No one was absolutely sure whether Frick and Frack were really the same person or not. Some said that they were definitely two different people. True, they looked very much alike, but they had been seen in different places at the same time. Others claimed that such cases were merely an elaborate hoax and that Frick had been seen changing his clothes and wig to, as it were, become Frack. All that I can say for certain is that there were some very odd similarities between Frick and Frack but also some striking differences.
---Anthony Everett, Against Fictional Realism
"Oh, for the love of –" John swiftly clamped a hand over his mouth and nose, slightly too late to prevent the sudden rush of horrifying stench that swamped him in a vile wave. His stomach gave a huge, unpleasant heave, churning up what had once been a very nice lunch of banh mi and pudding. He swallowed hard and implored his gorge to stay down. "Jesus Christ, Sherlock, what is that?"
"Barotrauma, John." Sherlock came out of the kitchen, fully outfitted in apron and goggles over his dressing gown, t-shirt, and pyjama bottoms. In one hand he brandished a striker, in the other a pair of crucible tongs clenched round something that looked weirdly like a deflated saline breast implant. A clear, viscous liquid dripped from it, splattering on the floor.
"On what, a haddock?" John set the groceries on the floor and shelved his hand under his nose to filter out the worst of the stink. "What the hell is that?"
"In this case, a porpoise," Sherlock said, looking pleased. "Excellent guess, for you."
"Yeah, I'm pretty good at diagnosing by smell," John said. "What's that?"
"This," Sherlock said, lifting the tongs higher, "is the lining of a cetacean air sac. Got it from Oduya down at the natural history museum." Another drop of liquid slid off the thing and fell with a fat, wet plop on the floor.
"They just had them lying about, did they?"
"She saved it for me. You remember Petr Frolev, that oil mogul who died in Belize a week ago. Newspapers said pulmonary emboli as a result of long inactivity. It's a twelve-hour flight from Moscow to Belize, he wasn't in the best of health. Overweight, heavy smoker, full-time drinker. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?"
"But you think it was pressure drop?" John tentatively pulled his hand away from his nose. He was getting used to the smell. One got used to frequent odours in 221B; the problem was that he thought he was becoming desensitised to it. More than once he'd brought a girlfriend by and watched, chagrined, as they'd wrinkled their noses in disgust. "Not the usual bachelor-flat fragrance, is it?" Sarah had chirped gamely. Hers had been by far the kindest reaction.
Sherlock grinned. "Murder by pressure drop. Really clever." He whirled; a spray of porpoise snot flew from the membrane as he marched back into the kitchen. "It was his brother, Vasily," he called. "Not an oligarch by any stretch of the imagination – he acted as Petr's press secretary, rode his coattails, got jealous. Predictable, boring. He found out he was the principal beneficiary in Petr's will, though, and while they were in Belize, the pair of them went SCUBA diving with a local friend, a physician. Whilst they were on the ocean floor, Vasily cut Petr's weights."
"Ah, I get it, I get it," John said. "Because he was fat, he popped to the surface like a cork, at speed."
"Precisely. The rapid change in ambient pressure caused his lungs to rupture, resulting in fairly immediate death. Naturally Vasily caused quite a scene at the hospital, wailing and moaning for the benefit of the medical staff."
"But barotrauma and emboli don't present the same way. There's no effusion, the symptoms are completely – why didn't the --?" John paused. "Ah. No autopsy."
"Oh, who says you can't do anything with a medical licence these days?" Sherlock dropped the membrane into his biggest syringe. "Absolutely correct. And isn't it strange that the physician friend – who pronounced Petr Frolev dead, incidentally – is suddenly unavailable for questioning? On extended medical leave himself, evidently."
"Paid off." John picked the groceries up again and put the milk and cheese in the fridge.
"Or bumped off. Maybe he's at the bottom of the ocean with Petr's weights tied round his ankles." Sherlock closed the syringe.
John set the rest of the groceries on the counter and sat at the table, unmindful now of the smell. It was ridiculous and he'd die before admitting it, but he loved watching Sherlock plunged into his work. When Sherlock worked, he was happy, truly happy; his eyes sparkled, his long body lunged and swooped, his hands flashed back and forth, and he drew John effortlessly into a breathtaking rush of fervid enthusiasm. And yeah, a lot of what they did was repellent to ordinary people, but there was a secret pleasure to be found in someone so willfully extraordinary. Most people played it cool about their interests; for Sherlock, the very idea of cool would have been met with a blank stare.
God damn it, you're doing it again.
He wrenched his gaze from Sherlock's face and drummed his fingers on the table, then picked up the paper, only slightly spattered with cetacean moisture. He feigned interest in the Life section; he'd been gawping at Sherlock far too much lately, and the only reason Sherlock hadn't noticed was because he seemed totally immune to personal intimacy of any kind. "So why the lining in the syringe?"
"Obvious. Boyle's Law, John." Sherlock retrieved the tongs and moved to the worktop. "Before that, though, I've got to –"
"Sherlock, not that, that's the –" John flung the paper aside, too late. As Sherlock plugged his hot plate into the faulty socket (Mrs. Hudson had taped it over, but for some inexplicable reason Sherlock had removed the tape) there was a spark, a loud pop, and Sherlock flew backward and collapsed on the floor, dragging the hot plate down with a crash.
John knocked his chair over scrambling up from the table. He pushed the chairs away from Sherlock's supine body, grabbed a wooden spoon from the worktop, and knocked the tongs from Sherlock's hand. Not burned. Weird. The thought was as fleeting as it was swift, and he pushed it aside and dropped to his knees. "Sherlock." He pressed two fingers against Sherlock's neck. "Sherlock, can you hear me? Sherlock?"
The production assistant, fresh out of film school and still very much beglamoured, sidled up to Benedict and cleared her throat. "Mr. Cumberbatch, they said you're all through. Can you sign off on this?"
"Certainly." Benedict pulled his pen from his pocket and signed the form on the girl's clipboard. "Benedict's fine, love."
"Right. Benedict." The PA – Nina, he remembered, her name was Nina – smiled timidly as she retrieved her clipboard, and smoothed back a thick skein of hair. Her pale, frail blondness was enlivened by that hair, a heavy sheaf of gold held back by an Alice band, the gesture of a girl who knew her hair was her best feature and with a sort of yearning sweetness, did the best she could with it.
"What pretty hair you've got." Two years ago he might have touched it in casual appreciation; now he only smiled.
"Oh my God. Thank you!" She clutched her clipboard to her chest and all but skipped away. As Benedict watched, she made her way to Andrew's side and proffered the clipboard with the same shy, ducking motion and aura of worshipful awe.
Benedict hid a grin and stretched, flexing muscles sore from nearly two hours of enforced stillness and unexpressed emotion. He and Andrew had been filming their scene all afternoon; they'd gone through endless cups of tea and almost two dozen apples, and by the end of it he'd been jittery and sloshing like an overfilled wineskin. He desperately wanted out of his costume and makeup, a piss, a beer, solid food, and a smoke, not necessarily in that order. He lifted a hand to Andrew, picking his way through taped-down cables. "Are you up for a meal? I'm starving."
Andrew's eyes lit up. "Giant plate of chips?"
"Giant plate of broccoli rabe."
"Ugh. Well, I don't have to kiss you. Right, wait for me outside. Twenty minutes?"
"Fifteen." Benedict skirted a stack of sandbags and nodded to a pair of grips. "'Night, guys. Thanks."
"See you in a week, Ben."
"Right." Nina passed by, and Benedict touched her arm. "Nina, is Martin gone?"
"He's taking the 9:30 back."
"Thanks. Good night." He felt for his phone – sometimes he got away with it, but not in the pocket today, not for an afternoon of mostly sitting. Too tight, spoiled the line. In the trailer, then.
"Mind your shoe, it's come undone." Nina gave him another shy smile and darted away.
"Oh – thanks." He stuck his pen in his mouth and crouched low to tie his shoe. God, he was hungry; he actually felt light-headed. Fuck the broccoli rabe, he'd have a few chips and put in extra time at the pool over the weekend.
As he got to his feet, he wobbled and reached out for the nearest support, a flimsy C stand. It tipped over; startled, he flung his hand backward and grasped an electrical lead. He felt the slick smoothness of tape, then a sudden blazing-hot sliver of pain, and then nothing at all.
Benedict opened his eyes and instantly squeezed them shut again to block out the blinding light that induced immediate tears. Covering the upper half of his face with his arm, he cautiously groped out with his other hand. "Guys, that's really bright. Could you turn it off? I think I'm okay."
"I wouldn't count on that."
"Oh, that's funny." Some wag had found a voice recording to prank him. Dirty trick to play on a guy who'd just got a shock serious enough to knock him unconscious. "Hilarious. Look, I think I'm okay, but it's just possible I might have a conc –"
He froze. The hair on the back of his neck stood up, making his skin tingle.
That hadn't been a recording.
Slowly, cautiously, Benedict took his arm away from his face and sat up, squinting through tears. Christ, the light was almost pure white, like football stadium halogens. There was a mottled blur about two metres away, a vaguely human shape. "Who's that?" No answer came from the figure, so he rubbed his eyes to clear them. God, couldn't they turn the light off? He drew his knees up and stared down at the dark wool of his trousers to soothe his eyes. "It's not funny," he muttered, then looked at the figure, who was also sitting on the floor. "Holy fuck."
The man on the floor looked just like Benedict. Exactly like Benedict. And if he didn't have a concussion and his brain wasn't projecting hallucinations as he slowly bled, he sounded just like Benedict. It was the best goddamned body double he'd ever seen. Ever.
Benedict managed to tear his eyes from the man – who wore, incongruously, his Great Game sleeping ensemble with the addition of a slick plastic apron. A pair of goggles sat on the floor beside him. White floor, white walls. Confused, Benedict glanced round. "Where the hell are we? This isn't the set."
"It's not 221B, either," the man said.
"Oh my God, you do sound like me. That's amazing. God, what did they do – clone me as I slept?" Benedict peered closely at the man. Amazing likeness.
"Human cloning isn't a medical or scientific feasibility yet. Certainly wasn't in the late '70s, either, despite all that Boys From Brazil rubbish."
Benedict blinked. "Okay. Hey, what's going on? Where did everyone go?" He rose to his feet, still blinking in the staggering brilliance. "Why's it so bloody bright in here?" He stopped, frowning in consternation. They were in a…a box. Pure white, no doors, no windows, not a single seam to offset the whiteness. He whirled on the man who still sat on the floor. The man's feet were bare. Even his feet looked just like Benedict's. "Who are you? Where'd they dig you up?"
The man lifted a brow in a bizarrely familiar gesture. "Sherlock Holmes. Who are you?"
"That's not funny at all," Benedict snapped. He paced the length, then the breadth of the room, stepping over the man's crossed ankles. "How long was I out?"
"Three minutes, give or take a few seconds. Of course, I was out myself and only came to a few moments ago. Electrical shock." The man shrugged and examined his hands. "No burns, though. Interesting."
"How did we get in here?"
"I have three or four ideas. Five, actually."
The man got up, stretching, and Benedict couldn't help but watch. It was like seeing a mirror with a life of its own between a layer of glass and silver paint. He'd copied Benedict's depiction of Sherlock so thoroughly it was a little scary. It was creepy, actually. "Look, you can drop it. You look exactly like me and you've obviously gone to a lot of trouble to get the details right –" Benedict's glance took in hair, eyes, teeth for fuck's sake – "All right, this is weird," he said with a nervous chuckle. "It's like I have a twin brother my parents never told me about."
"I don't have a twin," the man droned with exaggerated patience. "I do have brothers, though, and fortunately I don't resemble either of them." He leant against the wall, the picture of forbearance.
Benedict went to one wall and rested his hand upon its enamel-smooth whiteness. "I don't like being shut up," he whispered. A fine sweat had broken out on his back and under his arms. He knocked on the wall. "Mark? Sue?" He pounded harder. "Danny? Somebody?"
"Whoever you're calling, it's quite obvious they can't hear you."
Pivoting on his heel, Benedict glared at his double. "All right, just what the hell is going on? Who are you? How…" He trailed off and moved closer to the man, staring into his eyes.
The man met his gaze coolly.
There, the right eye, that tiny blot of brown just above the pupil. Desperately, he scanned for contact lenses, a custom job. No edge. No contacts. Real irises.
Benedict stumbled backward, gasping. "Jesus. Jesus Christ." He couldn't get air, and sucked in one rapid breath after another.
"You're going to hyperventilate," the man said. "Pull yourself together."
Heaving for breath, Benedict dropped into a crouch and tucked his head between his knees. Concussion. Had to be.
Something flickered beneath his vision. He tried to focus, and realised the man was waving a pack of cigarettes under his nose.
"Trying to quit," he mumbled, though he craved a smoke so badly his whole body twitched in need. He'd been planning one, just one tonight, but now he yearned to snatch the proffered box and stuff them all in his mouth at once. He took the fag with a trembling hand and put it between his lips, fumbling for a lighter. No goddamned lighter.
"You'll set yourself on fire," the man said in clear amusement, and crouched down, extending a lighter.
Benedict cupped his hand round the light and leant forward, noting with an inward (and probably an outward) shudder that the man's hands were exactly –
He took a deep drag, reducing a quarter of the smoke to ash in one go. He felt dizzy and the smoke burned his throat and sinuses, but it was calming, soothing; it stilled the palsy in his hand and gave him the courage to look the man in the face. "Who are you? Really?"
"I don't repeat myself."
"Oh, so I'll call you Sherlock, then," Benedict snapped. Arsehole.
'Sherlock' sighed and rolled his eyes. "Look, I don't know who you are and I don't really care, but the fact is that we've obviously been thrown together as a result of some sort of…anomaly. Temporal or spatial, I don't know yet."
"Anomaly." Benedict got up again and began pacing. "Anomaly. What the hell's that supposed to mean? I think you've got the wrong show, friend."
"You've got the same blot on your eye that I do. Same teeth, same nose, same hands, same pattern of hair growth. Now I'm not a betting man, but I'd make an exception in this instance. I'll wager you haven't got a twin either."
"No. No, just…just me." God, was it a separated-at-birth thing? Had his parents lied to him for some bizarre reason, some fucked-up Man in the Iron Mask scenario?
"Look, I admit it – I'm…puzzled about this as well." The man took out a cigarette of his own and lit it. He smoked in silence for a moment, and exhaled through his nostrils. "There's no data –" He glanced at the white walls, the pristine floor. "Nothing that indicates what might have happened. Except that you got an electrical shock as well."
"Yeah." Benedict stilled. "My shoe was untied, and I put my pen in my mouth to tie it, and I grabbed a raw cable – is that it? Some sort of electrically induced hallucination?"
The man who called himself Sherlock poked Benedict hard in the arm.
"Ow! Hey –"
"Quite a hallucination." The man took another contemplative drag. "Heard of the multiverse?"
"The –? Er…yeah, it's layered, or alternate worlds or something, I remember it from – oh, come on. That's rubbish."
'Sherlock' snorted. "Oh, I see. So it's perfectly ordinary to stand here talking to an exact duplicate of yourself, but the notion of physics and cosmological phenomena are utterly beyond rational thought."
"That's not even your area!"
The man tilted his head to one side. "How would you know?"
"Because Sherlock Holmes doesn't know anything about the cosmos, that's why."
"So you know who I am." The man preened a bit.
"I…we invented that! It's in the Doyle canon, for God's sake. It's fiction." Benedict's head was swimming. Hungry. I'm hungry and thirsty, that's all.
"Stop saying that!" Benedict stalked to the wall and leant against it, taking deep breaths, trying to find his center. It's the shock. I'm a normal, rational guy.
"You look just like me, you sound like me, and you even dress like me, but you aren't me. Clearly you're an actor – you've got makeup on, too much for any individual for ordinary wear, and yet it's melting a bit and not retouched, so at the end of whatever you've been doing, but you haven't had time to wash it off yet. Your hair isn't naturally that dark – auburn at the roots and a little thread of grey here and there, so not a brand-new dye job, but it's been artfully arranged so that the roots don't show much. The suit fits too tightly for comfort, and the side trouser seams have been pulled apart, re-stitched, and pressed to fit your body. It's good material, but not so good that it merits such an exact tailoring job. You keep feeling for your phone, further sign that this isn't really your suit. Your own suit would have accommodated a mobile, and there's nothing else in your pockets, which have been stitched down, so impossible to get anything in there anyway, not that you realise it because you do keep looking for it, so you must have more of this type of suit, possibly a variety of sizes depending on your activity. You've got nervous fingers, stained with nicotine, same with teeth, slightly whitened but still showing faint traces. Gums are a bit red because you scrubbed them extra hard, someone probably chastised you about your smoking habit, God forbid an actor should have yellow teeth. And judging by the number of names you called out, you're accustomed to coddling, typical insular world of the performing arts. And although you've just touched an exposed wire with high currency, there are no burns on your hand – no marks whatsoever." The man paused. "Shall I continue?"
"Anyone can do that," Benedict said. "If they've seen the show." He pressed his hands together and forced himself to speak calmly. "You're a fiction, and I'm hallucinating. So if you can't deduce us out of here, kindly shut the hell up so I can think, okay?"
The man gave him a smug smile. "Who's Tom?"
"What?" Benedict started forward, but the whiteness around him blazed into a dazzling radiance that blinded him. He cried out and felt himself falling.
Benedict awoke to a gentle hand patting his face and another chafing his fingers. His whole body sagged in relief. They'd get him to hospital, give him a CT scan or an MRI or something, and everything would be okay again. Everything was okay now, in fact.
Until a voice spoke.
"Sherlock? Sherlock, you okay?"