"There was a pet shop," he said, although far too long a silence had passed and from the corner of his eye he could see John Watson glance over in mild surprise.
"A pet shop?" John's tone was puzzled but tolerant. He must have been used to non sequiturs by now.
Greg nodded, shifting back further into the doorway and tipping his umbrella forward as the rain picked up. He inhaled the bitter steam rising off his coffee and then chanced a sip. It burned his tongue, and he hissed. "In Soho. This was years ago. I'd just made Detective Sergeant."
"Was it a criminal pet shop?" John asked lightly.
He knew he was supposed to chuckle, but he couldn't quite muster it. The memory still made him uneasy, and the general atmosphere wasn't helping. It was past midnight and pissing rain, and the damp was in his shoes and down his collar, and even the cold couldn't quite smother the smell of advanced decomposition.
"There had been three suspicious deaths. The shop was the only thing the victims seemed to have in common. We speculated it was a front for illegal operations."
"Come for a cockatiel, stay for the cocaine?"
"Something like that. I was sent by my DI to question the owner. He—well, I wasn't sure he was a he at first..."
An image flashed through his mind: Ornate silk robes and paper-white skin. Heavy-lashed eyes, mismatched like Bowie's. And lips...lips like cherries. Not painted. Not the waxen, artificial red of lipstick, but true, dark red.
He broke out in a sweat despite the chill. "At any rate," he said, his tongue heavy, "he introduced himself as a count. It didn't check out, of course. Nothing about the place did. There were a few cats wandering around the place, and you could hear animals in the back, but they must have rigged up a tape, because it didn't smell like a menagerie in there."
It smells of incense, thick and cloying, and somewhere beneath it, the tang of fresh sea air. "Tea, Detective?" the count inquires. The words come strangely from his distracting mouth, and Greg for a moment thinks of badly dubbed films before silently calling himself a racist ass and cautiously acquiescing. The count's accent isn't English, or Mandarin, or Cantonese. It isn't anything.
"One of the cats jumped into my lap as the count made tea. I gave it a pat, and the count saw it and smiled. The way he smiled was..."
...like the way vampires smile in films, when the actors are trying to hide their prosthetic fangs. Greg watches as the man sips his tea and nibbles at an arrangement of overly sweet pastries that are all sugar and marzipan. He asks the requisite questions, and they are answered ably, if coyly. He writes the responses down in his notebook, and his handwriting is worse than usual, so thoroughly distracted is he by the count's narrow, cherry-red mouth.
There was something very wrong with that mouth. Something that had made Greg's guts cramp up the longer he sat in the shadowy, incense-thick parlour, until he'd begun to worry the tea had been poisoned. Worse was the fact that he could not put his finger on exactly what so disturbed him. All the expected parts were there: white, even teeth and a delicate pink tongue. He had glimpsed them in part or whole as the count gracefully spoke and ate and drank. Yet he could not shake the feeling that behind those lips was something impossible. Something alien.
It would be easy in retrospect to blame it on homophobic panic. He had stared at those lips, imagining them on his own, on his naked skin, stretched red and hungry around his cock. Then he had choked on his tea, physically recoiling from the sudden, certain image of needle-sharp teeth and a cavernous throat.
The count leans across the low table, his robe falling open, revealing nothing but shadows. There is a smug smile on his lips, and he even smells like cherries, ripe and tempting, making Greg think of pierced flesh and running juices.
"Are you quite all right, Detective?"
John peered at him. "Are you all right?"
Greg shook himself back to his senses and downed his coffee in four hard swallows, his throat tight and burning. "Yeah. Fine," he said. "Never mind."
He hadn't answered the question that had prompted it all—how does he keep Sherlock from winding him up?—but John mercifully let it lie.
They returned to watching the man himself, who was circling the crime scene tarps like a vulture, heedless of the rain. His hair was sodden, and the sleeves of his coat glinted with beaded raindrops. His impossibly long and pale hands were tented, index fingers pressed to a wide, pale mouth that a much older Gregory Lestrade living in different times had fewer qualms about finding attractive.
Sherlock then drew a large piece of wire from his pocket and began poking it into the remains. He glanced over at them, almost daring them to say something—or perhaps merely sulky because his audience had opted to stay dry rather than occupy front-row seats to the Sherlock show. It was an amusingly petty expression, and Greg merely smiled in return and tapped his watch in mock impatience.
The chill in him eased slightly, chased away by fond exasperation. Sherlock Holmes was ghoulish, yes. Brilliant. Mad. A narcissistic, addictive personality with insufficient regard for human life and feeling. But at the end of the day, to his eternal relief, Sherlock Holmes was only human.