It wasn't the most vulgarly expensive house on Charles Street, which was saying something, Mycroft supposed. Even done up in fairy lights and garlands in deference to the season, or perhaps simply to the idea of general festivity, its classical façade remained graceful and serene, a testament to solidity and craftsmanship, a sturdy bulwark against an ever-encroaching horde of plate glass and raw metal and polished concrete, oddly lavatorial in a city he'd always considered beautiful beyond compare. He'd never admit it to the house's owner, but it soothed him to come here.
"I'll be half an hour at most," he informed the driver as he opened the door. "Circle if you must, but stay available."
Mycroft stared up at the house and drew a deep sigh. If he had considered this a social obligation, he'd certainly never have come, but the object of his mission had proved disturbingly elusive of late. Cornering prey in its den was the obvious but hardly ideal move; with any luck she wouldn't suspect his motives until it was too late.
"Bugger," he whispered, and then strode to the doorstep.
He felt besieged at once; the place was choked with laughing, shouting, chattering humanity, tuxedoed, gowned, bejewelled, perfumed. Mycroft scarcely had room to hand his invitation to the eager young man who materialised at his side, gloved hand extended as if in supplication or perhaps benediction. He managed to ease his topcoat off by dint of holding his arms down at his sides like a tin soldier and shrugging, and the young man deftly accomplished the rest, slinging the coat over his arm. "Lady Howe?" Mycroft asked.
"Where is Lady Howe?"
"Oh! She's in the drawing room, sir. Through there." The young man pointed, giving Mycroft a brilliant smile. His teeth were unnaturally white and straight, like a film star's.
Mycroft shot his cuffs and pushed determinedly through the crowd. He recognised some faces and nodded without smiling, refusing social ingress. He noted a few raised eyebrows in his direction and ignored them too, though he didn't begrudge them. It had been years and years since he'd been to an official Christmas function, let alone a smart gathering like this.
A tray was proffered by another white-toothed young man. "Champagne, sir?"
Mycroft took a glass. "Thank you." He sipped: good. Brut, not that sickly sweet stuff. He drained the glass, set it on a table next to a cachepot of fragrant, fragile narcissi, and kept moving.
There she was, in a corner, one hand resting on the lid of a piano, the other gesturing with a glass of champagne. The diamond bracelet on her wrist refracted the lights of a tall Christmas tree, sending tiny myriad pinpoints of brilliance onto the wall and ceiling. She leant toward the man speaking to her and laughed.
For a moment Mycroft simply watched her, cataloguing each movement. When he'd had enough, he stepped forward. "Lady Howe."
She froze for half a second, an almost imperceptible reaction. Then she turned her head and smiled up at Mycroft. Shorter than average, she had a trick of imperiously tipping her chin upward and fixing her gaze even further up, as if other people were irritating and deliberate in their greater height. "Mycroft Holmes! My goodness. Here I've been inviting you to my parties for years and you've never come to a single one until now. May I introduce Lord Lindsay Sherwood and his divine wife Elise? Or do you already know one another?" She turned to the man beside her. "Are you acquainted with Mycroft Holmes? He's –"
"May I have a quiet word with you? It won't take a moment."
Lady Howe's smile stayed nailed in place. "Mycroft, don't tell me you've come to talk business – not looking the way you do. You're simply marvellous in evening dress."
Mycroft offered Lady Howe a frosty smile of his own. "Three minutes of your time only. I'm afraid it can't wait."
"There's dancing after dinner."
Mycroft didn't deign to respond.
"Oh, if you insist. Just for a moment, though. Lindsay, Elise – I know I saw Snaffles and Win here. Win has the funniest story about Nice – go find them, I'll catch up with you in two shakes of a lamb's tail." She sidestepped them and swept through the crowd gracefully, managing to chat here and there without stopping for so much as a second.
She led Mycroft through the corridor, into a library, mercifully deserted, and from there into a smaller room fitted with a little William and Mary writing cabinet and two leather chairs. She seated herself, her long autumn-green dress rustling as she crossed her legs. The pointed tip of one green shoe poked out from the hem. "Well?"
Mycroft clasped his hands behind his back. "I heard an interesting rumour today, Meredith."
"I'm sure you have, if it's dragged you out of your cave to come to one of my parties."
"It seems a piece of long-missing art has surfaced."
She frowned and abruptly rubbed at her nose. "Sorry. I think I'm getting a cold. What piece?"
"As I said, it's only a rumour. But early reports indicate the possibility that it's An Angel with Titus' Features."
"Oh." Meredith Howe rose to her feet. "Oh."
Mycroft watched her carefully. "This is news to you, I take it."
"Yes." She looked upward, past him. "Where was it found?" she asked in a much softer voice.
Perhaps – perhaps she was telling the truth after all. "Derry."
Her painstakingly made-up face sagged. She rubbed her cheek hard, as if she were scrubbing something away. "Oh."
"I don't need to tell you what the implications of this discovery are if this gets out, Meredith. And if the piece is authenticated, given the circumstances of its most recent provenance –" Mycroft shook his head. "God help us all."
"Why? Mycroft, where was it –"
"Call him." Mycroft's voice was soft but implacable. "If he wants a meeting, I'll give it to him. We've got to nip this in the bud."
"I haven't spoken to him in over a year." She rubbed her face again and opened and closed her hands rapidly, then pressed them together.
Mycroft refrained from a sigh of impatience. They knew each other well enough to dispense with prevarication. "He's got a soft spot for you. Find him."
"I'll try. Excuse me, Mycroft – I'm not feeling well." She opened the baize-covered door and waited for him to step out. "I will – tomorrow. I can't drop everything now, not with two hundred people here. Surely you understand that." She smiled. "Even you, you old hermit. Go on – have some nibblies and something to drink. Get some value out of that outfit. You look splendid." She clutched the side of the door and rubbed her cheek again, spoiling her makeup.
"Are you quite all right?"
She nodded and attempted another smile, but it looked like a grimace. "I will be. I'm going to run upstairs and fix my face."
"It really is urgent, Meredith."
"I'm taking it seriously, Mycroft. I promise."
"All right." He turned and walked through the library.
Mycroft turned. "What is it?"
Meredith Howe gave him a mock military salute. "Merry Christmas."
"Is it high enough?"
Mary, gingerly holding a double armful of boxwood garland, paused and considered. "Just a titch higher, I think."
"Here?" John lifted the string of lights until they were nearly flush with the mirror frame.
"No, you've got to drape them."
They had this conversation every year. Either John's memory was going or Mary's choice of placement was totally arbitrary, because no matter that the mirror got a swag of lights every damned year, it never seemed to be in the same configuration. Swagged, draped, looped – he wished she'd do it herself. "Here?"
"No, a smidge higher."
"Uh-huh. How much is a smidge?"
Mary grinned. "A pinch. A jot. A bit. You know."
"Two and a half inches."
"Right. That I can do." John raised the lights again. "Here?"
"Perfect." Mary nodded in apparent satisfaction. "Looks fabulous."
"You're just saying that."
"Yes, I am. Get out of the way, I'll do it. Switch places with me." She held up the boxwood garland.
John hung the lights on the corner of the mirror and got off the step-ladder, taking the garland carefully from Mary's hands. She had tied little sprigs of holly and the tiniest clove-studded satsumas to it at intervals. "This is nice."
"Thank you. I hope it lasts and the bloody satsumas don't get shrivelly before Christmas Day." Mary ascended the step-ladder and draped the lights over the mirror. "How's that?"
"Oh, God, how the hell would I know?" Suddenly John frowned. He bent and sniffed at the garland. "This smells like cat piss."
"Yeah, a little. Don't worry, it'll calm down in a few hours. I was working by the window, and the sun was shining on it, so it got a bit warm."
"That's nice. Very Christmasy. It's got that meth-lab charm going for it."
"Deck the halls with smelly cat pee, fa la la la la…." Mary stepped down and took the garland. "John. Relax."
"I am relaxed," John protested. A lie, and not even a good one.
Mary sighed. "I told you that you didn't have to do this. You can still back out, but…I want to see her. She's the only family I've got now, beside you and Nora." She transferred the garland to the coffee table and laid her hand on the side of his cheek. "I know how upsetting this must be."
"It's not. I'm okay." John took a step back, saw the sudden hurt in her eyes, and leant forward to kiss her mouth. "I am. And you smell of cat pee now, you know that?" He poked her tummy.
"Yeah, you love it. I'm going to douse myself in it every night now. Turn-on. Hot, hot, hot."
Eleanor slouched in the doorway in an oversized jumper, black tights, and a short, fluffy pink skirt. Her soft brown hair, cut to just below her ears, was drawn back with a pink Alice band.
"Is this all right?"
John squinted. "Is that my jumper?"
Nora sighed. "It doesn't fit you anymore, Dad." She shook her head at him, not with contempt or rebellion, but with a weary patience, as if John was a terribly slow learner. And she was right – it had got shrunk in the wash accidentally, but it was the principle of the thing.
"You look adorable," Mary said. "Do us a favour and open that tin of lemon biscuits on the worktop. Get the crystal plate from the top right cabinet and set them out. Make them look nice."
"Okay." Nora trudged to the kitchen, her clompy shoes thudding on the parquet.
John turned to Mary. "That skirt is too short."
"She's wearing tights. And you can't see her bottom, so relax."
"She's nine. And if you let her wear it now, she's going to want to wear it outside."
"It's winter, John. She's not going to wear it with bare legs."
John pressed his lips together. Mary was obdurate on the matter of Nora's clothing. "Fine. You know best." He turned away and picked up another strand of lights.
"What?" John carefully disentangled the strand.
"Let's not, all right?"
He sagged. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm a little on edge."
"I know." Mary took a step forward and enfolded him in her arms, resting her cheek against his back. "I know. Look, you've always been…amazing. Don't think I don't know that. I know this was out of the blue, but she tracked me down, she wanted to see me, meet you and Nora. It's going to be…she's going to call me Annie, John."
John stiffened. He didn't want to hear any of this.
"She's going to bring up events I've never talked about and people you don't know. You don't have to stay. I'll make an excuse for you. I don't mind. And I'm sorry it happened, but it has happened, and I've got to get this over with."
"Okay. Okay." John took a deep breath and turned. He smoothed back a lock of Mary's hair. "You haven't got any other…never mind. It's okay." He'd spent nearly ten years in silence, and they'd managed remarkably well in that time. And if at times he was resentful, or uneasy, he'd kept his lip buttoned. He'd made her a promise, and he didn't break his promises lightly.
Mary smiled. "Besides, she knows lots of rich people, some with pull at St Teresa's."
"Okay, we're definitely not discussing that right now." He brandished the lights. "Right, she's going to be here soon. Let's get this place glittering and impress the hell out of her."
The visit with Mary's Aunt Trish was surprisingly pleasant. She was a short woman, even smaller than Mary, with piles of blonde, expensive-looking hair, lots of jewelry, and an ankle-length fur coat. Her accent was American but John couldn't tell what region it was from – Southern, maybe, or Midwestern? She called Mary Annie, as Mary had warned him, and had referred to a few distant relations, but had mostly chattered about her experiences in London and Paris and St. Moritz. She'd gone into swoons over how Nora was Mary's spitting image (spittin' image was how she'd put it) and had rhapsodised over how cute and darling and adorable the house looked. John thought they were euphemisms for 'minuscule' but couldn't be sure.
The best thing about the visit was that it was brief, as Trish had other appointments. She tip-tapped toward the front door in precariously high heels, holding Nora's hand. "Now you call before I go, we'll have tea. Nora, have you ever had tea at the Connaught? It's so fancy, you wouldn't believe it. They've got a harpist and all kinds of little sandwiches and cakes that look like a pile of itty-bitty sugary presents. Then we'll go shopping, you and me." She put her hands on Nora's shoulders, hardly needing to bend down to kiss her. "Give me a hug, you pretty, precious girl."
Nora, never the most demonstrative child, actually put her arms around Trish's shoulders and offered a friendly if not enthusiastic embrace. "It was very nice to meet you."
"Oh my God, she's so cute. That little accent!" Trish turned to John and flung her arms round him as well. "It was so good to meet you, John. You take care of these girls, you hear?"
"I will." John patted her back – it was like stroking a five-foot-tall rabbit. Though it was probably a posher fur than rabbit. "Lovely to meet you too."
"All right." Trish turned to Mary. "You come here." She hugged Mary tightly. "This week, okay? I'm only here 'til Friday."
"Promise," Mary said, and held Trish away. "Thursday. 'Bye. Love you."
John discreetly drew the curtain back a handspan to watch the silver Rolls move down the street. "Jesus. Where does all the money come from?"
"Her first husband was in oil. Died youngish, left her everything."
"Yeah, she's had a few, apparently." Mary began to gather up cups and plates. "Give me a hand?"
"Mum," Nora said, "why'd she call you Annie?"
"I told you – that was what my family used to call me, Nora. It was a nickname. Like yours."
"But Annie isn't short for Mary. It's long for Ann."
Mary laughed. "Could be short for Annabelle."
"Yeah, I suppose." Nora took the last lemon biscuit from the plate. "Can we really go to tea at the whatever?"
"If you get your schoolwork done on time this week, yes. I have a short shift on Thursday. Mind your manners and get your work done and you can see how the other half lives. Well, the other point-five percent." Mary folded a rucked-up woollen blanket. "Kiss your dad good night and brush your teeth. I'll be there in a bit."
Nora squeezed John around the middle and scrunched her nose. "'Night, Daddy."
John rubbed his nose against hers and kissed the top of her head, fragrant with shampoo and that ineffable child-scent that was slowly, sadly diminishing. Short skirts and fading baby-smell; his heart clenched tightly enough to give him pain. "'Night, sweetness." He watched her bounce away. Almost ten, but already she had moments of adult seriousness that disquieted him. And sometimes, she was as silly and giggly as a toddler. The dissonance frightened him a little.
He took the soiled dishes into the kitchen and washed them as Mary helped Nora get ready for bed, then headed into the bedroom. He had a full roster the next day – that was good. Staying busy was good. Excellent, in fact.
After brushing his teeth, he stripped to his boxers and t-shirt and crawled into bed. He picked up the Lancet he'd been reading three nights running and turned to an article on maggot therapy. As he saw the accompanying photograph, a nostalgic smile crept onto his face.
"You look happy."
John looked up. "Oh, yeah, just…drifting a little." He watched as Mary began to strip to her undies. "Trish was nice," he offered.
"Yeah, she is. Not much different from what I remember."
"She's not a lot older than you are."
"Mm – fifty, fifty-five, maybe? She was my mum's youngest sister." Mary unhooked her bra and slipped a nightie over her head. She hiked the skirt up, pulled off her panties, and tossed them into the bathroom hamper. Grabbing a bottle of lotion from the dresser, she massaged some into her hands and elbows.
"She didn't talk about your family a lot."
Mary shook her head. "We talked about all that when we met for lunch last week."
John felt the old anxiety rising again, a chattering little imp of doubt. "Did you ask her not to talk about them in front of me?"
"John…." Mary got into bed and pulled up the duvet. "Yes, I did. Does that upset you?"
"No. No, not really. It's just…it's a bit weird, that's all. You're sure you haven't got any other family lurking about?" he joked.
"I'm sure." Mary pressed against him and draped an arm over his chest.
He lay the Lancet on the bedside table and stroked from her shoulder to her hip. Mary's hand slipped lower, over his stomach, under the waistband of his boxers, closing round his cock. "Oh." He closed his eyes for a moment to feel the length of her body against his, her softness, the heat of her, the movement of her hand. He was ready almost immediately. He pulled his boxers down, rolled atop her, tugging the nightie upward. In, in, in. He moaned quietly.
"That's it. That's – ah, God, yeah." Mary undulated beneath him, her thighs gripping his hips.
Good. It was still good, it was brilliant, in fact. John thrust and thrust and finally shuddered and groaned as he came. He held Mary closely, burying his nose in her neck, inhaling her fragrance, always more complex than soap or perfume or food.
"I love you, John."
"Love you too." And he did. She was a closed book, but he loved her.
They disentangled. Mary rolled over and went to sleep. John righted his boxers, picked the Lancet up again, and returned to the world of maggot therapy.
He told the niggling little voice of doubt, very firmly, to shut the hell up.
His breath whistled out of his lungs as he ran, his feet splashing in freezing puddles of filth that didn't bear thinking about. The path ahead of him dipped downward into utter blackness, but that was fine; he knew every last scrap of Finsbury Park like the back of his hand. The tube station wasn't far away, and that was reassuring. Less reassuring were the pounding footsteps behind him, gaining on him. Five men, two decidedly armed.
There was the entrance to the tube station. He put on a burst of speed, and his foot slipped over something slimy. He skidded, his knee hyperextended with a sickening pop, and he crashed to the cold ground.
And they had him.
They hauled Sherlock up by his coat and dragged him, gasping with pain, into a clump of bushes. They flung him to the ground, and one of them – Conran, Freddy Conran, Sherlock remembered – straddled Sherlock's body and pulled a gun from the waistband of his tracksuit bottoms.
"You fucking cunt." Freddy Conran's breath was a nauseating admixture of curry, beer, and poor dental hygiene. He shoved the barrel of the weapon into Sherlock's mouth, splitting his lip and knocking against his teeth. Sherlock tasted metal and oil and tried not to gag as the bore pushed against the back of his throat. "Where's the fucking case, you fuck?"
Oh, for God's sake! Surely Conran didn't expect an answer, what with the trifecta of his stinking breath, his heavy body crushing the air from Sherlock's lungs, and the gun he was shoving into Sherlock's mouth. In any case, the answer wouldn't have pleased him.
Where was the god-damned Met squad?
One of the other thugs kicked Sherlock in the shoulder. He wore trainers, and Sherlock had his coat on, but it was still hard enough to hurt. Sherlock grunted, and his teeth clacked hard on the gun barrel. He hoped it wasn't too sensitive.
"Fuck off, Wes!" Conran snarled. He pulled the weapon from Sherlock's mouth and placed the barrel against his forehead. "I'm going to ask you one more time, you poncy fuck. Where's the case?"
Sherlock drew a shuddering breath. "It's at my flat."
"What the fuck's it doing there?"
"What the fuck do you think it's doing there?" Sherlock retorted. "I want a cut."
Conran snorted. "You?" He shook his head in disbelief. "That's the way you've been working all these years? The fucking papers make you out to be a saint."
"Don't believe everything you hear." Sherlock felt a little more at ease; Conran was listening. And from further away, he heard the sound of quietly approaching footsteps. "You can't get to the case unless I take you. It's wired."
"Christ. Maybe I like you after all." Conran shook his head again and slipped the weapon back into his trousers.
Didn't click the safety. Pity if it discharged and blew his balls off. Sherlock smiled and closed his eyes just in time to avoid being blinded by the brilliant white light flooding the tiny copse.
"Freddy Conran!" Undisguised footsteps, considerably more than five, and the now-welcome sound of readied weaponry. "Hands where we can see them."
Conran froze. "Fuck," he whispered, and slowly raised his hands. There was a flurry of movement as he was dragged away from Sherlock's body and his cohorts were apprehended and rapidly disarmed.
Sherlock lay still for a moment, listening to a distinctive set of footsteps. He turned and opened his eyes. "Evening, Donovan. Took you long enough."
"It was going fine until you decided to lead them on a merry chase through Finsbury Park."
"Clearly you still haven't sorted out the meaning of diversionary tactics."
"Sod off, Sherlock." Donovan holstered her weapon.
"Gladly." Sherlock wanted to get up, but he wanted to do it away from Donovan's too-sharp gaze. He folded his hands atop his chest and waited.
"You planning to sleep here tonight?" Donovan inquired nastily.
"There's a law against vagrancy. Also, it's going to hit below zero tonight."
"I'm fine, thanks."
Donovan snorted elegantly. "You're hurt, aren't you?"
"Bollocks. Give me your hand."
Sherlock sighed and rolled his eyes. Clearly she wasn't going to leave until he did. "I'm not hurt," he muttered, and pushed himself up. He balanced on his good leg and bounced up nimbly, then set half his weight on the bad leg and almost went down again. Sally Donovan caught his arm and, momentarily forgetting pride and dignity, Sherlock clung to her for support.
"You idiot," she said softly, and turned to address a man in uniform. "Jennings, get me a car."
"I'm fine," Sherlock insisted.
"Mm." Donovan blew a curl away from her face. "'Course you are."
"Right, get out of my car. You stink," Donovan said, rolling up to 221B. "Did you roll in dog shit or something?"
"Not deliberately," Sherlock replied, rubbing his eyes. He'd been up for nearly thirty hours and was beginning to feel it. Actually, he'd begun to feel it five or six hours ago – if he hadn't been fatigued, he'd have outrun Conran and Company faster, he wouldn't have slipped, and he wouldn't have needed rescue from the Met. Damn it. "Oh – the case is in Stewie Graves' flat, under the floorboards, along with the heroin. Two hundred kilos, if Stewie hasn't tried to offload some of it himself, and God knows he might have done, considering how stupid he is."
"Okay. I'll send a team straightaway. Do you need help getting upstairs?"
"No," Sherlock snapped. He opened the door, swung his legs out, and carefully exited the car in an effort to spare himself further humiliation. Not a serious injury, the doctor at A&E had said – the staff had iced it and bandaged it tightly and given him a painkiller, and then advised him to use the RICE method of treatment. He would, they asserted, be right as rain in a few weeks.
A few weeks.
"What?" Sherlock leant down, scowling.
Donovan stared straight ahead. "Well done."
"Oh." Sherlock cleared his throat. "Thank you."
"Good night, Donovan." He closed the door and slowly made his way up the stairs.
The flat was cold; he'd neglected to heat it in his preoccupation with the case. He turned the gas up, limped to the wall socket, and plugged in his little strands of Christmas lights illuminating the window and mantel. An experimental sniff informed him that Donovan hadn't been exaggerating. He smelled terrible, and the odour emanated from his coat – probably he had landed in something whilst crashing to the ground. With a sigh, he shrugged out of it, balled it up inside-out, and stuffed it into a bin bag for cleaning.
Wrapping his woolly plaid blanket around himself, he went to the sofa and dropped onto it with an ungraceful plop. Too tired to eat or even to make himself a cup of tea, he sorted through nearly a week's worth of post. Three magazines, one box of lab equipment, seven consultancy requests, one –
One Christmas card.
Sherlock's heart beat double-quick for a moment as he tore the envelope open and pulled out a single sheet of photo paper. There they were: the Watson family, wearing Santa hats and grinning at the camera. Well, John and Mary were grinning. Eleanor was unsmiling, her expression more than a bit sulky, as if she knew damn well that posing for a Christmas card in a stupid Santa hat was absolute rubbish. He couldn't help but approve.
Merry Christmas From The Watsons! the card blared across the top. Sherlock turned it over.
To Sherlock – hope your Christmas is merry and bright.
The message and John's name was in his handwriting; Mary and Nora had added their own signatures.
He flipped it over again and stared at the photo for a long time. He rose painfully, limped to the mantel, and set it beside the cards from Lestrade and Mike Stamford and Anderson. He collapsed on the sofa again, curled up as much as his bad knee would allow, and slept.
The insistent shrilling of the phone woke him from a deep sleep. Blinking, disoriented, he reached for it and squinted at the readout. Two o'clock, and Mycroft.
"What, Mycroft? I was sleeping."
"That's nice. I need your help, Sherlock."
"Why? Are you trapped in a bathtub filled with mincemeat?"
"I haven't got time to joke. There's a car waiting downstairs."
Much as Sherlock hated to admit it, even to himself, he was exhausted. "Can't it wait?"
"I need you here before the police come." Mycroft's voice vibrated with an urgency Sherlock had rarely heard before. "Please."
Thank God for adrenaline; it flooded his veins, sending him into full, if precarious, alertness. "On my way."