(Being a reprint from the Reminiscences of Col. Sebastian Moran, Late of the 1st Bengalore Pioneers)
To Professor Moriarty, she is always that bitch.
Irene Adler arrived in our Conduit Street rooms shortly after I undertook to assist my fellow tenant in enterprises of which he was the pre-eminent London specialist. In short, sirrah, crime.
The old 'bread and honey'1 came into it, of course. The Professor had me on an honorarium of six thousand pounds per annum. Scarcely enough to make anyone put up with Moriarty, actually, but it serviced my prediliction for pursuits the na´ve refer to as 'games of chance'. Chronic cash shortage set in early, when pater cut me off without a sou for an indiscretion involving a matched pair of Persian princesses2. Libertinage on an heroic scale is my other expensive vice. However, I own that the thrill of do-baddery attracted me, that blood-running whoosh of fright and delight which comes from cocking repeated snooks at every plod, beak and turnkey in the land. When a hunting man has grown bored with bagging tigers, crime can still jangle the nerves and keep up the pecker. Moriarty, frankly bloodless, got his jollies in the abstract, plotting felony the way you might fill in a crossword puzzle. I've known him scorn an easy bank raid that would have netted millions and devote weeks to the filching of a tiny item of little worth that happened to be a more challenging snatch.
That morning, the Professor was thinking through two problems simultaneously. A portion of his brain was calculating the timings of solar eclipses observable in far-flung regions. Superstitious natives can sometimes be persuaded a white man has power over the sun and needs to be given handy tribal treasures if bwana sahib promises to turn the light on again3. Jolly good trick, if you can get away with it. The greater part of his attention, however, was devoted to the breeding of wasps.
"Your bee is a law-abiding soul," he said, in his reedy lecturing voice, "as reverent to their queen as the clods of England, dedicated to the production of honey for the betterment of all, buzzing about promiscuously pollinating to please addle-minded poets. They only defend themselves at the cost of their lives, for they sting but once. Wasps do nothing but sting. Persistently venomous, they fly from one assault to the next. Unwelcome everywhere. Thoroughly nasty sorts. We are not bees, Moran."
He smiled, a creepy thing for a man with lips as thin as his. His near-fleshless head moved from side to side. I was reminded of a cobra I chopped into three wriggling sections in the Hindu Kush. I couldn't follow Moriarty's drift, but that was usual. I nodded and hoped he would come eventually to a point. A schoolmaster before taking to villainy, his rambles tended to wind towards some inverted moral.
"Summer will be upon us soon," he mused, "the season for picnicking in the park, for tiny fat arms to go bare, for governesses to sit and gossip unveiled, for shopgirls and their beaux to spoon in public. This will be a bumper year for our yellow-and-black-striped friends. My first generation of polistes pestilentialis is hatching. The world is divided, Moran, between those who sting and those who are the stingees."
"And you would be the sting-ers," shrilled that voice.
The American Nightingale had been admitted by Mrs Halifax, the superannuated harlot who kept brothel on the lower floors. Moriarty had persuaded Mrs H to let us have the flat rent-free. Following the interview at which this matter was arranged, she wore a bandage on her right hand. He acquired a neatly-amputated paperweight. In these rooms, the Consultantship of Moriarty and Moran received 'clients'.
"Miss Irene Adler," acknowledged Moriarty. "Your Lucia di Lammermoor was acceptable, your Maria Stuarda indifferent and you were perhaps the worst Emilia di Liverpool the stage has ever seen4."
"What a horrible man you are, James Moriarty!"
His lips split and sharp teeth showed.
"My business is being horrible, Miss Adler. I make no effort at sham or hypocrisy."
"That, I must say, is a tonic."
She smiled full-bore and arranged herself on a divan, prettily hiking her hemline up over well-turned ankles, shifting her decolletage in a manner calculated to set her swanny mams a-wobble. Even Moriarty was impressed, and he could keep up a lecture on the grades of paper used in the forgery of high-denomination Venezualan bank-notes while walking down the secret corridor with the row of one-way mirror windows into the private rooms where Mrs H's girls conducted spectacularly indecent business day and night.
Irene Adler had the face of an angel child, the body of a full-grown trollop and a voice like a steel needle slowly sliding into your brain. Even warbling to an audience of tone-deaf polacks, she hadn't lasted as prima donna. After her Emilia flopped so badly the artistic director of the Warsaw Opera had to blow his brains out, the company cut her adrift, leaving her on the loose in Europe to the disadvantage of several ruling houses.
And here she was on our settee.
"You are aware that the services I offer are somewhat unusual?"
She fixed Moriarty with a steely glint that cut through all the sugar.
"I am a soprano from 'Noo Joisey', I know what a knob crook looks like. You can figure all the sums you like, Professor, but you're as much a capo di cosa nostra as the Moustache Petes in the back-room of the Burly-Cue. Which is dandy, because I have a job of burglary that needs doing urgently. Capisce?"
The Professor nodded.