Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half-shut afterwards.
“You. And Greg. The two of you. Married,” John proceeds to specify as if Sherlock plus one were the sum to end all sums. “And now for my inspired guess. Case?”
The Married Ones, eyeing each other across Mary’s nice batik rug, answer in one voice - so that Greg’s “Close enough” slots neatly into Sherlock’s “Not really”.
John chuckles. “Still sounding the part, too.”
“This calls for a drink.” Mary rises from her seat, pert and practical, crosses to the kitchen. “John, what’s yours? Shandy?“
“Not a case proper. A favour, and an extremely dull one at that. Mycroft’s idea of fun consists in spotting the murderer early on, then sending me to catch his worm for him.”
“Oh, like Minority Report?” (Mary, mixing the drinks.)
“Sort of. Minus the pool and the ping-pong balls.” (Greg, on the receiving end.)
“Well, my brother is hardly a sports fiend.“ (Sherlock, not untypically missing the point.) “But when rumour had it that Alf Björnson, the free-lance poisoner, had settled in England incognito…”
“Wait. The what?”
“Oh, John. Of course you know him. Chemistry nerd, specialised in sauces, dips and chutneys, very much the fashion-dish-sta. Once felled an entire Embassy with a tub of pesto alla genovese. They used to call him Three-Condiments Björnson in the C.I…” A flushed and voluble Mary checks herself. “In the C.I.D. Didn’t they, Greg? I’m sure I’ve heard you mention him before.“
“Oh, he’s an odd worm all right. And a dab hand at covering his tracks. I didn’t even know he was in England until Sherlock barged into my flat last Thursday and asked for my help. Well, I say asked…”
“Oh good, you’re starkers.”
As a prelude to his Saturday morning routine, these were alluring words. Or would have been two years earlier, when the routine still involved his wife instead of Sherlock Holmes in a pristine polo shirt and red (red?!) linen trousers, squatting on Lestrade’s bathroom tiles and all but gawping at Lestrade’s boxered groin. He had been cutting his toe nails when Sherlock had sauntered in, already Sundayed up, and hogged his bath mat.
“Stand up and turn round, please. I need to inspect your beauty spots.”
“What?” Lestrade looked wildly round for a loincloth.
“Moles. And birthmarks. Oh, and I’d better record the full-frontal view, too, in case they give us a sex quiz.” A long inquisitive finger stole up and began to chuck the boxers under their waistband. Lestrade’s answering reflex nearly toppled him into the empty bath. “Mrs Hudson has already tutored me on miscommunication and its dire, dire consequences on a long-term partnership. Care to drop these?“
The next four minute were a tribute to Sherlock’s learning skills. At last, the psychotic-Swedish-chef-turned-Borgia-for-hire found its way to Lestrade’s ear – once he’d pinned two towels to his lap and used the third to flap Sherlock back into a less territorial zone.
Where he soon found himself packing a light case on Sherlock ’s instructions, listening to the Voice of Reason as it summarised the case at its usual rate of knots, pausing only to bitch on his wardrobe.
“Mycroft thinks that this man, this Björnson, might be currently hiding in Cynewald Hall. Heard of it? No, you wouldn’t have.” A glossy brochure was tossed, its cover picture a round tower encased in some sort of brick monstrosity, rose-pink and shamelessly phallic against the pure blue sky. “Place in Hertfordshire, early Elizabethan, old money come to no good so the present heir has taken to renting it for weddings and seminars and such jollifications. Very entre nous, offers to guide the chic elite in… Lestrade, I said chic, not check. Put that shirt aside – or better, put it out of its misery.”
”But I like it!”
“A lost cause, then” from the self-appointed arbiter of undercover elegance. “Where was I? In the more strenuous paths of life. Our man is the hotel’s chef, doubling as the cake decorating facilitator, only his class was full and Mycroft wants him formally damned or cleared by Monday. There was however one vacancy in another workshop, Relationship Counselling, which luckily enough happens to take place in the same corridor. Ergo, we’re now a couple in a bad patch – like those shoes of yours, incidentally. When will you learn how to kick down a door? You need to stand closer and hit the vulnerable area just below the door-knob. You never target the knob, do you?”
“Nah, but you make it rather tempting to try.“
The loud chuckle took him by surprise. It made Sherlock’s gaunt face – too gaunt, never quite relaxed since his return from Limbo – look briefly, startlingly younger. Less of that mixed bag of hollows and shadows which, not so long ago, had pushed Lestrade to loop an arm round the ghost’s neck and – for the first time in their off-and-on, chalk-and-cheese friendship – pull him into a substantial hug. Less…haunted. Oh. Lestrade’s heart folded on a pang of warmth.
“Hey.” Softly spoken, until he had Sherlock’s clear gaze and could hold it to his. “Game on, kid.”
“It’s not a video game, Lestrade,” Sherlock griped, but he was still chuckling when Lestrade zipped his bag and followed him into the street. Then into the black Bentley Arnage double-parked superbly before the door. One of Mycroft’s, judging from the sleek, hard curves and the shaded windows. Interesting, that he’d have consented to part with his, well. Exoskeleton was the only word Lestrade could summon, a tribute to all the video games he’d learnt to play when looking after his younger next-of-kins.
“Can I sit in front? If I ’fess up and tell you I’ve always wanted to push his buttons?“
Another chuckle. It left a ripple of good humour in Lestrade, as did the sight of Sherlock’s neck sinews loosening. Hmmm. There had to be a story behind the story of Mycroft siccing Sherlock on his elusive prey and Sherlock agreeing with none of his customary wailing and gnashing of teeth, but Lestrade knew better than to push for it.
He’d rolled the shaded window half-way down and was reflecting on their mission to come when the first niggle of doubt fell across his happiness.
“Say, what’s our cover story ?”
His query was met with silence and Sherlock’s puckered brow in the driver’s mirror. The niggle became a gnaw, sharpening Lestrade’s voice.
“Lemme see. You and Mycroft want me for the part, so I guess this is a – rehash of sorts. Using my past, are we?” Which put a whole new light on Sherlock needing him for the case. Not even a stand-in for John Watson, he. Just a guinea pig with an available story.
“I’m the old sad sack who can’t give you what you want, more time, quality time, in and out of bed. Have we made it past your first affair, or your second, or are we” – the words came effortlessly, his memory swirled and bitter – “finally on the mend if only I’ll be reasonable and go for a desk promotion, never mind the extra hours, so you can renew your posh gym membership?”
“What? No!” Sherlock’s voice was outraged. “That’s not a cover story at all, that’s your wife’s inane alibi for indulging her equally inane tastes. Please, there’s no need to stray from realism. You married me for my brains, let us presume, so credit me with a modicum of those. Grey hair is a genetic fallacy, not a badge of senility. You’re an extremely handsome man and my co-worker. And even if I adhered to Gershon Longman’s sex credo, which I don’t, it would be very remiss of me to have you memorize his 3,700 positions. That’s sex clutter.”
And Sherlock waved Mr Longman’s statistics loftily out into the cool summer air. (The Bentley, it turned out, came with a folding roof. Other buttons had already delivered salted almonds, mint chocolates, an ivory pocket comb, and, to Lestrade’s vast delight, a series of cocktail umbrellas, all dated and signed by H. M. the Queen Mother.)
“Obviously, we’re in a bad place because I’ve proved thoroughly unsuitable as a partner. While I do indulge now and then, my libido is haphazard and unreliable, giving you ample cause for a suit of divorce. You feel crushed in your virility, cheated in your expectations of –”
“That would be the point, yes.” Sherlock’s lower tones had gone starched. “My libido…”
“Yeah, I heard you. But that’s not realism, sunshine. That’s bullshit.”
“That’s not what I was –”
Lestrade pushed his shoulders back against the headrest and stretched his legs out, letting his knee knock Sherlock’s gently. “Then they were bullshit.” He let that sink in before carrying on, pitting his voice against the engine’s swollen drone. “Sex is not – whatever they told you.”
“He.” Still those hushed, rigid tones. “It was years ago, Lestrade. Just a one-time…thing.”
“Well, he was a one-time prick. Who told you wrong. Because sex, well, sex is not just about getting one off in or on your fella. Or lady. Wanna know what I miss most about the wife?“
There were green fields left and right of them. And green trees, and the smell of water when the sun was highest. It felt almost as if they’d crossed into another plane of being, even with London at such close quarters. “Ticklin’,” he said. “She used to love it when I stroked her neck, just that, last thing at night. Said it made her - safe. Helped her to her sleep. Well, that was good enough for me.”
Silence. Lestrade checked the mirror again and coughed.
“‘Course, if you call me Garfield at the meet-and-greet, it’s a slap on the wrist for you, hubby.”
And there it was again, that curious, bone-deep, all-is-well-in-the-world sensation when Sherlock laughed. And now it was dappled with a softer joy because Sherlock had made him his confidant. A first, that. But there had been many firsts since Sherlock’s return, what with his own divorce and John’s marriage and Anderson’s change of heart and...yeah, line’em up and he’d toast’em all. So it made sense that their relationship would grow and evolve, too, play into that bright mosaic of change, that now involved Sherlock consulting him for a case – just the two of them, their own men and each other’s man for the next forty-eight hours.
He was circling the prospect with lazy curiosity when Sherlock’s voice came again.
“Well. As long as you’re with me on this.…”
“And you said yes, I take it.”
“ ’Course.” Greg takes another sip. “Ever heard me say no to that overactive mop? Then I packed a week-end bag and off we drove to that place – in one of Mycroft’s Leviathans, no less.”
“Oh, lucky you!”
“Mary lives for the day she’ll be kidnapped and taken for a ride.”
“Don’t forget the handsome bribery offer. I could do with a week-end at a posh manor, with a bottle of Cochon-Rothschild or whatever they put in your room now.” Mary waves her glass about. “So tell us. Was it all brick and chic?”
Sherlock scrunches his nose, whether at his shandy or the reminiscence is hard to tell. “Oh, yes. Which made it all the more annoying to find that, instead of checking us in as MM. deVere, which was the initial plan, Mycroft had booked a deluxe room for…”
“…the Smokeses. He” – Greg jerks a thumb at his partner in crime – “was Bill Smokes.”
“And I’m supposed to be the resentful one,“ Sherlock mutters across John’s yips of laughter.
“So we had the resident lackey carry the bags to our room and headed straight to the buffet. Which doubled as the meet-and-greet. Which…did not go quite according to plan.”
“We’ll have to be quick,” Sherlock whispered as they made their way to the front lawn where a large marquee had been rigged up. “It’s past one already and we have our first session at two. Keep your eyes open.”
“Ears, of course. Shhh!”
There must have been a hundred people or so in the impeccable garden. Some wore badges impeccably aligned with the upper edge of their blazer pockets. An ambulating waiter with a tray paused in his track. “Sir…?”
Lestrade shook his head. “Nah, we’re fine. Ta. Er, that’s merci you, my good man. Keep moving.”
Sherlock sighed. “Those were pickled shrimps, Scotland Yard. I need a close look at Björnson’s ears – Mycroft texted me his biometrics before I left to fetch you. There’s a fair chance he might have undergone facial surgery when he was still on the run, but the human ear is a cat’s-cradle of nerves and cartilages, and very little can be done to alter its shape. Ha!”
“Wait –” but Sherlock had already dived into the buffet zone. With his tennis shirt collar popped, the big tosser. Lestrade followed at a more sedate pace, trying on his new persona for size while he glanced left and right. Well-off, silvering, head of the game, married – look self-assured. On his way to explain his marital woes to a room packed with toffs – look self-conscious. And now he looked cross-eyed. Whoever did that, anyway? Not that Lestrade was much surprised, not with Anderson setting up a discussion group to examine Mrs A’s latest request for maintenance. On the Met’s Intranet, no less. Or Mrs Hudson’s scoop that she was buying 221D now that her autobiography, Tea with the Mob: I Totes Married a Gangsta, was rocking the sales.
“Hullo! You must be attending the R.R. seminar.” Someone was patting his jacket sleeve.
“I –” Relationship Rehab, Lestrade’s trendy-to-English inner dictionary provided. He turned. The lady was no longer young and had no visible partner in orbit. Maybe…
“Yea…s. Must be the self-conscious air, what? Giving me away.” Lestrade smiled. “Are you here for the, er… Cake Makeover Tutoring?”
She had a wrinkled face and a girlish hairdo, a simple braid thrown over her slim shoulders, and somehow the two struck an oddly nice match. The braid was held together by a blue elastic at its end, which she touched rather self-consciously as she answered.
“Oh no. I’m one of us, dear. I have an aura problem.”
“Aura?” Lestrade, who had missed breakfast, grabbed a plastic spoon on one of the floating trays and inspected it. It came with beets and fish eggs, and what looked suspiciously like custard on ice. Jesus.
“I’m Maisie Fisher.” The lady stretched out her hand. “I’m a colourvoyant.”
Lestrade shook it firmly, offered it the spoon. “Greg Smokes. I have a spouse problem.”
“Oh, you’re Bill’s husband? How lovely.” Maisie pointed to another green patch, where Sherlock was elbowing his way from one blazered man to the next. He looked disgruntled, his collar already sagging under the heat, though that might have been par for the part. “I should really have guessed. Your auras…oh, but there I go again. That’s the way trouble lies, at least with my children. They disapprove. Very much. Thomas is a vicar, you see, with a bishopric in sight, and his wife…”
“No, tell me. Er, pray.” It must have been the sun, Lestrade would think afterwards. Or the booze – they had run into Pimm’s or Pimm’s had run into them at some point. Or Sherlock’s limp collar, raising a fierce, idiotic impulse in Lestrade to cross over and prop it up again himself.
“Well, yours is orange shot with old-gold, simply gorgeous. Only…” Maisie frowned. “Only just now it is doing its best to flicker into green. Which is very not you. Anyway. Bill…now Bill is a bit of a puzzle, isn’t he?”
“I should say,” Lestrade said. Feelingly.
“A Dodger Blue by birth, a very rare aura. But mutating. With a touch of the Himalayan poppy – he’s been on an emotional or spiritual journey recently. Have you two been summering in Tibet? I’m told the air over there is very pure, or perhaps the monks…hullo! Here comes Chef Gustav with the dessert trolley.”
Lestrade whipped round. So did Sherlock on his side of the lawn. Theirs were not the only heads to turn: the trolley might have made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but it was the trolleyman who pulled the audience. He was almost eight feet tall, eight and five if you made provision for the crowning glory that was his hat, an immaculate edifice pushed firmly down over his brow, his bland eyes – the blue irises gave off an eerie effect of trickling into the whites – and his ears.
Bugger. Lestrade looked over to Sherlock, who appeared to be weighing the pros and cons of tripping the Cynewald star without looking déclassé. Lestrade shot him a cautionary glance. “Red alarm,” he growled under his breath.
Surprisingly, it was Maisie Fisher who nodded. “Red Devil, they call it these days,” she chipped in. “A most uncommon shade. Did you spot it too? I…forgive me, I think I’ll just go inside and look for a chair.”
“Are you all right?” For Maisie had certainly turned several shades paler. Lestrade leant toward her while in the corner of his eye, the chef took a wide bow, all hat and no face; then took a step back and retreated, a target moving out of sight for now.
“The heat, I’m sure,” Maisie gasped. “Though I’m keenly receptive to… Ah, here’s Kiwi. My son’s wife. Can you take me inside, Kiwi dear? It’s nearly two, after all. This is Greg, Greg Smokes. One of us. I think he has the Gift.”
The stiff-spined woman in the Laura Ashley blouse gave Lestrade a bright unimpressed smile. “Kimberley Winifred Fisher,” she said, driving her unspoken point home. “Shall we?”
“ ’Course,” Lestrade said. “What ho,” he remembered to add before he steered them towards the main entrance, against his stomach’s better judgement.
Hungry, yeah. Not half. Only…not just. As they joined up with other workshop attendees, he caught a glimpse of Sherlock’s dark head and white neck, towering above the indefatigable shirt collar, once again arched like a sail. Lestrade swallowed. For a man who had just skipped lunch, he felt as if he had bitten off about as much as he could chew.