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A Study in Strays

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“There’s another bedroom upstairs,” says the landlady, Mrs Hudson. “If you’ll be needing it.”

“Is there?” John says, thinking Two bedrooms, are you serious? “That’s… well.”

For the price advertised in the Evening Standard, John had been expecting a right dump, honestly. Something like a former meth lab or someplace with bullet holes in the walls and odd brownish stains on the carpet. Not a two-bedroom, fully furnished flat with no stains or suspicious smells to speak of.

It’s more than fully furnished, even; it’s nearly cluttered. The living room alone has two armchairs, bookshelves, a sofa, a desk, and a coffee table, as well as books in the bookshelves and all sorts of knick-knacks about the place: a chess set, an assortment of vases and glass curios, a fruit bowl, a Union Jack cushion.

In short: it’s entirely too good to be true.

“So what do you think, Dr Watson?” Mrs Hudson asks, after John’s been given the full tour.

“It’s….” He bounces words from one side of his brain to the other. The thing is, John considers himself a decent judge of character, and Mrs Hudson doesn’t seem at all the sort to lie or withhold information for personal gain. In fact, from what he’s seen so far, he quite likes her.

“It’s nice,” he admits. “But, and don’t take this the wrong way, but it is a bit cheap. More than a bit cheap, actually, it’s a lot cheap for what it is. And I think that maybe there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Mrs Hudson hesitates, tightening her lips and rubbing her neck as she thinks. Her expression is one that John’s seen before on former patients of his. The one that says, Shall I tell him, or shall I not?

Finally, she breathes in deeply and says, “I’ll warn you, dear, it’s a bit, um… unusual.”

*

It takes John one trip to move all his things from his dismal little bedsit to the new flat at 221B Baker Street, then less than an hour to unpack it all. After Mrs Hudson makes him sandwiches and a cup of tea—“Just this once,” she says. “I’m your landlady, not your housekeeper.”—John embarks on another, more thorough tour of the flat.

He starts with the downstairs bedroom. The door is closed, although he doesn’t remember it being closed when he was here before, so he opens it with a touch of trepidation, but it looks the same as it did the other day.

It’s full of clutter in the way that the living room is. There’s rows of books, along with a bust of some sort, on shelves against the wall. Beside them is a framed photograph of Mendeleev, who John only recognises because his photo is beneath a framed periodic table of elements.

The bed is neatly made and, as John discovers when he lies on it for a moment, incredibly comfortable. So much so that he considers having a lie-down, but it’s late evening now, nearly night, and the last thing he needs is to bugger up his sleep schedule even more than it already is.

So he gets up and ventures to the upstairs bedroom—very slowly, his limp making it necessary to pause on every step. This room, by comparison, is bare. There’s no clutter, not even a single picture hung on the wall, and the bed, although it too is neatly made with sheets and a duvet, seems somehow more desolate than the one downstairs.

Won’t be spending much time up here, then, he thinks, and starts back towards the stairway.

There’s a loud bang from downstairs.

John’s mind leaps immediately to gunshot! and he’s on his knees, grabbing his cane like a weapon, before he realises that can’t possibly be right. It didn’t have the same timbre as the sound of a gunshot, and anyway, he’s not in Afghanistan any longer. It’s not likely he’s being shot at in his own flat.

John rushes downstairs and does a quick scan of each room, but finds no one—although the bedroom door is shut again. Slammed closed, he supposes, which explains the bang. He approaches the door, then cracks it open, but the room is exactly as he left it. Nothing is out of place.

He stalks about, shuffles the various knick-knacks around, opens drawers, even crouches down to peek under the bed and have a closer look at the carpet, but he finds nothing.

“Right,” John says. As he stands in the centre of the room, having one final look around, he realises that he’s grinning. “If that’s how you want to play it, mate, then that’s just fine by me.”

*

John falls asleep easily that night but wakes at some point before the morning. It’s still dark outside, only a sliver of light from the streetlamps filtering in through the window.

He lies on his side for a moment, remembering where he is and why, before he’s struck by the eerie feeling he’s being watched. It’s a tingling, creepy-crawling sort of sensation on the back of his neck that makes his shoulders tense, his limbs twitch. He blinks away the last vestiges of sleep, then rolls onto his back.

There’s a pair of eyes above him. Glowing in the faint light from outside, they seem at first to simply float in the air. After John blinks, though, he finds the outline of the face they’re part of.

“So,” he says, “you’re the reason I can afford the rent here.”

To be honest, he was expecting some sort of hulking, monstrous beast, but the cat seems to be more or less of normal size. The colour of its fur is dark, although John can’t make out what shade. It’s perched gracefully on the headboard just above John’s head, leaning forwards slightly so it can peer, unblinking, into John’s face.

As John speaks, its ears go flat against its head, and it growls, low and long.

“Oh yes,” John tells it calmly, “you’re terribly frightening.”

It quiets immediately, though carries on staring.

“It is a touch unnerving, I’ll give you that,” John admits. “And if you kept it up for a few weeks, I suppose I could see how someone would get tired of it. But, sorry to say, it’s not quite enough to scare me off.”

He rolls back to his side, and the cat lets out another growl, which this time transitions into a shrill yowl. For a moment, John worries that he is in fact in physical danger—if it leaps on top of him with claws and teeth, it could do a lot of damage indeed—but the cat remains atop the headboard and, after several seconds of John staying motionless on his side, it goes quiet again.

Then there’s only silence, while John stays resolutely still, closing his eyes and keeping his breathing even. The cat is still there, still watching him; he can feel its attention like an insect just under his skin. But it lets him be.

Eventually, John begins to doze, and when he comes fully awake again, it’s morning and the cat is gone.

*

He finds shreds of his favourite jumper on the floor under the kitchen table. Then some more wedged beneath the fridge and behind the bathroom bin. There’s a scrap of what looks like the bottom hem on the stairs, and the bit with the tag on it has been partly shoved between the cushions of the sofa.

Together, the pieces of fabric wouldn’t even make up half the jumper, but he searches the flat from top to bottom and can’t find any more.

He piles the lot of it on the coffee table and then sits in an armchair, chin propped on one hand, while he thinks. He can’t fathom that one sodding cat dug his favourite jumper from the chest of drawers in the bedroom, carried it out here, tore it to pieces, and then scattered them about the flat—all in only a few hours.

Yet neither can he envision any other way it could have happened.

“You fucking bastard,” he says, and smiles into his palm.

*

John borrows a torch from Mrs Hudson and then scours every room, investigating every nook and cranny large enough for a cat to squeeze itself into.

It takes most of the day—there are a surprising number of small spaces in 221B—and by the end of it, John’s leg aches mercilessly and he hasn’t found even the slightest sign of a cat’s presence. No faint scents of cat urine or faeces, no claw marks on any of the hard surfaces, no fur stuck to the furniture or carpet fibres.

“Oh, he’s far too clever for that, dear,” says Mrs Hudson when John returns her torch. “I rang many, many people about him, you know, and no one can ever find him. The RSPCA doesn’t even believe he’s real. I’ve been forbidden from contacting them again.”

“But it has to live somewhere in the building,” John says. “Or it has to be capable of sneaking in somehow.”

“Well,” she answers with a helpless shrug, “you’re welcome to try to find it.”

John decides that he’s going to do better: he’s going to make the cat come to him.

He buys a can of tuna at the corner shop, then places a spoonful of it on a plate just beside a bowl of fresh water in the kitchen. That night, he goes to bed early, feeling fairly certain that he has just taken the first small step towards getting the animal to trust him.

In the morning, he finds both the plate and the bowl have been upended. Much of the tuna is smeared across the floor, although pieces of it float in the pool of spilled water.

“That went well,” John says, and goes to find something to clean up the mess.

*

“Are you enjoying the new flat, then?” asks Ella, John’s therapist. “You’ve seemed more cheerful since you moved in.”

Cheerful might be a stretch, but John does feel better since he’s moved, less like a fading grey shadow in a world of colour.

“It’s all right,” he says. “I seem to have gained a sort of flatmate, actually.”

Ella’s pen pauses—positive influence, she’s writing on her notepad—and she raises an eyebrow curiously.

“A cat,” John clarifies. “The landlady thinks it belonged to one of her former tenants, but now she can’t get it to leave.”

“Interesting,” says Ella, in a tone that suggests she really doesn’t think it is. “And the job search?”

Ah, yes, John recalls. He’s meant to be finding a means of supporting himself. No matter how cheap Mrs Hudson’s rent, he won’t be able to continue living in London on his pension alone for much longer.

“You haven’t started.” Ella’s pen is going again, and John looks away, drumming his fingers on the chair when he feels a tremor coming on.

“It’s been busy, with the move and getting settled. Just haven’t got round to it yet.”

Ella nods, still writing. “That’s good, actually. Don’t feel as though you should push yourself. Getting settled is a very good plan right now.” The writing stops, and she gazes at him thoughtfully. “How’s the blog going?”

*

After therapy, John goes back to the flat and finds the fridge door wide open, most of its contents scattered about the floor. The carton of eggs is broken open, the shells cracked, and the milk—bought only yesterday—has leaked everywhere, making an even larger puddle than the upended water bowl.

“Christ,” John mutters, setting down his cane and coming gingerly to his knees to have a better look at the disaster.

There’s a short, dark strand of hair floating in the milk, which he fishes out to examine. Black fur, by the looks. That there aren’t little milky pawprints leading away from the scene, giving John some hint to where the animal is now, is both impressive and disappointing.

“You are a clever one, aren’t you?” he says.

The situation is so very, very odd that he can’t hold back a smile, and by the time he’s begun to clean up the mess, he’s chuckling to himself, imagining what cat could be capable of opening a fridge on its own—and what cat would even want to.

*

After that, John can’t keep anything in the fridge for long. When he sleeps, when he leaves, it’s opened again, its contents knocked to the floor, and he either wakes up or comes back to another disaster to clean.

Finally, he empties the fridge entirely, unplugs it, and starts leaving the door open.

Then mouse corpses begin to show up around the flat. In his favourite armchair, in the toilet, in the bath, inside his shoes, nestled in a drawer between two pairs of pants, even on his pillow just beside his head, which he discovers in the middle of the night after he rolls his cheek onto it.

And the mice aren’t simply dead—they’re mutilated. Body parts are missing, or their abdomens are torn open, or they’ve been skinned and ripped to pieces.

“I think he likes you,” Mrs Hudson says one afternoon when she’s invited him for tea.

“Really?” John answers, unconvinced. “I know they say cats leave dead animals as a sign of affection, but when those animals have been completely disfigured and their entrails smeared on your underpants, that seems a touch more like hostility.”

“Oh no, not that.” She sets a plate of biscuits on the table in front of him just as the kettle begins to boil. “Do you know, the last person before you to live in 221B had to have twelve stitches on her forearm. Poor girl, she was having a lie-in and said the cat just jumped right on top of her, claws out. Awful, awful mess that was.”

John stares, feeling cold as he remembers that first night, waking to find the cat on the headboard just above him. “And it… it didn’t occur to you to warn me about things like that before I moved in?”

Mrs Hudson waves a hand dismissively. “Oh no, I had a good feeling about you, dear. From the moment I saw you. Not like the others. Especially the first one after Sherlock, I didn’t like him at all. Something about him just didn’t sit right with me, you know, I could never put my finger on it. And he got the worst of any of them. Bitten twice, he was, before—”

“Sherlock,” John echoes. “Is that…. Was that the bloke who got the cat in the first place, then?”

“He must have done. Hard to imagine, since Sherlock never seemed the sort to get on with a pet, but….” She sighs.

“What was he like?”

“Sherlock? Well, he was a detective. He helped the police sometimes, with murders mostly, but he took private cases as well. He was working one of those when he disappeared. Do you take sugar, dear?”

“No thank you,” John says, and holds his hands out for the steaming cup of tea that Mrs Hudson passes him.

“The police never found any sign of him. So very sad.”

And Mrs Hudson does look sad. She stares off in silence for several long moments, one hand covering her mouth, and John can see her taking deep breaths, reigning in her emotions. Her eyes are distinctly misty when she finally continues.

“When I went to pack up some of his things, I found the cat there. He looked awful, half-starved and like he hadn’t properly groomed himself in weeks. Not to mention what he’d done to the carpets….”

Shaking her head, Mrs Hudson sits across from John with her own cup of tea.

“The poor thing,” she says. “He must have been all alone up there the whole time.”

*

“I looked him up on the internet,” John tells Ella during their next session. “Found his website, which is still up, apparently. ‘The Science of Deduction.’ It includes an analysis of 240 different types of tobacco ash. He sounds like he was a pompous twat, to be honest. Might explain why his cat’s the way it is.”

“Maybe,” Ella says, tapping the tip of her pen against her notepad, “we could talk about you for a bit.”

Abruptly, John feels a little like a wind-up toy that’s been stopped prematurely, its motor still spinning uselessly.

“Oh,” he says. He swallows and shifts positions in his chair, accidentally knocking his knee against his cane. “Right.”

*

He leaves his therapist’s office in a foul temper, then pops by Speedy’s when he returns to Baker Street for a sandwich and some crisps before going to his flat.

His laptop, which he left that morning on the desk in the living room, is upside down on the floor.

Christ.”

After setting his lunch on the desk, John eases himself to his knees and gently turns the computer to its proper position. Something rattles inside it at the motion, which is hardly a good sign, and when he taps the power button, the screen remains black, the machine silent.

“Fuck.” He drops his head, taking a deep breath as he tries to imagine how on earth he can afford to have his computer repaired—or to buy a new one.

“Suppose this means I won’t be writing any more blogs,” he says. Although that will probably be the only bright side to the situation.

There’s the faint sound of movement behind him, and John turns to find a cat sitting regally on the kitchen table, its pea-coloured eyes fixed on him. It’s longer than John had thought, with oddly big paws, and its fur is black and sleek. It meets John’s gaze and remains entirely, perfectly still, not blinking, not even visibly breathing, which is somehow more disconcerting than if it were charging at him full force.

“So I have you to thank for this, do I?” John asks, gesturing towards the computer.

The cat’s ears go back, and it hisses. Its canines, John can’t help but notice, are long and sharp, and he recalls what Mrs Hudson said: ‘Bitten twice, he was—’ But the cat doesn’t seem keen to venture any closer, certainly not close enough to bite.

“Well, cheers for that.”

The hiss turns into a low, rolling growl as John heaves himself to his feet, gripping the edge of the desk for assistance.

“Quiet,” John tells it when he’s standing. “I’m not going near you.”

The growling quiets to a stop, although the cat’s ears stay back, its eyes narrowed and shrewd. It watches as John returns the broken computer to the desk and then takes a seat, tugging his sandwich and crisps forward.

“This is your doing as well, you know,” he finds himself telling the cat while he eats. “It’s hard to keep food in the flat when the door of the fridge won’t stay closed. You’re a bloody nuisance, you are. Though I do appreciate not being mauled, mind. Mrs Hudson told me what you did to the people who lived here before me.”

The sandwich, whilst good, makes him thirsty, but John doesn’t care to go into the kitchen for a drink. Not with the black cat still on the table, monitoring his every move, its tail flopping agitatedly on the wood. Maybe he can pop down to Mrs Hudson’s for a glass of water.

As he’s pondering it, the cat leaps to the floor and skitters to the sofa. It climbs up the side, its claws scraping the fabric, and perches on the arm, staring at John with its head cocked.

“Good timing,” John says.

He scoots the chair back quietly and stands very, very slowly so as not to startle the animal, but the cat doesn’t seem bothered. Its tail begins to flop again, although much more calmly now, a sort of wavelike up-and-down motion.

With short, deliberate movements, John gathers his rubbish and carries it to the kitchen, where he bins it. Then he takes a glass from the cupboard, fills it with cold water from the tap, and sips it as he shuffles back towards the living room.

The cat isn’t on the sofa any longer, and John’s struck by an odd rush of disappointment, which doesn’t last long. Scanning the room, he finds the cat again, this time on the floor beside the desk. Its tail is draped over John’s cane, which is lying abandoned where John set it when he crouched down to examine his computer.

The very tip of the cat’s tail taps against the cane’s handle, as though to say Forgot this, did you?

“Well,” says John. His leg doesn’t even twinge, although he’s putting weight on it, walking on it. “That’s new.”

*

The cat follows him about for the rest of the day, always keeping its distance, always watching him like he’s a supremely suspicious character that needs constant monitoring. It watches John while he tries (in vain) to fix his computer. It watches John while he makes a Pot Noodle for dinner. It watches John while he tries to teach himself to use the internet on his phone.

While John is brushing his teeth that night, the cat finally disappears. He has a quick look around just to be sure, even climbs the stairs to check the upstairs bedroom, but finds no sign of it. He goes to bed shortly afterwards, thinking that it’ll be several days at least before he sees the cat again.

In the morning, though, John blinks gradually awake and rolls over in bed to find the cat sitting on the chest of drawers, beside the unidentified bust, staring at him.

“Just so you know, I have a gun in the bedside table,” John tells it, throwing back the duvet as he sits up. “And symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to my therapist, anyway. So it’s probably a bad idea to startle me first thing in the morning.”

The cat’s tail swings almost whimsically as John gets up. He’s wearing nothing but pants and a thin t-shirt, and he feels oddly exposed as the cat continues to watch him with wide eyes.

“Not sure anyone’s told you before,” John says, “but you’re more than a touch creepy, mate.”

The cat bares its teeth in a short, sharp hiss, and then it jumps to the floor and darts out of the room.

*

John begins finding cat hair on his jumpers—a lot of it. Not just a smattering of individual hairs, like he finds on his trousers and coat and even—god help him—his pants, but thickish coats of it in isolated locations. It’s particularly odd given how many weeks John spent looking for cat hair around the flat only to find none.

“Are you sleeping on my jumpers?” he asks the cat one morning, after he’s opened his drawer of jumpers to find the top one—which is tan and cable-knit—practically covered in black fur.

The cat, of course, says nothing, although its ears twitch back as though it’s offended by the question. Well, John pretends it’s offended, anyway. He knows nothing about cat behaviour aside from that purring indicates contentment and hissing or growling indicates displeasure.

“So you won’t let me near you, but you’ll worm your way into my drawers to sleep on my clothes? How did you even get in here?”

It’s an odd sort of relationship they’ve formed. The cat continues to stalk John about the flat, hissing and growling if he ventures within two or three metres of it, but sometimes, if John remains still and quiet for a period of time, it lies down and lets its eyes go half-lidded. The moment John so much as scratches his nose, however, the cat is up and alert, waiting for his next move.

“I told you he likes you,” says Mrs Hudson the next time he comes round for tea.

“I’m not sure what he thinks of me,” John answers. “I’m not sure he knows what he thinks of me.”

One night, while John is in his armchair flipping idly through one of the books he found on the living room bookshelves—Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner—the cat falls asleep on the sofa. Its long body is stretched across the cushion, its little chest expanding and shrinking as it breathes.

On a whim, John lowers the book slowly, quietly, to his knee and reaches for his mobile, which is balanced on the arm of his chair. The cat’s ears twitch as John snaps a photo, but it doesn’t wake. He smiles to himself, pleased with the first picture he’s taken with this phone since Harry gave it to him months ago. He’s pleased enough that he’s struck with the sudden urge to share it.

It takes ages for him to figure out how to upload a photo from his phone to his blog, then nearly as long to add a title to his post. (He’s a painfully slow typist on a proper keyboard; on a phone screen, which is tiny in comparison to his large and clumsy fingers, he’s impossible.) When he finishes, though, he has his first blog post since his computer was broken—titled “My new flatmate” and consisting of simply “Well, sort of,” followed by the photo.

The cat sleeps until John gets up to change for bed. Then it jerks awake, looking alarmed and disoriented, before it bounds off the sofa and follows him to the bedroom.

*

John is on his way to the corner shop for beans, bread, and tea when his phone rings. It’s so very, very out of the ordinary that it takes him a moment to realise it’s his mobile phone making the cheery electronic racket in the middle of the pavement. Harry rings him sometimes, as does Ella to remind him of appointments, but otherwise his phone is silent, useful primarily for accessing the internet and checking his email and taking photographs of his sleeping sort-of flatmate.

Surprised, and a tad flustered, he unearths his phone from the pocket of his coat. Unknown number, the screen says. John is sorely tempted to ignore it—nearly does, in fact—but somehow finds himself answering it instead.

“Hello?”

An unfamiliar male voice responds. “There is a security camera on the building to your right. Do you see it?”

John stops dead on the pavement, which angers a woman behind him, who huffs in frustration before stepping around him. “Sorry,” John tells her, hurrying out of the way so he isn’t blocking anyone else. Then, to the man on the phone, he says, “Who is this? Who am I speaking to?”

“Do you see the camera, Dr Watson?”

He looks to the left and finds the CCTV camera easily. It’s high up on the wall and pointed in his direction.

“Yeah,” John says, “I see it.”

“Watch.”

Immediately, the camera swivels until it is pointed directly away from him. John feels oddly calm as he watches it, trying to formulate a response. Then the man speaks again.

“There is another camera at the top of the building to your left. Do you see it?”

John does—it too is pointed towards him—and answers, “Mmhm.”

Just like the first, the camera swivels away.

It’s underhanded. It’s the sort of subtle, manipulative tactic that makes him furious. John inhales sharply and prepares himself for the man’s next move.

“I would make some sort of threat,” the man on the phone says. “But I’m sure your situation is quite clear to you.”

A black car pulls up at the kerbside, and the driver climbs out and opens the rear door, not even looking at John as he stands waiting for John to cross the pavement and get in.

“Get into the car, Dr Watson,” says the man, and the phone goes dead.

John lowers it, considering his options. He doesn’t have many. He could go along with it, and walk into an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous situation. He could refuse, and risk being hunted down and more forcibly abducted later. He could pretend to go along with it, then put up a fight, and possibly get himself injured or even killed.

So, clenching his fists and squaring his shoulders, he gets into the car.

*

He is driven to a warehouse, where an unfamiliar, smarmy-looking man in a very fine suit is waiting for him, leaning against a tall umbrella in front of a straight-backed chair, where he motions for John to sit. John remains standing, keeping his stance wide and his muscles relaxed.

He has, by now, envisioned a number of reasons behind this little abduction, each one more unlikely than the last. As a general rule, he tries to refrain from angering anyone, certainly anyone powerful and well-connected enough to be able to remotely alter the positions of CCTV cameras. His best assumption is that it has something to do with Afghanistan—which is, after all, about the only time in John’s life when he managed to do anything of importance. Nothing else even comes close.

“Have a seat, John,” the man says, pointing to the chair with the tip of his umbrella.

“I’ll stand, thanks.”

The man smiles at him. The sort of smile that isn’t really a smile, the sort of smile that always makes John just a little bit angry. “Yes, you seem to be doing well with that,” simpers the man, leaning nonchalantly on his umbrella again. “Your limp was rather pronounced not terribly long ago, and look at you now—not even carrying your cane. Quite a dramatic recovery, wouldn’t you say?”

Yes, John thinks, definitely Afghanistan. He says nothing, keeping his chin lifted and his face blank.

The man’s head cocks curiously. “You don’t seem very afraid.”

“You don’t seem very frightening.”

Which is true enough. The man is weak; John could snap a limb in a second, and then snap his neck with only a bit of a struggle. It’s the man’s connections he would have to worry about. In fact, this encounter is probably being monitored as they speak. Perhaps there are even snipers in the shadows above them, their rifles trained on John, just waiting for him to make his move.

The man chuckles. “Ah, yes, the bravery of a soldier. Bravery is by far the kindest word for stupidity, don’t you think?” His smile drops, and his beady-eyed stare takes John in from head to foot, picking him apart. “What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?”

The floor seems to drop from beneath John, leaving him momentarily adrift. His thoughts scatter. Sherlock Holmes? He hasn’t thought of the former tenant of 221B in ages.

“Sorry? I don’t… I don’t have one,” he answers. Surprise makes him stupid, stuttering, and he tries to gather himself again. “He used to live in the flat I’m renting. I never knew him.”

“Mm… and the cat? You are well-acquainted with him, if I am not mistaken,” the man says, with a greasy sort of smile that says he knows very well he is not mistaken and he invites John to simply try to tell him so.

John swallows, mind racing. Why should this man know or care about a single stray cat? “Who are you?”

“An interested party.” The man shifts his weight, tightens his fingers on the handle of his umbrella. “You’ll find that a rather… generous amount of money has been deposited to your bank account. I would be willing to make further such contributions to ease your way in exchange for… access to the cat.”

That’s more than slightly alarming. John’s head fills with all sorts of disturbing thoughts.

“Not for any of the reasons you are currently imagining, I assure you,” the man continues, frowning now, staring as though John is something smeared on his handkerchief. “Nothing objectionable. Nothing you’d feel… uncomfortable with.”

“No,” John says—firmly. This man will not come anywhere near the cat, as far as John is concerned. He’ll personally see to it.

“But I haven’t mentioned a figure.”

“Don’t bother. I’m not interested.” John steps back, towards where the car is still idling. He keeps his eyes on the man, his ears perked for any sound of the cavalry arriving, but there’s nothing. The man stays utterly still, watching him, and the warehouse remains silent aside from the sound of John’s own footsteps. “Are we done?”

The man raises his head, so he is almost looking down his nose at John. “You tell me.”

They’re done, then. John turns and begins to walk away. He expects to be apprehended or called back, but the man does nothing, simply allowing John to leave.

*

When John returns to 221B Baker Street, the cat is nowhere to be found. John tears through every room, looking under furniture and inside drawers and cupboards, fairly destroying the flat in his search.

He’s panicked; there’s no other word for it. His pulse throbs in his ears, and he has an awful empty feeling in his gut. Which is ridiculous—the cat is far from constant, is often not where John expects it to be—and yet that knowledge doesn’t help.

That Sherlock Holmes bloke was a private detective, Mrs Hudson said. A private detective who was working a case when he disappeared. And now a posh-looking man with an apparently generous sum of money, an ability to manipulate CCTV cameras, and access to an empty warehouse has taken an interest in Holmes’s cat.

Whatever case he was working, John thinks, Holmes found something, perhaps even got his hands on something that put him in danger.

Something could be hidden in a pet collar, although the cat doesn’t have one that John has seen. Perhaps a microchip implanted in the back of its neck. Or something else, something larger, that’s presently stored wherever it is that the cat spends its time when it isn’t following John round the flat or falling asleep on the sofa.

John has never seen it eat or excrete, yet it always seems fine, healthy. Somewhere it is being fed; somewhere it is having a piss and a shit. Why has it never occurred to John to wonder where that is before now?

“Cat!” he calls, standing in the centre of the kitchen when his search has failed. Does the cat have a name, something that would make it come when called? If it does, only Holmes knew it. “Kitty!” he tries, making his voice as inviting as possible. He moves towards the staircase and calls up it, “Here, kitty, kitty!”

He feels absurd. It’s a wonder Mrs Hudson hasn’t come up to ask him what on earth he’s doing.

There’s a sound behind him, and when John turns, there is the cat by the front door. Its tail twitching, it stares up at John as though saying, Yes, what? What could you possibly want now?

John feels even more absurd. What does he want? It isn’t as though he expected the man from the warehouse to have captured and vivisected the poor animal in the time it took John to return.

“Er, hello,” he says, coming closer. “Do you mind if I just…?” He extends one hand, thinking maybe if he can pet the cat, then he can feel for a microchip or anything else out of the ordinary.

With a loud hiss, the cat springs away and leaps atop the back of the sofa, then scampers to the far end, where it stops and spins to look at him. It growls, its ears going flat, until John concedes, “All right, all right,” putting his hands up and backing away again.

“Sorry,” he tells it. “Should’ve known better, I suppose. Only I was just kidnapped by some sort of twat in a suit who was really, really interested in you, and I got a bit… yeah. You can come down now.”

The cat stays where it is, unsurprisingly. Its eyes are almost comically wide, which John probably deserves, coming at it like that after months of keeping his distance.

“Though I do think,” he admits after a brief silence, “that maybe there should be some changes around here.”

*

The amount of money deposited in John’s account is more than what he would consider merely “generous.” Rather, it’s absolutely ludicrous. He feels faint when he sees the sum and has to sit down a moment.

Frankly, he wants rid of it. He’ll donate it, he thinks, divide it out amongst several worthy charities. But first, he decides, he’ll visit a few shops.

John has never owned a cat before. Nor any pet, for that matter, but he knows even less about cats than he does certain other animals, like dogs or rats. He knows a proper indoor cat needs a litter tray, of course, and food and water, and also possibly something for entertainment.

Luckily, when it becomes clear that John is both clueless and unconcerned about price, shopkeeps are utterly thrilled to assist him.

He returns to 221B with a veritable feline treasure trove: a litter tray, a water fountain, several brands of cat food, a bed, all manner of different toys, and even a sodding three-storey scratching post/activity centre.

None of which the cat seems to give a toss about.

He shows some interest in the food when John puts a bowl of it in front of him, trotting over and lowering his head to sniff at it.

“It’d be nice,” John tells him, “if you could stay in here for a bit. Where I can keep a closer eye on you. I don’t know what the arsehole had in mind for you, and I’d really prefer not to find out, to be honest.”

The cat sits just in front of the food dish, and stares curiously up at John.

“I’ve become… a bit attached to you, I think,” John admits.

Without looking away from John, the cat lifts his paw to the edge of the food bowl and tips it over, surprisingly forcefully. The kibble scatters, nearly covering the whole of the kitchen floor.

“Although god knows why,” John adds with a sigh.

*

Over the next several days, the litter in the tray remains untouched, as does the bed, and every brand of food that John fills the food dish with is promptly spilled all over the floor. The activity centre lasts less than a day before it’s knocked over, which creates such a commotion that Mrs Hudson rushes up to investigate.

“I wouldn’t worry over it,” Mrs Hudson says, watching John try (and fail) to engage the cat’s interest with a toy comprised of an assortment of feathers on a string. “Some cats just can’t be bothered with things like that, you know.”

That’s putting it lightly. The whole time, the cat watches John rather than the feather toy, his eyes narrowed like John is behaving as an idiot and should be deeply embarrassed. So John switches out the toy for a jingling ball that he rolls across the floor just in front of where the cat is lounging on his side. Again the cat stares only at John, something like disgust written all over his little triangular face.

John gives up, leaning back against the sofa with his legs stretched out on the carpet.

“The case that Holmes was working before he disappeared,” he says. “Do you know anything about it?”

“Oh, I never wanted to know about Sherlock’s cases,” Mrs Hudson answers with a shudder. “It wasn’t decent, the way he carried on like it was Christmas every time some poor soul got themselves murdered.”

“He only worked murder cases, then?”

“Oh no. He worked cases he thought were interesting. Oftentimes that meant murder, but not always. Like all those suicides. Do you remember?”

John does. It was all over the news a few months ago; even now, when there hasn’t been another suicide since the sixth and last, John still sees articles speculating about it in the papers occasionally. He nods.

“Sherlock would have loved that,” Mrs Hudson sighs. “It would have been right up his street.”

She sweeps her hands over her skirt, smoothing away the wrinkles, and they watch the cat for a time, who lays his head on his paws and watches back.

“A bit like that cat,” Mrs Hudson eventually continues, “Sherlock was. He never cared for the normal. Things that everyone else enjoyed, he thought were boring. You’d have liked him too, I think.”

John isn’t so sure. He sounds a bit of a nutter, to be honest.

“Now you’ve more or less properly adopted him,” says Mrs Hudson, with a nod towards the cat, “aren’t you going to give him a name?”

“No,” John answers, taken aback by the suggestion. “Course not.”

The cat’s gone so long without a name that one simply doesn’t fit now, and they’ve got along just fine without one, haven’t they? He’s the cat. And that’s good enough for John.

*

Over the next week, John doesn’t hear a word from the arrogant prat from the warehouse. The bulk of his “contribution” has been donated to various disease research centres and human rights organisations, and no more has appeared in John’s bank account.

Sometimes when he leaves the flat, he thinks the CCTV cameras are tracking his movements, although that might be simple paranoia. Either way, nothing ever comes of it.

Meanwhile, John finally starts on his job search, dropping off his CV at a few of the surgeries nearby as well as the A&E. So far, he’s heard nothing.

Bill Murray, the nurse who saved his life in Afghanistan, leaves a comment on a photo of the cat (sleeping just beside his bloody expensive cat bed, the stubborn bastard) on his blog, and they meet up for a pint.

Life is, he thinks, not bad, all things considering.

He has a lie-in one morning before therapy, and comes out of a heavy doze to find the cat asleep atop the duvet only inches from him. John wouldn’t even have to reach his arm terribly far to stroke a hand along the cat’s side, where the fur looks so wispy and soft, although he doesn’t. He stays very, very still until he can’t put it off any longer; it’s either get up now or stay and miss his appointment with Ella, who would surely be very cross with him for doing so.

John drags his feet beneath the sheets, beginning to swing them over the edge of the bed, and the cat twitches awake, his ears perking up and his eyes fixing immediately on John. To John’s surprise, he doesn’t hiss or flee. He only gives John a sort of disgruntled look and flicks his tail sulkily against the duvet.

“Sorry,” John says, no louder than a whisper. “You can go back to sleep. Only I have to get up because I have therapy in, oh, thirty-two minutes now, and…well….”

John doesn’t want to leave. Not just because of the cat, but because he doesn’t fancy spending an hour discussing his thoughts and his mood and his “trust issues” and his journal, the paper one he’s meant to be writing in now he can’t type up long posts on his blog, which he’s written precisely three sentences in since he bought it three weeks ago.

The cat blinks and lifts his head. Cancel it, John imagines he’s thinking. Despite her considerable expertise and well-meaning intentions, she’s done nothing for you, and in fact, you feel worse upon leaving her office than you do in the worst moments of your day-to-day life. So just cancel and be done with it.

“Right,” John decides with a nod.

After he’s phoned Ella’s office and cancelled, he lies back down on his stomach, burrowing into the pillow with a contented sigh.

Moments later, he hears the cat begin to purr.

*

The cat likes human food, it turns out. John feeds him pieces of pork, chicken, and fish, and he gobbles it all up happily. By accident—in other words, the cat leaping onto the table or worktop when John isn’t paying attention—John discovers he’ll also eat beans, boiled eggs, custard, and biscuit crumbs. And although John’s glad to see him eat, he’s fairly certain it isn’t a healthy diet for a cat.

One evening, he mixes broken-up bits of roast chicken into a dish full of proper cat food and sets it on the floor, hoping it’ll encourage the cat to eat what he’s meant to be eating. Minutes later, the dish is overturned, and the cat spends the rest of the night hissing at John every time they’re in view of each other.

“Right, yes, you’ve made your point,” John eventually tells him peevishly. “Fine. Go right ahead and give yourself a mess of nutritional deficiencies. I’m sure that’ll be nice.”

The cat hisses at him again, more loudly than before, and then flops down on his side on the sofa while John goes to have a bath.

Now they’re more comfortable with each other, the cat makes an assortment of sounds. In fact, John doesn’t realise how few sounds the cat has previously made—consisting entirely of hisses, growls, and very rare yowls—until the cat finally lets out a proper meow.

It’s a low and strangely mournful sound, more of a mrraoow. The first time John hears it, he’s sure that something is wrong. He rushes from the kitchen, where he’s been putting the shopping away, to the living room, where the cat is sprawled out in the black leather armchair, utterly unharmed. He lifts his head and blinks at John as though to say, What? Is something the matter?

After that, the cat meows all the sodding time. While John is cooking, while John is cleaning up, while John is watching telly, while they’re both sitting in their respective favourite chairs and literally nothing is happening.

Even during the night, the cat meows. John is jerked awake one night to find the cat prowling about his room making a racket, one loud, long, and sorrowful mrraoow after another.

“What,” John snaps, sitting up, “the hell is your problem?”

It’s still dark in the room, but John can see enough to watch the cat trot to the doorway, glance back, and mrraoow again.

“Piss off,” John says, falling back into the pillow. “It’s the middle of the fucking night.”

He dozes a while. Then the mattress shudders beneath him, and the next mrraoow comes from just beside him. His eyes snap open to find the cat on his haunches only inches from John’s face, eyes glowing in the moonlight peeking in from the window.

Fine. Christ.”

John shoves the bedsheets aside and manoeuvers sluggishly into a standing position. This time, when the cat darts to the door, John follows all the way to the living room, flipping on all the light switches and lamps as he goes. Once there, the cat stops and simply stares up at John, an expectant sort of look on his face.

“Are you serious?” John asks. “You just wanted me awake so I could come out here with you? It’s—” He glances at the clock. “—three in the bloody morning, you cock.”

The cat blinks and flicks his tail. Is it? he seems to be saying. Well, you’ve nothing on tomorrow, so what does it matter?

“It matters,” John scowls, “because it’s three in the bloody morning, and you apparently think the world revolves around you.”

Although, to be fair, John supposes his world does revolve around the cat. He should probably feel more pathetic about that than he does.

“All right,” he agrees, sighing. “I’ll be back in a tick.”

After fetching a pillow from the bedroom and a quilt from the cupboard, John returns to the living room and plops down in his armchair. Before he can situate the pillow or spread out the quilt, the cat hops up on the arm of the chair and steps his front paws onto John’s thighs.

John freezes, scarcely breathing, even as the cat gazes up at him, ears perked, as though to say, Well, what are you waiting for?

The cat doesn’t run from John any longer or go out of his way to avoid crossing John’s path. In fact, he’ll often sit or lie well within John’s reach. Still, John hasn’t touched him—although he wants to, sometimes, when the cat’s fur appears distractingly smooth and soft. But it’s not exactly on, is it, to respect someone’s boundaries only until they trust you enough to let their guard down?

On the other hand, a cat half-climbing into your lap does seem something of an invitation.

John reaches tentatively towards him, slowly enough that the cat could easily duck away if he wants, and when the cat stays still, John pets the top of his head, from the centre of his forehead back between his ears. Immediately, the cat’s ears relax, his eyes drift closed, and he nudges his head up into John’s questing fingers.

“I’m not sure if this is some sort of apology for waking me up or if this is just what you wanted all along,” John tells him.

The cat climbs fully onto John’s thighs, which John promptly presses tightly together so the cat has a decentish surface to lie on if he’s keen.

And he is keen, apparently. While John scratches behind his ears, the cat kneads at John’s pyjama bottoms. His paws, John realises as he watches, are in fact more than simply big as John’s thought for a while.

“You’re polydactyl,” he murmurs, still scratching. The cat has at least one extra toe on each of his front paws: a nice thumb, making his paws look like little furry mittens as he presses each one again and again into John’s legs. “Suppose that explains some things.”

Once John’s thighs have been thoroughly prepared, the cat curls into a loose ball atop them, and John strokes along his side, where the fur is indeed as soft as it looks. John feels the deep rumbling beneath the skin before he hears the cat begin to purr.

“Well,” John says, “glad one of us is happy at least.”

Which is a lie, of course: John is plenty happy. He drops his head against the back of the armchair and smiles to the ceiling as he closes his eyes.

*

The next week, John has a job interview. It’s only locum work, not the permanent position he’s been hoping for, but it’s something.

The cat lies on the bed and watches as he dresses for it, and as usual, John finds himself talking to him.

“Hopefully, a bit of cat hair won’t get me disqualified,” he says, brushing at one of his shirts to rid it of a spattering of black fur. “I’m not sure I own anything anymore you haven’t shed on.”

The cat lowers his head and stretches out his front legs as far as they’ll go, which tips him back onto his side and exposes his belly in the process. John spares a moment to lean over the bed and stroke the fur there, and the cat looks blissful.

“Maybe once I have a little more money, I can take you to the vet’s.”

After all, John thinks, the cat would almost certainly benefit from a health check and an annual vaccination. He should probably be neutered as well; after all, the world doesn’t need any more homeless cats.

The cat makes a low mrrw sound and rolls to his other side, out of John’s reach, so John goes back to getting ready.

The interview turns out to be less formal than John was expecting. His interviewer is a woman called Sarah Sawyer, who John can’t help but notice is rather pretty, especially when she smiles, which is often, even as she tells him that he’s overqualified and might find the job mundane.

“It says here you were a soldier,” she says, looking over his CV.

“And a doctor,” John answers with a smile that makes her duck her head to hide an answering smile. Oh yes, he thinks, he might fancy her just a little.

“Anything else you can do?”

Charming, John tells himself, be charming. It comes surprisingly easily, even though it’s been ages since he flirted last. “I learned the clarinet at school.”

“Oh!” She laughs, and her face lights up. “Well, I look forward to it.”

When John leaves, he has both the prospect of a future date and a future job offer, and he feels immeasurably chuffed with himself. Even more so when he pays attention to the CCTV cameras on his way back home and sees nothing particularly odd or suspicious about them; certainly none are tracking him like they seemed to before. Perhaps the umbrella-toting arsehole has buggered off. Maybe he was never actually as powerful or well-connected as John thought he was.

Either way, John returns to the flat in a pleasant mood, and spends the evening paging through Diary of Jack the Ripper—another book from the shelves—whilst the cat, purring like a motor, sleeps sprawled across his lap.

*

For their first date, John takes Sarah to the cinema—a rom com that bores him to tears, but she at least seems to enjoy it—followed by dinner at an Italian restaurant.

“You have a cat, I see,” Sarah says after the waiter has taken their menus. Seemingly apropos of nothing, but then she gestures at his shirt, and John recalls that, of course, yes, cat hair. “Interesting. I didn’t picture you as a cat person.”

John laughs lightly, plucking at the strands of black fur he can see sticking up from his chest. He spent nearly twenty minutes with a pet-hair remover earlier, and he’s still wearing the bloody stuff as an accessory. “It’s complicated, actually. He sort of came with my flat when I moved in.”

“Oh?”

She rests her chin on her palm, seeming genuinely interested, so John tells her the story. Leaving out the bits about Holmes’s disappearance and John being abducted to a warehouse for a chat with a criminal, of course—which could make the story either off-putting or even more entertaining, and John hasn’t decided yet which she’s likely to see it as—while embellishing other bits, like the cat’s destruction of the flat and how John eventually won him over.

“You sound very fond of him,” Sarah says when he’s finished, smiling.

John shrugs. “He grew on me. He’s a prat sometimes, but yeah, I suppose I love the little bastard.”

“Do you have any pictures?”

John has an entire phone full of them, in fact, which he happily digs from his coat pocket, and she scoots her chair closer so she can look over his shoulder as he swipes through them.

“We could stop by mine after,” he eventually offers. “If you want to meet him.”

It’s a flimsy excuse—and one she certainly sees through—but he also means it. The only person John’s been able to introduce the cat to is Mrs Hudson, and that doesn’t really count. It’ll be nice to show him off, John thinks. His little furry prat.

“Sure,” Sarah answers. Her cheeks go a bit pink, and when John grins at her, she lowers her head and takes a sip of water.

After dinner, they take a cab to Baker Street. As John is unlocking the door, he worries Mrs Hudson will pop out to ask how it went, but her door stays closed, her flat silent, as John leads Sarah up the stairs to 221B.

The cat is curled up in his favoured armchair. His ears are perked and his eyes are wide, alert, when John opens the door to the flat, although when Sarah follows him inside, the cat jumps into a standing position, his ears laid flat. He hisses, lips pulling back to bare the full length of his canines, and the fur on his back bristles.

“Hey,” John tells him sternly, “none of that, now,” and the cat bolts from the chair and across the living room into the kitchen.

John realises that he has, perhaps, not thought this through properly.

“Oh dear,” Sarah says around a breathy half-laugh, shuffling her feet uncomfortably. “That, um….”

“Sorry,” John rushes to say. “I should’ve expected that, honestly. He’ll warm up to you, though. How could he not?” He smiles winningly at her and is relieved when she returns the smile easily. “Can I get you a drink?”

“What do you have?”

Should’ve thought that through as well. John rather wants to bury his face in his palm. He has tea and water from the tap, neither of which are the sort of thing you want to offer a woman when she comes over to yours after dinner.

“Erm,” he says, and she trails after him as he moves towards the kitchen, turning on the light. “Well—”

He’s cut off by a low, feral-sounding mrroww. The cat is on the kitchen table, poised with his back arched as though he means to lunge at them. It’s an alarming image, even more so because John knows very well that this is his own fault and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

“Hey,” he says, keeping his tone soft and calm as he steps closer, reaching out to pet the cat soothingly. “It’s all right.”

The cat swipes at him, his claws missing John’s hand only because he manages to yank it out of reach just in time. With another dangerous mrroww, the cat skitters backwards and off the table, sprinting into the bedroom.

“Christ,” John sighs, rubbing his forehead, at the same time that Sarah says, “Actually, you know, I should probably be off.”

John spins around, surprised. “What?” They’ve not even had time for either of them to take their coats off, but she’s moving towards the door, head down as though she’s embarrassed—or possibly put off—by the whole affair. “Do you—er. I mean—”

She shakes her head. “Not because of that. I just remembered I have to be up early tomorrow, and….”

“Oh,” John says stupidly. It’s rubbish, of course, but he’s hardly going to try and convince her to stay if she’s changed her mind. “Right, of course. Here, let me walk you out.”

He walks her awkwardly back down the stairs, feeling like both the worst sort of cat owner and the worst sort of date in the world.

“I mean it,” she assures him when they reach the bottom. “I had a good time tonight. It’s just that I realised I might regret it later if… well. So if you’re all right with going a bit slower, I’d like to do something like this again soon.”

Relief washes over him. He hasn’t blown his chances. They can carry on, take things a bit more slowly, and everything will be fine. John grins. “Yeah, absolutely. Although next time maybe without the angry, hissing cat at the end.”

Sarah giggles a bit and ducks her head, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “That would be nice. Well. Good night,” she says, and leans over to press a kiss to the corner of his lips before she leaves.

John closes the door behind her, sucking in a deep breath. Again, he half-expects Mrs Hudson to peek her head out and ask him about his night and the lady who just left five minutes after arriving. But 221A stays closed and silent, so he climbs the stairs again to his own flat.

The cat is waiting for him, sitting just inside the doorway with his eyes narrowed and his tail thumping erratically against the carpet. Mrrooaw, he says.

“Hello,” John answers, finally taking off his coat and draping it over the arm of the sofa. “Finally got all that out of your system, did you?”

He bends forward to untie his shoes, slips them off, and then suddenly the cat is there, stepping on the tops of his feet and rubbing enthusiastically against his ankles and shins.

“Erm. Is this your apology?” he asks, taken aback by the outpouring of affection. “Don’t worry, it’s fine. You’re forgiven.” He bends again, this time to stroke along the cat’s spine.

But the cat reels back as though he’s been struck, stares at John with narrowed eyes, and hisses, then runs off to the kitchen.

“Right,” John says, baffled. “Apparently not out of your system, then.”

John wonders if he smells strange. He thinks that he must do, after spending several hours outside the flat with another person. Probably the cat is on edge after having a stranger in his domain, and John still smells off to him.

He’ll have a shower, he decides. Maybe then he’ll smell more familiar, and the cat will calm enough to lie with John while he reads in bed, or perhaps even consent to a cuddle.

So John does just that, showering and brushing his teeth before he grabs a book from one of the shelves in the bedroom—Not a Chimp, he reads on the cover as he climbs into bed. He sits with his back against the headboard, feet and legs beneath the sheets and the book open in his lap, and he reads.

Ten pages in, the mattress jumps beneath him, and he glances up in time to see the cat plodding strangely gracelessly over the lumps in the duvet made by John’s feet and legs. John sets the book aside, and the cat immediately takes its place in his lap, butting his head against John’s chest with a familiar mrrooaw.

“There we go,” John says softly, petting him, running his fingertips from the cat’s forehead to his tail. “Looks like that’s all sorted, then. Do I smell better now?”

The cat’s eyes close as John scratches behind his ears, and he puts his front paws on John’s sternum, standing on his hind legs so he can head-butt John’s chin, which makes John chuckle.

“You were acting like a possessive git, you know,” John says fondly, as the cat begins to knead John’s chest. “Throwing a tantrum and trying to protect your territory. But you’ve nothing to worry about. The whole flat is yours. I’m yours, for that matter. No one’s going to take any of it from you. It’s all fine.”

Eventually, the cat settles down by John’s thighs, purring softly. John takes up his book again, and reads until he’s too tired to stay awake.

*

John wakes suddenly, his whole body going tense as though he’s been wrenched awake by a nightmare, but he hasn’t had a nightmare in weeks, as far as he knows.

It’s bright outside, probably midmorning, and he’s lying on his side at the edge of the bed, sunlight streaming on his face. He’s not alone; he can feel the dip in the mattress behind him that means the cat is there, possibly asleep but most likely watching him, waiting for him to wake. John hopes he didn’t kick him in the night.

John yawns, stretching, and rolls over.

Then promptly swears, bolting upright in bed and kicking the covers away in a panic, because it isn’t the cat who is making the mattress dip.

It’s a man: pale and practically all limbs, with a headful of messy, longish dark curls. He’s wearing John’s dressing gown and watching John with an intensity that is nearly as alarming as his sudden appearance.

John dives off the bed, expecting for the man to lunge after him, but the man remains cross-legged with his back against the headboard. John wishes his gun weren’t in the bedside table on the other side of the bed, closer to the stranger than to him.

“Oh good,” says the man. His voice is low, absurdly so, and he grins madly at John. The sort of grin that would make most people take a step back; John only reminds himself to avoid sudden movements. “You’re awake. Took you long enough.”

Questions zip through John’s mind. How did you get in here? What do you want with me? What have you done to Mrs Hudson? Why the bloody hell would you break into another person’s flat while they’re asleep, dress in their clothes, and stare at them? Then, one by one, they pop and disappear like bubbles until only the most important question remains.

Keeping his eyes on the man, John clenches his fists, steeling himself for whatever will follow. “Who the hell are you?”