For claustrophobes, the last few minutes of a flight must be the worst, Sarah thought. The plane sat immobile on the tarmac, its doors resolutely shut, the beeping and hooting of luggage trolleys from the tarmac below only emphasising the barrier which separated them from the outside world. The over-impatient ones – those with querulous infants or tight transfers – stood, boxed into the front of the plane where their haste had led them, unable to move forward or back. The aisles were crammed with people trying to disentangle their hand-baggage from the convoluted puzzle into which eight hours of transatlantic turbulence had tossed them.
By far the best off were those cynical travellers who, aware that the length of time from a plane taxiing in to its appointed bay and the release of its passengers was a sentence capable of almost infinite extension, had not yet bothered even to release their seat belts. Some, like Sarah herself, were reading, others surreptitiously texting, even one or two still asleep.
Sarah's lips quirked up as she looked across the vacant middle seat towards the grey mop of curls and blue BA blanket that was all that was visible of Professor Marina Farintosh. So she was capable of being quiet, after all! The aisle passenger had still been stridently laying down the law about something – Wilkie Collins, Sarah thought, or possibly Sheridan le Fanu – with someone in the middle bank of seats long after Sarah had taken the better part of valour, put on her eye-mask and hunched herself against the window in a desperate pretence of sleep which, somehow or other, had at last turned into the real thing.
The hiss of hydraulics and a sudden whiff of cold, fresh air heralded release. Sarah slipped the clasp of her seat-belt and rose, stretching out a hand to shake the sleeper on the shoulder. "Professor? We're here."
The blanket slid away from the other passenger's face. Cold, flat, grey eyes stared sightlessly up. On the instant, without conscious thought Sarah was reaching for a bell to summon the cabin staff and extending her other hand to feel for a pulse in the neck which – with the benefit of ten years medical practice, the last three in one of the less-gentrified parts of Kilburn – she knew from the outset she would not find there, nor in any other part of Professor Marina Farintosh's body, ever again.
And then, while the inevitable procedures unwound and she barked automatic orders and the well-trained cabin crew and the experienced ground staff combined to demonstrate the human race's capacity for reducing everything, even Death, to a matter of well-oiled routine, Sarah remembered who should be waiting for her on the other side of the barrier, and, more to the point, who probably would be waiting with him, despite her explicit, emailed instructions to the contrary. And did a little surreptitious texting of her own.
In Sarah's opinion someone – very probably her – would have strangled John's flatmate out of sheer exasperation years ago, had it not been for his few, deeply hidden but nonetheless real, redeeming characteristics. Top of which was his ability to find delectable, inexpensive food anywhere within the M25 circle at any hour of the day or night.
Most people would have walked straight past the little cafe on Hounslow High Street, dismissing it as nothing more than a greasy spoon, and so never discovered the wonders of its All Day Full English (£6.50; £6.95 if one chose cappuccino not tea).
And, unlike at the conference where she'd spent the last few days, her breakfast companions weren't dropping subtle or less subtle hints that, in the interests of her arteries, her moral character, her yin/yang balance and the ultimate viability of Planet Earth she really ought to be having the tofu and macrobiotic sprout salad instead.
She forked up fried potatoes and closed her eyes as she chewed.
"Fried in beef dripping – a Yorkshire speciality, not something one would expect to find in Hounslow." Sherlock's irritatingly assured accents broke into her jet-lagged absence of thought. "However, in a touch of culinary genius, the beef dripping that gives the potatoes their savour has been lightened by a judicious admixture of groundnut oil, a dash of sesame and a hint of chilli. Yorkshire origins; South East Asian influence. Family recipe, no doubt the proprietor's mother's. The dish has clearly been honed over many years of catering to English palates, yet this cafe has been open no more than eighteen months. Further, it must be the proprietor's first commercial venture. The relentless Philistinism of the British palate renders even the most optimistic restaurateur jaded in short order and yet everything from the hand written menus to the home-bottled chutney suggests that the green shoots of hope still flourish in this unpromising soil."
She heard the chink of cutlery being laid neatly side on a plate, but kept her eyes shut. She could picture Sherlock leaning back in his chair, hands steepled beneath his chin, handing down his nuggets of wisdom to lesser mortals; she didn't actually have to watch it.
"Thick cut organic bacon from an artisan producer in Wiltshire – just a trace of the maker's stamp left on the rind; an unmistakeable violet shade. Cares about ingredient quality, obviously. But why not Bury black pudding? Prejudice; a Yorkshireman's refusal to admit to excellence in anything originating from the other side of the Pennines? Possible. But why go all the way to France to find a substitute? This black pudding -"
Sarah, eyes still closed, imagined him gesturing dramatically with it, and let out a small giggle. It did not break the flow of Sherlock's pontification in the smallest degree.
"Bound with cream, not cereal. Therefore, a Normandy boudin noir. So, the person who composed this meal came under French as well as South-East Asian influences in his earliest years. Breakfast is the first dish the child learns to appreciate, and the one where early prejudices are hardest to shift. Where do we get that particular combination? Vietnam, surely. Doubtless the proprietor's mother learned her cooking in the days when it was still French Indo-China, left her homeland as a refugee in the aftermath of the upheavals of the '60s and '70s, and finally found a haven in Yorkshire."
Sherlock's voice sounded soothing, even musical, provided one just bathed in the sound and blocked out the words. How unlike – how very unlike – Professor Farintosh's relentless, aggrieved squawk. Though that was unfair, the woman was dead, and people did not murder people on transatlantic flights just because they found their conversation intolerable -
Murder? Where had that idea come from?
Well, obviously: association of ideas from the presence of Mr Melodrama here. She really ought to try to persuade John to find somewhere else to live – apart from it was handy having a base so close to the West End and nothing else half so salubrious would be available at anything like the same price and, from her own experience of London flat-shares, there was always something iffy about them, and at least with John's situation, it was obvious from the start what the issue was.
Murder. Inter alia.
I struck up a relationship with a colleague at work a couple of months ago; nothing heavy, a few dates, no long-term commitments – J.'s just back from Afghanistan where he was wounded in action and I've been careful not to seem to be pressuring him to go any faster than he's comfortable with, and that seems to be working out well and the sex is great and we have a wonderful time together, at least, whenever we do get any time together...
However, I'm now pretty convinced J.'s really in love with his flatmate – oh, purely Platonically, as far as that goes, but if you've read The Symposium you'll appreciate there's room for considerable doubt about how far that did go, frankly. I should mention, that isn't why I'm writing. I've no idea what the flatmate – S. - feels for J. - though he treats him like the wife in an arranged marriage contracted under a particularly patriarchal system, but that's how he treats everyone, so no clues there, I'm afraid. I've been observing S. for as long as I've known him, with the benefit of the Encyclopaedia of Psychological Medicine and input from Scotland Yard and I've come up with about fourteen inconsistent theories about what's going on in his head, so I'm certainly not expecting you to try from the limited information in this letter.
No, the real problem is S.'s work or hobby or vocation or however he thinks of it. Unfortunately, that's murder. No, I meant that literally. Dead bodies follow him about. I'm starting to think of him as the Typhoid Mary of the Homicide Files. And the worst of it all – the bit I could do with your help on, Mariella - is that I'm starting to think it's catching.
A shadow passed across her closed eyelids.
"Scuse me, love; are you finished? Nowt wrong with it, was there?"
The café proprietor, no doubt. With a Yorkshire accent she could cut with a knife. She opened her eyes and took in his short, straight black hair; amused, mobile features and high, broad cheekbones.
Fuck you, Sherlock.
"Everything was great, honestly. It's just I –" Her yawn cut off the rest of her apology. John, bless him, cut in.
"Sarah's just got in from Chicago. Hell of a bad flight." He paused, then something that might have been a hint of malice infused his voice. "We had a bet on about the potatoes. Olive oil or walnut?"
"Neither. Mum's special recipe. When she first married Dad, they fought rings round about food. He wanted what his mum always made and she wanted to cook the way her mother had taught her. Her special spuds were thin end of the wedge. Which reminds me, Sherlock; Mum said if you happened to be in Beverley any time, drop in and she'll make you a bowl of her Phở sách bò. From that blog of yours, she got the idea you don't eat properly. She'd been meaning to ask you sooner, but I told her hold off till I'd actually met you – you can't be too careful with people you just know from the internet, can you? Might be axe-murderers or anything."
He picked up their plates and whisked over to the kitchen hatch. John eyed Sherlock sardonically and Sarah fancied she saw an unaccustomed blush on his normally pale cheeks. Still, he turned to her with apparently unruffled demeanour and said, "So. In your professional opinion, what did kill Professor Farintosh?"
Sarah leaned towards him across the formica table top. "You want my honest opinion?"
He nodded; John, she saw out of the corner of her eye, looked faintly alarmed at her determined, take-no-prisoners tone.
But not as alarmed as he's going to be.
"Well, I've given it some thought – pending the autopsy reports, naturally – and I think – mind you this is only my opinion and it isn't by any means an official one, it was the Heathrow doctor's case, after all – but in my opinion it was most likely one of the cabin crew."
"Sarah, wha -?" John, misguidedly, tried to stand up in a hurry and his bad leg gave way, so he sat down with a hurried bump.
Like I told you; "psychosomatic" is not a synonym for "imaginary". An injury doesn't stop being real just because it doesn't manifest all the time, you twonk. Think of it as being like transubstantiation. Only less mystical and more inconvenient.
Sherlock smiled a slow, satisfied, reptilian smile. His brows nearly vanished into his hairline. "Interesting. Why not one of the passengers?"
Sarah had the answer to that, too. "US security. Whatever was used, must have been brought on board, which means it must have come through security."
"Whatever was used? Who's saying anything was used?" John, somewhat disturbingly, sounded more fascinated than appalled; Sherlock's malign influence again, of course. She turned her head, gazing out through the café's plate glass window onto the High Street, so as not to have to acknowledge the triumphant gleam in his eye.
You needn't think I'm giving up without a struggle.
"I am. I was the first to see the body, don't forget." Someone had ordered a fresh round of cappucinos; Sarah raised hers to her lips and took a deep, scalding, brain-clearing swallow. "She can't have had a heart attack or seizure; I'd have heard her. No blood; no bruising; no overt signs of violence. They'll check at the autopsy, but so far as I could tell from feeling the hyoid bone in the neck was quite intact. Manual strangulation or suffocation pretty much eliminated. But I'd say she died of hypoxia, all the same. One of the quick acting neuro-toxins which paralyse the respiratory system, at a guess. And something like that – would have practically had to be injected. Can you imagine the problems a murderer would have trying to smuggle a pack of sharps on board these days, after the last terrorism kerfuffle?"
"Well, cabin crew go through security too -" John began. Sarah waved her hand at him impatiently.
"Knowing the ground crew and all the wrinkles, yes; plus, there's a lot more things they can legitimately take through – provided they're in sealed containers and on the manifest. When they ask if there's a doctor on board, they've got to be able to give them something to work with. And in the aftermath of an on-board death, if someone's broken the seal of the emergency supplies, who's going to check when that happened?"
She thought a moment, and added, "Plus, no-one's going to bat an eyelid if they wake up and see a member of cabin crew leaning over them; they'll just assume they're checking seatbelts or something. Same with anyone else in the vicinity."
"Sarah, that's brilliant!"
She and John struck palms in a quick gesture of triumph before they both simultaneously realised it was scarcely good form to be treating Professor Farintosh as an amusing intellectual exercise, given she could scarcely have reached the morgue yet, and looked away, rather sheepishly.
"An ingenious theory," Sherlock drawled, "but you will admit that the task of arranging crew rosters so that a particular murderous steward or stewardess is on the same flight as a particular intended victim would require a level of logistical skill which I would, on prior evidence, have considered quite incompatible with being a BA employee. Why not turn your attention to those passengers who might, legitimately, have medical permission to have a hypodermic in their possession? With a couple of quick taps at the keyboard - " He suited his action to the words, "Mycroft will be able to oblige us. Who could imagine what a benefit the asinine new US rules for pre-registering passengers' medical supplies would be to a consulting detective?"
"You mean; to a consulting detective with a brother in the higher reaches of Government and no moral scruples?" Sarah corrected sweetly. Sherlock, blast him, merely looked smug. And, John having paid the bill – with Sherlock's money, I bloody well hope, or we'll have words – they found themselves a cab and were back in Baker Street, fresh cups of coffee to hand and Sherlock's laptop just fired up, when the ping of incoming mail told her either that Mycroft had a remarkably serendipitous sense of timing or that he'd been tracking them all the way back from Hounslow High Street by CCTV surveillance.
Sherlock scanned the email and leaned back in his chair, his fingers interlaced with each other at the back of his head.
"Well, well, well. How very interesting. Mycroft has his uses, after all." He raised his head and looked at them both. "There were three passengers booked onto that flight who had medical permission to bring hypodermic syringes on board. The first of those passengers, however, was booked into first class, and would have experienced considerable difficulty passing unnoticed into economy and returning to her seat for landing."
"Hang on, not if she'd disguised herself as a crew member," John said. "Which would, again, have dealt with the issue of people wondering why she was bending over Professor Farintosh."
"John, you surpass yourself. In the plane loo, no doubt? With an entire line of impatient punters standing outside to witness the transformation as she emerged?"
Sarah's face blazed hotly. "She might have been wearing the hostess uniform all along. Under – under something. Something that concealed it until she needed it," she said loyally.
Sherlock's brows raised even higher. "I admit that the intelligence of airport security officials is not high, but their prejudices can be relied on. Someone prepared for the inevitable hassle of getting a medically required hypodermic on board a flight outbound from the US is hardly going to up the ante by donning a niqaab to do it in. Still less a niqaab concealing a fake BA uniform, complete with preposterous hat."
She hated to admit he was right. "And the second passenger?"
"Cancelled his flight half an hour before he was due to check-in. Which, of course, leaves the third."
"Our murderer," breathed John, which Sarah personally thought was taking rather a lot on trust, even by his standards.
Sherlock's smile grew broader. "I rather think not."
"And why not? Surely they're the obvious suspect? At least, can't we think up some excuse to go and question them?"
"Not without a Ouija board."
"Sherlock, you can't mean –"
"I certainly can. Professor Marina Farintosh had an authorised hypodermic in her hand baggage. Game on, I rather think."
"That's what I said. So I'll push off back to my already over-burdened inbox and would be very grateful if you could stop trying to clutter it up with your hunches about perfectly natural deaths."
From where Sarah had paused on hearing the Scotland Yard man's voice she could see John's disappointed slump, Sherlock's attitude of arrogant disbelief. None of the men acknowledged her presence, though no doubt Sherlock – at least - had heard the key in the lock and her footstep on the stairs, and drawn his own conclusions. It was, as much as anything, to get a word in first that she made her voice welcoming, even hearty.
"Inspector Lestrade! I hope John passed on the message. Can you make it to our party on Saturday? You and your team; I'm really looking forward to catching up with Sally."
Lestrade gave a convulsive, horrified head jerk in the direction of the kitchen. Sarah could only sympathise; she had experienced her own Alfredo Garcia moment with the Baker Street fridge a couple of weeks ago while on a futile hunt for milk.
"It's at my place," she continued. "There's less chance of – that, is, I've got much better cooking facilities over there. And it won't put Mrs Hudson out."
"Oh, don't worry about me, dear." John's landlady popped her head round the kitchen door and beamed at her. "I like a good knees up. But you're right; much better to have it at your place. After all, no-one could call Sherlock a party animal, could they, dear? Just like my Raymond, really."
Lestrade gulped, looking for a moment positively goldfish-like. "Hang on; your – um - late husband was Raymond Hudson? As in Ray the Sting? The Teflon Eel?"
Mrs Hudson pursed her lips. "He never cared for the newspapers using those silly names, you know. Used to get quite impassioned about it; well, he was a very passionate man, of course. He used to say, all the money they spend on editors and they can't find one decent marine biologist."
"Or science of materials specialist either, evidently," Sherlock observed.
The Inspector gritted his teeth audibly. "Whatever. As I said. Natural death. So drop it."
As Lestrade brushed past Sarah on his way out she was fascinated to note he was mumbling, over and over, "Ray the Sting! Ray the bleeding Sting!" Her respect for Mrs Hudson went up another two notches.
"Don't forget, Inspector," she called down the stairs after him, "Saturday. Any time after eight-thirty. I'll get John to email you the address."
She dropped onto the sofa next to John. "I take it I'd made a mistake about Professor Farintosh? So, what did she die of?"
"Ondine's curse," John said.
"Rather a pretty name, for a fatal disease, I thought," Mrs Hudson burbled cheerfully. "Named after a water fairy. Margot Fonteyn danced her in the ballet – Mum took me, for my sixth birthday. Anyway, I must be going. Sorry you've been disappointed, dear, but chin up. You never know what's round the next corner." She collected a couple of empty mugs and vanished downstairs.
Sherlock had his laptop on his knee. "John tells me little more than I had already gleaned from Wikipedia. A rare and extreme form of sleep apnea, where the reflex that should remind the sleeper to continue breathing shuts down, with disastrous effects. Can you add anything?"
A memory, like a buzzing fly, fretted away at the edge of Sarah's mind but, frustratingly, refused to settle long enough for her to pin it down. Instead, she said, "Well, for what it's worth Professor Farintosh probably did have obstructive sleep apnea; at least, she snored to Olympic standards. Her room-mate Heather spent most of breakfast on the Sunday of the convention bending my ear about it. I think she was trying to enlist my support to help her swap room-mates again, though the Concom had enough trouble finding somewhere to put her the first time, after that spectacular blow up with Caroline. They'd have been completely stuffed if Professor Farintosh hadn't agreed to share. So I told Heather to grin and bear it and, if she got desperate, buy earplugs."
Sherlock's frame had the coiled, focussed intensity of a watching heron which had just seen the faint stir of an eel amid the water-weeds. "Tell me about Heather and Caroline's falling out."
John stirred among the sofa cushions. "Oh, surely, we've all been there? Rugby tours – conferences – promotion boards. Two people stuck in one room – probably didn't even know each other beforehand – one plays loud music when the other wants to sleep – or comes in roaring drunk with bunch of mates and insists on starting a poker school at one in the morning – or starts singing the Red Flag when he knows the other guy's a Young Conservative; you can't tell me there's anything novel about a room-share going pear-shaped."
"Actually," Sarah said, picking her words with precision, "both Caroline and Heather were teetotal, vegetarian, early risers and environmental activists. Unfortunately, every time they happened to be alone in their room, Caroline took out her orthodontic brace and hurled it at Heather's head."
John absorbed this silently, in his adorable, utterly John way, as though he was a rock against which the waves of human eccentricity could break forever and leave him puzzled but essentially unshakeable. She wanted to throw her arms round him and cling on, as to a sole fixed point in a chaotic universe.
"Did she mention why?" Sherlock's voice was uninflected, but as she looked up to meet his eyes she thought she traced a fugitive flicker of recognition; even, perhaps, a hint of camaraderie.
"Social anxiety disorder."
"I see." Which, in Sherlock's mouth, probably meant more rather than less. Not that he seemed prepared to pursue the issue further. John, meanwhile, struggled up to his feet, using the sofa arm to balance and reached for his stick.
"We'd better be off. Quiz starts at quarter to. Sure you don't want to come along?"
"For a pub quiz?" From the way Sherlock looked down his elegant nose, one might have thought John had invited him to join them for a little light hustling beneath the railway arches of Waterloo. "A evening surrounded by intellectual pygmies, striving to discover who has decorated their mental living rooms with the most tawdry and irrelevant trinkets?"
"I'll take that as a 'no' then. I'll text you to let you know what I'm doing later. And try not to do anything stupid while we're out. Some deaths just are natural. Doesn't mean the world's murder reserves are running out."
"And in which 1980's movie did this Oscar-winning song feature? Bonus points if you can name both leading actors."
The strains of Up Where We Belong – horribly distorted by the quizmaster's cheap stereo system – started to drift across the upstairs room of the pub. Most of the quiz teams bent their heads over their papers and started scribbling.
Sarah reached for her handbag and was on her feet shrugging into her coat almost before she knew it. "Come on," she hissed at John.
"Come on? But we're in fourth place, with three rounds to go!"
"Yes, and Professor Farintosh was murdered. And we always fluff music rounds, anyway."
Once on the pub's landing she turned to him. "Debra Winger. That's the answer."
"Yes, I know. With Richard Gere. That's three points we could have had –"
"Oh, what does it matter? Everyone else would have got them too. Anyway, that isn't the point. Debra Winger wasn't just the star of An Officer and a Gentleman. She co-starred with Teresa Russell in Black Widow, too."
"And? I've never seen it."
A new voice broke in from behind them. "Congratulations. There are times when you manage to surprise me completely."
They turned. Sherlock was ascending the pub's grand Victorian staircase, his coat flapping behind him like a superhero's cape. "You weren't responding to my texts. Either of you," he added, as he reached the top step.
"Yes," John said. "I believe I've explained to you what the quiz-master did to the last person who opted to phone a friend in one of his quizzes. You don't want to piss off a man who might take it into his head to interpret 'Let your fingers do the walking' literally."
"Well, come on, both of you. No time to waste."
Sherlock, in a typically extravagant gesture, had kept his cab waiting. John, sitting between them on the back seat, stirred to speak as soon as they started moving, but Sherlock gestured, eloquently, towards the back of the cabbie's head. John nodded; a quick, understanding nod which spoke volumes about something Sarah could only guess at, and relapsed into silence until they had entered 221B Baker Street.
Sarah flopped onto the sofa, John beside her. Sherlock's laptop was already fired up and on the table. He dropped into his chair in front of it and tapped a couple of keys, and then turned to Sarah.
"So," he said, "Black Widow. Elucidate, for John's benefit."
"Ondine's curse," Sarah said. "It was the McGuffin. Debra Winger was a cop, and she started following up reports of rich men who'd died of it, all across America, leaving young widows. The same young widow. Played by Teresa Russell."
Sherlock nodded; his long, elegant fingers traced a dreamy pattern in the air in front of his computer screen. "Quite so. And the connection to Professor Farintosh?"
"Her presentation at the con. I didn't go – it was scheduled opposite a panel I was on – but when they started playing that song I remembered she'd planned to talk about Black Widow."
John stirred beside her. "Hang on; you mean the last lecture Professor Farintosh ever gave was about the very disease she's supposed to have died of three days later?"
Sarah held her voice steady, looking nowhere in particular. "Oh, knowing Professor Farintosh I expect she intended to focus more on the sub-textual lesbian attraction between the two principals and the Manichean dualism of protagonist and antagonist, actually."
"Sub-textual lesbian attraction? What kind of medical conference was this?" John paused. A fugitive, wistful grin hovered about his lips. "Not that a bit of lesbian sub-text wouldn't have livened up most of the conferences I've been forced to attend in my career. All of them, in fact."
"Ah! I fear Sarah may have – no doubt unintentionally – misled you." The barbed note in Sherlock's voice caught her by surprise, like encountering a fishbone in sole Veronique. "Not a medical conference at all, was it? And not in Chicago, either. When you arrived the other day I could hardly help noticing that your baggage was checked through from Denver. That narrowed my search considerably, especially when I – acquired - Professor Farintosh's lecturing schedule. An appointment with Deathcon. How – ironic."
"Deathcon?" John mouthed the words rather than said them, his glance shifting between Sherlock and Sarah like a boggled tennis umpire in the midst of a prolonged rally.
Sherlock tapped his screen. "The longest-running feminist crime shocker and thriller convention in the world, according to the website. How did you find the University of Colorado?"
"I just got on a bus from the airport and there it was," she snapped. John's hand, out of Sherlock's line of sight, made a cool it gesture. She took a deep, steadying, breath.
"I didn't plan on misleading anyone. But I'd already booked it by the time we started going out together and you know what people can be like about fan conventions – I didn't want you to write me off as a weirdo."
John's glance took in, eloquently, the Baker Street living room; the jar of preserved human eyeballs on the mantelpiece, the smiley outlined in bullet holes in the wall and the skull which was, at present, upside down on the floor, serving as the holder for the TV and DVD remote controls.
"You worried about that?" he probed delicately.
"Well, all this – " Sarah swept an explanatory hand around – "could be passed off as blokey bachelor squalor taken to the nth degree, at a pinch. But include the 'F' word, and some men just start frothing. You should read the crime-fic forums, each time Deathcon's coming up. And whatever you say, those guys will not believe we've had male delegates attending for years, who leave with all their bits still intact."
She grinned. "Actually, John, you should come along next time. Your blog's been a massive hit. Practically every panel someone brought up 'A Study in Pink' as an example of a tectonic shift in detective writing. Mind you, there's a counter theory that the pronouns have been shifted around a bit, and really it's a coded description of a woman's struggles to cope with an abusive marriage."
"Sign me up to the newsgroup instantly," John muttered.
Sherlock glared at them both, but it was a half-hearted effort; his bubbling excitement at whatever had set him off on the Farintosh trail again could scarcely be suppressed.
"Well?" Sarah said, "Who did it?"
He stretched back in his chair, his fingers locked behind the back of his head.
"Oh, who poisoned her has been obvious from the beginning. I'd have thought even you –" He left that sentence hanging. "What was behind it; now, there's the mystery. Anyway, we haven't a moment to lose. Sarah, I've been checking your party invitations. Lacking, terribly."
"You've what?" But Sherlock so obviously was the type who would hack into any mail file which presented itself she'd taken precautions weeks ago; anything half-way sensitive went encrypted from the clinic machine. Though even that, she thought pessimistically, probably just increased the thrill of the chase.
"You haven't invited the right sort of people. After all, now Lestrade's decided it's natural death they'll be shuffling Professor Farintosh out of the morgue and into the crematorium before you can say knife. Molly assures me the waiting list for her drawers resembles that for Eton."
John convulsed into a coughing fit.
"What's that got to do with it?" Sarah enquired, since he was plainly in no shape to do it for her.
Sherlock shrugged. "Well, you knew this woman. It seems hardly decent to let her memory go without even a wake."
"A wake? As far as upbringing goes she was Ulster Scots and as far as religion went she once called Richard Dawkins 'a wobble-bottomed agnostic wannabe'. To his face. I don't think on either count a wake would be something she'd consider at all appropriate."
"If she's in a position to consider it at all, at least one plank of her belief system must have a severe case of woodworm," John said, raising his head from his handkerchief. "These affairs are never really for the dead person, anyway."
The shadow was back in his eyes, the one Sarah knew preceded sleepless nights and lop-sided pacing across the bedroom until dawn broke. At least Sherlock's relentless poking at murderers' nests was a sure cure for insomnia; no doubt for a few days they would all be too busy trying to prevent random maniacs offing them in interestingly twisted ways for lack of sleep to be top of their agendas.
She bowed to the inevitable. "Oh, well. I suppose at the end of the day it's only another box of M&S mixed canapés and a couple of jugs of sangria. Plus the chance of inviting an unknown poisoner round for drinkie-poos, natch. What could possibly go wrong?"
Sherlock pulled a couple of pages of print-out from under his laptop and tossed them over to the sofa. "These are the names – mostly pseudonyms – of people who've had more than de minimis on-line contact with Professor Farintosh between last year's Deathcon and the closing of registrations for this year's. We're looking for someone who wasn't at this year's Deathcon, currently based in the United Kingdom, post-grad level in a humanities subject though probably with at least one 'A' level in science or maths, not currently affiliated with any academic institution, seething sense of superiority and resentment concealed by a nondescript veneer, currently employed in the latest of a succession of low grade administrative jobs, this time in the healthcare field, and either a fervent Baconian or a member of the Richard III Society, conceivably both."
They looked at him. He sighed. "Or, for present purposes, anyone on those lists you can get an email or PM address for who appears to be within reasonable travelling distance of London."
"Ah!" John breathed. "The immemorial 'Are you free Tuesday?' method of team selection."
He moved from the sofa to sit at his own PC. There being no apparent help for it, Sarah extracted her own netbook from her bag. For a few strained moments there was silence in the room, broken only by the tapping of keyboards in ragged harmony. Then John raised his head.
"I'm sorry, but some of these names are just – mrsterrorwinkle?"
"I wouldn't bother," Sarah said briskly. "Everyone knows she's just a sock for cuffsgrrl, and I've already invited her."
"Completely different frequency of 'y' and 'o' usage; also, cuffsgrrl approaches compound verbs in a manner which suggests she learned creative writing from a narrowly focussed prescriptivist with an unhealthy fetish for Strunk & White's less defensible maunderings," Sherlock drawled. "Mrsterrorwinkle, by contrast, attacks English syntax with a striking originality which is all her – or, I rather think, his - own. Invite them both. They'll come."
"Why should they?" Sarah twisted her head round to look at him. "If you've compiled this list from everyone who's had more than passing on-line contact with Professor Farintosh over the last year then you'll have realised that she was the sort who could start a flamewar in a one-woman submersible 2000 metres beneath the Polar ice-cap."
Sherlock smiled. "Refreshing, isn't it? I've cross-correlated. The only two of the sample group to achieve anything like the same percentage of DIAFs and cognates in comments both earn a respectable living as US-based shock jocks and the third closest was Lord Mandelson. Though I suspect Mycroft of skewing the statistics on the latter. I suppose he has to find his outlets where he can."
"So?" John, too, was looking across at him. "What makes you think that they'll come to a party where we're supposedly holding a wake for the woman?"
"Because the people on those lists share one interest in addition to their detestation of the late Professor Marina Farintosh. Crime. And there, of course, we can offer them an attraction beyond their wildest dreams."
Heavy irony suffused John's voice. "Oh? And what might that be? Do tell?"
Sherlock swivelled his chair round on one leg, leaning across the short distance to where John sat at the PC, so intensely focussed on him that there might have only been the two of them in the room.
"You, John," he breathed. "You."
The buzzer sounded. Sarah cast a quick glance at the list sellotaped to the kitchen cabinet at eye-height, then at the clock. She swore.
"OK, coming," she yelled down the hall, though they were three stories up and it was hardly likely whoever was at the street door could hear her. She lifted the entryphone and put it to her ear.
"Hi, sorry I'm early. Can you let me in? It's absolutely chucking it down here." A woman's voice, a stranger's, yet with something oddly familiar about her accent. Anyway, this was a party and they'd invited half the weirder crime fans in the South-East, so it was a bit late to start worrying about axe-murderers now, especially with the baked cheesecakes crisping themselves all to hell in the oven and the sausage-tomato-cheese surprise not even in yet.
Sarah pressed the button and heard the click of the street door opening. "OK, come straight up. I'll leave the flat door open – sorry, but there's something burning in the oven –"
She fled, just in time to save the cheesecakes. Leaving them to cool on the oven top she slammed the surprise into the oven, switched the power down to 180 degrees, and turned to see a woman framed in the archway of the kitchen door, her mass of brown-gold curls twisted up on top of her head in a style that immediately made Sarah think of the better-researched kind of Jane Austen dramatisation.
"Fuck! Don't tell me bloody John just upped and left you to it?" the stranger demanded, shaking the rain from her pale blue raincoat. "Isn't that just fucking typical? Where is the lazy bugger, the pub?"
"Sherlock's with him. More probably the morgue. Here, can I help you with that?"
"Thanks." The empire-line, ankle-length sprigged lilac dress revealed by the coat's removal heightened the impression that Sarah was playing host to a rogue Bennett sister; judging by the language, the sister never mentioned at Longbourn, who'd disguised herself as a boy and run off to fight at Trafalgar, quite understandable given the overall ghastliness of her family –
Family. Sarah's over-loaded brain finally managed to catch up with itself long enough to draw conclusions.
"Oh, you must be Harry. How nice to meet you at last. John wasn't quite sure you'd be able to make it."
Harry snorted. "Hoped I couldn't, more likely. Yes, I'm the sodding prodigal sister." She lifted her Waitrose carrier bag onto one of the counters and extracted two bottles of Bombay Sapphire. "But John ought to fucking well know me better than to expect me to pass up the chance of finally meeting Mr Weirdo." Her hand stretched out absently to capture a glass from the draining rack. "Can I help with anything?"
Sarah shoved a second glass across to her. "You could mix me one of whatever you're having. There's tonic and lemons in the fridge. But if you fancy a martini, I'm afraid John's got the vermouth." She paused. "At least, I gave him a list with 'vermouth' written on it. God alone knows what's happened in the interim."
Harry, her hand on the fridge door, turned to face her. "The morgue, you said."
"That or the path. lab. Sherlock wanted to try a couple of experimental toxicology tests on the soft tissue samples. He'd great hopes from the pancreas, I gather."
"All things considered, let's go with G&T and not wait for vermouth, shall we?"
Their glasses clinked companionably. The buzzer went.
"Don't worry, I'll get it," Harry said. She covered the entry-phone receiver and turned to look at Sarah. "Mrs Hudson? Oh, I know, from the blog. The long suffering old coot who's John's landlady, yes?" She removed her hand. "Hi, yes, come right up. What can I get you to drink?"
Sarah didn't bother to wait for the answer. The third gin and tonic was waiting on the counter by the time Mrs Hudson flustered her way up the stairs and arrived in the kitchen.
"Bottoms up, dears," Mrs Hudson said, raising it and knocking back half in a swift swallow. Harry raised impressed, finely arched eyebrows.
"If it's John who's driven you to drink I should warn you he'll bloody well expect you to pay for the taxi home."
"You'll be his sister, then, dear. You do have quite a look of him, come to think of it."
"I know. If I didn't, I'd be fucking five grand per annum better off. I sometimes wonder if radical facial reconstruction is the way to go."
"My Raymond had a man he always swore by –"
The buzzer went. Mrs Hudson got magisterially to her feet. "Don't trouble yourselves, dears. I'll get it."
"Sorry I'm early," Sally Donovan said as she entered and a fussing Mrs Hudson removed her sodden black mackintosh. "But if I hung on at the station I knew I'd be tagged for unscheduled overtime, and I didn't fancy slogging all the way over to Hoxton in this, just for the sake of coming back again. It's the bleeding monsoon out there. Christ, is that Bombay Sapphire? You have just qualified for your Girl Guide's Lifesaving Badge and bar. 'Specially bar."
Sarah gestured towards Harry with a tub of taramasalata. "John's sister brought it. G&T?"
"Any chance of a martini instead? Tonic always reminds me of gripe water. Trust me, anyone who's ever been baby-sat by my Auntie Esther has had enough gripe water for several lifetimes."
"Sorry," Sarah said. "John was supposed to be getting the vermouth and he's gone awol."
Sally nodded. "I know. He and the freak were round the station earlier. You should have heard Vince, the duty sergeant, whining when they waltzed off with Professor Farintosh's left kidney. Oh, that reminds me –"
She extracted an Oddbins carrier from her heavy-duty canvas bag. "There's a nice bottle of Chianti in there. Tell the freak I bought with him specially in mind."
The sound of glass shattering on the tiled floor of the kitchen was suddenly, horribly loud. Sarah looked up to see Harry, her face dead white, gripping convulsively at the edge of the counter to remain upright.
"Professor Farintosh's dead?"
Sally raised her eyebrows. "Three days after the autopsy? She'd bleeding better be, otherwise the Daily Mail will never let the NHS hear the last of it."
"Marina Farintosh? Radical feminist scholar? Formerly of Wadham College, Oxford, now – oh, fuck it, I've forgotten where she ended up." Harry clicked unsteady fingers. "University of East Anglia? Birkbeck? Sussex?"
"Kent," Sarah supplied. "Yes, that's her. Look, can I get you – "
"Does that Tesco Express on the corner stay open late?"
"Yes, but –"
Harry caught up her handbag, snatched the blue raincoat from the rack in the hall, and was gone. Mrs Hudson, acting on some hard-wired impulse, ferreted in the cupboard under the sink, extracted a dustpan and brush, and started to clean up the glass shards. Sally Donovan smiled the serene smile of someone whose curiosity only worked official police hours and who wasn't being paid time and a half to exercise it off-duty.
"About that martini," she said. "Suppose I said 'Noilly Prat' three times at the gin bottle and then you shook it over ice and served it with an olive, that'd work as an ultra-dry one, wouldn't it?"
Mechanically, Sarah reached for the cocktail shaker and the ice. The steady rhythm of shaking helped blank out the need for thought. But the image of Harry's face, more Regency than ever in its frozen pallor, hung between her and her task. Mrs Hudson was right; Harry and John did have a marked family resemblance. At a level it would take more than an extravagant beauty regime or cosmetic surgery to erase. At the level of bone-deep pain.
You are too young to fall asleep forever/And when you sleep, you remind me of the dead.
Sally wandered across to the fridge and emerged holding a bunch of celery, a red pepper and two carrots.
"These for the dips? Where do you keep your vegetable knife?"
"Drawer next to the sink, but you don't have to –"
"They aren't exactly going to julienne themselves, are they? Anyway, I like doing it. Get them exactly the right length and thickness, and you can watch all the ones who are trying to give up smoking go bonkers trying not to pick them up between their first two fingers. Marvellous thing, compulsive compensation. With any luck I get the boss and the freak at one fell swoop."
The buzzer sounded, on and on, as if someone's finger had got stuck.
"I'll go," Sarah said. As she picked up the receiver half-formed nightmare scenarios flickered unstoppably through her brain.
"Isn't anyone coming? I'm getting drenched again." Harry's voice, no more than reasonably agitated for someone trapped outside in a downpour.
Waves of relief rolled through Sarah's body; she buckled at the knees, fumbling for a moment before finding the release button for the street door and pressing.
"Right," Harry said as she breasted her way into the flat, two chinking carrier bags held high above her head. "I have got this straight, haven't I? Professor Marina Farintosh is dead; deceased; passed on, over, through and off; fucked off to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns; turned her toes up and in other words joined the sodding choir invisible, is that right?"
"Yup." Sally Donovan took a cigarette out of an inside pocket of her denim jacket, eyed down its length and adjusted the length of some celery batons by approximately two millimetres. "And to prove it, most of her squishy bits are currently in the lab, being given the once-over by the freak and your brother. With the assistance of our vermouth, apparently."
Harry drew a deep breath and started to pull chilled bottles of Moet from the Tesco's bags. "Sarah, flutes would be great, but, if not, any old wineglasses will do. Ladies, I give you a toast. 'Ding, dong, the bitch's dead!'"
Mrs Hudson hitched her behind onto a kitchen stool, looking as if she was settling in for the duration. "I take you didn't precisely get on with the late Professor Farintosh, dear?"
Harry twiddled one of her curls round her middle finger. After her manic burst of energy she had withdrawn into herself, her shoulders slumped and her voice barely above a whisper. "It was a long time ago."
"Whether it was yesterday or ten million years B.C., she clearly made one hell of an impression." Sally Donovan paused. "But, as one girl to another, it's not the best strategy to run out and buy champagne all round when you hear someone's died suddenly. Not unless you've got a kink for cop-shops. Specially not when someone – " she pointedly avoided looking at Sarah – "seems to think the death isn't natural."
"Oh, God." Harry gulped. "I'm so fucking thick. I heard about Professor Farintosh's kidneys and John's taking them to the lab and still didn't join the dots. I suppose this is another 'Study in Pink'. Someone killed her, didn't they?"
Sally opened her mouth, but Sarah raised her hand to forestall her. "We'll have to wait for the test results. But suppose you tell us why someone might have wanted to?"
The appeal to reason seemed to work. Harry nodded, paused for a second, eyes closed, marshalling her thoughts, and began.
"It would all have been so much simpler if John had been the older one. No-one ever bothers to ask why, when a kid tells you they want to be a doctor. Though, in John's case, I think they probably should have."
Sarah winced, inwardly. So John's sister had spotted that contradiction; the kindness, the infinite patience, the bone-deep integrity – and the hand that could hold a gun as steadily as it held a suturing needle and kill with as much precision as it cured. Sherlock must have seen it, too. She shivered, wondering what, if anything, that explained, and whether she really wanted to know.
"John's a good doctor."
Harry looked up, her caramel-brown eyes painfully familiar.
"I'm sure. But, still - " She shrugged. "Anyway, that was the way the dice fell. I was the first in my family to go to University, and I was fucking well going to read English at Oxford, however much Mum tried to corner me for little heart-to-heart chats by the airing cupboard. You know: 'But what are you do with it afterwards, you know you hate teaching?' and 'You've got your nose in a book all the time as it is; why go to college to do it?' John could escape; he went off playing war games with the OTC every spare minute. He was fucking lucky. But it was a real war I was fighting, and Mum didn't believe in the Geneva Convention."
She reached out to top up her glass.
"I never told anyone in the family, but as soon I fetched up at Wadham I landed right in the middle of another battle. Syllabus reform. Only the Oxford University English faculty could make the suggestion of dropping Middle High German for Modern Caribbean Literature sound like a proposal to cede Israel to Iran."
Mrs Hudson patted her arm sympathetically. "Nothing worse, I always say, when everything's falling about a girl's ears than having no-one to confide in. I hope you found someone."
"Found someone? Oh, yes, I found someone all right. Eventually." She drained her glass to the bottom. "I found Dr Fucking Marina Farintosh, didn't I?"
"'Kinnell!" Sally said, expressively, and yelped as she sliced into her finger with the vegetable knife. Sarah passed a wodge of paper towel without taking her eyes off Harry.
"A bit of detail wouldn't hurt," she prompted. "Given what you've already said about her."
"No-one gets crucified without they volunteer to be a Messiah first." Harry's face was a marble mask. "And, believe me, she was. We – the radical students, the ones who wanted change – we lay down and kissed her fucking feet. She was going to sweep away the last remnants of the Tolkien-Lewis syllabus; bring in critical theory and gender studies and post-colonial studies and genre studies and kidlit studies, and generally overturn the whole thing from the bottom up."
"So what went wrong?"
Harry paused, her delicate, pointed chin balanced on her hand. "I got her hopes up. You see, Dr Farintosh loathed everyone impartially. She got worked up about causes, but mostly she took the view that people were born shits, so better never to get close to anyone. When she made exceptions, then the real trouble began. And I was fucking stupid enough to feel proud of being an exception."
Until Trinity term of Harry's first year at Wadham, she explained, Dr Farintosh had been out of college on sabbatical, working on a book. Or, as the upper years gleefully speculated, in jail, subject to a restraining order or drying out in a West Coast clinic.
Not that Harry had much time during her first two terms to wonder about absent members of the SCR. There was too much to learn.
She learned that Oxford harboured a peculiar, seeping damp that resisted even the thickest pullovers. She learned the only thing to do about the taste of the tap water was to put in double the amount of coffee suggested on the tin, and – following later, advanced coaching – add a splash of brandy to the resulting mix.
She learned Old English had impossible vowel sounds and the human throat must have evolved significantly since they were in everyday use.
She learned that braying young men with invisible chins and preposterous notions about why hoi polloi couldn't be trusted with a vote were not, actually, characters from pre-war comic fiction but people whom one met over the breakfast table. She learned breakfast was a completely irrelevant meal to any well-balanced person.
She learned that a reasonably large number of women were willing to say "yes" when she asked them out, and a decent percentage of them would also agree to stay in with her, afterwards.
She learned that having an active (at times, downright athletic) sex life did not, automatically, transmit itself down the telephone lines to her family or paint itself on her skin when she went home for the Christmas vac.
She learned that girls who were comfortably out to their own families were irresistibly attractive to her. She learned they could not interpret 'I would rather put my own arm in a fucking meat-grinder than tell my parents about us' as a literal truth, not an amusingly hyperbolic description of natural nervousness. She learned matters, after that point, never ended well.
She learned nothing in Gaudy Night should be taken as a reliable guide to academic integrity, but that walking by the Cherwell picking out the weediest bit in which to jump – purely as a thought experiment, naturally - was nonetheless a curiously soothing pastime.
The Easter holidays of her first year, with the worst of her romantic blow-ups in the jagged, recent past, and first year exams in the scarily close future, had been very bad indeed. That was when she realised that returning to her family, telling them the whole thing had been a disastrous error of judgement and listening to their soothing reassurance she'd done the right thing, tinged with a – doubtless unspoken – dollop of "Didn't we tell you so?" was quite impossible. Whereas the odds on her completing her first year at Oxford without ending either in the Warneford Mental Hospital or that seductive green bit of river above the rollers and below St Hilda's boathouse were merely very, very improbable.
So she had come back to an Oxford stretching in spring sunshine, damp and pale honey gold, garlanded with green leaves and heavy with the smell of early lilac.
And then she had learned that Pimms tastes a great deal better than instant coffee (with or without brandy), and that English literature was an entirely different proposition when taught by Dr Marina Farintosh.
"Christ alone knows what happened to her on that sabbatical," Harry said. "She'd spent it in the States, but she might as well have been on the road to fucking Damascus. Judging by the stuff she published before and the stuff she published afterwards, she'd turned into a completely different woman. She left Oxford a standard-issue Eng. Lit scholar with a minor bee in her bonnet about Mary Shelley, the neglected genius of 19th century literature. She came back raving that the whole system was rotten to the core and even the radical deconstructionists didn't go nearly far enough."
"What, you're claiming she got recruited by Al-Q'aeda in her year off?" Sally demanded.
Harry laughed, a ragged, broken sound but with a genuine note of humour in it. "Trust me, if it had just been terrorism the Oxford English faculty wouldn't have batted an eye-lid. Advanced critical theory, on the other hand – that's fucking lethal."
Literally, it seems.
Sarah cast a glance at the kitchen clock. Almost eight-twenty; John and Sherlock were bound to appear soon. Clearly if Harry had felt able to confide in her brother she'd have done so before now. If she didn't get the story now they'd never hear it – and it had to be relevant to Professor Farintosh's death, surely; she'd only had ten weeks or so in Sherlock's orbit, but she'd already learned that passions this deep went with murder like horseradish with rare roast beef.
"Look, is there any chance of compressing the technical stuff a bit? Just for the benefit of those of us who haven't done an English degree."
Harry nodded. "OK. I've not looked at this stuff for over ten years, anyway. To keep things simple, suppose we start from the death of the author."
"We are still talking about Professor Farintosh here, aren't we? Because if there's one thing I sodding well hate, it's starting off with a nice simple murder – not that I'm conceding anything on that score, by the way - and then discovering we've got a serial killer on our hands. 'Specially the way the freak looks when that happens. Like a kid at Christmas." Sally turned her attention to the peppers, slicing with savage emphasis.
"Um –" Harry boggled visibly at her.
"It's a figure of speech," Sarah said hastily. "'Death of the author' means you aren't supposed to guess what the author intended to say; it's what the individual reader finds in the text that matters."
"Oh, yeah? Sounds like a snarky defence brief trying to take your notebooks apart when you're in the witness box. 'You may claim that's what you meant, D.S. Donovan, but what you actually wrote conveys a very different impression of my client, wouldn't you agree?' I sodding hate those smarmy bastards."
"Actually," Harry said slowly, as if something had just started to make sense, "that's exactly like Dr Farintosh's tutorials. At first, it was like white-water rafting, a mad ride with no brakes. I even remember telling Mel, my tutorial partner, that she should brace herself and enjoy it. That was when Dr Farintosh left her in tears, just for some throwaway comment about Shakespeare being a blatant propagandist about Richard III. God, I was such a fucking self-important little sod in those days."
Either a Baconian or a member of the Richard III Society, possibly both. Sarah made her voice casual with an enormous effort.
"I take it Dr Farintosh wasn't a Ricardian?"
"You mean you've never read Smoke? Or Mirrors? The books she'd been working on during her sabbatical?" The note of stunned disbelief in Harry's voice made her sound exactly like John, describing Sherlock's utter ignorance of the solar system over clinic coffee. Sarah grinned at her.
"Never even heard of them."
"Jesus, they were fucking ground-breaking," Harry said. "Smoke was supposed to be about the Princes in the Tower and Mirrors about who really wrote Shakespeare. But, in each case, they were really about the human capacity for belief. What makes someone attach themselves to some mad theory and stick to it against all odds. I suppose it's where you end up if you concentrate on reader response and abandon the text altogether."
"Abandon the text altogether? What kind of a bleeding English professor was she?" From her tone, Sally sounded as if she regretted not being able to pull the late Professor Farintosh in for impersonation.
"A fucking brilliant one." Harry's voice had an edge of steel. "Nearest thing to a genius I ever met."
Sally and Mrs Hudson exchanged glances.
"So we're talking obnoxious, bonkers and with all the social skills of a spoilt three-year old, then?" Sally hazarded.
"How did you - ? Anyway, that's not the point. Half the dons in Oxford are like that. It was her mind that set her apart. Like light filtered through solid diamond. But she was obsessed with belief; everything she wrote after her sabbatical kept coming back to it, like a kid picking at a scab."
"She was some kind of religious nut?" Sally looked as if she was fumbling for solid ground in the midst of an ever deepening morass. Sarah wished her luck.
Harry shook her head, her gold-brown curls tossing in a way which would certainly have had Bingley asking for a second dance.
"Oh, Jesus, no – she loathed religion. She'd been brought up in Belfast during the 1960s, so you couldn't fucking well blame her. But she said atheism was a religion, too; if you pressed hard enough, you could always provoke atheists into a confession of faith."
Abruptly, something clicked.
"My God," Sarah said. "No wonder she hung around fan conventions and forums. You've only to go through one major shipping war and you'll never see faith and belief in the same light again."
Harry nodded. "Yup. Readers became her experimental subjects. I didn't see it at the time, but that was the difference between how she treated me and how she treated Mel. To Dr Farintosh, I was a junior colleague. Mel was a laboratory rat. And yet the weirdest thing was, if you'd written down everything she said to each of us, word for word, you wouldn't have fucking been able to tell any difference, not on paper."
Sally shuddered. "We had a sarge like that, back when I was still in uniform. Ended up with his head blown off, trying to stop a security van hijack. Two years later, when I left to join CID, there were still rumours floating about that someone had faked the ballistics reports and the ammo'd come from our armoury. Give me a boss who's a bastard to your face, all the time, than one who's sweet as honey one minute, and stabbing you in the back the next."
"So what went wrong, dear?" Mrs Hudson, Sarah noticed, also had her eye on the clock.
"Oh, the stupidest thing. It was the start of my third year, and I was working for Finals like crazy. I went up to Oxford first week in September. John started his first year at London a couple of weeks later, so I came down to give him his big sister's support moving him into his digs. You know; making sure he'd got an electric kettle and tea bags and a bottle of vodka and all the other bits and bobs you need for your first few days at Uni."
The aroma of freshly baked pastry rising from the oven alerted Sarah the vol-au-vents needed her attention. She pulled out the tray and began beating an egg for the glaze.
"You'll be eating party food for the next three weeks if you go on like this." Sally said, sneaking an unglazed vol-au-vent from the tray. "How many are you expecting to turn up, anyway? Sorry to interrupt, Harry. What next?"
"John came along to Paddington to put me on the train back to Oxford. Just as it moved off he tossed a paperback through the window and said, 'They even teach this one at Staff College, Camberley; don't turn your nose up at it.' And the train pulled out and I looked down at what he'd given me. It was Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army. I'd not read any Heyer before; I'd been the snotty sort who went, 'Ooh, Regency romance; all heaving bosoms and alpha males in tight calfskin breeches.' "
"Well, and?" Sally looked even more baffled.
Prudently, Harry let that slide. "Anyway, it had been the best day John and I had spent since as long as I could remember, and I didn't want to disappoint him when he asked if I'd read it. There's fuck all else to do on that train journey, anyway. By page 10 I was riveted. Suddenly I absolutely got Dr Farintosh's point in 'The Ghettoisation of Genre'. And then the train pulled up at Reading and the next thing I knew the woman herself was in the carriage, about to sit down in front of me. It was uncanny. It was as if I'd conjured her up."
"She said hello, and something about how nice it was to have someone intelligent to talk to on the train for once. Then she saw what I was reading. And her face changed. She looked so disappointed – and, underneath, furious, like someone who'd fallen for a con artist and was kicking themselves for being such an idiot. But she didn't say anything and, looking at her, I knew there was nothing I could say, either. The next tutorial I had with her, I discovered for myself the difference between being a junior colleague and a lab rat. Except they say scientists sometimes feel quite affectionate towards their rats."
"All that just 'cos she caught you reading a bit of historical fluff in the train? She must have been bleeding demented."
Harry put her head on one side. "Looked at from her perspective, she was upholding standards of academic integrity and I – I'd just turned out to be fucking Arthur Robinson."
"Who's Arthur Robinson and why were you –"
"Sally, d'you mind getting the sausage rolls out of the fridge and shoving them in the oven? I'm all over egg yolk. And I know I've probably over-catered, but at least people eat sausage rolls. The way the sausage tomato cheese surprise looks, the only people trying it will be people hoping the surprise is golden tickets. Look, Harry, you can't get away with that. There must be more to how you reacted than you two having a falling out over whether reading Georgette Heyer constitutes endorsing the values of the patriarchy."
"Oh, there was." Harry's voice sounded dull. Pain, not boredom, Sarah diagnosed.
"Well, don't leave us in the dark, dear. After all, Sarah's quite right. You're not the sort to get so upset about a little thing, not from what John tells me."
"John – talks about me?"
"Well, not a lot, dear. Army men don't, as a rule. But I've been about a bit. I know how to read between the lines. And I know you've had your ups and downs, but whatever you may think, he does respect your right to go your own way. Not like some brothers I could mention."
Harry paused. "There was that business with the books. But that came later…"
About the fifth week in Hilary term of her final year - late February, Harry translated when she saw their uncomprehending expressions – the English faculty became aware they were housing a vandal in their midst. One who, in defiance of a solemn oath given as a condition of matriculation – "Yes, they really do make you swear an oath, not to kindle fire and everything" – had taken to cutting paragraphs from Bodleian library books with what the Regius Professor of Anatomy opined was almost certainly a surgical scalpel.
On the Sunday morning of sixth week, an undergraduate checked her St Anne's college pigeonhole. In it she found a small box of Belgian chocolates and an anonymous letter complimenting her charms in somewhat – vivid - terms. Subsequent analysis showed the letter had been assembled from words cut – apparently with a surgical scalpel - from a rare edition of the Complete Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Being clear-headed, even for an engineer, the undergraduate muttered, "Ugh, creepy stalker" and took it to that evening's JCR meeting. The motion requesting the SCR to investigate a matter of urgent student safety passed by an overwhelming majority.
Oxford college walls are as resistant to salacious gossip as shrimping nets to gamma rays. By Wednesday of sixth week fourteen women had come forward (from Pembroke, Corpus, Somerville, St John's, Mansfield, Merton, St Peter's and Trinity) with similar missives.
A frantic check of the Bodleian shelves and some rather high-level typographical analysis showed the letters had been composed using pages from the Bodleian's copies of the following authors: Brontë (A. and C. but, oddly, not E.), Rossetti (both C. and D.G.), Dunbar, Donne, Wyatt and Marlowe, Shelley (M. not P.B.), Braddon, Stoker and Le Fanu.
(For the sake of completeness, the chocolates were only available in five of the cases on record. Analysis proved them to be absolutely harmless, though the cherry liqueur ones made a terrible mess of the Spilsbury Visiting Lecturer in Toxicology's best dinner trousers.)
By the start of eighth week the Oxford English faculty, after much comparison of reading lists, examination of library access logs, mutual bitchery, angsting and sherry had narrowed the field of suspects down to precisely three, all of them at Wadham.
Those three being:
a) Iqbal Akram, of Amritsar; Rhodes Scholar and leg spinner (4 for 21 against Essex);
b) Guy Spencer Musgrove, of Reigate; OUCA Committee member, Wykehamist and useful outside half for the college XV;
c) Harriet Octavia Watson, of Chelmsford; lesbian, English scholar and newly demoted laboratory rat.
"Oh, no!" Sarah exclaimed. "They suspected you? Preposterous."
"Only people doing a special topic with Dr Farintosh studied Braddon. And –" She shrugged. "I knew a couple of the girls who'd got the notes. I'd even fooled around in a punt with one of them, in second year. Credit to her, she told them she'd believe I'd done it a century or so after Hell froze over. But Oxford academics don't get out much. Most of the investigative committee were fucking creaming themselves at the idea of a bit of girl on girl action. Or so I heard later."
Academic disciplinary procedures move with glacial slowness. It was not until the second week of Trinity – Harry's last term at Oxford, when she was up to her neck in revision for Finals, with all the stress that entailed – that she even learned she was a suspect.
By then – because it is a law of physics, immutable and unchangeable, that information passes at a speed commensurate with the social status of the person requiring it to pass – Musgrove's father, the stockbroker, and his uncle, the M.P., had already made objections to having Marina Farintosh play any part on Guy's examining panel. The Secretary of the Rhodes Trust had put it in writing that he would not tolerate one of his scholars being examined by someone who had stated on record that an Indian student accepting a scholarship named after one of the world's arch-imperialists had "internalised his colonial oppression to a degree justifying compulsory committal under the Mental Health Act 1982,".
So only Harry had ever been questioned by Dr Farintosh.
"She gave me a hell of a time," Harry said, tears showing silver down her cheeks, like snail-trails on concrete. "She thought I'd done it. I told her I didn't – but – she'd lost faith in me already. In that railway carriage. And the other two – she hated what they stood for so much, she bent over backwards to ensure her biases weren't going to hurt them."
But the anonymous tributes and cuttings from books had ceased by that time, so no-one ever knew who the culprit had been. Reluctantly, Oxford let the case drop.
"My finals weren't bad," Harry said. "But they weren't brilliant, either. The sort of second class degree a tutor can explain away in a reference – or not, as she chooses. I didn't get the post-grad research places I applied for, so I had to go home. After all. Then I discovered Dr Fucking Farintosh had tipped off Mum about the Bodleian business, so she could get 'help' for me. Help! She must have guessed 'mental' was the fucking dirtiest word our parents knew. Though she outed me as well, in passing. I stuck six months of Mum telling me all the time that she didn't care what I'd done, I was her little girl. That was when I ran. Lied about my qualifications, took a school-leaver level job in the City, and clawed my way up from there. With my first big bonus I bought a Porsche Carrera. I called it Marina. Fuck. You. Doctor Farintosh. You're dead. I'm alive. Fuck. You."
Sarah found herself holding the Moët above Harry's glass with only the dimmest flicker of conscience.
Harry looked at her; beautiful, distraught, self-aware. "Don't tell John I told you all this crap, though. Please."
A new voice broke in.
"Congratulations. This has really been immensely interesting. Most of the essential points, of course, I had already inferred, but the light you shed on the late Professor Farintosh has clarified my conclusions immeasurably."
A familiar, impossible voice. Out of the darkness of her hallway one long, distinctive patch of shadow detached itself and strode forwards. As he came into the pool of light cast by the kitchen door she saw he was holding something out to her.
"John's still tied up at the lab. But he told me to make sure you got this."
He placed a bottle of vermouth down on the kitchen counter.
Sarah's fingers clenched around the pastry-brush. If only it were a carving knife. Or a surgical saw. "Sherlock. What the hell are you doing in my flat?"
"Have I got the wrong time? John led me to believe there was a party here." Sherlock's glance trailed lazily over the group in the kitchen, assessing them and finding them subtly wanting.
"Everyone else pressed the buzzer."
He shrugged, a movement of effortless elegance. "I followed John's sister up the stairs."
Harry looked – literally - gob-smacked. Sarah had witnessed countless late night A&E punch-ups in her hospital days. Experience filled in the next steps. The shock would wear off in a second. Then the pain of having exposed her hatred of a recently murdered woman in front of the world's first consulting detective and laid bare bitter family upheavals in front of her brother's flatmate would hit her with full force.
Sarah made her voice mortuary-cold, infused it with concentrated rage. "Why, Sherlock? Just for schoolboy kicks?"
His lips clamped down and, for a second, an authentically playground rage blazed in his eyes. She summoned up the expression she had last used as Lady Bracknell in the sixth form play, and stared at him, unblinking. When he spoke again his voice held an audible trace of petulance.
"A young woman runs out of the street door and into the road when I'm eleven yards away. A Landrover Discovery misses her by six inches and she doesn't even notice. You could hardly expect me to ignore something like that. Especially not when I recognised her as John's sister."
Sarah had never seen a picture of Harry in John's possession. She hoped "recognised " implied "from her marked physical resemblance to her brother" rather than "from stalkerish internet searches carried out on my flatmate's nearest and dearest" but, frankly, had her doubts.
"Oh, was that what the hooting was all about?" A little colour had returned to Harry's face. Mrs Hudson reached for the champagne bottle, filled Harry's glass, and tipped the dregs into her own.
"Drink up, dear. 'Moët does more than Milton can/To reconcile the ways of God to man.' One of my Raymond's favourite little sayings."
Sherlock raised his eyebrows, but refused to be distracted.
"Being John's sister, she had almost certainly come from this flat. One problem; the party hadn't started yet. Also, her raincoat was unbuttoned and half-off her shoulder. Conclusion; she'd put it on while under the influence of some emotional shock and, from the fact that she hadn't bothered to fasten it properly once she realised how bad the weather was outside, she had no intention of staying out long or of travelling far."
Harry regarded him with a familiar expression of mingled fascination and horror; had Sherlock lived three hundred years ago he would surely have been executed as a warlock.
He raised his long, elegant hands, ticking off points on his fingers.
"So; we have a preoccupied young woman who has clearly received a recent emotional shock. What kind of shock, and where? Had she received it before setting out, she would simply have cried off. So, she must have learned something in the flat which caused her to rush out into the street. Not to rush home, though; I followed her as far as the Tesco, which has the usual bright neon lighting. On a night like this, someone watching through the shop windows can see every transaction at very little risk of being observed himself."
Sally Donovan muttered, "Freak" half-under her breath. She poured peppercorns into the mortar and ground the pestle with savage emphasis.
"Someone who leaves a party, runs through heavy rain to a local shop and loads herself up with wine is, quite plainly, intending to return. Three bottles of brand name champagne, though? That suggests an extravagant urge to celebrate, quite at odds with her distraught appearance. A deeply conflicted response to a piece of news only just received, then. What could that news have been? Unlike the later invitees, Harry had no reason to be aware of the party's secondary purpose. Until, that is, she arrived."
Harry looked up at him, bafflement radiating off her like steam. "What secondary purp – ?"
"Fill you in later," Sarah hissed. "Trust me, it's never a good idea to break the flow at these moments."
Sherlock looked as if something had just gone 'click' in his brain and an entirely new set of cogs and gears begun to operate. His voice, as he continued his account, sounded just a shade blander than before.
"But her reaction would imply that Harry had a close personal connection to Professor Farintosh which, in turn, would imply either that John was unaware of it or he had deliberately concealed it from me."
"Sherlock, dear, I know I've mentioned this before, it's not that we're not grateful for everything you do – I really can't grumble in the circumstances – but I do sometimes wonder if you'd be happier in yourself if you could manage not to think the worst of everybody, just occasionally."
Sherlock ignored his landlady. "I inclined towards the former, given John's manifest incompetence at dissimulation."
"I wouldn't underestimate him," Harry muttered. "Our parents went to their graves convinced Hammy the school hamster died as a result of a tragic series of mishaps involving a faulty cage-latch, a partly opened window and a rodent's tendency to panic when lost in a strange place."
"Ah yes. A forgiveable error in design scale. Leonardo da Vinci's parachute designs were, inherently, practicable; they simply needed to have been drawn bigger."
Sally cast her eyes towards the ceiling. "I really do not want to know."
"In any event, it seemed something worth pursuing. While Harry was paying for the champagne I crossed back over the road and ducked down behind those wheelie bins just beside the street door. When you buzzed her in I slipped out of hiding, caught the door before it could close fully behind her and – after a suitable pause - followed her upstairs."
Sarah could read Harry's thoughts as if she had screamed them aloud. You could have been anyone. Not just my brother's bonkers flatmate, invited to the party. Absolutely fucking anyone. That easily. That close.
Harry's voice dropped to a whisper. "But - I didn't see or hear anything."
Sherlock looked smug. "That's what you should expect when it's me doing the following."
Mrs Hudson coughed. "I don't think that's quite the point Harry was trying to make, dear."
Sally moved unobtrusively closer and slid an arm around Harry's shoulder. "That's bad, that is. Men following girls into buildings. Sort of thing the Met has to follow up. 'Unacceptable to ignore.' That's what the Assistant Commissioner said on the news last week. If we'd taken action at the right time, guys like Reid and Warboys could have been put away years ago." She pulled out her mobile. "Just say the word, kiddo, and we can pull him in. City this size; lots of unsolved crimes on the books. I'm not sure we could get him actually to confess to any of them. But I guarantee we'd have a lot of fun trying."
Sherlock yawned. "You threaten to pull me in so frequently it's become boring. An emasculated blood-sport. Post-New Labour fox-hunting; look, no hounds."
"You're not a fox. No-one's going to start a campaign against cruelty to you. You're not nearly cuddly enough."
Abruptly he straightened from his slouch against the door jamb, drawing himself to his full, impressive height, dominating the kitchen, his mouth set, eyes intense, focussed. "It's a murder I'm investigating. I need optimal information. I can't have the wool dragged over my eyes by paying misguided attention to the risk of other people getting their nerves jangled or their feelings hurt. I didn't break in; I exploited an existing security gap of which you are now aware. Think of it as a physical form of ethical hacking."
"Hacking. That's a thought. Do you know how many extradition requests we get from the States, trying to clamp down on over-educated poncy twits who decide to take an unscheduled wander through their databases? You can get decades for it over there."
Sarah thought of Mycroft and airport security, and kept her mouth shut.
Sherlock sighed theatrically. "As Camden Council's community safety team and the block managing agents will discover when they open their emails on Monday, the Metropolitan Police have already warned them about the crime hazards posed by the wheelie bin placing and the lack of effective exterior lighting near the street doorway. With a reminder that under the Dorset Yacht principles, anyone suffering assault as a result of their disregard of basic safety would have a strong civil claim against them."
Sally spun on the spot. "Sherlock, if you've bleeding well spoofed my log-on again, I'm going to cut your throat with Sarah's veggie knife – trust a doctor to keep her kitchen kit sharp - and then we'll dissect you in the bath. Call it a party game."
"The bath's full of ice. And beer," Sarah observed.
Sherlock inclined his head. "Thank you. That would be most appreciated. Especially since I seem to somewhat behind everyone else when it comes to the party spirit. Becks, for choice."
"I'll get it, dear," Mrs Hudson said, and vanished bathroom-wards. Sherlock and Sally stared at each other for a moment, until Sherlock murmured, "Council jobsworths are very hierarchical. Those sort would ignore a sergeant. They'd only pay attention to an inspector."
Sally paused. She put her head on one side. "Fancy some dips to go with that beer?"
Sherlock inclined his head. She pushed the dip tray across to him. He stretched out one elegant hand, hovered for a moment over the vegetable slices, selected a carrot baton, dipped it in the taramasalata and raised it to his lips. Holding it with finicky, exaggerated precision between finger and thumb throughout.
Sarah repressed an urge to giggle.
Harry's face, by contrast, was all cold, focussed intensity. She didn't take her eyes off Sherlock. "So, my brother thinks you can read minds, or near as, and deduce that's the Pope's sneezed from the way a nun walks down the street. If you're that good, this should be a fucking doddle. Wadham. 1996. Three students. Tell me which of us did it."
"Oh, really," Sherlock said, his impatience at the world's sheer unforgivable stupidity naked in every twitch of those mobile lips. "Just apply your mind. Any of you. What kind of person cuts passages out of Bodleian library books with a scalpel?"
"Someone who needs to be strung up by their thumbs and lowered slowly into a pit of scorpions?" Sarah suggested.
"That, too," he agreed, and paused, looking at her with an expectant expression. She blinked, realising that he was not, for once, being either provocative or showing off. He actually did think she could supply a valid answer. Then, suddenly, she had it.
"It's attention-seeking. Like graffiti on walls. It's saying, 'Look at me'."
"Precisely." He snapped his fingers. "Consider Oxford's student body. 90% white, 55% male, 47% privately educated and a lot more heteronormative than it likes to think. Three suspects: a Rhodes scholar from the Punjab, a lesbian from an Essex grammar school and the son of a Reigate stockbroker. And the highly trained minds of the English faculty still didn't consider which of those three actually needed to commit pointless acts of petty vandalism in order to stand out from the dull, grey mass."
Harry's fingers convulsed against her champagne flute. "Afterwards – Guy used to look at me sometimes, as if he was laughing inside. I wonder what became of him."
Sherlock shrugged. "A man who, at the age of twenty, has the ability to turn his investigators' prejudices to his advantage and the self-restraint to stop his amusements at the precise psychological moment to cause the maximum damage without being caught? He'll rise from crime to crime until he ends on a murder charge. Any day now, perhaps, someone will move into a house where he lived five years ago and dig just a little too deep when they're laying a patio."
Out of the tail of her eye Sarah saw Sally Donovan move closer to the kitchen window, reach inside her jacket and flip open her mobile.
"Hi, that you Vince? You know that Rupert we pulled in over the West Acton school business? Yes, I know about the alibi, but can you pull up his details again - yes, I'll wait. That's the one. I think we'd better take another look at him. He had a golf bag in his car, so find out which club he plays at, and we'll aim to pick him up at the nineteenth hole. That should unsettle the smarmy git. Oh, and if DI Parker asks, tell him we had a tip-off from the freak. Cheers. Be seeing you."
"Important orientation, before anyone else arrives," Sherlock said. "I'm here in disguise."
Sarah, Sally and Mrs Hudson stared at him, in goldfish-gulping bafflement. Harry's glance flicked across all their faces, then back to Sherlock's.
"Admittedly, I'm not the person to judge, here, but it doesn't seem to be a very good one." Her voice sounded unexpectedly tentative.
"If you can postulate a disguise good enough to fool John, Sarah, Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson at close quarters in a crowded party, I'd be interested to hear your suggestion."
"You could try disguising yourself as an urn full of ashes." Sally apparently resented her omission. "I'll help."
"No need. All the people who know me well enough to identify me are already in the secret. The others – know me – if at all - only from John's blog. Which does not, thank goodness, have pictures. So, when I portray myself as Julian, a commodities trader in the City of London, my disguise should be impenetrable."
"Which commodity?" Harry's voice sounded lazy, amused. Sherlock twisted his head to look her full in the face.
She nodded. "Also lead? Copper concentrate?"
"Not now. When I started. Now, I specialise."
"Where's your office?"
"Minories. We moved from Leadenhall Street, ten years ago."
"What was the last airport you passed through?"
"Frankfurt – no – Zurich. Zurich was business; Frankfurt was pleasure."
"What brings you to this party? How do you know John and Sarah?"
He smiled. "John's sister's a devastatingly attractive analyst for a major City bank. We met at Corney & Barrow's winebar. She passed on the invite there."
"Eastcheap. She told me if I fancied an interesting evening, I should show up at her brother's party."
"She wasn't lying. She doesn't, much. Except in extreme circumstances."
Three stories below, someone pressed the buzzer.
Sally Donovan wandered unsteadily into the kitchen. "Give me food. I don't care what it tastes like, so long as it it's stodgy. I need something to soak up the alcohol. I've started seeing things now."
Sarah, given the excuse to dispose of surplus sausage tomato cheese surprise, cut off a healthy slice and handed it over, wrapped in a paper napkin. "Seeing what?"
Sally coughed. "Come and look for yourself. You'll not believe me, but you might believe your own eyes. Better bring your drink. You'll need it."
Over by the fridge, John had been cornered by Heather and a stocky, bullet-headed young man wearing black chinos and a Coldplay T-shirt, who talked in a monotone so rasping Sarah suspected him of having bluebottle in his DNA. He'd introduced himself as Dave from Cambridge, presumably to differentiate himself from Dave from Milton Keynes, Dave the dance instructor and Dave Perkins from the flat next door, all of whom had passed through the party at one stage or another. He hadn't admitted to blogging, but Sarah thought he was the strongest candidate for mrsterrorwinkle they'd yet seen.
John cast a 'Beam me up Scotty' silent appeal in her general direction. She scooped up a plate of mushroom vol-au-vents in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, mouthed, "Back in a sec" and headed towards the living room.
"See what I mean?" Sally hissed over her shoulder as Sarah paused in the doorway, trying to work out what had managed to get a hard-bitten Scotland Yard sergeant's knickers into such a spectacular twist. Then, abruptly, she decoded the tangle of lilac sprigged cotton and endless black-trousered legs in the large armchair in the dimmest corner of the room.
She saved the vol-au-vents from disaster by a whisker, abandoned them on the nearest flat surface, and fled to the safety of the kitchen, Sally on her heels. John greeted her reappearance as if she were the Seventh Cavalry. "Sarah! Have you spotted Harry anywhere? She told me to remind her –" He paused, gulped, and then, in a flash of sheer mendacious inspiration, concluded, "To ring the cat-sitter and tell her to make absolutely sure they're shut in separate rooms when she leaves, otherwise they'll fight. I'd better go and make sure she does it." He turned to the other two. "Just got to find my sister; catch up with you later."
"Harry's in the living room. But she's a bit tied up at the moment –"
"Playing tonsil hockey with that long posh streak of piss who calls himself Julian," Sally Donovan supplied helpfully. "You know the one."
"Harry's doing what?" John had gone a most peculiar colour; Sarah found herself looking automatically around for her emergency bag, before remembering she'd locked it in the wardrobe in her bedroom.
"Your sister?" Dave from Cambridge looked accusingly at John, as if suspecting him of having put one over on him. "I thought you said in 'A Study in Pink' she was a lezzo."
John's backbone stiffened; he straightened automatically to an angle Sarah had, weeks ago, mentally catalogued as "Parade attention."
"Actually, I mentioned in passing she is currently undergoing a painful divorce from her partner, Clara. Simply to illustrate Sherlock's deductive methods. At a time when I believed my blog was only of interest to family and close friends, who were already aware of the situation."
"Well, if I'd known she'd been planning to change ends on the rebound I'd have been tempted to have a crack myself. Half the time, these girls who claim they're dykes really just need a good seeing – awk!"
John strode forward; his face was less than an inch from Dave's.
"It may have slipped your mind, but that's my sister you're talking about. Shut it, or we'll finish this outside."
Involuntarily, Dave stepped back a couple of paces. Then he recovered himself. His eyes slid sideways towards John's stick, propped against the lower bank of kitchen cabinets. He raised his hands to chest height; placating, calming.
"OK, I admit it, I was out of line, mate. But, seriously, you want to watch yourself. Suppose I'd taken you up on that? You'd have bitten off well more than you could chew. You weren't to know, but I've done a good bit of martial arts in my time."
"Really?" John's voice sounded coolly polite, lacking the urgency of a few seconds ago. "I'm not Sherlock, but somehow I rather guessed you had."
Had Dave been a pouter pigeon, Sarah thought, repressing the urge to giggle, he would have looked – like he did now.
"Well, I like to keep in shape, get down to the dojo as often as I can manage it –"
"When I was in, we came across lots of guys like you; not out in Afghanistan, of course, but in places like Aldershot and Colchester. Hereford and Poole are full of them, or so they tell me. Guys who train once or twice a week, with rice flails and that stuff – like I expect you train – who can do twenty one-armed press-ups at a stint."
"My best was forty-five –"
"The sort of guys who go out on Friday and Saturday nights, trying to find some squaddies to defend themselves against."
"I've never –"
John continued as if he hadn't heard a thing. "The lads had a word for blokes like that."
He paused. The silence in the kitchen had a texture all its own. Hypnotic. Velvety. Seductive.
For an endless second Dave teetered on the edge of the abyss. Then he fell.
"And that word was?"
John contemplated him for a second. "Pâté."
He turned, and walked out of the kitchen. He might still have been on that parade ground. Not a trace of limp was visible in his even, measured strides.
"Excuse me," Sarah said, and fled in pursuit.
She caught up with him in the stairwell outside the flat. He burned, visibly, with a cold, white anger she had never experienced before. She caught his elbow, forcing him to swing to face her.
"Well?" she demanded, mindful of the need to get the first word in.
"Well? How did you expect me to react? My supposedly lesbian sister is snogging my until now pretty convincingly asexual flatmate in your living room, right in the middle of a party full of people and you just expect me to take it in my stride?"
"In case you hadn't noticed, John, this is 2010, not 1887. Brothers lost the right to march up to young men and demand to know if their intentions were honourable some time at the start of last century. Anyway, do apply a bit of basic bloody common sense. To begin with, Harry is not snogging Sherlock –"
"Keep your voice down."
"Oh, that's rich, coming from you, bellowing away like you did in the kitchen in front of that godawful prat Dave. Anyway. For all practical purposes your sister is snogging a commodities trader called Julian, whom she met at some wine-bar in the City and dragged along here. It's a put up job, you pillock."
He eyed her for a moment, then he ran his hands through his hair, a ragged, harassed gesture that made her want to ditch the party, ditch the investigation and snatch him off to bed for some heavy duty TLC. His voice, when he spoke again, sounded subdued, almost pleading.
"Look, when Sherlock told me he was planning to turn up to the party in disguise I expected something a bit less conceptual. Maybe something like a false beard –"
Their eyes met. The same thought hit them both simultaneously. John held his self-control a bare split second longer than Sarah. Then they were clinging to each other, giggling like smutty teenagers, rocking back and forth, tears running down their cheeks, helpless with the hilarity of it all.
"Well, it's nice to see the hosts are enjoying the party."
Sherlock, his arm around Harry, who looked as if she needed the support, emerged from the flat. Sarah laid her hand on John's arm; warning, restraining. He tensed beneath her grip, but managed by a heroic effort to remain silent until the unmistakeable sound of the street door clicking shut, three stories below, told them they were once more alone on the stairwell.
"What the bloody hell do the pair of them think they're doing?"
"Well, in the case of at least one of them, royally winding you up."
"Oh, Harry's always been like that. Ever since we were kids."
"I didn't –" The sharp beep of John's phone, announcing an incoming text, distracted her. He read it, rolled his eyes heaven-ward, and passed it across to her.
SEEING YOUR SISTER SAFELY TO A TAXI. SINCE YOU ASK. SH
"You'd better withdraw what you said earlier," John said. "We obviously are having a random outbreak of 1887. Either that, or aliens have abducted my flatmate."
"Better brace ourselves, then. Traumatised aliens, incoming, five-four-three-"
The phone beeped again. This time, she leaned over to read it at the same time as John.
ASK SARAH TO SEARCH ONLINE EDITION PEORIA JOURNAL-STAR FOR FARINTOSH. SH
"Now that's Sherlock. Random, demanding and inconvenient. Well, better jump to it."
"Oh, let him sweat a bit." John's eyes sparkled. "It's my party, and I'll snog if I want to. C'mere."
In John's pocket a succession of increasingly frantic beeps sounded, but for some minutes both of them were far too preoccupied to pay them any attention whatsoever.
"Awfully sorry to interrupt, Inspector," Sarah muttered. "Just needed my laptop to check something."
She advanced on the wardrobe. Inspector Lestrade and the dark-haired Mancunian, whose name she had forgotten, sat awkwardly upright beside each other on the edge of the bed, plainly waiting for her to grab whatever she needed and go. Briefly, she wondered if "turns people into teenagers for the evening" was the actual surprise in the sausage tomato cheese thing.
She pulled the laptop from its place of concealment amid a mess of old shoes and waterproofs and fled to the comparative safety of the kitchen.
Before even the name Farintosh appeared, she knew she had the right story. ANONYMOUS TEXTS SPARK MURDER HUNT the headline blared. For once, the story lived up to its billing. Over recent days Peoria Police Department had been bombarded by texts, source unknown, drawing their attention to a derelict house in their district. At first, no doubt, they had written the writer off as a crank. As the information became more detailed, and the tone escalated from pained to insulting, they grudgingly sent a squad car round to give the place a once-over. And, in a shallow grave in a corner of the cellar, they found the skeleton of a middle-aged woman.
At the bottom of the page was a link to an update, yesterday. FORMER BARTONVILLE TEACHER MAY BE MYSTERY CORPSE. She clicked.
"A gold bracelet with the initials 'VAF' may hold the clue to a murder victim's identity, police confirmed. High school teacher Victoria A. Farintosh lived for ten years at the property where the remains of a woman were found earlier this week. Although believed to have returned to her family in England, no records of Ms. Farintosh show her in the Peoria area since the end of the 1992-3 school year, when she quit her job due to ill-health. Police ask anyone with knowledge of Ms. Farintosh's whereabouts after July of 1993 to contact them."
Sarah started to read down the comments. The first poster waspishly enquired if the corpse had been spotted revolving. His own high school English teacher would certainly have turned in her grave at a newspaper gratuitously dangling its participles in her vicinity. This, predictably, opened the floodgates. As well as passing on a slew of anecdotes about the missing teacher, posters seemed to have declared open season on everything from the evils of the passive tense to the iniquities of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The comments section had hit seven pages in less than 24 hours, and still seemed to be going strong.
In the time-smoothed euphemism of many a harassed head-teacher, Victoria Farintosh must have possessed "A larger than life personality". Or, as a commenter observed, more trenchantly, "You never told Miss Farintosh the dog ate your homework. She'd have slit it open, just to check."
Amid all the smoke, though, there were one or two tantalising licks of flame. Take, for example, the affair Sarah mentally dubbed, "the curious case of the Key lime pie."
So far as she could tell, Victoria Farintosh's last public appearance had been at a pot-luck supper for the Parent-Teacher Association. It seemed to have been a memorable event; at least three people mentioned it. However, the only hard fact Sarah could gather about the evening was that Victoria Farintosh had snubbed someone's special whipped cottage cheese pineapple De-Lite in favour of someone else's Key lime pie. Cue long, bewildering and acrimonious detour into whether people who made themselves ill by unhealthy living should be drummed out of teaching, including a cross-fusillade of insults which may have made sense to the people hurling them but were absolutely incomprehensible to outsiders.
She closed down the computer and sighed. The odds on two people with the same bizarre surname dying suspiciously, even fourteen years apart, and the deaths not being connected had to be astronomical. No doubt Sherlock – and where the hell had he sloped off to, anyway? – had it all worked out already. But she was damned if she could see what was going on.
Her phone beeped.
OBVIOUS, ISN'T IT? SH
"No, it bloody isn't, fancypants," she said aloud, somewhat to the surprise of a couple of random party-goers who had strayed into the kitchen. Catching up her drink, she made tracks to the living room.
Here the party had thinned down to manageable proportions. Inspector Lestrade and his Mancunian had re-emerged; John seemed to have latched onto them as protection from Dave from Cambridge, who was mooching sulkily, alone in a corner. The three of them were dissecting the Sri Lankan opening attack with animation while demolishing any of the canapés within reach. It didn't seem the moment to break the news that dead Farintoshes were multiplying like rabbits.
Heather patted the sofa cushion beside her. "Hi. Give the kitchen a break for a bit. Let's have a proper catch-up. What have you been doing since Deathcon? I hadn't realised it was you who found Professor Farintosh until John told me, earlier. What an awful shock for you!"
Interested heads turned. A significant percentage of the crime fiction fans had hung on to the end of the party. Besides Heather and Dave, she recognised Alice, an American grad student from the LSE; Andy, who was a BNF in the paranormal end of crime fiction and Verity, who wrote BDSM epics in the country-house cosy genre.
"Well, less for me than for someone without medical training, I expect," Sarah said. "I mean – don't get me wrong – it's still a shock, but you get used to it."
"Still," Andy said, taking a swig from his beer bottle, "what are the odds on someone dropping dead on their way back from a crime fic convention? I'm surprised the forums aren't awash with conspiracy theories already. Though I suppose it was something boring and obvious?"
The invitation to indiscretion was naked in his voice, as also in his raised eyebrow and sidelong look at her. Beyond him she could see John, head up and listening intently.
At last. On to the main business of the evening.
Sarah smiled. "Patient confidentiality doesn't end with death, I'm afraid."
Andy made an explosive sound of disappointment. "Oh, honestly! When Professor Farintosh was the biggest oversharer of personal information in the known universe? She was never off the medical boards, bitching about what her doctor had got wrong this time or tearing someone a new one for making suggestions about diet or weight. Like at Dalescon three years ago. Someone said, 'Ought you be having that?' when she helped herself to chocolate fudge cake, and she gave them this absolutely frozen look and said, 'I've been managing this condition since I was 12. Kindly assume I know more about it than anything you might have gleaned from Doctor Wikipedia.' "
"Oh, God. Key lime pie." It was only when Sarah caught Heather's startled glance that she realised she'd spoken aloud.
But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.
The faintest flicker of light began to dawn.
Dave ceased mooching and flung himself down onto the rug. "I was expecting to see that bloke Sherlock here."
"Not if he doesn't want you to." John's tone was bland. "Master of disguise."
"Yup," Sally Donovan said, "Time for the bleeding big reveal. I am Sherlock. And I claim the last slice of that sausage cheese thing."
"Oh, I'm Sherlock," the Mancunian announced, getting into the spirit of the thing. "But I'm vegetarian, so help yourself to the sausage surprise anyway."
"Sorry," Lestrade said, not sounding it. "But I am Sherlock. And John and I just finished it between us."
"What, you actually ate it? All?" Sarah said, unguardedly.
"Definite proof you aren't Sherlock," John said. "If you were, I wouldn't have. With you, I know it's just tomato puree."
Dave snorted with disgust, but fortunately at this moment his phone pinged and he retreated into a corner and started texting away, jabbing his thumbs with demented energy.
Andy stretched out. "Well, may Marina Farintosh rest in peace. Wherever she's fetched up. And, if the worst's come to the worst, at least that was a woman who never backed down from a good old flamewar."
"Well, except the vampirevictoria kerfuffle last year," Alice said.
"Vampirevictoria?" Sarah's adrenaline spiked. Three months ago, before she had met John and, through him, Sherlock, Sarah had been able to believe in coincidence. It seemed so long ago, like the time when one still believed in Father Christmas and in bears who lurked in the bedroom cupboards, ready to eat you for putting a toe out of line.
Probably Sherlock could prove to you the bears were real, too.
Alice shrugged. "Poster on one of the Chandler comms. Not a sock, whatever Farintosh said –" As if by association of ideas she reached into her bag, pulled out a heap of red and black knitting, and began working competently away. "But then, you know what Farintosh was like about pseuds."
The whole fandom contingent groaned in unison. Either on-line or face-to-face, they had all heard Farintosh's opinion that someone who was afraid to put their own real name to their opinions had no business being on the internet at all.
"So what happened?" John asked, blessedly on the ball.
Alice's needles clicked. "Vampirevictoria posted a fic to the comm. For Farintosh's birthday. And Farintosh freaked out. That's how it began, anyway."
Sarah's head jerked up in sudden interest. She caught John looking at her and gave a tiny nod in his direction.
Alice knitted on, serenely. "Of course, it didn't stop there. You know what they say about tiny fandoms being the wankiest."
"But what the hell had vampirevictoria done? Confused chan with curtainfic?"
"Nope. Written classic noir. With a twist. You thought it was Marlowe pov, right until you hit the reveal. He wasn't the narrator, after all. It was the corpse. Buried beneath an empty house somewhere in the midwest. Describing its own murder."
"Wow," Andy said appreciatively. "Anyone gifted me something like that, I'd have offered up my first-born."
"You'd think, right? Anyway, it was a gift, for Chrissake. But Farintosh was all over the comm like a rash the moment it was posted. Demanding IP addresses, threatening to TOS the site for harassment; you name it. One of the mods told me that if anyone was unhinged in that scenario, it sure wasn't vampirevictoria. After all, no-one's going to pass Cyberstalking 101 if she can't even get the target's birthday right."
"You what?" Sarah said, unguardedly.
"Well, the fic went up some time in June, but Farintosh's birthday, apparently, wasn't till about Thanksgiving."
John's eyes met hers, just for a second. Sarah felt sure that they were both hearing the same voice in their heads – and wasn't that wrong on so many levels.
Even you must appreciate the significance of an apparent five month error in something so elementary as a birthday?
Unfortunately, the ability to pose Sherlock's questions for him didn't appear to carry with it the ability to draw his conclusions.
She shook her head as if trying to shake water from her ears. The laptop was still in the kitchen and Google was her friend.
She got to her feet and, by way of camouflage, scooped up the empty sausage surprise dish.
"Can I get anyone anything?"
There was a vague mutter of refusal; most people seemed sated, sleepy; the party winding down. The kitchen was empty, a litter of empty canapé trays and abandoned glasses. It occurred to her that perhaps she should make a start on the washing up. There was something about the steady soaping of plates which created an almost trance-like state of mind. Perhaps something would bubble up in the dishwater.
No. Google first.
She topped up her glass from the Chianti Sally Donovan had brought and let its smoky richness travel slowly over her tongue. Sally hadn't lied; it was a particularly fine wine. She must have gone to some trouble to select it. Sarah let her mind wander, wondering what it was about Sherlock that somehow forced people to try harder. Even if they were only trying to bring off a joke at his expense. Probably simply the challenge of trying to win an acknowledgement that one had at least made the effort to keep up.
Her mobile phone lay on the table near the laptop. Something wrong about that picture; she forced her mind back to the last time she'd used it. Surely she'd left it on the window-ledge? She compressed her lips, and hit "recents". Nothing there; the last was John, ringing to say he'd left the lab. No guest opportunistically dialling Australia, or even a local mini-cab firm, then. Someone being helpful. Tidying up.
She weighted it in her hand for a moment, and then began to text. WHEN WAS VICTORIA FARINTOSH'S BIRTHDAY? She paused, thought, and hit send.
It pinged almost instantly.
GOOD QUESTION. SH
"And?" she demanded of thin air. The phone pinged again.
She resisted the opportunity to toss it against the wall, and slid it into her pocket instead. Next time she got a chance, she'd drop it into her handbag. Better not leave it lying around, even if no-one had rung Australia on it this time.
As Alice had said, the Chandler fandom was tiny; finding the principal on-line comms and checking the archives for June last year took no time at all. It did not, though, produce a copy of the story. The various links she turned up were all dead. Vampirevictoria had deleted her journal; hardly surprising given the torrent of vilification which had poured over her from the moment of posting her fic. Not just from Farintosh herself; she seemed to have a couple of devoted supporters who were, presumably, in the blissful honeymoon period described by Harry, proud of being exceptions. Sarah wondered, idly, whether the Professor's death had arrived in time to save them from crushing disillusionment.
No-one could accuse Alice of having exaggerated the scale of the imbroglio. Even given a miniscule fandom, it had managed to score lockdowns, cross-allegations of trauma-triggering, comment deletions, internet lawyering, mass-defriendings, flounces and even a (somewhat incompetent and half-hearted) pseudicide. All in the space of three or four days.
Which, of course, gave Sarah an obvious next place to look. Fandom_wank did not let her down; she found a screen-cap of the fic. In full.
Sarah gulped. Sherlock must gone through this same process, doubtless faster, days ago. And that gave an insight into Sherlock's online habits for which, she felt, the world was not yet prepared.
She read the story. Then she read it again.
It was the kind of house that said 'family'. On summer Sundays, young married couples dawdled past in their Chevys and Fords, looking first at the house and then back at each other. Their eyes met, heavy with unspoken promises. "When Uncle Jim's inheritance comes through." "When I get that next promotion."
It was a house built to have a tree-house in the old elm in the back yard and a basketball hoop above the garage door, a house meant to glow with pumpkins at Halloween and exhale cinnamon and cloves at Thanksgiving, to ring with young voices and the ceaseless pounding of flying feet.
It was the sour, sterile house to which two spinster sisters returned one night from a pot-luck supper down at the well-lit high school, the full moon rising above the trees.
It was the house one sister left before dawn broke, carrying twenty-five thousand dollars and a new name. In Reno, an unlicensed plastic surgeon with Mob connections would sell her the face to match.
And it was the house the other sister would never leave, not until the day of Judgment, when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible.
And so on.
Sarah exhaled. She had bookmarked the pages from the Peoria Star-Journal and could, if need be, compare the specifics. But there was no need. This, she knew, was not fiction.
The kitchen door opened.
"We thought we'd give you a hand with the washing up." Heather's arms were full of crockery. Behind her Dave hovered.
"Honestly, there's no need –" Sarah sprang to her feet, closing her browser on instinct.
"I think there is." Heather divested herself of her burden in the sink. "You've just been left to get on with it; it's absolutely ridiculous. Isn't it, Dave?"
He nodded, shuffling forwards, looking so awkward Sarah wondered if anyone had ever expected him to carry out any domestic duties in his entire life.
Afraid if he volunteers to do the washing-up, everyone will think he's gay, I expect. She snorted, struck by a sudden, amused thought. Well, whatever it is with Sherlock and house-work, I think we can certainly eliminate that possibility.
"It's been such an interesting evening," Heather continued brightly, back-heeling the kitchen door shut.
"Um – glad you thought so." Unfairly, she remembered that Heather didn't drink, and spared some completely unreasonable annoyance for the advantage that gave her in being chirpy and with-it at this stage of affairs. There was something wrong about it; wrong on a deep and fundamental level.
And then Heather had her hand round her throat and Dave was reaching down and had a small, deadly and utterly familiar item pressed against the bare skin of her side, beneath her untucked shirt, and she realised that "wrong" didn't even begin to cover it.
People with a hypodermic needle squick are advised that this chapter is probably not for them.
"I'd not have pictured you as a Touran driver," Sarah said tightly. "More the Prius sort. Or a cyclist."
"It's Dave's," Heather snapped, automatically defensive, making rather a business of manoeuvring the bulky car out of the tight parking space behind the flats.
"Figures," Sarah said, as they caught the kerb behind them with a jarring bump.
Dave gestured with the hypodermic. "Shut it. There's 25ml of insulin in this and you'd better make sure I keep it there. As a doctor, you'll know just how soon irreversible brain damage will set in once I inject you. And I don't even have to find a vein."
He squeezed his body close against hers, though the rear seat of the Touran could have comfortably accommodated three. She flinched at the forced intimacy, hated herself when she saw him smirk.
"Heather, what the hell is this all about?" she demanded, trying to force a note of icy disdain into her voice. "What on earth are you people playing at?"
Heather kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Why did Sherlock want you to Google the Peoria Journal-Star? And what did he mean by, 'It's obvious'?"
Oh, God. Of course. My phone.
Her phone on the kitchen table. The phone she knew she'd left on the window-sill. Heather had seen it often enough at Deathcon, even complimented her on its dark green trim. Easy enough to pick it up and nose through the texts in the hope of finding something out. Especially after her blunder about the Key lime pie.
Not a guest trying to ring a mini-cab or put through a surreptitious call to Australia. A piece of sheer, criminal, idiotic stupidity on her part which could well cost her life.
And then she remembered something else about that moment in the kitchen.
My phone. It's in my pocket.
"I haven't a clue what he meant," Sarah said. "You've read John's blog. Sherlock likes being inscrutable."
The Touran pulled up at a T-junction. Heather flicked the indicator, about to turn left.
"Not that way, you stupid twat!" Dave snapped. "Where do you bleeding think we're heading, the North Circular? You want to cut down Finchley Road and then take a left across the top of the Park, pick up the A503 near Camden Town tube and make for the A12 down Clapton Road. Women! Why have none of you got any bleeding bloody sense of direction?"
Heather swung the wheel to the right with a vicious jerk. "Oh, why don't you just come out and say we lost it on the broad savannahs, sitting round the camp fires weaving rush baskets while you great masculine hunters were navigating from antelope to antelope?"
"Listen, you –" Dave leaned forward argumentatively between the two front seats.
On the instant, Sarah reached for her pocket. Two quick taps; John always complained about her handbag ringing him, when she forgot to lock the screen. Let it work in her favour for once.
By the time Dave remembered her existence her hands were clasped innocently in her lap.
After some time, Sarah risked another question. "Where are you taking me?"
"Better for you not to know." The smirk was loud in his voice. "Just say, we're on our way to meet someone."
Dave frowned, then shrugged. "You may as well keep calling her that."
Heather, more visible than perhaps she realised, tensed, visibly. The car swerved; her hands could not be steady on the wheel. Sherlock, of course, would have been able to read that reaction with certainty. Sarah at least felt able to risk an educated guess.
Do either of these idiots know her by any other name? Have they actually met her, or is she just another person hiding behind a pseud on the internet? And are we really going to meet her now?
"Did she tell you to take me hostage?"
"No!" came from Heather just as Dave said, "Yes, of course." They both glared at each other.
"Heather?" she probed. Of the two, she considered Heather the more reliable. She hoped that assessment wasn't just based on their shared detestation of evol. psych.
Heather gulped, keeping her eyes fixed on the road ahead. "She couldn't have known the precise circumstances. She just texted Dave to say there was bad trouble coming, and we needed to get out of the party at once and meet her at the - at the place we knew."
"Taking you hostage was implied," Dave said firmly. "We needed to protect ourselves in case we were followed. And we couldn't afford to have your bloke start kicking off. If he'd come out at the wrong moment."
Sarah closed her eyes, very slowly, and counted to ten.
"Didn't it even occur to you that leaving a party's quite a normal thing to do? Especially at half-twelve at night? You don't need to create elaborate excuses, for crying out loud. You don't have to take your hostess hostage. A quick, 'That was lovely, be seeing you' will generally work, you idiots. I'd have settled for it."
An awkward silence fell in the car.
"Like Heather said, we need to know what you know," Dave said. "Vampirevictoria will insist."
"Like I said: I know bugger all. Squared. Glad we've got that settled." She glanced out of the window. "Camden Town tube already. How handy. Just drop me here, and I can make my own way home. And if I were you, Heather, I'd ditch this idea that vampirevictoria is going to solve all your problems, and try to turn Queen's Evidence."
"Shut. Up." He held up the hypodermic so she could see it clearly against the light spilling out from the underground station. He pressed down, just slightly, on the hypodermic plunger. A bead of clear liquid appeared at the needle tip. "Last tube went long ago. You're coming with us. All the way – or perhaps even a little further."
She nodded, choked into silence at last. Dave – being an idiot – would never believe how little she did know. And Dave, being a particular type of idiot, was almost certainly a fan of 24.
How did one convince a torturer that it wasn't just dogged resistance, that one genuinely had no valid information to offer?
You can't, a voice said at the back of her mind.
The car bowled on through the silent streets.
Heather turned the Touran into the pub car-park, drew up in the shadows beside the great, derelict building and switched off the ignition.
Metal shutters were bolted over every window, bearing pasted warnings against fly-posting and assurances that all valuables had been removed from the building. Its door was heavily padlocked. The sign which depicted a walrus-moustached Victorian tough alleged to be The Lord Raglan hung askew, one of the mounting brackets rusted through.
Sarah, who had drifted into a kind of sick apathy as the journey progressed, gathered together all the tiny reserves of strength which were left to her. She might be a candle guttering out in a dreary wasteland, but at least she would die knowing she had made an effort.
"Heather, have you any conception, any at all, of just how big a fuck-up this is? I don't know – and, frankly, I don't care – if this mysterious vampirevictoria is going to show up out of the night and hand you – oh, I don't know, false passports and new identities and first-class one-way tickets to Callao or whatever it is you're expecting. But – even if she does – and even if you kill me to cover your tracks, your problems really are only just starting."
Heather turned her head, staring at her. Sarah, borne up by adrenaline, exhaustion and a deep-banked core of sheer fury, concentrated on holding her attention. Dave was beyond hope; Heather she might reach.
"This is your last chance. Turn the car round; drive to the nearest cop shop, turn yourself in for kidnapping me. Who knows, maybe they won't find any poisons in Professor Farintosh's body –"
"Vampirevictoria's text confirmed they'd found taipoxin. What the fuck – who checks for Australian snake venom in England? She promised us – " Dave's aggrieved monotone broke in.
She gave him a false, reassuring smile. "But lab tests are all circumstantial, anyway; you get one forensic expert contradicting another in the witness box all the time. Anyway, who's to say you poisoned Farintosh? You could say you snatched me in a blind panic, convinced you were about to be accused of a murder with which you had nothing to do. My lawyer friends tell me the CPS is shambolic, juries go peculiar, the prosecution must prove its case 'beyond reasonable doubt'. You've got a chance."
She tried to make her next words count.
"But if you kill me – or cause me permanent harm with that insulin – John will never let it rest; never, ever. You don't know him, and I haven't known him long but one thing I do know about him; he's reliable. To the core. If I don't leave here unharmed, tonight, he will never forgive himself while you remain alive and at liberty. And Sherlock's an arrogant arsehole who'll never allow himself to be beaten by anyone, let alone by –"
Her tongue stumbled, wanting to say idiots. She compromised.
"By amateurs. And even if he weren't, so far as I can tell nothing matters to Sherlock more than John and if Sherlock's got scruples I've yet to see them. So if he thinks it'd make John feel one smidgeon less guilty about this whole fiasco to find your two severed heads grinning out at him side by side from the fridge one morning when he's looking for the milk for his cornflakes, then, trust me, Sherlock will arrange it. And that's before you even get on to Scotland Yard, who will be feeling so bloody humiliated to have you waltz me out of a party under the noses of an Inspector and a Sergeant that they'll throw every bloody last thing they can find at it."
She was beginning to hyperventilate, her throat constricting with the intensity of her emotion. She choked the last words out.
"And if – by some unbelievable stroke of sheer blind bloody luck – you dodge all of that, then you've still got to get past Sherlock's godawful brother Mycroft, who may be an ice-cold certified 100% proof bastard, but if he thinks he can bring off something which will make his little brother feel impressed and grateful and humiliated, all at the same time, he will probably invoke first strike nuclear capability in order to do it. And, Heather, THAT IS NOT A FUCKING METAPHOR, OK?"
She ran down, gasping, her last reserves exhausted.
Dave jerked his thumb to the right. "Someone's been reading too much James Bond. Trust me; it's not going to happen. Your wounded warrior won't find you here. Get out of the car. And don't try anything."
During the early part of the journey she had considered making a grab for the hypodermic; trying to hit a few strategic nerve groups in his arm and make him drop it. But the car was tightly locked; he was stronger than she was, more alert; had Heather to back him up. And now they had reached their journey's end, and all her energy had leached away, somewhere along the A12, and this grim, abandoned pub would probably be the last place she saw on earth.
She followed Dave from the car, stumbling a little, shivering in the cold air, the wind which swept over this urban wasteland knifing through the thin linen of her shirt, the rain driving against her skin. She waited, apathetically, as he tapped the code into the elaborate combination padlock and the back door opened to his touch. He fumbled a little, feeling for something by the side door. He found the main switch and harsh fluorescence flooded the back part of the pub.
That caught her attention. "The power's still on?"
He smiled. "Vampirevictoria owns this place. At least; she took an assignment of the lease from the receivers. Move it. Into the kitchen."
He gestured towards her with the hypodermic, once again doing his trick of letting a bead of liquid reach the needle's tip, before slowly withdrawing it out of close proximity, though not out of reach of a quick jab.
Something nagged at the extremities of her mind but she was so damned tired. No-one could be expected to think straight when they were so tired.
She slept-wallked into the kitchen, submitted to being pushed down into a rickety kitchen chair, allowed them to bind her ankles to its legs and her wrists behind her with a roll of duct-tape which Dave fished out of the toolkit he'd produced from the cupboard under the sink.
Heather hovered nervously by the door, a look of acute embarrassment on her face.
Dave selected the long-nose pliers, a hand-drill and two super-fine bits from the toolkit. He set them out on a folded tea-towel on a stool where she could see them and moved behind Sarah; well within her personal space – she could feel his breathing, warm on her neck and ear – but out of her line of sight.
"Now," he said, "there's an easy way and a hard way. So, I'm offering you the easy way first. Tell me all you know about Professor Farintosh's death. All you've told the cops."
Sarah groaned. "We did this bit by Camden Town tube. I told you then. Bugger all squared. Yes; I think she was murdered. Scotland Yard doesn't, by the way."
"Like I'd take your word for what Scotland Yard believes. Like they'd take you into their confidence." Dave must have moved even closer; his voice sounded unexpectedly loud. The hairs rose on the back of her neck. With an effort, she resisted the temptation to crane round to look, tried to make her voice as calm and matter-of-fact as possible.
"I think the active agent was a neuro-toxin used to contaminate her own insulin supplies and self-administered by her. You – " She bit her lip again as the forbidden word idiot tried to surface. "You yourself mentioned taipoxin – I had no idea anything had been found in the tissue samples – to the best of my belief they are still being analysed. Her sister seems to have been killed in mysterious circumstances many years ago. I didn't know anything about that until this evening. And that's it. Seriously. That's it."
"Oh, dear." He didn't even bother to fake regret in his voice. "So you did decide to opt for the hard way."
She felt her ear-lobe being grasped in the cold, metallic grip of the pliers.
Heather yelped, unexpectedly loud in the tense silence of the kitchen.
"What?" Dave snapped, increasing the pressure. Sarah gritted her teeth. She'd played lacrosse for her school; that ought to help on the pain front. Perhaps.
Heather's voice sounding breathy and over-loud. "I heard something. Something moving about. Perhaps vampirevictoria? Shouldn't we check?"
The pressure of the pliers relaxed. "Good idea." A pause. "Well, go and do it, then."
"Who, me?" In any other circumstances the appalled expression on Heather's face would have been funny.
No doubt, growing up, she had seen the same movies as Sarah. Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street. And, like Sarah, she'd internalised an essential message from those movies.
If you're a young woman in a large, derelict Victorian building on a really foul night, wind and rain lashing the building, you do not leave all your companions in the brightly lit kitchen in order to check out some random 'noise'. Which you suspect may be a mysterious intruder. Not unless you want to end up as a random body part. In close-up.
"Don't be ridiculous," Sarah said. "You can't possibly send her. Suppose it's some random junkie looking for a place to shoot up. Or the bobby on the beat, wondering why the lights are on here. You're much the best person to get rid of – whatever it is. I'm not going anywhere, am I? And Heather can keep an eye on me."
Dave moved round, into her line of vision.
"You could have a point,' he admitted, grudgingly. "OK. Heather. You're in charge here. Don't let her try to get round you. And anything she says that looks like it might be important, make a note, and I'll take a look at it when I get back."
The air seemed fresher when the kitchen door had shut behind him. Sarah let out a long, unsteady breath and essayed a cautious glance at Heather.
"I – look, I know there's no accounting for tastes, but – um – really? You and Dave?"
Heather looked at her, and then gave vent to a horrified giggle. "Sarah, are you quite mad? Me and Dave? I'm not the woman whom taste forgot, you know."
Sarah would have made a dismissive, hand-wavy gesture of apology had it not been for the duct-tape securing her hands behind her back to the uprights of the chair. And if she'd felt at all apologetic.
"Well, you know; hostage situation, conspiracy to murder, suggests some intimacy to me. Sorry if I got your relationship status wrong." A vindictive, rather off-its-head-on-adrenaline part of her mind mentally added, You should have posted an update on Facebook.
Heather moved a little closer, nervously, like a bird approaching scattered crumbs.
"Did you ever get it wrong. Dave came much later. Vampirevictoria introduced him as someone who could give us access to Farintosh's brand of insulin – look, I think it's important for you to understand that we never – originally – planned on poisoning her, just putting something harmless but noticeable into her medication to show her we could do worse. If we chose."
Sarah's next words came out through gritted teeth. "Did it never occur to you that she actually needed that medication to survive? That any form of tampering with it – even diluting it with tap water – was morally the same as putting – what was it? – Australian snake venom in it."
Heather's face in the harsh white light looked stricken, bewildered. But not innocent. At some point she had consciously accepted the upgrade to a "real" poison. Sarah noted that fact, in some remote filing cabinet of her mind, and changed tack.
"You said, We. Not you and Dave, then. You and who else?"
Heather paused. "Me and Caroline. Of course."
For a moment Sarah's mind whirled. Caroline? Caroline who? Then her brain caught up.
"Not – you can't mean Caroline? Your Deathcon roommate? The one who kept chucking her dental brace at your head? That Caroline?"
Heather somehow managed to look first sheepish, then a little daring, then proud. "My lover Caroline. Yes."
Sarah paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. "And how long's that been going on?"
"About eighteen months. We met at Marlowecon, in Seattle, but we've been keeping it quiet. And there's been the whole long-distance thing, too. She's from this poisonous small town right in the heart of Bible-belt Texas and she's in a vicious custody battle with her ex and coming out would completely play into his hands."
Sarah bit her tongue, hard. It would do no good to point out that getting involved in a murderous conspiracy wouldn't help Caroline's domestic difficulties, either. She thought of Mrs Hudson – the widowed Mrs Hudson – and shuddered. Surely Texas, as well as Florida, had the death penalty for murder? In which case Caroline's domestic difficulties might shortly be at an end altogether.
If Caroline went to the execution chamber, Sarah's own hands would be far from clean. She spared a thought for the unknown kids who would ultimately pay the penalty for her deciding to busy-body Professor Farintosh's death. They would lose their mother amid all the hideous publicity of a murder trial. What a gift this would be to the tabloids. A toxic cocktail of fan conventions (with all the built-in assumptions about weirdos that conveyed), feminist fallings out, lesbian sex, exotic neuro-toxins derived from snake venom –
They'd hardly hear the last of it until next century.
But on the other hand, if she hadn't interfered, the kids would have been left in the care of a woman who'd successfully brought off an undetected poisoning, and no-one could say that made for ideal family relationships, either.
"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," she murmured.
"You mean Elliot? I'll say. Can you imagine what a bastard a bloke has to be to write to his kids' high school and tell them a woman who's been kicked out of college for plagiarism isn't fit to supervise her kids' homework, and insist the school run all the kids' written assignments through turnitin, 'to keep them honest'?" Heather's face contorted with indignation.
"And had she been kicked out for plagiarism?"
"Well, yes. But it was years and years ago – I think she was only a kid – nineteen or so – and it was one of those fearfully snotty, pressure-cooker little women's liberal arts colleges somewhere in New England. You know, the sort who bang on about 'honor codes' and 'zero tolerance policies' but don't give their students any actual support when they start getting behind on their assignments. No wonder they resort to essay mills or cribbing stuff off the internet. And then you get someone like Farintosh coming in like the sodding Inquisitor-General, heading up a commission of enquiry, and everything gets out of hand and about half-a-dozen people end up being kicked out and having their lives ruined. I think, to be honest, Caroline ended up getting involved with Elliot in reaction to the whole college mess."
"And I suppose she ended up getting involved with you in reaction to the Elliot mess?" Sarah asked, acerbically.
Heather sat on the steel worktop, swinging her legs awkwardly. It gave her a curiously adolescent, unfinished look. Sarah didn't know whether to feel more pity or exasperation. But the woman was twenty-seven, for pity's sake, and no-one had the right to be that wet behind the ears, whatever their age.
Dave pushed open the door, looking flustered and ill-tempered; Sarah hoped he'd been thinking of slasher movies, too.
"There's no-one there, you stupid bint," he announced. "You're imagining things. Either that, or you're trying to stop me getting what she knows out of your little feminist friend here."
Heather shook her head. "No – honestly. I'm sure I heard something. And vampirevictoria should have been here by now. You know that."
"She said she'd meet us here. But she hasn't come," Sarah muttered.
Dave strode across the room, reaching for the hypodermic which he had left on the draining board, leaning into her face.
"So you think you're so clever? Well, you've been clever enough to convince me. That you don't know anything useful. So – this is where it ends. Now."
Heather's hand went to her mouth, looking desperately across the room into Sarah's eyes, murmuring a soundless, futile apology. Sarah stared back, steadily. Apology not accepted. Your choices led me here.
Behind Heather's back, the kitchen door eased open.
Sherlock stood outlined in the archway, ghost-pale in the harsh fluorescence. In his hand she could see the glint of steel. Familiar steel. A knife she had last seen in the hand of Sally Donovan, julienning red peppers.
He glided across the floor. Not until Sarah's vegetable knife was poised a fraction of a millimetre above Heather's carotid artery did he make his presence known.
"Good evening," Sherlock said. "I believe I'm the person you've been waiting for."
Again, people with a hypodermic squick may prefer to treat the first part of this chapter with caution.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Dave jerked his head up. "Fuck!" He turned, facing Sherlock across the full width of the kitchen. "You. But you were at the party – why didn't you tell me who you were then?"
Sherlock's lips curled into the thinnest imaginable smile. "Because I needed to be certain who you were. Heather, of course, I knew from the start, but establishing the real name of her confederate proved more complicated. Terribly boring, these Internet pseuds. I had both Andy and Verity as possibles, as well as you. But it didn't take long to eliminate them."
Dave's tongue flicked out to moisten his lips. "Well, perhaps now we've got that straight, we'd better be getting on." He gestured towards Sarah with the hypodermic. "What do you want me to do with this one?"
"You really are a very ugly little man," Sherlock said. "But, since you ask, only one thing. One more question. This one, I assure you, Sarah will answer."
"The question being?" Dave looked purple, swollen with anger but still keeping himself controlled, not allowing his rage to burst out. Not yet.
"Sarah, please could you tell this – idiot – my proper name?"
Adrenaline coursed through her veins; her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might burst. Sherlock stood ten feet away, Dave's deadly little needle was close enough that she could feel the moisture at its tip against her bare skin, and she could easily still die tonight.
But not unavenged. And not alone.
She breathed deeply, to steady her nerves. "Sorry, Dave, but you should have listened to John. He told you. At the party. Master of disguise. This, I'm afraid, is the real Sherlock."
Heather gave an alarmed little squeak. Dave looked at her with utter contempt, then back across at Sherlock. "If so, then I still come out ahead. Cut Heather's throat. Then I don't have to get rid of the stupid bint myself. Whereas – if I shove this needle into Sarah –things won't go so well, your end. Fuck knows what the three of you have got going between you, but at the very least I'd have thought your mate John would prefer you not to give him back a girlfriend in a coma. Gives me the game, I think."
Sherlock looked, for a moment, almost crest-fallen. He withdrew the vegetable knife from Heather's neck, dropping it into his coat pocket. ("The lining!" a voice screamed in Sarah's head, sounding uncannily like her mother's.)
"Yes. It would appear so." Something changed in his voice. "Assuming I'd been taking a hostage in the first place. As opposed to proving a point." He turned away from Dave, reached out and cupped Heather's chin in his right hand, looking intensely into her face. She stared back into his pale eyes, transfixed.
"Sarah gave you two extremely sound pieces of advice this evening. Once by Camden Tube, once in the car-park of this pub."
"How the fuck did you know –"
Sherlock ignored Dave. "Take that advice. There's a Scotland Yard car parked outside now. Get out of this building, go straight to the car and allow them to arrest you. Tell them you intend to make a statement only once you have legal representation. Your lawyers are Gold & O'Flahertie. Say nothing else."
"Gold & O'Flahertie?"
"My landlady's suggestion. She said –"
"Her late husband used to swear by them?" Sarah completed. Sherlock nodded.
Better warn Caroline not to instruct their US branch, then.
Heather paused, uncertain. Sarah nodded, emphatically. Go.
She nodded back – an odd, fleeting sort of goodbye – and vanished through the door.
Dave glared at him. "You haven't answered my question. How the fuck did you know what Sarah said in the car and when she said it?"
"Two possibilities. Guess which. First, it could have been from the phone in Sarah's pocket. That's been connected to John for the last sixty-eight minutes. Through John, it's been connected to Scotland Yard. Through Scotland Yard, it's been connected to Interpol. Every port in Europe closed against you over an hour ago." He smiled, a spare, deadly, smile. "Or it could have been because I've been in the boot of your car ever since you left Sarah's flat."
"You heard. It seemed like the quickest way of finding the location where you'd mixed the taipoxin into the insulin. After all, I couldn't be sure whether you'd actually acquired a taipan. It's one of the deadliest snakes on Earth; we wouldn't want it escaping into Wanstead. Or anywhere else, for that matter."
Despite herself, Sarah let out a squeak of horror. "There could be a poisonous snake loose on the premises?" The skin between her shoulder-blades twitched; her ears started to pick up odd, swishing sounds from remote corners of the room.
Sherlock shook his head. "No. Trust me. I checked. Found this." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the remains of a white Jiffy bag. "Sent from a laboratory in Darwin. Arranged by vampirevictoria. Pity. I'd have been quite impressed if he'd actually milked a deadly snake for its venom. As it is – murder by mail-order? Lacks class."
Dave sneered. "You seem to know a lot. So you posed as her and sent us the message that all was discovered, and to meet you here?"
Sherlock sounded bored. "That took you long enough. How on earth do you function with a brain so small?"
Very deliberately, making sure she could see his every movement, Dave raised the hypodermic vertically, once more making a business of clearing air from it. "Not as small as Sarah's will be in a couple of minutes. Do you really want me to follow through on that?"
"Curious thing to use, for a kidnapping, a hypodermic full of insulin." As ever, Sherlock's voice sounded detached, arrogantly in control. "I've had over an hour to listen to your threats, and I still haven't been able to sort out one point. Perhaps you could enlighten me? I'm thinking of the curious business about the smell."
"What smell?" Dave leaned over her, as if selecting the precise millimetre of flesh for his injection. "I can't smell a fucking thing."
"Precisely. That was the curious business."
The fugitive sense she'd had earlier, of something subtly wrong about the whole scenario, rushed back with renewed force. Now, though, Sherlock's hint and ten years of clinical practice crystallised into one moment of total certainty.
The unforgettable smell of insulin. Band-Aid laced with menthol. No smell here. Not all that time in the car, not now. No smell - no insulin. A bluff. All along.
She shifted her weight, rocked the chair on its rickety legs, hurled herself and the chair together down upon Dave, down upon his hypodermic, yelling defiance as she went.
It hurt like fuck. The needle raked down her side in an awkward, jagged tear as she brought Dave down. He clawed out at her, grabbing for her throat and holding on until her blood roared in her ears, black clouds danced on the edge of her vision and she thought her lungs might burst. But nothing else. Nothing else.
Dimly, she felt Dave's grasp on her throat being broken, forcibly; could breathe again. The duct tape on her wrists parted under the swift slash of a knife-stroke.
When the world came right side up she was still attached to the chair's remains by her ankles. Sherlock straddled Dave, pinning him face-down to the black and white tiles of the kitchen floor with his knees. Dave's right arm hung at a contorted, wrong angle that experience told her meant a dislocated shoulder.
Sherlock held out a wrecked hypodermic, just below her nose. "Your property, I suspect. From your emergency kit. Smell it, taste it if you like. But there's nothing worse than tapwater in it. London tapwater, granted."
She managed a small, weak grin. "Oh, shit."
"Quite so. Been through a few alimentary canals, no doubt. But quite safe. At least –" he gave her an odd, complicit, somehow strangely reassuring angular smile. "I've had worse in my veins. And I'm still here." He fiddled on the floor for a moment, then tossed her the vegetable knife. "Free your feet. By the way –" He paused for a moment, then spoke fast, as if he had to get something past his vocal cords before they noticed. "You were magnificent. In the car-park. And right. In every single particular. Absolutely right."
Dave groaned beneath him.
Sarah's eyes dropped to Dave's shoulder. "I need to reduce that, before the swelling gets too bad -"
"Don't let that bitch touch me –" Dave choked out.
Sherlock leaned forward, pressing him down into the cold floor, apparently indifferent to whether he was leaning on the bad side. "She's got two older brothers, both rugby players. She reduced her first dislocated shoulder when she was fifteen."
Two days past her sixteenth birthday, actually, and she'd never publicised the fact, the rugby club in question having understandable concerns about whether its insurers might take the matter badly.
"I don't care. How can you expect me to trust her?"
"Given you've spent the best part of the last two hours trying to convince her you either planned to kill her or give her permanent brain damage, it's a mystery to me, too. But you're as safe in Sarah's hands as in those of the next doctor. In fact, given who the next doctor is, I strongly recommend you settle for Sarah."
Reluctantly, Dave nodded. Sherlock, eying him warily, the vegetable knife to hand, allowed him to rise, and then caught his upper body from behind, holding him upright.
"Look over my shoulder," Sarah instructed, and seized his arm. Dave gasped, as the shoulder went back in with one quick, experienced, effective twist-and-shove, and she dropped her grip, oddly reluctant to remain in physical contact with him an instant longer than needed.
"I should make a sling –"
There came a flurry of agitated barking, from somewhere close at hand. A previously unnoticed door at the far end of the room burst open. John stood outlined in it.
"Sarah! Get the hell out of here. The place is wired; it's going to go up any minute."
Something grabbed at her collar, spinning her round, choking her. Dave, white with pain, his eyes small and narrow and – she realised – quite, quite mad.
"Well, let it blow. Let it take us all up together. What have I got to lose?"
Even though he was injured, his grip felt impossibly strong. She reached for his wounded arm, trying, somehow, to disable him, but he held her off, his foot scrabbling for her ankle, trying to force her off-balance.
Horribly loud, a gunshot sounded. Dave's grip went slack, his body fell away from her, endlessly, as if in slow motion, half his head blown away.
She turned, fumbled with the door handle, and ran; out into the cold and damp of the carpark, across the wasteland behind the pub, stumbling on rough ground, her only thought escape. Behind her the sky blossomed in flame; a vast roaring rose up. The air solidified like invisible concrete.
"Shockwave," she thought with some last flicker of sanity, and was thrown forwards into blackness.
Something was licking her face. Something, indeed, was making a very thorough attempt to exfoliate her face by tongue power alone. While making excitable yapping sounds; probably quite loud but reaching her eyes as if through a muffling blanket of cotton wool, like after a bad plane descent, before one's ears popped back to normal.
"Well done, Jenny, good girl. Very good girl. Clever girl." An unfamiliar voice, but warm, friendly. On her side. She cracked open her eyes, just a fraction, as a beam of torch light swung across her face and she whimpered in protest at the sudden, stabbing glow.
"Sorry. OK, try again now."
Very cautiously, she opened her eyes again. The torchlight made a circle of light on the rough ground, carefully aimed away from her. A man in dark, nondescript outdoor clothes was leaning over her. The dog – a spaniel of some sort – bounded around them with an odd, three-legged, lurching movement; off-balance, minus a front paw.
The man stood up straight, cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted, over into the distance, towards where she could now see the blue flashing lights of a police car, the glow of flames from the wrecked pub and toy figures running purposelessly about, like ants.
"Major Watson! Over here, sir." He turned back to her. "Any damage?"
She sat up, moved cautious fingers over bits of her body. The side into which Dave had jabbed the hypodermic needle was a mess, and would be hellishly bruised tomorrow. She didn't like the way her left ankle felt; not broken, probably not sprained, but she'd given it a pretty bad wrench, nonetheless; she'd probably recommend ibruprofen and keeping weight off it for a couple of days if someone showed up with that at the clinic. Her hearing seemed to be clearing already. All in all, not bad. She would, definitely, live.
That thought, after the last two hours, made her feel light-headed.
She looked up at the man with the dog and extended a hand. "I'm mostly OK, thanks very much. I'm Sarah, by the way."
The hand that took hers felt surprisingly narrow; the palm edge rough under her touch, the man's grip firm, but uneven. Missing at least two fingers, though she resisted the temptation to look.
"Simon. And this is Jenny. Best and brightest member of the British Army ever to serve in Helmand Province. Softest thing on earth, aren't you, Jen?"
The dog bounded up to her. She extended her knuckles for her to sniff; then, friendly relations having been established, opened her hand and began to stroke her ears.
The dog luxuriated under the caress, lifting her head so she could be tickled under the chin, her expression that of a person who has done something remarkably clever and is pleased to see someone having the good sense to acknowledge the fact.
It was an expression Sarah had seen rather frequently over the last couple of months. Albeit not on a spaniel.
She giggled. And then, abruptly, remembered the explosion. "What about John? Sherlock? What happened?"
"The Major's fine – at least, he will be soon as knows you got out OK. He was in a state before. Haven't seen him that worked up in a long time. Had a right go at that tall plonker in the coat – that'd be Sherlock, I take it? I'd like to see what his eye looks like in the morning. Nicest straight left I've seen since Prince Naz retired."
"Golly," Sarah said appreciatively. She probably ought – no, she probably would – volunteer to take a look at the damage in due course, and make appropriately disapproving noises about mindless violence and testosterone-fuelled idiocy while patching it up. But, whatever Professor Farintosh might have said, there was something distinctly – flattering – about having inspired one's boyfriend to take a swing at his best mate. Especially when – wet liberal instincts aside – the self-absorbed idiot so clearly deserved it. Just now and again. For his own good. Georgette Heyer, she thought, would have understood her emotions perfectly.
Another voice broke in. "Simon! Where the hell – oh, thank God. Sarah. You got out safe. Thank God." And she found herself crammed against John's chest in a frantic ecstasy of flurried kisses, hands all over the place and – her own name, repeated over and over.
With understated sensitivity, John made sure she sat behind the police driver of the Touran on the way home, the opposite side from the outward journey. She'd been offered a seat in the squad car, but baulked at the idea of travelling with Heather, even with Heather handcuffed to a WPC. Less than a fortnight ago they'd been cheerfully bitching over breakfast about Heather's impossible room-mate. Since then Heather had murdered that room-mate, kidnapped Sarah at hypodermic-point and taken her off to torture in a disused and booby-trapped pub. That sort of thing really made you re-evaluate your friendships, whether on-line or off.
John murmured soothingly into her hair, encouraging her to rest her head against his oatmeal jumper. She felt guilty for having teased him about it two days ago. It felt like the essence of stability against her cheek. Sherlock sat on his far side; long, and distant and detached, his right eye swollen and angry.
The car wove through London's night streets. The rain had ceased, but the shiny tarmac and the dwindling puddles reflected back the night-time glow of orange street-lights, neon signs of kebab shops or mini-cab firms, restless traffic lights.
Sherlock's right arm stretched along the seat back, just above John's shoulders. A sudden shaft of light from outside caught the soft wool fringe of his scarf, folded into a pad beneath John's bad shoulder at just the angle Sarah would have recommended, had she had space and time to think of it. It occurred to her that throwing a straight left with considerable force was not recommended for someone with less than 90% mobility in that joint and lingering, deep-seated muscular damage. And it took a certain sort of mindset for the recipient of a punch to be so attentive to the puncher's welfare afterwards.
She felt obscurely rebuked; then, far from obscurely manipulated. She moved her head, just enough to look across John into Sherlock's face. His eyes were hooded, his lips tightly compressed. The erratic alternation of light and shade from the streets outside made it hard to read his expression, but she thought he seemed – strangely deflated, like a child who had brought off a practical joke and only in the aftermath realised just how much trouble he was in. After a long, simmering silence, he spoke.
"Trust me. I didn't plan for that to happen."
"I never said you planned it." John's voice was tight with rage. "I said, you're the bloody deductive genius; you should have guessed it might happen. And then bloody well stopped it happening."
Sarah stirred. "That's – not quite fair." She yawned. "After all, if I hadn't been stupid enough to leave the wardrobe unlocked after I went to get my laptop, that idiot Dave wouldn't have got my hypodermic in the first place. And if I'd known it was my hypodermic I'd have known it couldn't have had insulin in it, because I don't put any in the bag, and anyway I'd keep it in the fridge if I needed it."
"Without the hypodermic, Dave would have used a knife." Sherlock's voice contained no discernable emotion. "Obviously not your vegetable knife, since I'd already stolen it, but presumably your other kitchen tools are equally sharp."
For some reason, Sarah thought of the long, narrow-bladed knife she used for filleting fish, and shivered. John tightened his grip and shot Sherlock what, even given the dim light, she could see was an epically filthy look.
"John, I simply could not expect Dave to be stupid enough to take Sarah hostage. How am I supposed to account for the thought processes of bewilderingly irrational people?" Sherlock's voice sounded oddly uncertain. In someone else, she might have considered it defensive; almost pleading.
"You could start by not sending them 'All is discovered; flee at once'texts in the first place," John said. "At least, not in the middle of a party."
"Dave's overcomplicating matters saved her, in the end." Sherlock's face was coldly angular in the reflected light from a small parade of shops outside the window as they stopped at a red light. "Blame me for not foreseeing that they would take her hostage at all, if you must – but what happened in the pub was a calculated risk."
"That's exactly what I mean." John, plainly, had no intention of letting the topic drop. "A calculated risk with Sarah's life. Suppose they'd brought the hypodermic with them?"
"I didn't imagine it was that sort of party. And, trust me, I do know the difference."
There was a speaking silence in the car's interior. After a while, Sherlock shrugged.
"Look: I had no reason to believe they ever owned a hypodermic in the first place. They never needed one. The beauty of this conspiracy was that every element of it existed, as far as possible, independently of every other element, and none led back to the source."
"Vampirevictoria? Or whatever her real name was?" John's tone made it not quite a question; more an accommodation. Tension still radiated from him, where he held her, close against his chest, but the intense fury had abated. He would not, she knew, ever apologise for blacking Sherlock's eye (And nor should he, insisted the part of her mind which wore sprigged muslin, admired the look of a man's legs in Hessians and knew all the nuances of exercising the choice to delope). But, having made his point, he was too generous to maintain it past the point of cruelty.
Sherlock was, she thought, a very all-or-nothing person; there were doubtless reasons for that. With his insistence on logic, he probably had no concept that "I'm going to kill you now, slowly and brutally" and "I will eviscerate anyone who harms a hair of your head" were emotions which could, quite reasonably, co-exist within the same person, at the same time. Not a man who seemed to have much experience with affection.
He did sound obscurely relieved when he spoke again. "Dave worked in healthcare, sourcing wholesale supplies for the NHS. Given Professor Farintosh's internet habits, discovering which brand of insulin she used would have been child's play. He'd come off worst in on-line arguments with her; he hated her sense of superiority and – of course – her feminism. Vampirevictoria reassured him tremendously there. After all, if another woman detested Farintosh's views, that proved she must be the aberration."
Dave had died tonight; his body wreckage in the remains of an exploded building. Sarah prayed to a God whose existence she barely recognised that she not yield to the temptation to say, 'He had it coming'. Her prayers to that effect grew more intense as Sherlock detailed the steps by which Dave had been seduced into murder.
At first, vampirevictoria had drawn him in by giving flattering support to his view that Farintosh was very far from as clever as she thought she was; encouraging him to 'teach her a lesson' by a harmless (if shocking) strike at her medication. Just to show he could. The second half of the plot, of course, was introduced once Dave had committed himself thoroughly. "Does it have to be quite harmless?" had been Dave's own suggestion. Though, undeniably, he'd been manipulated expertly to the point of uttering it.
"And Heather?" Sarah found, suddenly, she did want to know. She'd liked the woman, dammit; shared jokes and enmities on-line, clicked instantly at Deathcon. And there had been that odd moment of bonding in the pub, too. "And Caroline?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Vampirevictoria started canvassing Farintosh's former students over a year ago. When I asked, Harry recalled getting a couple of emails out of the blue, asking her to contribute reminiscences of Marina Farintosh, allegedly for a book making a critical re-evaluation of Smoke and Mirrors two decades on. Harry simply swore and binned the emails. Others responded."
"Heather said something on-line about a call for papers – oh, months and months ago. She asked one of the forums about how far you could go, until fair comment turned into libel." She paused. "Was that what you meant, when you said who poisoned the Professor had been obvious from the first?"
They were passing a park. Sherlock's face was in shadow, his expression unreadable.
"If the plot required Professor Farintosh to inject herself with contaminated insulin, anyone who'd had access to her personal possessions in the previous few days was a suspect. Given Farintosh acquired a new room-mate as a result of a literally incredible chain of circumstances, of course Heather and Caroline were in the frame. Tell me, is being a gullible imbecile a required qualification for the Deathcon organising committee, or did vampirevictoria somehow rig the elections?"
"The Concom didn't want to shame someone with a hidden disability into having to share more details than they felt comfortable with," Sarah said, a little primly.
Sherlock rolled his eyes heaven-wards. "Have you ever tried taking out an orthodontic brace in a hurry? Without its being obvious to everyone in the vicinity what you're up to? Those instruments of torture are made almost impossible for the victim to remove. It's a design feature."
"Sherlock –" John began, a note of frank fascination in his voice.
"Since you ask, Mummy invested a great deal in our teeth, yes. Including several excruciating years of our respective adolescences and about fourteen cutting-edge orthodontic systems, each more irritating than the last."
"Why did she –?"
"I kept taking them out, of course. Anyway. Irrelevant. No-one would choose an orthodontic brace as their projectile weapon of choice. And yet, in the heart of the USA – spiritual home of the dental over-intervention – the conference committee were clearly so besotted with their pop-psychological constructs of human nature that it never occurred to any of them to analyse the observable facts."
Sarah felt a rising bubble of hilarity. "Ah, yes. The Deathcon Concom. Remind me to tell you about the great personality disorder pants-removal disco dilemma some time."
John buried his head against her shoulder. From the convulsive movements of his torso she rather thought he had succumbed to a fit of giggles. Stress-related, no doubt.
Sherlock clicked his tongue repressively against his front teeth. Admirably straight front teeth.
"Was there really a book?" Sarah asked.
Sherlock gave the impression of choosing his next words with extreme care. "The emails came from a real publisher. A small academic press, previously best known for having published The Dynamics of an Asteroid. A work which took mathematics to such rarefied heights barely ten people in the world could follow it."
"Ah. Not aimed at the bestseller market, then," John observed.
"The Dynamics of an Asteroid was written by one James Moriarty."
Dead silence fell in the car. After a few moments Sarah, tentatively, broke it. "The lunatic who tried to blow you both up, a couple of weeks before Deathcon? You think he may have been connected to vampirevictoria? But - I thought he was dead."
Sherlock shrugged. "They never found the body."
"They never found half the swimming pool, for that matter." John thought for a moment. "Though I seemed to be brushing most of it out of my hair for weeks."
"Anyway, tonight leaves us with no evidence one way or the other. Once the scheme was wound up, it could run its course irrespective of further involvement from its instigator. Designed to do so, in fact."
"But – the explosion – " John began.
"I spoke to your friend Simon. While you were having your knuckles bandaged. In his expert opinion – and I formed the highest regard for his expertise – the countdown would have been triggered by anyone who, after a certain date, entered the correct code into the combination padlock. Had we simply broken into the pub, we would all have been perfectly safe."
"Bastard," John said. "Didn't want the other conspirators returning to the scene of the crime once he'd got everything going nicely, did he?"
"Quite so. But, John – if you had no reason to suspect Moriarty's involvement, why did you, on your own initiative, arrange to have a pair of your old Army friends with very particular skills meet you at the pub, once I'd texted you the address?"
John snorted. "I can't imagine. You, late night assignation, deserted building – can't think what made me go, 'Oh, could do with trained backup. Wagtail unit, in particular. Just on the off-chance'. Anyway, they live out this way and I thought they wouldn't mind being asked, even if it wasn't needed. When I met him in the pub last week, Simon said he and Jenny were getting bored out of their minds on civvy street."
"Dear God," Sarah muttered. "Even the dogs I meet these days are adrenalin junkies. And who shot Dave, anyway? Simon?"
They both ignored her.
"Sometimes, John, you leave me gasping with amazement."
"If it continues as a problem, I'll prescribe something to clear your airways. Anyway, why Moriarty? Even for him, spending a year planning the murder of a dotty English don seems rather extreme. Unless he was just trying an experiment; if these people keep banging on about how much they hate each other over the internet, what would it take to make them do something about it in real life? Might work."
Sherlock leaned forward, his fingers locked together. "Oh, while I'm sure he was delighted with how well his manipulations succeeded, Professor Farintosh was very far from a random victim. The clue to the whole thing lay in the apparently random date upon which vampirevictoria chose to post a fic which was expressed to be, 'A birthday tribute' to Professor Farintosh."
Sarah and John exchanged glances.
"Well, we wondered, yes," Sarah said. "I did think at one point it was Victoria Farintosh's birthday, but you texted not –"Something rose in her gullet, stifling her next words. Sherlock's texts had prompted her kidnapping in the first place. It suddenly became very hard to breathe.
"To understand the significance of the date, you need to know the Farintosh family." Sherlock's cool, lecture room tones were a blessed link with another world, her own world, not this nightmare of jagged emotion and concealed treachery. She gave a tiny nod, inviting him to continue.
"James Farintosh was a Belfast man; the junior partner in his family law firm. The war broke out and he joined the Army. He met Louise at a Cambridge dance, a few months after Dunkirk. Then he was posted abroad again. She went off to do clerical work for an obscure Government office in deepest Northamptonshire. They corresponded, constantly, but by the time they finally married, in 1945, they'd been engaged for over three years, during which time they'd seen each other for a shade under a month."
Sarah nodded. Sherlock didn't waste words; the details would be important later.
"James and Louise settled down in Holywood, an affluent suburb of Belfast. Their first daughter, Margaret, was born in early 1946; close enough to her parents' wedding day for neighbours to raise eyebrows. Siblings were slow in coming; Margaret had already passed her eleven-plus by the time Marina arrived. Victoria followed a bare thirteen months later. About three months after the birth, a neighbour found Louise holding the baby underwater in the bath. She intervened just in time. Louise, when asked, explained quite calmly and rationally that she'd seen the Devil looking out from the child's eyes. She never saw any of her daughters again; she died about thirteen years later in a very expensive, very secluded nursing home somewhere in the Antrim hills."
Outside the car windows the City flowed past, spiked with the floodlit wedding-cake beauty of Wren churches, the sly, knowing obscenity of the Gherkin, St Paul's dome swimming serenely amid wisps of flying cloud. Sherlock's face seemed carved from the same Portland stone.
Sarah could barely get the words out for shaking. Not fear, this time. Fury. "They committed her? For what sounds like classic post natal depression?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Not committed. A purely voluntary arrangement. Short of torture, a family of the Farintoshes' class, in Ulster, in the 1950s would never have admitted to anything 'mental' in the family." His voice curled, audibly adding the inverted commas.
"Like Harry said –" She broke off, teetering on the brink of an unforgivable faux pas.
"What?" John's wary expression spoke volumes. Minefield.
"I gather Farintosh found fictional studies of that particular provincial, middle-class mindset fascinating. And, boringly, insisted her students did so too." Sherlock's blandness was almost an art-form in itself.
John looked at him with incredulity. "You were discussing Eng. Lit. with my sister?"
"Intermittently, yes. Anyway, the Farintosh girls. Margaret took on the mother role, screwing up her school work in the process. The little girls – Marina and Victoria – were alternately spoiled as motherless babes and scrutinised as potential monsters by everyone around them. James buried himself in his work."
"God, what a nightmare," John said.
"Quite so. In due course, each of the girls found her own way of escape. Margaret, for instance, started working with youth groups across the border, working to bridge the sectarian divide."
"And what happened?" Sarah heard her voice, falsely bright and inquisitive. There were, after all, already two dead Farintoshes. It seemed hardly likely Margaret could have escaped the family curse.
"Met a nice boy, fell in love, got married. Moved to England. James Farintosh made his views clear about having a Catholic son-in-law from County Cork, so she and her husband moved to Sussex shortly after the wedding. Wise move; plenty of people in Belfast in 1969 had strong views about mixed marriages. But she still kept in touch with her little sisters, sending them birthday presents and so forth through a sympathetic neighbour. And then they, too, grew up and started looking for their own ways to escape."
"Oh, God," John said, pessimistically. "And did that go equally well?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Marina set her heart on an Oxford scholarship. Victoria, with equal single-mindedness, turned to sex. In which line, I understand, she did as least as much to bridge the sectarian divide as her eldest sister. After her own fashion."
Sarah's head went up. "In Belfast, early '70s? That's – teenage rebellion on the grand scale."
"Quite so. She was, I think, the only genuinely brilliant one of the sisters. Marina got as far as she did on sheer hard work, a first-class memory and the good pupil's trick of being able to predict what the examiners were looking for and dutifully deliver it. Victoria – could have been the best, in any field she chose. And what she chose was to be a bad girl."
If one strained a point, one might almost fancy a note of admiration, not unmixed with envy, in Sherlock's tone. The sort of way, perhaps, a very gifted amateur violinist might speak of a fellow-pupil in the school orchestra who had moved on to play with the Berlin Phil.
"I doubt Marina was precisely surprised when her sister told her she was pregnant. Neither of the girls could face breaking the news to their father, though. They pooled their savings, Victoria caught the Heysham ferry, and next thing James Farintosh knew, Victoria was with Margaret and her husband, at their home in Sussex."
John and Sarah exchanged glances.
"Poor kid. We've had a few of those through the clinic; straight off the boat and scared shitless. Good job she had family in England to turn to; lots don't."
"Ye-es." The note in Sherlock's voice prepared her.
"Oh, God. Catholic family in England. So she didn't – "
"Margaret, to do her justice, was fully prepared to support Victoria in whatever decision she made. There was a complicating factor, though. Margaret had just been advised – after several years of heart-break and frustration – that she was unlikely to be ever able to conceive and carry a child to term. As a result, the Moriartys –"
"The who?" Both Sarah and John spoke at once. Sherlock raised his eyebrows.
"Margaret and Patrick Moriarty, Victoria Farintosh's sister and brother-in-law. Didn't I make that clear?"
"Rather obviously not," John said. "I suppose I can guess where this is going?"
Sherlock's teeth glinted, just for a moment, as he bared them in a mirthless smile. "Yes. The Moriartys offered to adopt the child if Victoria chose to go through with it, and, after some heart-searching, she agreed. Nothing hole-and-corner; all properly arranged through one of the Catholic adoption agencies. Unfortunately – the pregnancy turned out to have unexpected complications."
"Victoria Farintosh had Type 1 diabetes. She was – what – fifteen? Sixteen? There was a history of severe post-partum depression in the family. It was the early 1970s and NHS obstetrics were stuck in the Dark Ages." Sarah drew a deep breath. "I doubt the complications were in the least unexpected. But I'll bet serious money no-one chose to discuss them openly with her. At least, not while she could still change her mind."
He made a wry half-shrug of acknowledgement. "You could be right. Anyway, the child, due in August, was born two months prematurely; touch-and-go for both mother and baby. He was hurriedly baptised – Catholic – and named for his grandfather, presumably as a gesture towards reconciliation. Margaret's doing; Victoria was too ill to be involved. Indeed, there's no evidence she ever saw the baby or expressed any wish to do so."
"Named for his grandfather." John's voice sounded thoughtful. Sherlock continued.
"When Victoria recovered she opted for a complete change of scene. Her father's elder brother had emigrated to the US; she went out to join his family there, finished her schooling, and, in due course, qualified as a teacher. She deliberately broke contact with Margaret and her family but continued to correspond with Marina."
He gestured with one elegant hand, a poised, spare movement. "My first real break in the case came there. Victoria became a considerable auto-didact; Marina was happy to exchange early drafts of her papers with her, they corresponded weekly, if not more often. Every paper Marina published until her sabbatical included the acknowledgement, "and thanks for the insights and continued help of my sister Victoria." With Smoke and Mirrors the format changed: "Thanks to my sister, without whom these works would never have seen the light of day". And after that - she never acknowledged her sister in any work she ever published. The conclusion was obvious."
"Victoria killed the real Marina in America? And took her place?" John enquired. Sherlock nodded.
"Yes. Your sister picked up on it. She said, 'She'd turned into a completely different woman.' Harry's an analyst; breaks in patterns are what she lives by. Probably plenty of other people spotted it – as a literary matter. But no-one actually went the extra mile and realised that she had literally come back as a different woman. Except, eventually, her son."
"And his birthday is in June?"
Sherlock nodded. "And we still don't know if she outlived him or not. Though, if she didn't, I daresay we won't be left in too much doubt for long. Ah. Home."
The Touran drew up at the door to 221B. For a moment Sarah considered asking the driver to carry on to her own flat, her own bed.
But John looked, for a moment, so nervous; so much as if he feared the events of the evening might have caused her to ditch him altogether, that she hadn't the heart. Anyway, the flat would be littered with the aftermath of the party, and also, she really didn't fancy being alone there, not after this evening.
"Home," she agreed.
Thanks for all the help I've had from everyone over the course of writing this fic, especially Viki and jonquil. All faults and opinions in it are my own.