"So," John said, "you had an uncle called Montague?"
Sherlock yawned. "Really, John, it's hardly the most unusual name. Specially not in the context of my family."
That was unarguable. Still, given this was the first conversation he'd managed with Sherlock since shortly before Watford Junction, John wasn't prepared to let it be shunted into a siding without a struggle.
"I wasn't focussing on the name, in particular. I was trying to work out how we got from So you've never been to the Lake District before? to That would be Uncle Montague."
"He had a weekend cottage there. Mummy was always afraid, if we came to the Lakes, we wouldn't be able to avoid having to visit him."
John frowned. "There were times when I suspected my relations of deliberately moving to the least appealing bits of the country to dodge us showing up on their doorsteps. But avoiding family who happen to have cottages in areas of outstanding natural beauty? Don't get it."
"Surely you must be aware that every family has at least one of those relatives? The kind no-one mentions voluntarily – and, if they do find it necessary, use a particular tone of voice?"
At that precise moment, Sherlock's own tone would have been an object lesson to any aspiring actor aiming to upstage Maggie Smith in one of her towering dowager roles. Nevertheless, John caught the flicker of a muscle in Sherlock's cheek, a tremor in the beautiful, sculpted hands loosely clasped on the train's formica table.
He heard a voice – uncannily like Sergeant Donovan's – muttering in his head, "Yes. And in most families, Sherlock, you're it. Or, should I say, It."
"Oh, like Mum's Great-Aunt Sarah." John had not been conscious of speaking until the words were out of his mouth. He was rewarded by a quick, upward twitch of Sherlock's lips.
"I can't recall your ever mentioning her existence."
John grinned. "Precisely the point. She thought she was the Archbishop of Canterbury. And she spun people."
"On the spot. Like tops. I think they finally took her away after an incident involving a monsignor from County Meath and the Lateran Steps. So how did your Uncle Montague's peculiarities show themselves?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Mummy's uncle, not mine. No idea. When my family chooses not to mention a relative, we do the job properly." He put his head on one side; assessing, recollecting. "She once told Mycroft that if he wasn't careful he'd end up like her uncle Montague. But she was very cross at the time."
"Good grief. You are sure this was a weekend cottage her uncle had, not – ah – a weekend fake volcano crater with space-launch facilities and added ninjas?"
"Positive. I've seen photographs." Sherlock hesitated; a defensive note crept into his voice. "Mummy made the most ridiculous fuss when he died and she discovered he'd left the place away from the family altogether, to some middle-aged jobbing actor whom he'd met for a couple of days back in 1969. I told her at the time she was being completely illogical, but she wouldn't listen."
"Sounds just like Mum and Great-Aunt Sarah's Crown Derby tea-set. Not that I imagine they actually wanted it at Lambeth Palace, but the principle's the same. Oh, Lancaster. Grab your things, we're changing here."
Brush-strokes of horizontal sleet driven before a howling westerly gale greeted them as they descended. Sherlock stalked the length of the platform, his coat turned up about his ears. Fortunately, the little two-carriage local train was already in the end bay. Sherlock folded himself into a window seat with that characteristic crumpling movement, like a giraffe who'd learnt the party trick of compressing itself into a dog basket, and was asleep before they'd left the station.
His scarf had fallen across his mouth and nose. John, stretching out a hand to clear it away, allowed his thumb to brush gently across the too-sharp cheekbones, caress papery, violet-shadowed skin below where those long lashes rested. Sherlock stirred in his sleep, moving into his touch, uttering a little whimper of content.
For the first time since that nightmare journey to France a week ago, a journey which had ended in a darkened room at the Hotel Dulong in Lyons (a hand like a claw coming up out of the gloom to seize his wrist; a harsh, almost unrecognisable croak, loud in the shuttered silence: "John, help me. I've forgotten how to sleep.") John allowed himself to hope things might turn out all right, after all.
There was coffee.
He had heard the soft chink of the cup being placed on the bedside table; the breathing pause as John waited to see whether he would acknowledge his presence; the almost imperceptible exhalation of disappointment when he did not; the soft whisper of the door closing.
But now –
Aromatic steam drifted past nostrils newly sharpened to appreciate it. Habit still weighed his eyelids shut; habit and something his sluggish brain recognised as fear. The black misery which had enveloped him for so long had, in its own way, been perfection; complete in itself, eliminating all possibility of choice, change, movement. Safety, of a sort. The safety offered by a coffin, not a womb.
He could feel its seductive weight holding back his limbs even now, retarding the movement of his hand towards the coffee cup.
Opening his eyes was the most terrifying act he had ever contemplated. He took a deep breath, composing his mind, nerving every muscle, like a diver on the edge of the high board, just before the plunge.
His lids snapped up.
The room – was delightful in its ordinariness. He wanted to kiss every banal piece of stripped pine furniture, every overly-ruffled pillow-case and valance.
"Boring," he said aloud, and laughed.
He flung back the duvet and strode to the window.
The rain and wind he recalled from yesterday (or had it been a decade ago?) had vanished; pearl-grey light illuminated an expanse of still water, rimmed by low, rounded hills. At the water's edge black and white birds with orange legs ran in and out, engaged in an intricate dance with the little wavelets that washed the shoreline. Like a bracelet (or, perhaps, a set of fetters) a viaduct ran slantwise across an inlet; a little train, no bigger than a toy, crossed it as he watched. Even through the glass of the window he could hear the faint, distant hoot of its whistle.
He turned to pick up his coffee cup. He could still sense the dark monster lurking, down below, waiting for him to slip, waiting for him to let it in. Not today, though. Not here. Not if there was any justice in the world.
Justice. The incautious word set up a harsh, mocking echo, a thread of cold laughter from the abyss. His fingers clutched the cup's fragile handle. A distant part of his mind calculated how much force it would take to make it snap.
How long had the hammering at his door been going on?
He schooled his voice into indifference; anything to make John go away, to fend off sympathy and concern he had no energy to receive.
"What is it now?"
"Do you want the last pair of kippers? Because, if not, I'm bagging them."
The gathering dark mood dissipated like wisps of smoke before a stiff easterly breeze.
"All yours," he gasped, somehow managing to choke back a giggle. He heard John's footsteps retreat down the landing, then flung himself down on the bed, revelling with renewed delight in a world where justice in general might be a gigantic cosmic deception, but which nevertheless contained John and his unshakeable moral core. Even when it came to the ethics of kipper distribution.
"Sorry, but I can't accept anything but the ID on my list," the assistant in the hire-car office repeated. "Security precaution, innit? I mean, look at it from the company's point of view. Suppose you was an undercover terrorist. What would happen then, eh?"
"I imagine I'd be reclassifying rental car agencies as legitimate military targets just about now, actually."
In the past, John's combination of bland tone and lethal glare had caused senior Taliban leaders to back off. It had no visible effect now. He tried a different tack. "Look, so far I've produced my driving licence – both bits – and my passport -"
"Visaed for Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazhakstan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan within the last two years," the assistant confirmed, with the air of a man playing the ace of trumps.
John gritted his teeth. "While on active military service, yes. Also, a selection of credit and debit cards –"
"In two different names."
"The others are my flatmate's. They get mixed up. Perfectly normal. Electricity bill for the same address as my driving licence –"
"But addressed to a Mrs Hudson. Look, you aren't helping yourself here, mate, you know."
Abruptly, John lost it. He pulled out his mobile phone, and began texting. While his fingers worked, he looked across the high desk top separating him from the assistant.
"I'm going across the road for a coffee. I'll be back in ten minutes. By that time, I expect you'll have found all your difficulties resolved and to have the car I pre-booked waiting for me. Got that? Good."
About twenty minutes later he was pulling up beside the inn. A familiar black-coated figure lay supine on a wooden bench near the shore, a tortoiseshell cat curled up on his chest. John parked the car and walked over to join him. Sherlock, with the air of a man lifting the weight of planets, raised his head about six inches from the bench to watch him as he approached.
"So, what kept you?" he drawled, as soon as John was in earshot.
"I got stuck behind a very slow idiot."
"Perhaps you should call Lestrade. See if you've found a match for anyone on his Missing Idiots Register."
"Ah. Lestrade. Um."
Sherlock eyed him up and down in a way which was no less disconcerting for the fact that it mirrored the way the tortoiseshell cat was also giving him the eye.
"So, how did you persuade the Inspector to intervene in your hiring-car-from-idiot crisis?"
"Told him I'd left you, lethally bored, within a thirty mile radius of a leaky nuclear power station and I wouldn't be answerable for the consequences if he didn't manage to get me out of that agency – with car – in ten minutes." He looked at the cat. "At least you appear to have found some company in the interval."
Sherlock tickled the cat's ears. "It was being menaced by some stripey sort of duck things. It concluded that since I was considerably bigger than the duck things it should seek protection on my chest. I didn't object."
"Stripey sort of duck things?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Birds which apparently acquired their plumage in the same place you get your jumpers. They went off over there, somewhere."
He gestured, languidly, across the breakwater. A mixed group of eider and shelduck were paddling across the tranquil water. After a short pause John turned back to Sherlock, who had apparently moved not a muscle in the interim.
"Lunch," Sherlock echoed with a faintly questioning air, like a tourist asked to participate in an unfamiliar local festival. After a few seconds he nodded, swung his feet to the ground and stood up. The cat sprang away, looking affronted.
"The sign's all wrong, you know," he added, just as they were about to pass in through the inn's front door.
"The sign." He gestured upwards. "The Ape and Artisan."
John nodded. "That's what the new people call it. It was something different when Mum and Dad brought us here, when we were kids. We used to stay at a cottage up the lane at the back."
"Well, the painter got the wrong animal. I'm surprised no-one's mentioned it."
John squinted up at the sign. Under the looming mass of the Coniston fells a man was striving to build a wall, but the creature in question had stolen his plumb-line and was exiting rapidly, stage left, frustrating his efforts.
"The tail, John. " Sherlock's voice sounded exaggeratedly patient. "The very prominent, plumy white tail of a colobus monkey. Monkey, note, not ape."
"So you do identify primates? Just not ducks?"
"I've never had a case where the murder was committed by a highly trained duck."
"First time for everything," John muttered.
Sherlock paused, and then, with a fleeting, fragmented grin which made John catch his breath, nodded.
"After lunch, John, you can find me a bookshop. If you manage that, I undertake to buy a bird identification book."
Actually, John went one better and found them a book town.
Scenery, it appeared, wasn't really Sherlock's thing.
He had sat silent and unresponsive in the passenger seat while they passed through Greenodd, Backbarrow, Haverthwaite, their grey slate buildings sleeping in April sunshine; as they twisted away from the main road at Newby Bridge to trace the east shore of glittering Windermere under a canopy of dancing green leaves; cut through the winding lanes near Crosthwaite, white with damson blossom; crossed the M6 near Kendal, looking down on an unmoving snake of Easter caravans, trapped by road works at Tebay and an accident over Shap summit, and descended into Sedbergh at last by a narrow road lined with daffodils and patrolled by vigilant, maternal sheep, their lambs never more than a few feet away.
Once the car had been parked and he felt pavements and cobbles beneath his feet, Sherlock revived. Even his silence had a different quality. There were little huffs of amusement and sidelong comments at treasures happened upon in the convoluted labyrinths of backrooms and unexpected cellars stuffed with books or out in the street, sifting through stacks of dusty paperbacks on tables.
They had worked their way down one side of the main street and halfway up the other when John spotted something in the next bookshop window that it was impossible to ignore.
The next thing he knew he was tapping in his PIN, muttering over and over, "But it's the complete set! In the editions we had, and everything!" in what he only realised was a slightly bonkers manner when he spotted Sherlock's expression.
"Children's books? What on earth for, John?"
John looked at him, bewildered. "Because I want them. Harry got our family set because she's older, and then she went and let Clara have them in the divorce. And after she'd landed me in A&E when she insisted they were hers first time round, too."
Even this impeccably logical explanation failed to satisfy his flatmate. Suspicion took hold. "Do I take it you've never actually read Swallows & Amazons?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Lots of hearty outdoors messing about in boats in a ghastly atmosphere of pre-War upper-middle-class English jollity? Why on earth would I bother?"
"All I can say is, if that's what you think they are, you're being a prejudiced, narrow-minded pillock. And it explains a lot about you."
He gulped. Not entirely consistent with the calm, supportive atmosphere he'd been trying to promote for the last week.
"Sorry," he muttered.
Sherlock, far from looking offended, had the air of alert interest he usually saved for intriguingly dismembered corpses.
"You associate those stories with this place. Not Sedbergh; the Lakes in general. With your childhood, before your parents' marriage broke up. After their divorce, you stopped holidaying here. This is the first time you've been back."
John didn't bother confirming Sherlock was right in every particular. He concentrated on the main point.
"None of that has got anything to do with why Arthur Ransome's worth reading. I've got the books; we're on holiday. You could try reading one before telling me why they aren't worth it."
Sherlock hesitated, as if considering it. Then, abruptly, he swooped on a book which lay on the pile nearest the till, scrutinising the cover.
"Francis Thompson. Recognise the portrait. Never knew he wrote poems as well."
John sensed they were about to go into one of those Sherlock conversations in which nothing – and especially not any assumptions about a shared knowledge base – should be taken for granted.
"As well as what?" he enquired cautiously.
Sherlock frowned. "Well, he is one of the rank outsider candidates. Most serious Ripperologists raise him simply to dismiss him."
"Ripperologists? People are bonkers enough to think Francis Thompson was Jack the Ripper?" An appalled thought crossed his mind; insane, of course, but then this was Sherlock he was talking to. "Do you – um – that is – have you?"
"Solved the Ripper murders? Flattering you think me capable of it, but hardly feasible at this remove. Though none of the alleged solutions focus on the essential point."
"Scotland Yard, John. Scotland Yard. It's 1888. They've had a specialist detective unit for less than twenty years – they're in the midst of moving their premises from Whitehall to the Victoria Embankment – they're no doubt enmired in their characteristic incompetence, petty bureaucracy and internal backbiting – and suddenly they're in the full glare of the press, right at the heart of the most sensational investigation the world has ever known."
His pupils narrowed to cat-like slits, as if striving to glimpse scenes from a hundred and twenty-three years ago.
"Even given all that, there's something odd going on with Scotland Yard. Files and photographs go missing, that's normal incompetence, but inscriptions washed off walls overnight? That betrays intent, but intent to do what? Shield some member of Victoria's court? Too crude; doesn't have the right smell. They'd never have let it go anywhere near Scotland Yard if that had been the case."
John assumed "They" meant whoever had occupied Mycroft Holmes's Whitehall desk back in 1888.
"So, most likely, the Ripper murders simply arrive, by a ghastly coincidence, just as something much more complicated and interesting is actually coming to the boil."
On the far side of the counter John could see the bookshop proprietor mouthing "More complicated and interesting?" at him. He shrugged, helplessly.
"But what? That's the question." Sherlock bit at his lower lip in frustration. "And every scrap of research wastes its time on useless speculation about the deaths of a handful of disembowelled tarts and the dreary sex life of the Duke of Clarence."
John didn't have to look at the bookseller to decode his expression. He grabbed the Collected Poems of Francis Thompson and thrust it towards the till, together with his debit card. "I'll take this, too. Now, Sherlock, can we possibly go and get a cup of tea?"
They were outside the shop before Sherlock turned to him.
"So? What this time?"
John looked at him. "You know perfectly well what. Don't try to pretend you didn't notice the entire shelf-full of Ripper books just beside the front door."
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. "John, you surpass yourself. Fortunately, as I've just established, he sees Prince Eddie as the key candidate. Those ones never actually kill anyone; far too easily distracted. On the other hand, I'd never discount a suspect if I spotted one of the Maybrick or Sickert Ripper books on their shelves."
"Tea," John said firmly, steering him across the street. The tea-shop breathed out aromas of raisins and spices. It was, predictably, crowded. Sherlock baulked on the threshold, as if sensory overload had become, suddenly, too much. A waitress headed over, gesturing at the table from which an elderly man had just risen.
"Won't keep you a second," she said. "I'll just clear it for you."
Sherlock seemed on the point of bolting. "I'm not sure we –"
"Yes, we do, thanks," John said. His push in the small of Sherlock's back, intended only as gentle encouragement, must have caught his flatmate off-balance. He stumbled forward, right into the path of the elderly man. Sherlock avoided the collision only by a reflexive, eel-like twist of his hips, his coat swirling round him.
The elderly man paled; he shook, visibly.
"Excuse me," he muttered, and pushed his way roughly past them into the street.
Without any further demur, Sherlock stalked through to the table, sat down, and allowed John to order a pot of Earl Grey and an assortment of cakes and biscuits. John sent up a silent prayer of relief to any passing divine being who might be prepared to claim responsibility.
"Someone dead, a contemporary or near contemporary, once very close to him. Possibly a former lover; less probable given he's been married to the same woman for at least twenty-five years. Someone about whose fate he at one time felt profoundly guilty. Not consciously thought of him in years. Until now," Sherlock announced abruptly, mid-cup.
"Um, ah? That is, who, why, what?"
Sherlock glared at him. "Must you persist in being an idiot?"
"If you were better read, you could call me a galoot. Who's dead?"
"Whoever I reminded the man in the doorway of." He contemplated a piece of Grasmere gingerbread as if trying to break its alibi, then nibbled it. "Doubt he killed him, though."
"Something in the quality of his reaction to you?"
"That, obviously. But he's also made three approaches to the café door while we've been sitting here and turned back each time. I doubt if I reminded him of his murder victim he'd be trying to screw up his courage to ask me who I am."
An absurdly glorious suspicion bubbled to the surface of John's mind. He took a large bite of Cumberland rum nicky, in the vague hope it might partially conceal (or at least explain) his Cheshire cat grin. Sherlock narrowed his eyes.
"Is there something you'd like to share with me?"
"Well – it did occur to me that perhaps he'd simply recognised you and was afraid you'd fingered him as the brains behind the Weatherfield frozen food lorry hijacking." John reached out across the table to the teapot and topped up his cup.
"You – knew who he was?"
"Probably." He let his grin get wider. "Mrs Hudson would have known for sure, of course. As would – oh, about another seven million inhabitants of the UK. At a conservative estimate."
Sherlock stared at him for a moment. "Phone," he demanded, extending his hand.
While his flatmate discovered by actual experiment that they didn't have a signal, John busied himself by wolfing the remaining rum nicky, obtaining the bill and paying. He was standing by the door, dressed for the outside, by the time Sherlock accepted defeat.
"So, this is one of those crap TV things?"
"Don’t let Mrs Hudson hear you call it that. Insult herCorrie, you die."
Which comment, clearly, left Sherlock baffled; a state of affairs so unusual (not to mention gratifying) that John volunteered to fetch the car. When he returned, Sherlock was not where he had left him. That was standard operating practice. However, it seemed implausible this time his flatmate had managed to get himself kidnapped and manacled to the wall of a flooding cellar. Not in Sedbergh, not from a standing start.
He tapped out an impatient tattoo on the horn, an artistic arrangement of the Morse letters O, S, F, and H. Somewhat to his surprise, it worked; Sherlock emerged from the Bull seconds later and slid into the passenger seat.
"If you'd said you wanted a pint instead –" John began, pulling away from the kerb.
"Apply logic. I was trying to find the man from the tea-shop. Age, overall appearance and apparent profession suggest scotch would be his first thought after a bad shock. I've tried the Dalesman and the Bull but I could hardly crawl through every pub in Sedbergh in fifteen minutes."
"My sister could probably have managed it."
Sherlock tensed. "There. Pull over."
They pulled up outside the Red Lion just as the elderly man was emerging. Sherlock wound down his window.
"Excuse me," he said, "but would you be able to direct us to Penrith?"
The man looked, for a moment, positively goldfish-like. "I – ah –"
Sherlock's smile mutated into something almost indecently beguiling. "We're trying to avoid the M6; looks like there's been an accident or something. We hoped you might have local knowledge of the back ways round."
"A685 to Kirkby Stephen; A66 through Appleby to Penrith." The words seemed to pour out automatically; his eyes were fixed on Sherlock's face.
"Thank you." He wound the window up.
"So," John said, accelerating up the street, "why've you acquired this sudden desire to see Penrith?"
"I haven't. I just wanted to find out how he'd react to the mention of the place. And now we've found that out, suppose we get back to Ulverston. Or anywhere else where there's a reliable signal."
TELL SHERLOCK PEERAGE UNAVOIDABLE WITHOUT MORE INGENUITY ON HIS PART. MYCROFT
John blinked at his mobile phone. He scrolled down to the next unread text.
ALSO TRULY NO INFORMATION RE FAMILY SKELETONS. WAS ONLY THREE AT TIME. MYCROFT
He looked across the breakfast table. Sherlock's dead-eyed glare as his long fingers danced across the keypad of his phone – scroll-delete, scroll-delete – told its own story. Mycroft must be in a time-zone which made communicating during ordinary English daytime hours impossible and be compensating for jet-lag by tapping away at his mobile during the small hours like a compulsive woodpecker.
John swore, loudly, and then thanked his stars they were alone in the dining room, last of the breakfasters. The other guests had already vanished to climb mountains, mess about on lakes or wander lonely as possible in the circumstances through Grasmere, Rydal and Cockermouth.
It was Mycroft who had sent Sherlock off on the two-month-long, immensely hush-hush mission to the Continent which had precipitated his collapse in the first place. Admittedly, it was also Mycroft who had paid for first-class tickets on Eurostar and the TGV to allow John to retrieve Sherlock from Lyons.
Mycroft had managed to acquire Easter Week vacancies (last minute cancellations, something to do with an unexpected Premium Bond win) for a pair of rooms in a well regarded gastro-pub on the Furness shore of Morecambe Bay, less than the length of a cricket boundary from where John had spent childhood holidays. And he'd supplied a locum to cover for John at the surgery, though Sarah's text – PURELY HYPOTHETICALLY, HOW WOULD SHERLOCK COMMIT THE PERFECT MURDER? – suggested that might not have been an unqualified success.
But having gone to some lengths to put John in a position where he could start trying to put Sherlock back together again, why the hell couldn't Mycroft leave well enough alone now and let him do his job?
"He thinks I'm a tool," Sherlock said abruptly, without looking up.
"Well, I think he'sa tool. And a tosser. And a pompous, interfering arsehole."
That did manage to provoke a brief lift of Sherlock's chin; his lips quirked in a wintry flicker of acknowledgement before he dropped his head again.
"I meant, he sees me as a means by which he can enhance the security and prestige of HM Government. And so, not in the least indirectly, his own." He considered for a moment. "To be quite fair, he also sees it as a way of thriftily recycling waste material into something of marginal use."
"Waste material?" Something hard and taut and angry had lodged itself in John's chest. He took a gulp of rather too-hot coffee. It did nothing whatsoever to shift it.
"As I thought I said on the train, my family prefers to bury its failures. And does it rather effectively, on the whole."
"Failures? You?" He was conscious of staring across the breakfast table, literally open-mouthed.
Sherlock shook his head impatiently. "Even in your own circle of family and friends the average number of higher educational qualifications – bachelors' degrees, professional qualifications and higher degrees – runs at 1.2 per person in your generation. In my family it's closer to 1.46. Either way, as an undergraduate dropout I'm a fairly conspicuous anomaly."
There was so much wrong with that sentence that John could hardly imagine where to start. The hand holding his phone started to shake. He found himself almost spitting his words out.
"I cannot imagine anyone else on this planet who could bend my ear about being a failure at the very same time, apparently, as being pressured to accept a peerage."
"Oh, that." Sherlock's voice betrayed not a trace of interest.
"What do you mean, that? Why a peerage, for Christ's sake?"
"Ah – what?"
"It's still there."
John blinked and took a very, very cautious bite of sausage by way of buying time.
"It wasn't supposed to be?"
Sherlock shrugged. "The financial model the conspirators were using was so flawed it's hard to predict what would have happened had they succeeded in putting it in motion. About 60% probability of total bankruptcy of at least one G7 nation in the next six months was Mycroft's analysts' best guess. They refused to push their analysis out any further down the timeline."
Probably because they didn't fancy advising their Government masters that they should be preparing for all-out war. On the streets of Europe. The US. Japan.
He put down knife and fork, rose and went to the dining room window. Nothing could be a greater contrast between the soft outlines of the South Lakeland fells, garlanded with grey cloud, and the harsh, dry mass of the Afghan ranges, but he felt, truer than his own heartbeat, how narrow the gulf separating the them was.
Without the slender, heart-breakingly weary figure on the other side of the table the world he knew would have been changed forever. Economic collapse. Hoarding. Hyper-inflation. Break-down of the civil order. Rise of political extremists. Military coups. Warlordism.
He turned back and brought his fist down on the table with a thump which set the cups rattling in the saucers.
"So why are they piddling about with a peerage, for crying out loud? Why not the Nobel Peace prize?"
For an instant there was utter silence in the room.
"John, I –" Sherlock changed whatever he had been going to say. "I doubt the committee cares to remind the world that peace rests on such banal underpinnings as a country's ability to pay its sewage workers. Anyway, irrelevant. So, what do we do today? I gather we're supposed to climb mountains, or something."
"Not in that, you don't," John said automatically.
"This?" Sherlock glanced down at his aquamarine silk shirt. "Mountains have dress codes?"
"Yes. Don't wear anything that'll make the mountain rescue services go, 'What could the silly sod have been thinking?' when they're retrieving the body."
"If it matters so much to you, you can take me to one of these ubiquitous outdoor clothing shops and stand over me while I acquire something which meets your exacting standards. Then you can select a token mountain and we can climb it. I frankly can't see the point of exercise simply for the sake of it, but since it obviously forms part of some sort of important personal ritual – "
His phone rang. He glanced down at the display and his face lit up. He tapped the answer button.
"Hallo." There followed something in rapid German, too quick for John to follow, ending with, "Wie geht es Ihnen?"
If John wasn't able to translate the whole conversation, he could still decode a lot from his extensive experience of Sherlock. To begin with, he had approached his phone as if air-kissing it. His voice sounded rather as it did when he was trying to charm Molly into giving him access to one of her corpses, though John doubted - if modern English had made the distinction - Sherlock would have used the formal mode of address to Molly.
In short, whoever was at the other end of that phone had something Sherlock wanted, badly. Which in normal circumstances meant evidence. Which, logically, implied a case. A case with a European dimension.
He waited in increasing impatience for the phone call to end, the scattered phrases he understood only increasing his disquiet. (Had Sherlock really just volunteered to pass the other speaker's warmest regards onto his brother and invited her to see whether she and her husband could manage dinner with both of them next time they happened to be in London? What dynamite was this woman sitting on?)
"So," he said once Sherlock had finished his call in a flurry of effusive farewells, "you told me your case had finished."
"Western economy. Lyons. Collapse."
"Yes, that's over. This is something different altogether. You could call it a cold case. A very cold case. It may be about to warm up again, though. But we've still time to climb that mountain before it does." His eyes glittered in a way which John found both profoundly reassuring and profoundly disturbing.
Protests about holidays, about the need to rest and the lack of wisdom in getting involved so quickly in a new case – or an old case; no point pretending he couldn't guess what had set this one off – died on John's lips.
"If you're serious," he said instead, "I'll see you outside in ten minutes."
Like 90% of people saddled with an indifferent companion on whom he planned to inflict the delights of Lakeland hiking, John fell back on Helvellyn.
It had not, of course, proved possible in the time available that day to get Sherlock kitted out with walking boots, waterproofs and a fleece he would consent to wear and to get him onto a mountain with any chance of getting off it before nightfall ("Climbing mountains by night: more difficult.").
However, despite his fears that Sherlock would change his mind overnight, John managed to get them both loaded into the car and off towards Kirkstone Pass at an astonishingly early hour the next morning.
"Ripperologists who favour Frances Thompson as the culprit suffer from an unrealistically idealised picture of family life," Sherlock observed irrelevantly, emerging from a long silence just as they passed the Queen's Head at Troutbeck and John started the long, winding climb up towards the summit.
"Um?" he hazarded, braking sharply and backing down the road to a passing space, to allow a people-carrier driven by a nervous and harassed father unused to Lake District driving conventions to pass.
"The principal evidence against Thompson – apart from being in London at the relevant time, something which could then have been said for half the wastrels in the British Empire – is that his sister in Canada refused to acknowledge his existence in later years. One has to be absurdly invested in ideals of family solidarity to assume only her belief he was a serial killer would justify her action – not the opium, nor the abandonment of his medical studies nor the retreat into London's slums."
He hunched unhappily in the passenger seat, staring dully out through the windscreen.
"So how do they explain his other sister?" John said. "Sister Mary Thompson was one of Harry's heroines. The Vatican's gain was the ACS's loss, according to Harry. Years after her brother's death, when she'd been in an enclosed order of nuns for decades, Sister Mary could still recite all the scores from all the matches her brother had watched at Old Trafford when he was a kid. She obviously didn't strike his name from the family Wisden. Whatever he'd done."
"Another sister?" Sherlock's head snapped round. "None of the books –
oh, I see. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course people made up the narrative first, and rewrote the family dynamics to suit. They always do."
He turned to look out down the valley side, back down towards Ambleside, so that all John could see was the tangled black mass of his hair. There was, though, something slightly more encouraging about the set of his shoulders. Though he didn't speak again until they reached the car park in Patterdale village, John dared hope that, perhaps, they were winning.
Light drizzle blanketed the car park, with the promise of worse weather behind it. Sherlock shot him a glance of eloquent misery as he pulled on his boots. John ignored it. If his flatmate truly wanted to avoid climbing a mountain – and it had, after all, been his own suggestion – he was capable of deploying infinitely more effective techniques than a martyred expression.
John had forgotten, in the intervening years, how crowded the Lakes became at Easter. As yet another party of hikers hove into view around a bend in the path winding up through the coppiced valley side, building up to the long slow slog to the Hole-in-the-Wall, Sherlock raised his eyebrows pointedly.
"And about this rural solitude…"
Not that the crowds seemed to bother him; rather the reverse. In fact, John reckoned that had Sherlock been confronted with Lizzie Bennet declaiming, "What are men to rocks and mountains?" he would have favoured her with a stare of sheer incredulity, shortly before opining that she was clearly covering up a recent romantic disappointment under cover of a clumsy and utterly implausible lie.
Without even having had the benefit of reading the book.
Admittedly, there was something faintly absurd about the way gaudy little groups of hikers proceeded along Striding Edge, an almost measured distance apart, as if obeying an unspoken but understood rule of etiquette about how closely it was permissible to approach another hiker to whom one had not been introduced.
Sherlock walked easily at his right hand; a breach of mountain etiquette in its own right, given that everyone else on the ridge had noticed the several hundred feet of sheer drop to Red Tarn on that side and were playing things safe in single file.
"Without the crowds, this would be a very dangerous location," he observed when they were two-thirds of the way along.
John slid him a sidelong glance. "Ah?"
"The opportunities for staging a plausible accident, if this place were deserted, would be almost unparalleled. And one would hardly have to worry about disposing of the body; choose the right time of year and one could rely on days, if not weeks, during which the evidence would be hopelessly contaminated by the effects of weather and natural scavengers."
"To say nothing of the faithful hound," John muttered. Sherlock's face lit with interest.
"The faithful hound?"
John grinned. "You'll see. When we get to the Gough Memorial."
They rounded the last fold of crag, a steep pinnacle at the ridge end. Beneath its shadow, the path vanished down the narrowest of gullies; thirty feet of almost sheer descent exposed to the full fury of a cold front. (First rule of mountaineering, as John should have remembered; the wind always gets up just at the worst moment of any mountain ascent or descent. Sailing friends had told him the same was true when approaching tricky harbour entrances.)
At the gully's foot the main bulk of the mountain asserted itself; a short, steep slope to the summit, a stroll, almost, with just the scramble off the Edge between them and it.
Sherlock shouldered past. "See you at the bottom." He launched himself down in a flash of red waterproof jacket.
John reached the edge himself, considered for a moment turning to face the rock and descending ladder-wise as the safest option; rejected it as unworthy of an officer and a mountaineer; took one step down, then another –
On the third, his leg refused to bear his weight. He flung his weight backwards as it crumpled, flailing for a grip on rain-slicked granite, his thoughts spiralling – thirty feet sheer, onto rock; precipices either side if he missed the straight fall; skull shattered, neck broken; the Gough Memorial; no chance of lying three months dead up here these days –
His slithering, out-of-control descent came to an abrupt stop. A grip as unshakeable as the rocks of Helvellyn held him firm.
"Leg, I take it," Sherlock drawled, an inch or so above his head His warm breath stirred John's hair, where it had plastered in strands across his forehead. He opened his eyes to see blurred red fabric right in front of his nose. He twisted his neck and leaned backwards, to get a broader perspective on things.
Sherlock was braced across the gully; his knee raised and a boot wedged against the other side. He had, John realised shakily, anticipated the whole incident; had positioned himself in advance to break John's fall.
"I saw your hand tremor yesterday. A psychosomatic reaction's been building for days. But I suspected your subconscious wouldn't give in until your over-developed sense of duty gave it permission. What?"
The last word was directed up the gully, where the party behind were fretting at the blockage to the path. Their disapproving scrutiny made John acutely aware Sherlock's arms were still gripping his upper body. The sense of security was overwhelming; not just the physical support but Sherlock's proximity – warm, vital, inescapably there in a way John only now realised how much he'd missed over the days when Sherlock had been present in body but absent in spirit. His heart – pounding already from the shock of the fall – stuttered, then raced, like an over-revved engine.
Even so –
"We need to get moving."
"Don't be an idiot, John. That leg's not ready to bear your weight."
"Psychosomatic. You said so yourself, remember?"
"Well, that's you and me convinced. Want to persuade your leg, while you're on a roll?"
Tentatively, he shifted his balance – Sherlock still supporting him – and swore. Waves of weakness radiated out from the centre of his thigh, as if the limb had been in plaster for a month and the muscles wasted.
Sherlock didn't precisely say, "I told you so" but the expression on his face supplied the missing words. If Sherlock hadn't just stopped his plummet to the rocks below, John might have said something rather sharp.
"Do you mind?" an aggrieved voice said from above.
Sherlock cast a glance upwards. "Not in the slightest."
That, briefly, seemed to give them pause. John rather hoped they'd try another sally into passive-aggression. The sideshow would, at least, provide a distraction from the completely imaginary but nonetheless excruciating ache in his leg.
"We seem to be creating a Bank Holiday tailback." Sherlock considered for a moment. "Try to support as much of your weight as you can. On whatever seems appropriate. And don't let go of me."
The next few moments were a confused, rough-edged, muddy scramble. They also involved a great deal of Sherlock holding him in a fierce grip while contorting himself into most peculiar shapes to keep them both on the crag. Stumbling onto the rain-lashed scree at the rock foot felt like the culmination of several rather fraught lifetimes compressed into one.
Or, in other words, business as usual.
He staggered to the nearest boulder and collapsed onto it.
Sherlock flopped beside him. "Kendal Mint Cake?" He fished in the left pocket of the red jacket and produced a familiar blue and white packet. "Brandy?" A serviceable gun-metal hip-flask appeared from the other.
John emitted a half-hysterical giggle. If this was some escalating scale of mountainside restoratives, he really didn't want to know what Sherlock had in his inside pockets. Especially since the disgruntled party of hikers from behind them was stalking past along the path, casting them suspicious glances as they went.
"Kendal Mint Cake," he agreed. Then, "You really did come prepared."
Sherlock shrugged. "As I said, a collapse was on the cards. It might have happened at any point on the ridge, but I'd been watching the walkers in front of us. About a third of them took far longer to negotiate that gully than its height and difficulty alone would account for. It's a matter of boundaries. Transitional places. Between the ridge and the mountain, in this case. Anyway, while your leg makes its mind up to rejoin the rest of your body, suppose you tell me about the Gough Memorial and the faithful hound?"
He hadn't expected her to use a courier. To be conscientious in fulfilling her promises, that, yes. But he'd counted on at least another day, perhaps even two before the post arrived from Stuttgart and he had to know. She'd offered to tell him on the phone, but must have heard the hesitation in his voice.
"Better in a letter, perhaps. Things have changed so much, it's hard to explain to young people how it was for us then. And this – I haven't even told Karl and Erika, and you're younger than my two. So, yes. Better in a letter."
Now the letter had arrived, the familiar white, orange and mauve cardboard cover showing the trouble she'd taken to redeem her promise. And he would have to open it, and then there would be no room left for doubt. John was looking at him across the breakfast table, eyebrows raised. He was abruptly conscious of how much he'd counted on that extra day's grace. Two, with any justice.
"I don't know when I'll be finished. Find yourself something to occupy yourself and I'll text when I'm free. You'll have to take your chances on getting a signal."
"I can't help?"
"Apart from by not falling off any steep slopes while I'm not around to catch you, no." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. John looked needled – no, be honest, hurt – at the reference to yesterday, but apologies had never been his style and he was terrible at them, anyway. And if the cardboard envelope contained what he suspected, better to have John off the premises when he discovered it. However often he might call John an idiot, there were things about which his perceptions were uncomfortably acute.
"Right then. I'll take the car, OK? Well, see you later."
His hands were very steady on the envelope, so there was no reason for John to focus on them – on it – the way he was doing. Silence hung between them for a moment. He turned without speaking, leaving John to the remains of breakfast, and made his way to his room.
A handful of photographs fell onto the bed when he shook the envelope. Then, a wisp of newspaper clipping – a bonus; he had expected to have to make the dreary trek to Colindale on their return to London. Finally, five densely written pages; black ink, a looped Continental hand, freer of affectation than he had expected.
He sifted quickly through the photographs. Kodak colour film, mass-market, not professional grade. The over-saturated yellow hues placed the snapshots in the 1960s even before one took in details of clothes and makeup.
The girl sprawling on her back on sun-dappled grass, long fair hair tumbled round her head, looked so like a crime scene he caught his breath. Reason reasserted itself a split-second later. Playing dead for the camera, a lover's game on a summer afternoon. But the girl in the photo was lost and would never come again; that, at least, was true. Frau Heilbrunn, political hostess, mother of two, grandmother three times over ("And another one on the way") and a force to be reckoned with in Weimaraner breeding circles stood in her place.
The man featured in only two out of half a dozen shots. Both were a little out of focus, as if he had spent so long shifting his pose to find some perfect look the girl had lost patience and pressed the button anyway.
He had expected the man to look more like him. But the resemblance was not especially marked, save for superficialities like colouring and height. Perhaps something about the cheekbones –
Something nagged at him; he turned the photograph upside down in an effort to free the image from irrelevances of context, to allow his mind to isolate the fugitive likeness he was trying to pin down.
Realisation came like a red-hot skewer in the flesh; he found he had jammed the knuckles of his right hand in his mouth and bitten down hard enough to break the skin. Ignoring the pain, he turned the snapshot right way up again. Idiotic of him not to have spotted it in the first place.
Not Mummy in the studio portrait which used to have pride of place on the family piano or sitting on some Tuscan villa terrace in family holiday snaps. Not even Mummy wearing her crusader expression as she waded into school battles or intrigued over the coffee-cups on one of her interminable committees.
Mummy during the last weeks at the hospice, weeks he'd locked behind a thick barrier of deliberate oblivion and never dared release since.
Shadows like two-day-old bruises beneath sunken, jaundiced eyes; flesh wasted away so that every bone stood out like an anatomy diagram; skin like moulded wax – even given the vagaries of late sixties colour processing the resemblance between Mummy and the man in the photograph was more than simple family likeness. It was the spectre of approaching death, trapped in a Box Brownie.
He glanced down at the newspaper cutting. North London local paper, nothing distinctive, could be any one of half a dozen possibles, most of them now defunct.
INQUEST ON BODY IN WOLF PEN
A headline written by a sub with either an unexpectedly pawky sense of humour or no sense of the absurd whatsoever.
On impulse, he rose from his seat on the bed and went into the en-suite bathroom, switching on the fluorescent light over the shaving mirror. The last few days he'd been shaving on auto-pilot, though John had had to do the honours that last day in Lyons and he'd given up on the whole business for the week or so previous to that. He couldn't recall when he'd last looked properly at his own reflection.
A gaunt, hollow-eyed, sallow stranger stared back at him from the depths of the mirror. That did explain the reaction of the actor in the teashop.
Perhaps there were things he needed to clarify to John about their relationship.
If I happen to be looking like a three-day-old corpse at any point, my vanity will cope with your mentioning that fact. Ideally, before my appearance sends aging soap-opera stars into conniptions.
Displacement activity could only take him so far. He returned to the bedroom and picked up the letter. The translation formed itself in his head as he read, in a warm, confiding, colloquial voice.
"My dear Sherlock. I find this an unexpectedly difficult letter to write. I made three previous attempts. All of them are in the waste paper basket. It is hard to strike a balance, to be fair as between the dead, who cannot argue their own cause. As for the living; we too are not the people whom we once were. Erika is a social historian – she tells me she will return to finish her doctorate once the new little one arrives and is settled at kindergarten. She won't, of course, but given I ignored my own mother when she told me the same thing I can hardly complain too badly. But she insists oral testimony is "a vital resource" in social history – it would never do in physics – and I have read, in my time, a tremendous amount of nonsense about the 1960s. Please be kind enough to take this letter as "oral testimony", and not a mad yarn spun by an aging woman about days when she was a good deal younger and far thinner than she is now. And, by the same token, forgive me if I tell it as if it were a story. I find it easier to think of it so, as if all I need to do to bring everyone back is open the covers of a book.
I do not know whether you remember the Professor. Two is very young to lose a parent, but I hope you have some recollection of your father, however vague. He was a curiously kind man, though that could be hard to detect, given his reserve. A great scientist too – they will have told you that – at least, the part they're allowed. The rest – well, as the archives gradually open we'll know more about what his team were working on. I know they truly believed they were securing the safety of us all, and history will tell us if they were right. But his kindness ought not be locked away under "security concerns" even if his genius must.
Even your mother referred to him as the Professor, at least to me. "The Professor's work mustn't be disturbed," was the first thing I recall her saying, while I stood in the hall of your parents' house, feeling overwhelmed and very grimy after my journey. She showed me my room and told me to settle in; she and little Mycroft were off somewhere for the afternoon. Once they were out of the house my first thought was a bath. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to warn me about the boiler.
When I tried to let in a little more hot water, the first attempt produced nothing. A torrent of icy water gushed forth when I turned the tap fully open. Worse, it evoked hooting, wailing, gurgling from apparently every pipe in the house. The noise built to deafening levels. In sheer panic I leapt out of the bath, wrapped myself in my towel and dashed out. At which moment the door at the end of the landing opened and your father shot forth brandishing a mallet and a monkey wrench. He looked at me, blinked and said, "Ah, Ruprecht's daughter, of course. Then you'll know something about applied mechanics. Follow me, and hit whatever I tell you to hit with the mallet." (His German was quite as good as yours, apart from an atrocious Bavarian accent.)
Taken aback, I gestured at my towel; he dived back into his room, emerging a second or so later with his dressing gown, which he flung at me before pelting down the stairs shouting, "Do keep up."
We arrived in the cellar, where I hit things under your father's direction, while he loosened various bits of pipe and tightened them up in apparently random order. Something finally worked - the hideous din died away to gurgles. He looked disgusted, and said, "I've designed, built and operated a nuclear reactor in Arctic conditions and it gave me infinitely less trouble than that boiler. Not that I'm supposed to tell you that. Come down to the kitchen and tell me about yourself. And in honour of your sterling efforts with the mallet, let's break out the Madeira."
Which was why on my first day as your family's au pair your mother returned to find me giggling in the kitchen, wearing her husband's dressing gown and nothing else, while the Professor crawled about the kitchen floor using Mycroft's chalks to design a nuclear-powered domestic hot-water system suitable to be fitted in the average family basement.
She turned, silently, and left the room. I felt as if I wanted to cry. Your father patted me on the arm and said, "Rosie's a Newtonian at heart, stuck in an Einsteinian universe. Please make allowances."
I only dimly grasped what he meant at the time; it was only later I realised your mother didn't merely dislike disorder (an attitude of mind with which I, a well-brought up German woman and a scientist in the making, had every sympathy) but was positively terrified of it. She saw any deviation from what she considered a properly ordered world as the first step to inevitable chaos and disaster.
Don't mistake me; we became good friends in time. Also, when I met her brother and uncle – I am coming to that – I understood where her horror of chaos had arisen. When my English had improved enough so that it was a pleasure, not a chore, to read English novels, your father gave me one called "Cold Comfort Farm". Have you read it? If not, you should. It is very amusing, but it would be a tragedy, I think, to be forced to be Flora Poste in reality.
Friends back in Germany expressed envy that I was in London – "Swinging London", they still called it – where, they presumed, all the glamour in the world was concentrated.
Nothing could have been less swinging than your parents' house in Hammersmith. Your mother did not disapprove of the sexual revolution; she was very modern about that sort of thing. But she didn't see the point of the music or the fashions. Your mother not seeing the point had a very dampening effect on everyone else.
Also, your parents took very seriously that I was not simply their employee, but the daughter of one of your father's research colleagues. Any young men entering the house were scrutinised thoroughly. Both your parents were terrifyingly observant, which is not a trait any au pair wishes to encourage in her employers, however blameless her life.
So, for me, that year involved concerts at the Wigmore Hall, tea at the tennis club and chaste, prickly dates with tweed-clad post-graduate students, not the sex, drugs and rock and roll of 1960s legend.
Accordingly, as the summer wore on I was nagged by a sense that – to quote a musician who did not perform at the Wigmore Hall – "something is happening, and you don't know what it is." I hope that is sufficient excuse for what occurred. I have nothing better.
One August day – my day off – I was reading in the garden. I heard a rustle and looked up to find a tall, dark-haired man lying on the top of the wall. Despite the warm weather he wore an ankle-length overcoat – tweed, I noted regretfully – which draped around him in dramatic folds.
He looked at the house and then back at me as if wondering whether he'd arrived at the wrong place. Then he went through the routine twice more, still without speaking. I started to suspect – accurately, as it turned out – he had been drinking.
When it was becoming absurd, I asked, "Are you looking for Professor Holmes?"
He wrinkled his nose. "That preserved prune? No. For my sister. 'From the east to western Ind/No jewel is like Rosalind'. Stratford, two years ago. The critics wept, literally wept. Even Larry – the pin-tucked old queen – acknowledged the primal energy of my Orlando. Surely you saw it?"
"I was not in England two years ago," I said, falling back on politeness. He swung himself down off the wall and dropped into the garden. He stumbled as he landed, tripped on the hem of his coat, and sprawled into the rhubarb patch. He got to his feet with immense dignity.
"Palter with me no longer. I demand an audience with Rosalind." He swept his arm towards the house and almost overbalanced again.
I told him your mother had taken Mycroft to his Montessori class, but that I was happy to make him a cup of tea if he wished to wait. Even though he'd chosen to enter the house by way of the garden wall I had no doubt he was who he claimed. He had known your mother's first name, and the family resemblance was striking.
How we got from an offer of tea to drinking your family's gin on the living room sofa while he undid the buttons on my blouse and quoted Marvell to my breasts, I have never satisfactorily explained to myself. Fortunately the noise of a small boy having a very large tantrum in the hall alerted us to the return of your mother and brother in time for me to adjust my clothing – and, I noticed, for my companion to secrete the gin bottle in one of his coat pockets.
Finding her brother in the house made your mother visibly upset. I "remembered" I'd arranged to see a film with my friend Sally, and that I had to go or risk being late. Sally was the nanny for one of the neighbouring families and we often socialised when our days off coincided.
Your mother – caught between Mycroft, who was still grizzling, and her brother, who was sprawled on the sofa looking supercilious – was too distracted to remember whether I'd told her anything of the sort; just relieved to get me off the premises before the scene which was clearly brewing actually erupted.
I dawdled down the road until I reached the telephone box on the corner. I'd reached a decision in those exhilarating minutes on the sofa. This was the closest I'd come all year to the London of the legends, and I wasn't going to let it slip away without a fight.
Sally happily agreed to be my alibi, offering reams of excellent advice, all salacious enough to make me blush all over – though not to repent of my intentions. After I finished the call I sat on a convenient wall, repairing my make-up and wishing I was a smoker; it would occupied my shaking hands.
I waited until I saw a tall figure ejected from the house. He turned back on the threshold to expostulate, had the door slammed in his face and began to lounge down the street in my direction. I slid down from the wall and turned to face him.
The rest of the day – I leave to your imagination. We caught a bus, went to Hampstead and wandered up onto the Heath. That part was all I had dreamt of. You have seen the photos.
As evening drew on I became somewhat fed up, however. Could the man bring himself to talk of anything beside himself? Frankly, I doubted it. Also, I'd drunk more than I was accustomed to even before leaving your parents' house. We finished the gin on the Heath – he drank most of it, though. Then we moved to a Camden pub and matters deteriorated further.
My first experience with a joint, in the pub's back yard, was a dry-throated, spluttering disaster (also, what is the idea with passing something sodden with someone else's saliva from person to person? Ugh!). With increasing frequency, my companion looked at his watch. I had ceased to be the main focus of his attention; he was expecting someone else to turn up, someone compared to whom I was a barely tolerable temporary distraction.
Between one implausible theatrical anecdote and the next, something snapped. I rose, muttered an insincere excuse about powdering my nose, and made for the Ladies. The back door of the pub was bare yards away.
Hammersmith seemed like heaven. Your parents' house was shrouded in darkness when I arrived. As I turned my key stealthily in the lock, kicked off my shoes in the vestibule to protect the parquet and tiptoed stocking-footed towards the stairs, I thought I had got away with it.
Which was when your father emerged, unexpectedly, from the shadows and caught my wrist.
"Rosie's in bed. Bad headache. Been there since this afternoon. Don't want to disturb her."
He drew me into the kitchen, made Horlicks and forced me to drink a mug – worse than the joint, if more hygienic – and swallow a couple of aspirin. When I'd finished, he eyed me up and down as if creating a file on me and then, just as suddenly, relaxed.
"Dull, was it?"
I nodded, dumbly. He seemed to know the whole story without my saying a word.
He smiled at my expression. "A word to the wise. Alibis based on films can be tricky affairs. Especially films one hasn't seen. Your friend Sally's description of the ticking time-bomb sequence in "Blow-Up" left me desperately disappointed I'd only seen the dreary Antonioni version, not hers. Anyway. Bed."
I knew luck when I saw it. I headed upstairs without a backward glance.
Your father didn't mention the events of that day again. Neither did your mother.
Nor did anyone else. No phone-calls, no letters, no flowers.
I might have been inclined to consider myself heart-broken, but I didn't want your father to suspect anything of the kind. From pretending indifference it didn't take very long to achieve that state in reality.
One morning in early November your mother and I were turning out all the kitchen cupboards, preparatory to giving the place a really thorough autumn clean (your father, sensible man, had opted to take Mycroft for his walk while we rolled up our sleeves and got down to it).
The doorbell rang and I went to answer it, finding a very fat man on the doorstep. His face was streaked with tears, his glasses askew, eyes swollen, his white hair wild, his shirt buttoned up all wrong – in fact, he appeared utterly distraught.
"I demand to see Rosalind," he roared at me. "Find me the beast without a heart!"
I was a second too slow slamming the door; he forced his way past me into the house, where he came face to face with your mother. As soon as he saw her he turned purple, waving his arms around his head, spittle flying from his mouth.
"Murderess! You abandoned your only brother, left him to die alone in a den of wolves. You're utterly devoid of creative energy yourself, and you've devoted your life to stamping out every spark of it in the family. And now you've killed him."
Your mother went dead white. I went up to her in case she needed support but she shook off my hand. "I've known Uncle Monty all my life, I can cope. Just find the Professor and bring him back here. Please."
I caught up with the Professor and Mycroft throwing bread to the ducks on the river. I doubt my explanation made a great deal of sense, but the words "Uncle Monty" seemed to strike home. He looked down at Mycroft and, visibly, paused. Whatever drama was happening back at the house, no child deserved to be thrust into the middle of unbridled adult insanity.
I had an inspiration. Sally's house was on the way back, and I assured the Professor that Mycroft and I could stay with her for an hour or two, while he sorted things out.
Sally didn't object, of course. I didn't mention the extraordinary things your mother's uncle had said; just explained Mrs Holmes's brother had died. Sally clearly guessed there was something I wasn't telling, but cheerfully bridged the gap with stories about her own family. On her description, an uncle calling his niece a murderess on her own doorstep would have fitted right in.
The BBC news bulletin had been playing on the kitchen wireless for some minutes when I finally took in what the announcer was saying.
…yet to release the name of the man whose body was recovered from the wolf enclosure at Regent's Park zoo early this morning. Police say next of kin are being informed...
Shock hit me like a blow in the chest. I'd taken the reference to "a den of wolves" as hyperbole, but now horrible images flooded my mind. Of course, I assumed the worst; pictured him pinned down, his throat ripped out, the body I had touched so intimately torn apart by wild beasts. And what must your mother have been feeling! Especially since they had parted on bad terms.
My worst fears were ill-founded, as you will see from the newspaper account of the inquest. He had been spotted earlier in the day loitering near the wolf-pen, swigging from a bottle and shouting at the animals. He seems to have carried on drinking – and taking assorted drugs – over the course of the evening. Very late at night he returned to the pen and broke in. Experts in wolf behaviour suggested his drunken self-confidence led the wolves to see him as an alpha member of the pack, so they refrained from attacking.
Even when he finally collapsed – acute alcohol poisoning working on an already chronically damaged liver, according to the coroner's report – the body remained untouched, until found by a keeper in the morning.
Nevertheless, hard fact came too late. The nightmarish first picture still held its grip on my mind. I believe that also held true for your mother. Another black mark against her Uncle Monty. The police had traced him first – they'd found a scrap of paper in the body's coat pocket bearing the scribbled address of a property Monty owned in Cumberland. Apparently he and a friend had stayed with Monty there during the previous week.
Monty identified the body, and volunteered to break the news to the rest of the family. No doubt the police were glad to have the job taken off their hands. He
could easily have eased your mother's worry about how her brother had died, but that had been the last thing on the demented man's mind.
It was a suspicious age. The Profumo scandal and the Philby defection were barely-healed wounds. Given what I surmise to have been the Professor's area of research – it was my own father's – the security ramifications of his brother-in–law dying of an excess of drink and drugs in the wolf-pen at Regent's Park – to say nothing of his wife's uncle making lurid accusations to anyone who would listen – must have come close to destroying his career. I expect he had to endure some awkward interviews with the powers that ruled the land.
As for your mother, "The Professor's work mustn't be disturbed" was the principle by which she lived. I wouldn't say this to anyone except you or your brother – Mycroft has never asked – but I believe the thought of the damage done by her appalling family brought her very close to a complete nervous breakdown.
Certainly, even many years later, the slightest allusion to these events provoked a disproportionate reaction. I wonder whether some lingering shadow of these events may have prompted your question, at this late stage? Forgive me if this seems over-familiarity but the last time I saw you I recall thinking you had inherited your height and colouring from your mother's side of the family – your features are strongly reminiscent of your father's – and that might not have been an easy legacy for your mother. Even the most determinedly rational people have points on which they are not quite steady.
Neither she nor your father attended the funeral; a wise move, given the likelihood their appearance would have provoked another outbreak from Monty.
It was a small affair – oh yes, I went . The only other mourner of my own age was a young man whose uncharacteristically neat haircut – in that dishevelled age – made me suspect him at first of being AEA police or intelligence services. In fact, he turned out to be an actor, in rehearsal for a play about the horrors of war – not "All Quiet on the Western Front" but something of the same sort – and he'd had to fake food-poisoning in order to come down from Manchester for the funeral.
Before and after the ceremony Monty kept trying to sidle up to the actor – Peter – and Peter latched on to me as a way of avoiding Monty. I wasn't sophisticated enough in those days to draw conclusions, and no doubt they'd have been the wrong ones. Much as I disliked Monty, I now realise he was dealing, in his own demented way, with a very real grief. But so was Peter. I saw him biting back tears during the short, impersonal service. It brought out my protective instincts. Somehow we gave Monty the slip and ended up in a pub beside Euston station, drinking gin-and-lime and waiting for Peter's train home. I walked him down to the platform – it seemed like the friendly thing to do – and just as he climbed onto the train he turned to me and said, "I didn't know. I should have known. But why didn't the stupid bugger say something?"
And that was it. I hope I have told you all you needed to know but if you wish, please call me. Or, should you be in Germany, you will be very welcome in Stuttgart."
He turned the pages over and over. One phrase struck him and he went back and read it again, then twice more.
Someone should have told me. He laughed, an abrupt, harsh sound in the deserted bedroom. On the other hand, I didn't ask.
He rose, and went to the window, throwing it open. The sun had come out; the sea sparkled green-blue; the fells were grey-brown, picked out here and there with the fresh green of the new season's bracken. The fresh, wild, salt-marsh scent of the outdoors drifted in through the window.
So: why didn't the stupid bugger say something?
John crested the final hill-top and saw the view unroll below him. No need to speculate what the Devil could have meant by offering Christ all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. The exposed sands of the bay were banks of gold in the evening sun, the rivers and creeks which ran between them curls and trickles of molten silver.
Sherlock's text – RETURN WHEN CONVENIENT. NO NEED TO HURRY. ALL WELL. SH – had not caught up with him until he'd been sitting, in a misguided sacrifice to childhood nostalgia, in the queue for the ferry at Ferry Nab.
He'd taken Sherlock at his word, taken the long way home through Claife Heights, Tarn Hows and Grisedale, and now felt blessedly at peace with the world. He found Sherlock back on the bench where he had been on the first morning. This time, Sherlock was busy squinting up at the inn sign and taking bearings with an orienteering compass. He had two maps side by side on the bench; the OS Landranger John had used for the Helvellyn ascent and a venerable, framed inch-to-a-mile sheet of the same area, which John had last seen screwed to the bar wall.
"Bet our landlord loved you nicking that," he observed, letting his shadow fall across it when Sherlock showed no other signs of responding to his presence.
"He did, actually. Especially when he saw me carrying this." Sherlock indicated the Poems of Francis Thompson, which pinned down the Landranger map against the light breeze. "Imagine the frustration of having set a puzzle which no-one recognises as one, let alone tries to solve."
"A puzzle?" John didn't bother raising the I see you broke into my room and made free with my possessions angle – at least it showed encouraging signs of renewed interest in life. Though, yet again, it was a sad commentary on what his life had become, when he could use "Too apathetic to burgle my bedroom" in all seriousness as a diagnostic tool.
"Yes." He jerked his thumb at the sign. "It's a rebus."
"I thought you said it was a colobus."
Sherlock sighed. "Not the monkey, John. The picture. It's a coded message. The existence of the code, of course, being flagged up by the mismatch between the inn name and its sign."
John squinted up at the sign in his turn, but it conveyed nothing to him except, "You can't find sign-painters with a decent grasp of primate taxonomy for love nor money these days." Good mountains, though.
"And where does the German courier package come in?"
Not a good question, John realised from Sherlock's suddenly shuttered look. "Sorry. None of my business. OK."
That provoked a startled jerk of Sherlock's head, as if he had been mentally steeling himself for more persistence. After a moment he said, rather stiffly, "Not connected. That was another case altogether." A pause. "One where it turned out I was completely wrong. Had been completely wrong. Most of my life."
"I'm sorry?" He'd have expected the stones of Loughrigg Circle get up and dance before he'd expected to hear those words from Sherlock's lips.
"You heard, John. I'm not repeating it, so if you were hoping to record it for a ring-tone I'm afraid you've missed your chance."
Actually, if I wanted your voice as my ring-tone – and, God, come to think of it, yes – "I was completely wrong" wouldn't be my phrase of choice. Even for the novelty value.
John blinked, aware his heart was pounding very hard indeed ("Even harder than on Helvellyn," memory reminded him) and that the quality of Sherlock's scrutiny had changed; become intense, focussed, almost – puzzled? No, that was the wrong word. Speculative, though.
To cover his confusion, he said, "So, about the inn-sign. What's the solution?"
"Um? Oh. I'll tell you over dinner. I've reserved our table for 8.00pm. I thought, as it's our last night here, we'd better make it a good one. "
"Our last night?" The pang of regret was real but fleeting; some part of his sub-conscious had known this couldn't last. Doubtless that had prompted him to linger over his return to the inn that day.
For a moment, it almost seemed as if Sherlock felt regret, too. "Lestrade called earlier. You know the Kew girls' boarding school murder?"
Vaguely, John recollected a paragraph or two in the morning paper. The deputy headmistress, found stabbed behind the sports pavilion. He nodded.
Sherlock waved his hand. "Anderson's cocked up the forensics, Sally's away on a course, Lestrade's ulcers have flared up again, and ever since the Sun traced the body's links to West London ceremonial magick groups through Facebook they've been making his life a misery with 'Satanism at St Trinian's' headlines."
John nodded. Business as usual, indeed. With a vengeance.
"Obviously, her religious practices don't have the slightest bearing on the case. As I told Lestrade, what they really need to know is whether the headmistress visited Rome in the last three months, and why they sacked the last games teacher."
"Obviously," John agreed. He looked down at the maps. "So, have you finished here? If we're off in the morning, I'd better go and pack."
"You can take yours. I'm nearly done here. It was the old map I should have been using all along. The answer was in the past. Seems to be the popular trend at the moment."
Had he imagined that wistful note in Sherlock's voice? Nothing could be decoded from his expression. John paused for a moment, waiting for a word, but Sherlock had turned back to the compass and the map, and didn't seem to notice. He left him to it and went inside.
The candle on the table flickered, its flame reflected in the plate-glass window. Outside, the rising moon had just cleared the further fells, bathing their tops in silver light, turning the clefts and gullies of their slopes into sharp-edged, black pits of oblivion.
Across the table, Sherlock – wearing a new charcoal-grey shirt, his hair barely dry from the shower – fizzed with animation, leaping from topic to topic with dazzling speed, almost forgetting to eat, even though the food was delectable and the insanely expensive white Burgundy Sherlock had insisted on ordering felt as if angels were copulating on one's tongue.
The inn landlord materialised beside their table. "Sorry you're having to leave us so soon. Has everything been all right for you?"
John, who had spent a truly alarming number of evenings hearing restaurateurs offer up similar hostages to fortune, shot his flatmate a repressive glance. Remember, the correct answer is not, "Surprisingly so, given I see your pâtissier has fallen off the wagon again and I doubt the smokescreen you've been drawing over the rodent infestation in the pantries will hold the Environmental Health off much longer." Or whatever you've managed to deduce this time.
Sherlock flicked him the ghost of a wink in response.
"Everything's been delightful." He paused. "And I agree. The Local Government Act 1972 was a travesty of justice. Best of luck with your campaign."
The landlord beamed; John, from long experience of Sherlock's methods, deduced that the white Burgundy would have miraculously transformed itself into house white by the time it arrived on the bill, if it didn't manage to disappear altogether.
"Well, fingers crossed for the Localisation Bill," the landlord said. "Anyway, well done. We've been here seven years, and you're the first to work the sign out. Hope we'll be seeing you again soon."
He passed on to the next table.
"Well?" John said, as soon as he was out of earshot.
Sherlock's words tumbled out even faster than earlier; he ticked off points on his long, pale hands.
"The inn's name is the Ape and Artisan but the sign shows a monkey. Second anomaly, the term "artisan". It'd be more usual to describe a cobbler or a potter that way, not a man who happens to building a wall. Dry-stone walling is a skill, yes, but in these parts it's one every farmer has to learn. Conclusion; the figures on the sign have significance beyond illustrating the pub name.
"The view of the fells. Not the angle the tourist shots use. Painted on an orientation which centres around the line of the wall. So, the wall's important. If you transpose the line of the wall onto the map, what do you get? The current OS map gives you nothing until you extend line up to Wrynose Pass, when it hits a monument labelled 'Three Shires Stone'. One problem; no county boundary for miles in any direction at the current time, so 'Three Shires Stone' must reference previous boundaries, presumably shown on earlier maps.
"There's an older version of the OS map hanging on the wall of the bar. People often put maps on walls, but they tend to be either antiques or modern maps in good condition. They don't glaze and frame battered relics from the 1960s with visible coffee stains. Not unless the map in question has sentimental value. Our landlord's in his early '50s. Born in Liverpool from his accent, but moved to southern England in his teens, only returned north when he and his wife acquired the inn seven years ago. As you yourself prove, people who come here as children often form a passionate attachment to the place. Probably that's the map he used on the first real mountain he ever climbed.
"On the older map the Three Shires Stone marks the place where the counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire met, before the boundary changes imposed by the 1972 Local Government Act.
"Using the old map to examine the inn sign, you can see that the line of the wall runs along the old boundary between Lancashire and Westmoreland. Notably, both the monkey and the man building the wall are on the Lancashire side. This is a political and partisan painting: their location is obviously symbolic. Google permutations of 'Lancashire' 'monkey' and 'stone wall' and you find an unpublished draft of a poem by Francis Thompson called 'At Lord's'."
"Oh." The penny dropped. "Harry used to recite that. 'And the run-stealers flicker, to and fro, to and fro/Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago.'"
"Precisely. 'Monkey' and 'Stonewall' were nicknames for Hornby and Barlow, Lancashire cricketers of the 1870s. The poem's tone is elegiac, but it celebrates a triumph of Lancashire, the underdogs, against a much stronger southern team, led by W.G. Grace, the most famous cricketer of all time.
"So, the landlord's invoking the heroes of Lancashire's heroic past in support of his campaign to rebuild the historic boundaries and reminding his fellow Lancastrians of the county's ability to succeed against apparently overwhelming odds.
"Conclusion; our landlord's a romantic, an optimist and a passionate believer in his native county. And, also, capable of setting a puzzle which kept me engrossed for three and a half hours. Brilliant."
He stretched back in his chair, interlocking his fingers behind his neck, wearing an expression of cat-like content. An absurd flicker of tenderness bubbled up within John's chest at seeing Sherlock back to his normal, infuriating, scintillating self.
"Days, not hours," he observed mildly. "You were fretting about the inn sign on the morning after we arrived here. But, I agree, brilliant. I'm not sure how you'll pack all that into a review on Tripadvisor, but I'm sure you'll manage it somehow."
Sherlock looked at his watch. "You probably ought to do it now, if you're going to. You'll have the best of the moonlight, and if things turn out badly you'll be back before last orders."
"Every time you've approached the inn during our stay, you've avoided using the back lane, though it's less convenient to bring a car round by the front route and the parking's better at the back. I infer you don't want to pass the cottage where your family stayed when you were a child, probably because you're afraid of contaminating your idealised memories. But tonight's your last opportunity, and you're not the man to baulk a challenge. So, I suggest you do it now."
"I – OK."
Pathetic as it might sound, John's life had featured far more holidays with assorted mates than it ever had romantic getaways. As a result, his sixth sense for when a holiday companion was really saying, "Push off out of my hair for a bit" was finely tuned. Of course, this being Sherlock, his motive presumably wasn't clearing the field to have an unencumbered crack at the waitress – more probably, to pass onto their landlord tips on explosive formulae, in case he decided to liberate Furness from its evil Cumbrian overlords by direct action. In which case, plausible deniability sounded fine, just fine.
John went, silently, for his coat.
By way of asserting free will, he turned his path to the right on leaving the front door. He walked along the salt-marsh at the water's edge, watching the moonlight dance on the little waves, before his native honesty reasserted itself.
"Oh, who the fuck am I trying to kid?" he demanded of a random shelduck. It made no constructive suggestion in response. Sherlock might have been trying to get a bit of solitude, but he'd also managed to wrap it up in a perfectly genuine, uncomfortably targeted deduction.
John had been avoiding the cottage. And he knew he'd hate himself forever if he didn't face it before they left early tomorrow morning.
He turned, and made tracks for the lane which ran behind the Ape and Artisan.
The sound of angry voices spilling out into the night from the cottage's open window as he approached along the lane provoked a quite unreasonable level of affront. People had no business letting their messy domestic complications intrude upon his nostalgic wallowing.
Come to think of it, though, the Watson family's tenure of this cottage hadn't exactly been free of conflict. He recalled Harry; restless, bored, loudly opining that they could have gone to Italy for the same money. His mother, observing that "self-catering holiday" was an oxymoron, at least for a woman, as she buttered bread for another batch of packed lunches. Even his father, complaining that no-one else in the family ever made the effort to keep up, striding blithely through mist and low cloud, his confidence in his map-reading only equalled by his utter absence of a sense of direction, so that more often than not they ended up in unfamiliar valleys, the wrong side of unfordable rivers or – on one memorable occasion – climbing Fairfield when they'd been aiming for Helvellyn.
The noises from inside the cottage subsided. John drew a deep breath. No intervention on his part seemed either necessary or likely to be welcome. He stood for a moment in the moonlit lane, lost in the past. In those days nothing had seemed more certain than that the family would continue to return here, year after year, forever. If he had thought then about the distant, improbable event of being grown up, he would probably have assumed he would bring his own family here in due course, and everything would continue for generations to come.
Even before setting out on this trip, he'd known that the man who could have had that family had been left in Afghanistan as surely as if the bullet had hit him in the head, not the shoulder. Standing in the lane, he realised a profounder truth. That man would never have gone to Afghanistan in the first place. And he certainly would never have contemplated sharing a flat with a mad, mercurial genius who routinely held the fate of nations in his long, pale hands.
In fact, that other man seemed to have a remarkably limited view of life's possibilities. On the whole, John felt rather sorry for him.
He left the cottage's inhabitants to it, and retreated to the Ape and Artisan.
As he pushed his bedroom door open he saw, first, that his bedside light was on and, second, that Sherlock was stretched out on his bed, reading by its light. ReadingWe Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, John realised, with a sense of shock that he could focus on such a trivial detail in the circumstances.
Sherlock raised his head from his book, intent eyes scanning him from head to toe. One corner of his mouth quirked into a slight, challenging smile.
The smile was, of course, more noticeable because it happened to be the only thing Sherlock was wearing.
For one heart-stopping moment John froze on the threshold, unsure if his leg might, once more, refuse to obey his will. ("It's a matter of boundaries.") Sherlock's expression changed, his smile faded. John heard the betraying catch of his breath, loud in the room's charged silence.
His mind raced.
Lying naked on someone else's bed translated to "blatant come-on" in practically any language one chose to mention. Including Sherlockian. No point considering baroque fantasies about crime-scene reconstructions or experiments intended to generate data about changes in human heart-rates and breathing patterns in response to unexpected stimuli.
This is probably the most unequivocal pass you will ever receive in your life. And it isn't a chance you'll be offered twice.
John let the door fall shut behind him. The Yale lock engaged with a soft click. He dropped coat and scarf onto a chair and kicked off his shoes and socks. He detected the faintest shift of posture in the long, lean, muscular body stretched on the bed and imagined Sherlock making a mental note:
Observation one; the subject does not run screaming into the night.
Between one breath and the next John accepted – without fuss or reservation – the truth he'd never before admitted to his conscious mind. He'd been falling for months in slow motion, irrevocably committed from the moment he'd caught this man's gaze across the chill, bright, preservative-reeking space of Bart's mortuary.
One glance from those agate-pale eyes and you knew you would kill for this man. Thirty hours later, you had.
His bare feet were almost soundless on the thick pile carpet. He dropped to sit on the edge of the bed, twining the fingers of his left hand with Sherlock's, gripping hard enough to leave indentations.
Sherlock exhaled; a faint, ragged acknowledgement of relief, desire and need. John raised the captured hand to his lips, brushing those elegant, chemical-stained finger tips in the faintest of kisses. He could feel the tremor which rippled through Sherlock's body; the answering spike of desire threatened, for a second, to overwhelm him.
Oh, God, I want where this is going. I never dared hope he'd want it too.
Still, no-one – not even Sherlock – should be allowed to spring a naked ambush on a man in his own bedroom and not expect some consequences. Pride demanded it. To say nothing of a prudent sense that if John allowed himself to be steam-rollered in the bedroom - as well as in every other aspect of their shared life – he might rapidly lose any shred of free will he possessed.
Deliberately, he forced a tone of detached interest. "Still, why now? Unless, of course, this is one of those 'last night of the holiday, we may never be in Istanbul again, how about it?' type of things?"
"No!" Sherlock's gasp of outraged denial provoked a pang of guilt. Christ alone knew how long he'd taken to nerve himself up to this point.
"Sorry," John mumbled, kissing Sherlock's fingertips once again to reinforce the apology. "Still, you can't blame me for wondering. After all, I wasn't the one who went out of my way to make it clear there was nothing doing at the outset, was I?"
"I'm fully aware I'm not someone many people would even contemplate a fling with. Still less a serious relationship." He hesitated. "Any sane person."
"Oh, well, that's all right. Got a therapist and everything."
Sherlock showed no sign of having noticed the levity. "John; you do know you matter to me, don't you? It's just – I've had it proved to me this week that sins of omission do count, after all. Things not done and not said, still having the power to hurt, half a century later."
"This the man in the teashop again?" He might not be a genius, but he could make connections, given half a steer in the right direction.
Sherlock barely nodded; he had turned onto his back, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. The pain in his face decided John's next move. He curled beside Sherlock on the bed, arm across his chest, cheek resting on his shoulder. Almost unconsciously, Sherlock brought his arm up to embrace him. They lay silent for a moment before Sherlock murmured into his hair, "My mother's brother shared a flat with him. Over forty years ago. My uncle was in love with him, but never said anything. But when he – Peter – left, my uncle couldn't carry on."
"What happened to him?"
"Died of drink and drugs." A pause. "In the wolf pen at Regent's Park zoo." His face twisted in a wry smile. "You don't have to say it. I do have melodrama encoded in my DNA."
"History doesn't have to repeat itself, you pillock. Barring unwinnable land wars in Asia, obviously." John bent his head, began to kiss his way from the pulse point in Sherlock's wrist to his palm. "God, you're gorgeous. Mad as a box of frogs, but then; no-one's perfect." He took Sherlock's thumb into his mouth, circling it delicately with his tongue. He felt, more than heard, Sherlock's shuddered gasp.
"Oh, yes, that. And there.. Why are you still wearing so many clothes?"
"Left as an exercise for the student." John couldn't hold his own voice steady. By way of demonstrating the right idea, he shed his jumper.
"Ah." Sherlock slipped the top two buttons on John's shirt open, letting his fingers dance across the exposed skin of John's neck. The shock tingled along his nerves. Sherlock's expression became predatory, almost triumphant. He reached for the remaining buttons; John rolled onto his back to encourage him. He let out a yelp as his shoulder-blade encountered something hard-edged and unexpected amid the bedclothes.
"Hang on a sec."
He fished out the discarded copy of We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea; somewhat the worse for wear, spine cracked, open at the title page. John caught sight of Commander Walker's favourite motto, and grinned.
"Grab a chance and you won't have to be sorry for a Might-Have-Been," had never seemed like sounder advice.
So he did.
WOULD THOSE OFFERING PEERAGE CONSIDER REDRAWING A LINE ON A MAP AN ACCEPTABLE SUBSTITUTE? SH
WHICH MAP? IF KASHMIR, FORGET IT. MYCROFT
NOT KASHMIR. FURNESS. SH
WILL SEE WHAT CAN BE ARRANGED. MYCROFT