the Italian said with a grimace. "The church suspended me very quickly because such a public sin cannot be tolerated in the inner circles where I once worked."

"That was the second line of investigation for me," Holmes broke in. "The man is a priest, fine. He's a member of a rebel sect, fine—that's the 'and then some,' you sensed. He really does teach Catechism—a visit to the Cathedral school under a fatherly disguise allowed me to determine that. But—"

"Sherlock says he went many times to see me celebrate Mass at Westminster, although I never saw him," Bruno told me.

"Because he made every excuse not to attend, or at least celebrate, services there. When I did see him it was early morning and the service was so simple, just one priest and a few old ladies, that he sat in his dog collar and black weeds among the congregation, as was quite natural with the small audience."

"And otherwise he went to evening services, which the cathedral doesn't offer during the week," I completed. "I watched you run out of there the other day after we'd met in the tea-shop, Bruno, and it struck me as very wrong in a way I couldn't explain."

"That day," Bruno moaned, seemingly uneasy that he'd been followed. The detective ran his fingers through the dark curly hair.

"Yes, Watson, I know. When I saw this pattern, I knew something must be very wrong, because here was an untrustworthy person in the most trustworthy guise. For a few hours I was inclined to push my feelings back in the box where they had lain dormant for so long with little consequence."

"I'm very glad you did not," Bruno whispered to the gray English eyes next to him. Holmes got that rabbit under a gun sight look I'd seen that first night, and I'm afraid I gave a little jump, as I had for all the displays of affection I'd seen that night.

"Then I did some research," the sleuth continued imperturbably, "And found that something was very wrong in the eyes of the church. He was forbidden to celebrate sacraments and went through the most extraordinary measures to manage the expectation that he would take Communion—"

"It was very painful, this time," the ex-priest said. "It almost came as a relief to be released from the waiting for them to shut me out forever."

"Which is what you two were talking about on the street!" They both knit their brows at the connection I'd just made. Then I had to explain sheepishly, "I saw the entire exchange in front of the tea-shop, and couldn't imagine why Holmes went from the deepest agony to some strange excitement. I thought you were on the verge of some kind of fit, old man."

Bruno laughed weakly. "I tell him with a very serious face that I have had a letter from the Vatican, and that it is the very worst news. I do not realize the he thinks I am being called away forever."

"When I found out that the self-same Vatican was actually writing to smile upon our adventure, in a way, my outlook did take a rapid turn." Holmes scanned my face. "You must have changed tables before we came in, because there was little sight of the street where we all sat."

"Yes," I admitted. "I wouldn't have ever dreamed of spying on your intimate moment—"

"But you didn't think I had them," Holmes completed in his matter-of-fact manner. "Dr. Watson, you could have joined a plot to overthrow the British empire and I might not have noticed these several weeks. Conducting an investigation while trying not to be the fool who throws himself at an uninterested man, and a priest at that, has taxed my considerable faculties."

They put some music on the phonograph that was their only luxury, and the two men took turns describing the hilariously tentative steps they both took while sure that the other man was completely incapable of feeling anything for him.

By this time, I was growing used to this new Holmes with the ready laugh and fluid gestures. I suspect that both men's inexperience made them equally tentative, astounded that they weren't meant to be alone, and that close correspondence made them much less shocking together, in my eyes.

"The next I hear of Irene Adler I shall send her a postcard," Holmes proclaimed with his hand twined in Bruno's as we savored after-dinner drinks.

"Miss Adler?" I sat up with a start. "What has she to do with anything? I thought we decided she was moldering in some Spanish jail and the article promising an award for her whereabouts was to offset a diplomatic incident."

"I rather suspect some sort of pressure—diplomatic or mechanical—has sprung her from that cage, and a difficult stay it must have been, so I shall shed no tears at her presumed freedom," Holmes said.

"Did they announce it in the Spanish papers? Is that what you've been following in the foreign news?"

"We've been tracking her somewhat chastened path back across Europe," Holmes said with a smile. "Her name hasn't appeared, but I know her mark."

"She must know something about the Pope's Medallions. We must locate her and stake a claim. If you are still inclined," I said to Bruno.

"I am still very much inclined for the Roman cause," Bruno said with that depth of feeling that always caught me off guard. "But I am of the opinion the Miss Adler understands our friend the detective very well, and as a result, Holmes paid a rather steep price for her escape."

It suddenly struck me that the two men facing me were both equally comfortable in the deep waters of intrigue. Whereas I was totally at sea.

Sherlock Holmes explained, "I'll never have proof until I ask her why she did it, but she was the person who told Bruno most specifically that he must travel to England to specifically ask my help."

"And she thought he might distract you while she disposed of the gems?" I asked.

"That's one explanation, but I rather think that her extraordinary insight made her realize that the Italian priest of several unusual allegiances was the single person to kindle my affections."

"But he was a priest! Did she mean to serve you the torture of Tantalus?"

"Miss Adler may not have thought that far ahead. I do believe that from one student of human nature to another, she didn't want to deprive me of this unique opportunity to learn how to love."

My friend had always been unduly lenient towards the Adler woman, and I was unable to ascribe such higher motives to her. Then one last thing struck me.

"Fa— Bruno, I'm quite sure that at our first meeting you said you didn't know Irene Adler."

"I do not."

"He never met the woman, Watson. He saw her in the Spanish newspapers, certainly, but that was all."

"But how was she to have divined you two would be compatible?"

The taller man laughed and gave a nod to his dark companion. Bruno began to explain. "I never met the formidable Miss Adler, but she met me." He halted my objections. "You must forgive me, but I did not realize I was in the same police station in Spain, both of us sitting in a long line of people being interrogated when and where Spanish justice would fall. No doubt I shared a room with many people charged with the most fascinating infractions, but on this worst night of my life, all I could think about was my own.

"It was only a matter of time before someone from the church came to take charge of the situation, but while they had me the officers were determined to ask me every filthy question you could imagine—and many of them I never had, I assure you—to let me know what they thought about a priest found kissing a man who—I was too innocent to realize did so professionally."

I raised my eyebrows.

"Everywhere, there are places where men go. As luck would have it, I went to my very first such destination on a night when it was raided by the police for immorality. Not that the police believed any of that, no matter how much I begged them to see that it was the first kiss in my life. The fact that I was a foreigner would mean immediate deportation."

Holmes stepped in. "The public nature of Bruno's single kiss had far more serious repercussions than he deserved, but for our purposes, think of an Irene Adler, waiting for her turn to be interrogated—something that would disturb her not at all—and she picks out the hapless priest in the middle of an international incident because of a kiss. And as she observed and she listened, something struck her about this man."

"The next day I was released, with instructions to leave the country as quickly as possible. The day before I left, I received a note." He withdrew it from his billfold and spread it before us. The words began in Italian with a few Spanish words mixed in, and then turned to English. The Italian read the entirety out loud for me in English:

"Dear Father,

"I can only hope that you find what you are seeking, which is sought by many but will require much fortitude for you, as I fear you have trials ahead before your goal.

"To that end, you must entrust yourself completely to a Mister Sherlock Holmes of 221 B Baker Street, London. He specializes in mysteries and has a wide knowledge of gems, and can help you only as much as you let him.

"—A sympathizer"

There was no other signature. The torn piece of rich paper was very crumpled, but a part of a monogram was visible. It could be the side of an 'I' or an 'A,' or an 'L' for that matter.

"I assumed it was someone who wished to further our cause in Rome," Bruno said. "Many found me in my travels."

"That's how I would have taken it," I agreed.

"She was in a terrible rush when she wrote this, Watson," Holmes claimed. "Hence the mixture of languages, but Irene took time to write to a priest with whom she shared a night in a Spanish commissary. I have many examples of her hand at Baker Street if you doubt the resemblance."

Bruno took down the remnants of their meal to the urchins who were guarding the door. While he was gone, Holmes said, "Thank you for coming, John. I know this has not been easy, and you have more questions. As Bruno and I see if we can live here together, you will often be with us either here or at Baker Street, which is still my preferred abode. We can work so many cases, the three of us!"

Bruno came back, shaking his head. "'What, no wine?' the boy asked! They keep a sharp eye on what goes past them."

"You see, dear Bruno, my idea of keeping the second bed was not a bad one." Only now I spied a mattress underneath the piles of belongings not yet settled. "We'll buy a frame tomorrow and make an effort to emphasize that we are two artists sharing a room with abundant natural light."

"Do you wear a disguise, Bruno?" I couldn't resist asking.

"Watson, what better painterly disguise than to be a genuine Italian?"

"I have bought a very shabby coat," Bruno said, leaping up to find it. "And this hat that covers my face, when worn just so." With a careless posture, the rest of the trim young former priest was gone, and the Italian looked like a painter down on his luck. "Sherlock, show him the one you wore to the shops with me."

The two men tried on various disguises for my benefit, cheerfully taking on the subterfuge necessary for criminals.

I left them soon after to their bare attic room that was yet so warm, presided over by the curtained bed.

A few days later I visited the attic once more. We were to begin our first case as a trio. A long-lost cousin had suddenly appeared to a family that had given him up for dead. Some family members accepted the newcomer was who he claimed to be, while others believed him to be an imposter. Because of a peculiarly written will, some family members benefited from this lost male relation, while others, of course, stood to lose. It sounded very straightforward, but I know Holmes felt everything to be more interesting simply because Bruno would be by his side.

"I'm glad I happened upon you when we could speak alone," I began.

Holmes' eyes regarded me with their usual cold exactitude.

"Do you see this as a lasting liaison?" I bolted out.

"Please, Watson, you sound like a maiden aunt trying to caution about the ways of the world.

We fell off the map, Bruno and I, so I'm afraid I can't sight where we're going or measure how far we've gotten in that direction, but I can say the waters are tropical at the moment."

My mouth worked at what I wished to say next.

"Will you stop mincing about and say it? You're jabbering at the air like a lunatic. We're men speaking of men, Watson, and you're treating me as gingerly as a soufflé. I assure you I am made of stronger stuff and will not capsize if you poke me."

"By my lights the only one who has lost his senses is you," I said. He held my gaze. "Bruno is a fine chap, a very fine chap, but he strikes me as being such a complicated man it's hard to know which end of him you've got a hold of."

Holmes' barking laugh surprised me. He had never been sensible to off-color implications before. "I mean, that I'm not sure why he's here, even. Has he had the jewels all along and played you for a fool? Was he in cahoots with Irene Adler?"

"No, Watson," my friend said patiently. "It was quite clear to me early on that this Dominican priest was unnaturally calm, even for a person trained in spiritual discipline, and his ability to calm his nerves is better than almost anyone I've ever met. 'You'd make a fine criminal,' I told him once, and I meant it. Let me give the rest of the explanation I owe you."

I settled as well as I could against some cushions and waited expectantly.

"Yet I was immediately struck by the fact that Father Bruno was simultaneously undergoing a great personal crisis." Holmes saw my furrowed brow. "The hair, Watson, the hair—surely you don't think that even on the continent a priest would have such unruly hair? No, he was overdue for a haircut, and the one he'd had before was poorly done—it was uneven in places. As I stated the first night, he is usually exacting about his appearance, so this, plus the sorry state of his shoes, led me to believe that the crisis had happened a few weeks ago.

"Even so, I began to think that the inner unrest had begun long before that. His cassock had signs of frequent starching and ironing, so that there were well-worn pleats showing against the black cloth in various places. But on top those whitish marks, there were new, more diffuse marks, leading me to think he—for I doubted a young priest would send his laundry out—that he had become much less careful in how he ironed and stinted on the starch. There was the remote possibility a housekeeper took to drink, but there was the hair, and another factor I will get to in a minute.

"So how was such a man so cheerful? The answer could only be that he had taken a step that had addressed the root of his disquiet, and he either felt himself to be—or truly was—outside of some danger. He possessed a case of documents proving the ownership of his necklace. And after all, his choice of reading material, Moliere, indicated that our visitor saw the absurd side of life and the contemplation of it made him weep, remember?"

My mind was on Holmes' previous sentence about being out of danger. "You said he was quite sure the documentation for the necklace was correct."

"As it was, Watson. You yourself helped prove that. Our investigation was to see where the jewels had landed."

He waited patiently until I caught up.

"Bruno stole the jewels!"

Holmes nodded. "Yes, Bruno was, effectively, investigating himself. The Vatican had no way of knowing where their treasure had ended up, whether it had indeed turned up in Spain at all or if it was in the hands of several of our card players, as we put it that night. Irene Adler was a made-to-order red herring for that purpose. And yes, Rome did authorize him to employ my services."

He opened his pocket-book to reveal an uncashed check from some obscure church office. "I kept it as a souvenir because few ever see a check from this far up in the Vatican. Bruno insisted upon paying me weekly, knowing full well he might be dismissed at any time, but I refused any further payment after I realized my interests were far from professional."

My mind was on the crime. "You told him you knew of his guilt?"

Holmes laughed shortly. "There was guilt aplenty for both of us. We spent an excruciating couple of weeks circling each other with the most unspeakable tension. I knew he didn't need me to find the necklace, yet he stayed and played as if he did. Bruno had divined that I knew, and yet there I was continuing the charade as well. The most unsettling question stood unspoken between us: why? From the first evening I felt the most extraordinary sensation—that I would do literally anything to remain in his presence. And there he was, lingering for dinner and drinks and a very amusing discussion about the Donation of Pepin."

"I'm quite sure he enjoyed it as much as we did," I said encouragingly.

"I very much hoped that he found my company as agreeable as I did his," Holmes said candidly, "But even then I knew my many charms were not enough to keep a train-weary man so engaged. And it was a bit of an insult that someone who very likely had absconded with a priceless antiquity was sitting so comfortably in Sherlock Holmes' parlor as if he were untouchable!"

I smiled inwardly at Holmes' first experience of youthful infatuation coupled with his hardened deduction skills and a touch of vanity.

"It was an abominable time for me, Watson, because how does one say to any man, much less a priest, 'Father, I have consistently experienced at least four of the seven signs of the male sexual response every time I've seen you'?"

The thought of a Sherlock Holmes earnestly studying my psychology books after his first tremblings of attraction was enough to prevent my laughter. Then I thought of Holmes turning away that night over the drinks table and imagined a look of utter confusion on his face that he would have been hard pressed to explain.

"When I told him after one week I was no longer in his employ, the good priest waited very patiently for me to say I was going to denounce him to Rome. I have never encountered such a criminal, Watson, if that he is. Most people try to escape or blubber or try to justify their actions, but this man sat placidly as if nothing I could do would disorder some order he'd paid very dearly to attain.

"Then I said, 'If the father will allow me, I will tell you what I know, and then we can come to terms with what I need not know.'

"'You went to Spain to recover the treasure which your superiors rightly divined had come to light with the other gems from Torquemada's cache. The church counts upon its mystery and prestige to make up for its current lack of terrestrial power, and so you, a vigorous young priest with a gift for languages and no small amount of physical strength arrived with the best of all possible weapons: the truth. Your documentation was incontrovertible, Father. You were to try and determine which player had those jewels and use your considerable persuasive power to give them to you.

"'Then you were sent away from Spain early, against your will, for a reason I beg you not to share with me.' Bruno had assented in gratitude. 'Your superiors had already been wired with the news of this catastrophe, and you subsequently sent a telegram telling them that being forced to leave early meant that your work was undone.

"'Then, Father Bruno, you went home to be upbraided by your superiors for this incident that befell you in Spain. They were very displeased, but since you were already so involved, they put you back in the fray to work with a certain English detective you'd put forward as the best person to locate their treasure. And so you were sent to my door, asking me to find the person who had the jewels—that is, you. Since you had already lost nearly everything in the Spanish debacle, you didn't expect it to be very difficult to tolerate with a brief, fruitless investigation on my part.

"'It did not take me long, Father, to realize that my instincts from the first night were correct, and the Campari stain on the inside lining of your hand-case—the spill that had happened at the same time as your documents were nearly ruined—was from a bottle rupturing. Now, could you be so addicted to the stuff that you always carry your own bottle of it? For I can scarcely imagine any other way for it to so thoroughly soak the inside of your case unless you had a bottle inside. No, I watched you drink this Italian liquor, and you were appreciative, no more than that, as I have since watched you consume several types of alcohol with no sign of excess.'"

"What is your obsession with this Campari, Holmes?" I demanded then.

The detective continued implacably. "He carried a bottle with him—the picturesque Italian with the drink no non-Italian would ever touch—and placed the jewels inside. It was the medallion piece and several others of diamond, ruby, emerald and the like. 'You poured out some of the liquid and inserted some bread up to the point of the label, so that it couldn't be easily seen from the outside,' I told him, 'But the bread expanded and cushioned the jewels so that they did not clank so obviously. It was the bread I smelled in addition to the liquor on documents, though the inside of the case had been rubbed with some sort of soap that counteracted the smell.'

"You see, Watson, at some undetermined train stop along the way from Spain to Italy, one of the confederates in one of his secret societies—for he has several—was there to meet him to hand off the goods.

"I told him, 'At this point your precious bottle broke, though I'm not clear how.'

"'The station near Toulouse was slippery with rain and there were only a few minutes to make the transfer. I fell and my case fell with me,' our new friend confided to me.

"I nodded and continued, 'Your confrere was right there to pretend to help you rescue your documents, and the rest of the bottle was discarded while the jewels ended up in precisely the pocket you intended. An excellent result, one that lent you a calm so contagious my friend the doctor and I were quite charmed by you.'

"'I would have said you were deeply unsettled that evening, Mr. Holmes,' Bruno then said to my surprise. 'And as for me, I had no intention of distracting anyone from anything, as I was a man who had lost almost everything he had ever possessed, though I was proud to have served my mission and set the jewels to their appropriate purpose. The one detective capable of bringing down the punishment I knew I would receive sooner or later was making the most excellent jests from the midst of his untidy kingdom, and I wished—I still wish—not to leave,' Bruno told me.

"'I would not have you leave, Father.' I pushed the check he had tried to give me back across the table. And very foolishly I admitted, 'I am receiving rich enough recompense.'"

It was difficult for me to think of this conversation between a then-priest and my wholly inexperienced friend, so I asked, "The two of you did spend quite a bit of time in the jeweller's district—but why? You knew Bruno had already passed the gems to someone."

"Do you really think my honor is such a fragile thing that it is to be burnt up by the first flames of attraction? No, no, Watson, we really were trying to find the very jewels Bruno had handed off to a confederate at a train station. I convinced him this was for the best—he would produce our excellent proof that the Vatican was their rightful owner, reclaim the very necklaces he had stolen for such noble reasons, give it to the Vatican as he had promised, and any moral debt would be discharged. We cared nothing about the pocketbook of the person who had bought gems with an irregular provenance."

It made me feel better that Holmes had not merely accepted this fraud of Bruno's, and yes, that we had been working together on a cause that was just.

"'You are not going to turn me into the authorities?' Bruno asked me then.

"'You haven't tried to lay a hand on me yet,' I told him." Holmes guffawed at the expression on my face.

"'And no,' I said to the priest, 'In your heart, you feel as though you accomplished your mission—you retrieved the church's property and you handed it to her representative. That there are others in your church who do not recognize this schismatic movement as genuine is far beyond my agnostic understanding, Father. For all I know your sect is the true one and the others are the heretics, I find myself curiously unable to make moral judgments of late.'

"Then I hope you will not mind to hear this part, Watson. The priest grazed my hand with his fingertips and I felt a thrill to the roots of my hair. 'Then we are of one mind,' he said. 'I do belong to several groups working to regain the church's authority on the earth, but also to shape this authority in the more gentle face of the Savior of the Gospel, without certain deformations that have unfortunately been passed down along with our faith.'

"His hand still touched mine, and he gazed at me with those queer oceanic eyes of his, green-gray at the moment. 'I don't pretend to understand what I am, but I know that you are the mate I should wish for, if such a thing were ever allowed me on any corner of the earth.'

"The words caused me an unhoped-for happiness. 'I would like nothing better than to spend time knowing you, Mr. Holmes, whatever time is left until Rome tires of this gambit and calls me back for some other purpose. That my career is for all purposes over after Spain you can doubtless imagine, but for those of my sect I am still one of the most highly placed in the Vatican and this is a tremendous advantage while it lasts.'

"'If you don't agree with them, and they despise you, why stay in the church?' I asked what I had promised myself I wouldn't.

"'My dear Holmes,' Bruno said. 'What I feel for the church is a love, as surely as what I would feel for a man, should I ever be allowed to offer such a thing. I know nothing of this last kind of love,' he looked at me shyly, 'But perhaps we will be granted the time to foresee whether they would be so dissimilar or not. And then, Holmes, you are free to find such a thing with someone who is also free.'"

Holmes turned to me with a wry smile. "A highly theoretical liaison that is, as you know, exceedingly unlikely, Watson. Once the idea of Bruno had forced its way into this forgotten closet inside me, I can't imagine anyone else finding it, much less fitting inside."

I was still not reconciled to the idea that Holmes had such a closet. He must have divined my doubts.

"Oh do, go on Watson. What else remains unclear?"

"And so when he told you that day on the street he'd had word from Rome—"

"It was the news I'd been dreading, yes. Awkward half-confidences were more than I'd ever had with anyone, and I did not wish to lose them. It's still rather awkward, how happily I took the news of his defrocking. It delivered Bruno into my arms, but he is devastated at the loss of his way of life. I shall simply have to let him find his way—"

There was a noise at the door and then Bruno came in fumbling with packages.

"We shall have fine antipasti with no pasta, as sadly I have discovered it is very hard to cook more than one thing at a time on that thing—" the Italian indicated the alcohol stove.

He opened the parcels on a rickety table. "We have a cold feast: fish, meat, vegetables—"

He began unpacking the items and Holmes went over to him. "Watson has pledged to stop being nervous about us." Holmes kissed his lover full on the mouth and I flinched once more. "Remember, Watson, no lady's honor has been insulted, no one has been exploited and your sensibilities can go back to being unruffled."

Bruno gave a clever grin. "I think rather it is you who gets ruffled by Watson, Sherlock, as I recall you avoided him from the second week we knew each other. And you later told me—'I can't see Watson—he'll know by looking at my face!'"

The former priest smiled at me and we laughed at Holmes' expense, who shrunk a little in the face of our united front—a new experience for us both.

The Italian put his arm around the taller man and led him to the curtained bed, whence they shortly emerged with still more pillows and blankets.

We spread out our picnic on a coverlet and nothing could be easier than to be carried along by these two fascinating men who were fascinated with each other.

After their first few days together, I learned that the men avoided the signaled section of town, preferring to cultivate the image that Holmes' painter persona had a very close friend vising from Italy. Artists were all a strange breed, weren't they?

They solved cases together. (A certain issue involving a French diplomat engaged both their considerable talents and earned Homes a medal.) Bruno tutored some people in languages. And then he went off on his errands that Holmes filed under things about which he wouldn't stoop to inquire.

I was amused to discover that Holmes sometimes attended daily Mass with Bruno, in a series of disguises, sitting as far apart as possible. Holmes told me once that he was so happy to share his life with his friend, he would deny Bruno nothing he asked in return.

For the next eight months, Sherlock Holmes was the happiest man in London. His Bruno had many times proved himself an admirable collaborator in investigating, and the three of us kept excellent company. The great detective had everything he'd always had, but heightened, made richer and more complete by the addition of the right someone.

He was careful not to spend every night in their attic, and Bruno also rented a small room from one of the women married into his priest network. She knew the room was just for show, and appreciated the extra money, and that was that, most days of the week.

We all engaged in a delicate dance when it came to Baker Street, however. Holmes made no attempt to change who he was—he never had—and Bruno would come by for planning sessions that occasionally turned to suppers. The third to our trio always left by an early hour, and the two men kept a scrupulous distance while under Mrs. Hudson's roof.

The old woman was no fool, and anyone with eyes could see the venerable Holmesian mask drop when he came inside and his happiness was allowed out, albeit under a strict decorum.

My theory was that she might not have minded the couple to be less chary in her presence, but she appreciated the deep affection that underlay Holmes' determination to do nothing to sully her good name.

And then one day I came back to Baker Street to a Holmes who had surely been at the needle. It had been so long that I thought this vice extirpated for good.

His eyes dared me to lecture him, but I did not.

Then all was fine once more. We three had a supper in one of those specialized establishments where I had been accepted as a friend to two vetted individuals, and all was well in the world.

It took about a month. One month and four more letters from Rome, with an injection to help Holmes through each ordeal.

One Wednesday morning, I showed up at the sect's club under the dressmaker's shop. "Where are you sending him, and why does it have to be him?" I wanted to know.

Father Enoch ushered me inside. "You don't understand. We expect no one to do anything except what his conscience tells him."

"Then what are these letters from Rome? Each one takes something from my friend."

The priest before me spread out his hands. "Father Bruno follows his own path. We still consider him a priest, you see. He comes from generations of men loyal to the pope, and he had long been a part of the intrigue brewing to wrest some land back from Italy. Our group, we're much more about converting minds to our way of thinking. We're preachers, not soldiers."

The quiet force in Bruno's voice when he discussed taking back some of the papal holdings came back to me. It suddenly sounded utterly distinct from the traces of the "utrimque" fellowship I could also discern in him. "You should have warned me. I wouldn't have been so congenial with this man, if he only came to shatter Holmes' dreams."

"We had all prayed that Bruno would find a home and true affection to be a solace, as many of us have," the man said mildly.

"Sherlock Holmes already had a home," I retorted. "He's gone back to drugs, I'll have you know."

"Each of us has paid dearly for the sake of the life we think is most fitting, Doctor. Your Mr. Holmes is a staunch one and may prove up to the challenge."

A new woman, of about his age, came in with coffee and cake, but I could only glower at these people's placidity in the face of likely disaster for my dear friend.

I stood up and left hurriedly, knowing that I was berating a man who was not at all responsible for Giuseppe Maria Bruno's behavior.

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