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The Poster Girl

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The moment John first heard of the Veronica Havisham case, he knew there would be something about it.

It wasn’t like him to have bouts of intuition. When he’d left for Sarah’s on the night Moriarty strapped him to a bunch of explosives, there was nothing ominous in the air. When he had walked on a whim through the little park on that cold, sunny day in December, he didn’t feel a prickling on his neck. Nothing to suggest that his change of path would lead to Mike Stamford and thus to—well, other, far more significant changes of path. Going further back, John didn’t just wake up one day in Afghanistan with a prophetic drumbeat in his head. He had no idea he was going to come so close to death he’d be able to give Him a quick wave. No, John went through life clueless about what his future held, aside from events that were easy to predict with reason.

Which made his feeling about this case even more extraordinary.

Sherlock had already known about the murder, of course. He kept a close tab on most murder cases in Britain and some unusual ones abroad. John got the details—a girl, seventeen, found strangled in Hainault Forest—after he’d finally given in to the exaggerated sighs coming from the sofa. Four hours had passed with John’s peripheral vision constantly aggravated by his scrawny fidget of a flatmate. John dealt much better—correction, relatively better—with bored Sherlock, depressed Sherlock, and manic Sherlock. Sherlock eager but thwarted was a simmering combination of the other three. Protracted silences, restlessness, and repugnant chemical experiments all mingled to test John’s limits. Habitually John didn’t complain. For one thing, his tolerance of Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies surpassed even his own wildest expectations; for another, since the Moriarty affair John was grateful to have Sherlock confine his lunacy at home.

Sherlock had checked his mobile phone every minute or so—secretly at first, then openly. An hour after he told John about the case, he widened his repertoire to include checking his email, too. He had opened and slammed John’s laptop for the seventh time when John decided it was time to start making suggestions.

“Why don’t you just call Lestrade and ask him to let you in on the case?”

“You know I don’t call them. I never call them. They call me. They’ll need me soon enough, I can wait.” He cast John a genuinely confused look in response to John’s raised eyebrows. “What? I have patience.”

“Yeah, the patience of a two-year-old with a shiny object in sight!”

Sherlock ignored him and started drumming his fingers on the coffee table. John tried again.

“Do you want to tell me more about it?”

Sherlock threw his arm over his forehead in an excellent imitation of... what was it? That’s right! An ex-girlfriend of John's had this black and white poster on her wall. There was an actress on it, from the olden days, maybe a star from the silent films era. The drama in Sherlock’s pose could have given her a run for her money. He wasn’t silent though.

“There’s nothing to tell! I have no useful information. A man, walking his dog, found the body yesterday morning. Was it hidden? Was it near a path—They’ve probably ruined the crime scene, trampling evidence with their big…elephant feet!” Sherlock gave John the blue-eyed gaze of suffering.

John squashed a smile.

“Go on.”

“That’s all. I don’t know how long she’d been dead for, what she was wearing…Who took her there? Did she drive and leave her car, did she walk part of the way? Nothing!”

“It was probably a gang or…I don’t know. A robbery?”

“It wasn’t.”

“How do you know? And how do you even know about the body?” John said.

“I have my ways,” was the muffled reply.

“Anything else?”

Forlorn curls shook to negate. John took pity.

“I’m sure you’re right and they’ll call soon.”

When there was no answer to that, John went back to his attempts to read the paper. A couple of minutes later the drumming started again, only to stop after another minute and be followed by the whir of the laptop fan. John sighed and got up from his chair.

“I want to cook that fish.” He headed for the kitchen. “Come and move all your papers, I don’t want to mix them again and never hear the end of it.”

Sherlock’s voice followed him.

“Oh please, I only told you once. Stop being such a drama queen.”

John’s lips stretched in a smile at their own volition. He congratulated himself for the umpteenth time on his ability to take most of Sherlock’s comments with a light heart. When they first met, he’d worried about that. Unflattering comparisons to doormats had crossed his mind, but he quickly realized Sherlock never intended to bully or hurt him. True, people’s feelings didn’t often make Sherlock’s list of top priorities, and that had bothered John briefly, too.

Until he noticed that for some reason he wasn’t “people”. When John was upset it made a difference to Sherlock, provided he noticed it in the first place. Sometimes he was simply too engaged elsewhere—in his head, as well as outside it. It was one of those things that made Sherlock Sherlock. Like with the rest, John had discovered that putting these things into categories such as “good” or “bad” didn’t really work. So these days he counted his blessings and wished that his consistent good nature with Sherlock extended across the board—it would have come in handy on some days in Afghanistan. And definitely with Harry.

Back in the real world of their kitchen, John watched Sherlock’s narrow, long fingers gather the papers in a haphazard manner and then move the microscope to the other table, placing it perilously close to the edge. John wondered how such delicate hands could be so careless sometimes. It occurred to him that maybe they needed to be occupied, to dissipate some of their owner’s frustration.

“Why don’t you play something?” John said.

“On the violin?”

“Um-hum.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes.

“You want me to play the violin.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because it will distract you from breaking all the expensive equipment in the flat. And if you play something nice for a change, instead of torturing the poor instrument—don’t give me that look, you know exactly what I mean—then it’s actually quite, erm, nice.”

It was Sherlock’s turn to raise his eyebrows.

“Nice is nice? Your readers are lucky to have you, John.”

“Ha ha, very funny. Can you play, please?”

Sherlock stood still for a moment, then nodded and disappeared.

John rolled his eyes in relief and opened the fridge. The fish was fresh; he could already taste it on his tongue, and its preparation was going to pass quicker with musical accompaniment. John suppressed a giggle at the absurd image of Sherlock’s gracious figure playing the violin in the kitchen as John was peeling potatoes right next to him, the smelly fish providing the final touch to the unique ambience. He felt a sudden surge of…happiness. Happiness seemed too strong a word for something as trivial as cooking fish, but John couldn’t think of a better one.

***

Lestrade did call soon. John and Sherlock had just finished their lunch, during which John insisted that Sherlock eat a full plate of salmon with boiled, seasoned potatoes and some green beans. He had smiled when, as usual, Sherlock wrinkled his nose at the vegetables; John had also barely refrained from smacking Sherlock’s hand where it hovered constantly over his mobile. At least the phone rang after the last green bean had been duly eaten.

Sherlock was a curious mixture of madly gleaming eyes and composed voice—God forbid the Yard thought he was keen! The conversation was quick, and afterwards Sherlock bounced around the kitchen in glee, making John wonder if the energy from the food wasn’t going to be used up in the next thirty minutes.

“The body is at Bart’s. I need you to go there; look at the forensic report, too. I’m going to Loughton to meet with Lestrade.”

“Should I meet you there afterwards?“

“Yes. Text me when you’re done.”

John picked up his phone, allowing excitement to pool in his stomach. Sherlock grinned and wriggled his eyebrows at him, before running down the stairs.

***

Two hours later John was on the Central Line to Loughton, having resisted Sherlock’s “Hurry and get a cab!”—John had learnt a thing or two by now. Lestrade and Sherlock were talking to the dead girl’s family and John was on his way to join them. He’d had a chance to familiarize himself with the case and he knew why Lestrade had called for help.

Veronica Havisham: British, Caucasian, healthy and as pretty as they came. She was doing her A-levels at Epping Forest College—John wasn’t surprised to read that her subjects were Art Studies, Drama, and Theatre. Veronica lived with her mother, Diane Havisham; her father, Tom Havisham; and her younger brother, George Havisham. The family was well off: they owned a five-bedroom property in Loughton, Essex and the mother didn’t work full time. Mr. Havisham had got into the advertising business after both he and his wife had made their money in the City some ten years ago. Early notes described the family as “nice” and the victim as “popular”, “sweet” and “much loved”.

Veronica’s body had been found around 7:30 the previous morning by a man who, walking his dog, had spotted a patch of her bright scarf between the trees. Her father had made a worried phone call to the police around 3:30 the previous night, and Veronica was identified by his description. There weren’t any signs of sexual assault. No signs of any kind of struggle. The girl had died by asphyxiation—she was strangled with her own scarf. The time of death was estimated between ten and eleven o'clock the night before. The victim’s bag and mobile phone were missing from the crime scene, and the bag was discovered in a rubbish container not a hundred yards away. The cash was gone, but the police had dismissed robbery because Veronica’s silver bracelet was still on her wrist, as well as her expensive watch. They’d speculated it was a sloppy attempt on the killer’s part to stage the murder as a common robbery. Sherlock had been succinct in his text message: “Confirmed—not robbery. A real murder. Finally!”

So Lestrade had seen the case for what it was: a straightforward incident on the face of it, but one that would be hard to solve. As soon as you scratched the surface, a motive was hard to find. John suspected Lestrade wouldn’t have called if the girl had been sexually assaulted. Or if she wasn’t still in six-form but in the workforce. Having a job elevated everyone’s chances of getting killed. Lestrade was probably worried about the media reaction, too. The terror that parks were dangerous had absolutely no place in a green city like London. Lestrade’s superiors must have made it clear that the general public had to be swiftly reassured swiftly they were safe, that this was a murder with a personal motive behind it and not the work of a maniac or a gang.

John was pretty sure that was true. Not only because of the lack of assault, but because Sherlock would have given up the case if the crime had an impersonal perpetrator. Sherlock was interested in the uniqueness of a planned murder and not in the hormonal or social deviations of an individual or a group of people.

John’s trip to the morgue had been moderately fruitful. Nothing unusual came of it, but at least he was able to get his own measurements, take pictures of the marks on the girl’s throat, and extract a promise to get the results off the autopsy as soon as they were available. He suspected Sherlock might want to go and check the body himself—old habits died hard—but John wanted to be as thorough as he could.

It was good to have some relationships of his own to rely on these days. Things did go much smoother after a phone call from the police, but it was reassuring to know John could manage without one. John had got on with the pathologist, a young man named George Parish, since the first time they’d met. Apart from the medical profession, they both shared a no-nonsense approach to most things and John considered him sort of a mate, the kind he might get a pint with. It was lucky Veronica Havisham was on George’s list, not only for the access John was allowed but also for the companionable exchange: George didn’t seem to find some of John’s questions and requests weird like others did. Nor was he really shocked by Sherlock’s demeanour around a corpse.

According to the map at Loughton Station, the victim’s address was only about ten minutes away by foot. John hadn’t been to North-East London for a very long time and was surprised to find himself in an area that didn’t bear the traditional signs, associated with the poorer parts of London. All around him were big, affluent suburban houses with spaces for two cars at the front and with large, landscaped gardens at the back. Swimming pools weren’t out of the question.

John walked into a closed drive and checked the number in the text message Sherlock had sent: twelve. The house at number twelve was similar to the rest with one exception: the police car parked outside. A common sight only a couple of miles away, but one that had to bedrawing the neighbours’ attention here. In confirmation, the quick movement of net curtains at number sixteen drew John’s attention—someone was definitely watching. John rang the bell.

The door was opened by a boy around fourteen, whose bad skin didn’t help first impressions. He peered at John through dull hair that fell into surprisingly shrewd eyes and John was torn between awkwardness and sympathy. There was enough likeness between the boy and the dead girl to identify him as her brother, but where the sister’s beauty was obvious even after strangulation, the boy had all the unattractiveness of vicious puberty—layered over already unfortunate features.

“Yeah?”

John realized he was staring, probably with some pity, too.

“Hi, my name’s John, John Watson.” He cleared his throat embarrassed. “I’m looking for Sherlock Holmes and Detective Inspector Lestrade. Are they here?”

The boy only stepped away to let John in.

John tried to be polite. “What’s your name, then?”

“George.” The answer was delivered with a mutating voice that had clearly started breaking some months ago but hadn’t completed the transformation to a man’s voice yet. John’s heart went out to George.

“Oh. I have a—a friend called George. In fact, I’ve just been to see him.”

The youngster looked at him, deadpan.

“It’s a common name.”

“I guess it is.” John paused. “Not as common as John though.”

The boy contemplated for a second, then conceded.

“True.“

George pointed to a corridor, at the end of which a bright conservatory was just visible.

“Your friends are in the garden, talking to my dad,” he said, and disappeared up the stairs.

“Thanks,” John called, to the sound of a door being shut. He made his way to the garden and looked around en route, making a few mental notes about his surroundings. Everywhere there were little posh details. Really luxurious-looking curtains in the drawing room—in another house it would have been the sitting room, but here it was naturally the drawing room.  A home theatre system that looked new. The apples in the bowl on the kitchen counter didn’t just look shiny and pink, but even smelled of apples—and John had just walked past the open kitchen door.

The garden appeared just as well-maintained as he'd expected, but John’s eyes were immediately pulled to the grief-stricken man in the middle of it. Hunched in his chair, he was talking to Sherlock and Lestrade, both of whom were sitting with their backs to John. The man stopped when he noticed John’s arrival and Lestrade, following his gaze, beckoned to John.

“Doctor Watson,” Lestrade nodded as John approached. “Mr. Havisham, Doctor Watson is a colleague of Mr. Holmes’. Is it all right if he join us?”

“I’m very sorry about your loss,” John said, addressing Mr. Havisham. “Am I interrupting? Sorry, I could just—“

Sherlock swivelled around to scowl at John and point at the empty chair next to Mr. Havisham.

“Sit down, John, we’re finished. Mr. Havisham, can we talk to your wife now?”

The man got up wordlessly and started towards the house. John appraised him: strong features, in good shape. The likeness between him and his daughter was more wholesome than the scattered replication of odd features between the two siblings.

“What—“John began to enquire about their progress, but Sherlock spoke at the same time.

“What did you find at Bart’s?”

“The same thing the report says. You’ve read it, yeah? Right, well, I’ve got nothing else really. I’d say she was strangled by a man, but it could’ve been a strong woman. No signs of resistance. I double-checked under her nails but there was nothing, and the nail-polish was fine, too. Nothing to suggest a different cause of death.

“When’s the autopsy?”

Lestrade was quicker to answer.

“In the next twelve hours. We should know more then.”

Sherlock pursed his lips.

“I need to know if she had sex before she died.”

John was trying to indicate they were no longer alone, but in vain. A tall, angular woman, with the kind of straight posture that would have sent a chiropractor into a happy delirium, had crossed the garden in big strides. Diane Havisham’s resemblance to her son put an end to all speculations about which parent each child took after. She had been practically standing behind Sherlock when he was talking about Veronica’s sex life. John didn’t have time to worry about her reaction; instead, her reply to Sherlock’s question made John’s jaw drop a bit.

“Knowing my daughter she most certainly did.”

Lestrade got up.

“I’m sorry to bother you again, Mrs. Havisham. This is Sherlock Holmes—he’s helping us with the investigation of your daughter’s death. And this is his colleague Doctor Watson.”

John got up, too, but decided against extending his hand at the last second.

“I’m sorry about your loss.”

Diane Havisham nodded curtly at him. She was extremely pale and her eyes were red, but there was hardness in them—very different from the crumbling despair in her husband’s eyes.

“You were saying?” asked Sherlock, oblivious to the inappropriateness of her comment.

“Veronica has always been very interested in boys. You should check with Simon, her boyfriend. I’m certain the two of them must have met that night and had sex. Why else would she be in the forest? If it wasn’t him, then it was someone else.”

“How do you know they met?” Sherlock said.

Mrs. Havisham shrugged.

“I don’t. I just suppose they did. Veronica dressed up. She always left the house looking like a page-three girl, but this time she’d really pulled out all the stops.”

Lestrade cleared his throat.

“You said she didn’t tell you where she was going. Did you have the chance to talk to her brother and ask him if he knew anything?”

“I told you George wouldn’t know. I asked him anyway—he has no idea.”

“Tell us more about Simon,” Sherlock said.

“My daughter’s latest boyfriend. They go to the same college. She started going out with him at the start of her year so that’s…nine months ago. It’s a record for her.”

John and Lestrade exchanged a brief look. Lestrade went on asking questions about Simon and John took some notes: Finishing his second year of A-levels in Epping Forest College, has car, lives in Chigwell with his mother. Diane Havisham’s comments on her daughter’s boyfriend were factual, void of personal input. John’s dismay at her early spitefulness was giving way to speculations about what it might imply. Of course, it moved her down the list of suspects—the woman was too intelligent to give herself away so clumsily if she’d committed the crime. Nevertheless, John looked at Sherlock in search of there was the familiar flash in the eyes that indicated he was onto something. There was nothing but the cold, methodical sorting of information—equally familiar.

After a few minutes Sherlock relapsed into silence and Lestrade had no more questions. John decided to have a go with something simple.

“Mrs. Havisham, is there anything at all you can think of that might help us, in any way? Anything unusual, any suspicions or observations?”

Mrs. Havisham turned her dry, puffy eyes on him.

“Are you a medical doctor?”

John was taken aback.

“Um, yes. Yes, I am.”

“Then you know something about disorders, I assume. My daughter was an attention seeker who had no trouble getting what she wanted. She had always been selfish, from the day she was born, always wrapping everyone around her little finger. I sometimes wonder if she didn’t have a medical condition—she had such a…cunning streak in her. Complete lack of scruples, too. I’m sorry she’s dead, but our hostile relationship wasn’t exactly a secret and I’d rather you heard about it from me. No matter how much I disliked her, she was my daughter and I wouldn’t kill my own child.”

John’s throat had gone dry.

“I never meant to imply you would—sorry if you—“

Mrs. Havisham talked over him.

“I’m telling you this to make you understand that Veronica was universally liked. She was popular. In fact, I very much doubt you’ll find anyone else who didn’t think the world of her—so you’ll have to dig deeper. She didn’t share much with—with me, but on the face of it I can’t think of anyone who’d want her dead for any reason.”

John could feel something in him soften. He didn’t know what was going on in that woman’s head, but there was clearly a lot of emotion—difficult emotion—there. He knew how that felt.

Sherlock’s imperious voice rose above them. “Thank you. Can you call your son now?”

“He’ll be right over.” Mrs. Havisham got up. Lestrade waited for her to enter the house and gave a quiet whistle.

“No love lost there!” he said quietly. “The father was devastated though—you think there’s something about it, maybe? The mother was jealous?”

“What did the father say?” John asked, cutting in before Sherlock had a chance to answer.

Lestrade made a disappointed face.

“Nothing to help us with the case. He didn’t know why she was in the forest, wasn't home when she left the house. He hasn't noticed anything suspicious lately. He was adamant no one would hurt her.”

“So was the mother.” Sherlock said.

“Yeah, but he really meant it.” Lestrade turned to John. “He honestly believes Veronica was the most wonderful daughter in the world. You should have heard the poor guy. I know we can’t jump to conclusions—“

“No, we can’t,” Sherlock interrupted. “So don’t. Your theory that the mother is jealous has the same credibility at this point as the theory that the father was obsessed with his daughter. Both could make for murder motives, but neither is conclusive. We need more data.”

“Well, George should be interesting to talk to.” John said.

George?” Sherlock said, frowning

“Veronica’s brother. I met him; he let me in the house. Sparkling company.” John’s lips quirked. Sherlock tilted his head to regard him with suspicion, but John didn’t have time to engage—George’s skinny figure was moving through the garden in their direction.

John had a tiny bit of guilty fun at the way George mirrored Sherlock’s unabashed stare when Lestrade introduced them. Then George sat down and waited, putting his hands in the pockets of his baggy trousers.

Again, something made John try to put him at ease.

“Your parents said you didn’t know where your sister was going the night she was murdered,” he said calmly. “Do you have any suspicions of your own?”

George’s eyes were focused on the table edge when he answered.

“I know she wasn’t going to see Simon.”

Sherlock leaned forward sharply.

“How do you know that?”

The boy met his eyes.

“Because they’d had another argument on the phone an hour before she left.”

“How can you be sure she was talking to him?” Sherlock said.

George’s face flickered with impatience.

“I can always tell who people are talking to. It’s the way she spoke—I dunno. It was Simon.”

Sherlock seemed to find that enough of an explanation.

“What else?”

George stretched his legs a bit.

“You can check her mobile phone records and see who she was talking to.”

“We’re working on that now,” Lestrade said tiredly. “Do you know anything else that could help us?”

“She went to meet a boy. Her perfume was still in the hallway when I went out of my room an hour later. She never put that much on when she went out to meet Lisa or some other girls.”

Lestrade checked his notes.

“Lisa was her best friend, right?”

“Right.”

Lestrade seemed to be formulating a question and Sherlock was watching George, so John spoke again.

“Did Veronica and Simon argue often?”

“How often is often?”

John looked from Sherlock to Lestrade, half-amused.

“Um, I don’t know—I’d say every week.”

“Then yes.” George’s face was neutral, but his head was slightly bowed in John’s direction when he spoke. “Simon hasn’t been here for five weeks. I don’t know why they didn’t just break up. It’s not like they were married.”

Suddenly John wanted to end the interview and send George to his room in peace, but Sherlock’s voice interjected, sharp and curious.

“When did your sister start going out with the new boy?”

George’s hands came out of his pockets and he leaned over the table, face furrowed in concentration.

“Like three months ago, probably a bit before Easter. Veronica got a chocolate egg in the shape of a heart that wasn’t from Simon. She hung the ribbon from it on the mirror in her bedroom”—Sherlock’s eyes widened—“and she kept her voice low when she talked to someone on her mobile. They didn’t speak often though.” The last remark was pointed at John, who took a moment to realize where the emphasis in the sentence had lain.

“Did he ever call her?” Sherlock asked.

“No.”

Sherlock nodded. Neither of them elaborated further and Lestrade’s eyes hovered between the two, mouth slightly open, until he finally spoke.

“Well, thank you, George. Sherlock, do you have anything else?”

“No.”

Lestrade smiled at the boy. He took the cue, got up and headed to the house.

“Bye, George.” John called after him.

George stopped and without looking back, raised his arm in a vague gesture before going inside.

“Interesting young man, indeed,” Lestrade said to John in acknowledgement. He spoke quickly and in a low tone. “The whole family is. Apparently the father made a fortune in the City, then made one stupid investment and lost it around ten years ago. The family fell on Mrs. Havisham’s finance—she’d worked in the City, too, before she married, and she then kept on working as an on-and-off consultant for some banks and building societies. Havisham started his new business a few years ago—“

Sherlock stood up abruptly.

“I need to look at the crime scene.” Lestrade looked startled but stood up, too.

“Have you checked Veronica’s room yet?” John asked.

“Obviously. Come on.” Sherlock was already moving through the garden. John hurried to catch up.

Mr. Havisham was waiting for them in the house. He and Lestrade fell behind in a quiet exchange, while Sherlock and John made their way to the front door.

“I’m going to the surgery,” John said, checking his watch. “My shift starts in an hour.”

Sherlock’s voice had the smallest whine to it.

“Why didn’t you arrange to swap with someone?”

“Because it’s Sunday and the world doesn’t evolve around my needs on a short notice.”

“I’m talking about my needs.”

“Same diff—I—” John stammered. “I mean it doesn’t evolve around yours, either.”

“Fine. I’ll meet you in the flat tonight.”

They shook hands with Mr. Havisham, who seemed more of a wreck now that he was away from the shady trees in the garden. John sat in the police car—the station was on their way—and couldn’t resist a glance back at the house as they left the driveway. Now it looked exactly the same as the houses around it.

 

***

 

John’s shift both dragged and went quicker—the paradox wasn’t new to him. Every time they had a case, the passage of time wobbled. It was more dynamic, with whole days being swallowed up on occasion, but when John wasn’t actively involved with the case, time trudged as if knee-deep through wet sand. Still, the mere expectation of going home and catching up with Sherlock was enough to make the hours at the surgery more passable.

John was aware that perhaps this wasn’t the best attitude for a dedicated medical professional. He’d chosen this career mostly for the opportunity to help people in a more tangible way—he’d found suffering hard to bear from very early on so when the time for career decisions came, the prospect of actually making people better appealed to him very much. John hadn’t just struggled with observing suffering; he was able to feel it, intuitively, in all its guises. (Ironically, he bore his own suffering well—something he only comprehended fully when he found himself in the middle of a war.)

Somewhere along the line, though, things had changed. He had grown up and adult John no longer found the abolition of pain a necessity. Pain itself had become a necessity: something so organically woven into the fabric of humanity that it failed all attempts to be broken down and plucked out. The sense of his own limitations had further contributed to his shift in priorities. So it wasn’t a big surprise that the daily stream of patients, coming in with the same mundane symptoms, was no longer the most stimulating way of existence for him.

Especially not with Sherlock, waiting at home.

Sherlock had had a pull over John, like no one else, from the moment they’d met. For months John had limped through his post-Afghanistan life; aside from the sharper symptoms of the PTSD, the rest had been all numbness and grey. Not the monotonous kind that appeared when life became too routine, but the chilling- “How will I live like this?”- kind that made it seem the world would never regain its vibrancy.

It was impossible for John to forget meeting Sherlock. They’d spent just three minutes in each other’s company, but after Sherlock had left and John had gathered himself mentally, he’d found his heart-rate elevated, his ears filled with noise and his eyes…raw. He saw things around him. In the lamest possible terms, John had felt awakened. He remembered returning to Baker Street right after he’d had his first encounter with Mycroft. Sherlock was lying on the sofa, covered in nicotine patches; while they talked, somewhere at the very back of John’s mind there’d been amazement at seeing him again—Sherlock was real, not a figment of John’s imagination. That feeling—or rather the fear that he’d somehow invented Sherlock out of desperation—occasionally nibbled at John to this day.

Today John walked into their sitting room to dozens of papers and photographs already pinned to the walls and taped to the mirror, but the resident miracle was nowhere in sight. John prayed Sherlock was at home. After the morning in the surgery and his reminiscence on their first meeting, John was chomping at the bit to talk to him.

Sherlock’s voice echoed from the kitchen.

“John? I just got the autopsy report from Bart’s!”

“I know; I got a text from George. But he said there was nothing interesting.”

Sherlock materialized, sporting a dismissive expression.

“Nothing interesting for him maybe; he should have become a vet. I found the report most illuminating.”

John tingled with curiosity. “I’m listening.”

Sherlock disappeared again into the kitchen and then came back out waving papers.

“Veronica Havisham didn’t have sex in the twenty-four hours before she died. And she had a bikini wax appointment the next day. Although that I discovered from other sources.”

“How—“John shook his head. “Okay, just go on.”

“The contents of her stomach showed she’d had dinner—real dinner, not pizza or fast food. Here, see for y—“

“Thanks, I believe you.”

Sherlock withdrew the papers with a slightly hurt look, but went on.

“That was approximately two hours before she was murdered. There’s alcohol in her blood, at least two glasses of wine.”

John didn’t quite follow. He ventured a guess. “She looked old enough to be served alcohol?”

“What? Yes, yes. And?”

“And…” John started going over the new information but Sherlock was not ready to wait.

“John! She was on a date and then—”

“Hold on,” John interrupted. “How do you know she didn’t go out with someone, like a friend?”

“No, no, she was in a proper restaurant. You only need to look at the food she had. People don’t go to proper restaurants for fancy meals with ‘just a friend’—not often anyway. Besides, look at her clothes.” Sherlock walked to the mirror and tapped on a few pictures. “This is formal: the blouse, the shoes. The scarf is exquisite.”

John walked over to the mirror and examined the photos. The scarf did look very fancy: satin, a black background with huge pink flowers on it.

“That’s very bright,” John said.

Sherlock nodded. “Yes. That's ‘Hot pink’.”

“You have a shirt like that.”

Sherlock’s eyes moved away from the photos and onto John. “I do.”

John’s eyes remained resolutely on the mirror. They both stood silent for a few moments, then John spoke first.

“It still doesn’t mean she was meeting a man. Women dress up when they go out with other women.”

Sherlock huffed. “This isn’t just dressing up. This is a special occasion. Remember what her mother said: that Veronica had pulled out all the stops. It’s all there: the restaurant, the clothes, and don’t forget the perfume. Your little friend George was right—and while we’re at it, are there no other names in the English language?” Sherlock’s tone was trying for joking, but there was an underlying bite to it. John decided to play along.

“We’re not all as lucky as you are with your name.”

Sherlock pulled a face that suddenly reminded John of Mycroft’s put-off expression.

“I’m not lucky. I’ll take your name any day.”

“Well, you’re welcome to it,” John said ruefully. “With a face like yours, no one will find you generic.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not generic in the least.”

They blinked at each other. John wasn’t sure how the conversation had got here and judging by Sherlock’s darting eyes and his ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ expression, neither was he. John scratched his head and remembered to close his mouth.

“Okay, we know she was on a date,” he said eventually.

Sherlock’s face became animated again.

“Yes. Veronica goes on her date, but it was just dinner, no sex. She doesn’t intend to meet with anyone for sex afterwards, either—bikini wax. “

“She didn’t have to take off—There are other…kinds of sex people can have.”

“I know there are.” Sherlock said immediately, his expression impenetrable.

Oh, great. They hadn’t been in that kind of situation for a while. The first time was when they’d just met and Sherlock had thought John was interested in him. The last time was—five months ago, when John had thought Sherlock was trying to—Well, it was an easy mistake! John had been groggy; he’d fallen asleep in his chair while it was still light outside. Next thing he knew, he was stirring awake in darkness, with Sherlock walking in—at one o’clock in the morning!—and standing in the middle of the sitting room. Then, in front of John’s bleary eyes, Sherlock had started slowly unbuttoning his shirt, starting with the cuffs. Down his hand had gone over his chest and then the shirt had been shrugged off and tossed aside, just the contours of Sherlock’s pale frame visible under the streetlight coming through the windows. John had been so flabbergasted, it was only when Sherlock had started on his trousers and the edge of his boxer shorts had become visible that John had made a gurgling sound. Sherlock said he hadn’t noticed John sitting there in the dark. True, Sherlock had been utterly absorbed with a very peculiar case, but John would have still liked to be noticed, thanks, and he’d told Sherlock exactly that. Sherlock hadn’t replied, his face obscured and it was only then that John had grasped the ambiguity of his word choice. He’d probably not made things better by bolting out of his chair and leaving for his bedroom without so much as a goodnight.

And now they were in a similar scenario. Every time anything to do with…the more intimate aspects of human relations appeared on the menu, John felt flummoxed, kind of nervous and unsure of what he was supposed to say. At this rate, his palms would start sweating like a school-girl’s! He decided to ignore the situation. Apparently they were both on the same wavelength tonight—Sherlock’s next words proved he’d come to the same decision.

“The report shows Veronica hadn’t had any kind of sex. Dinner, no intention for continuation afterwards…What happened for her to find herself in Hainault Forest at night?“

“Do we know for sure she was killed there?”

“Yes, the evidence is conclusive. They hadn’t been useless at the crime scene after all. She was killed on the gravel path, a few feet away from where she was found. Strangled on the path, then dragged and dropped between the trees. No dust on her clothes, only grass and some mud at the front from where the body had lain face down. The murderer didn’t bother to hide her well. I don’t know why he bothered to drag her between the trees at all.”

“He?”

Sherlock looked uncertain.

“It’s more likely to have been a man. It would have required strength to pull that scarf tightly and keep it tight. Also Veronica’s height.”

His eyes shone at John expectantly and a bulb lit in John’s head.

“You said…there was no dust on her clothes. She wasn’t dropped on the path after the murderer strangled her!”

Sherlock grinned. Having caught up, John went on.

“Veronica’s five foot nine. Her heels—how high do you reckon?”

“Three and a half inches.”

“Blimey. Okay, I see what you mean. It would have been very difficult for a woman to keep pulling that scarf tight, even if there wasn’t much of a struggle”—John followed the scene in his head—“and then not let the body drop.”

Sherlock moved his face closer. “Exactly. She’d have to have supported the body upright throughout the entire process and then manoeuvred it for the drag. She can’t have done all that unless she was very tall herself—”

“—and quite strong,” John finished.

“Hmm!”

They looked at each other, minds working. Sherlock suddenly clasped his hands.

“I’ll go get my scarf—”

John let out a quick outburst of sardonic laughter. “Don’t even think about it!”

“Come on, John!”

“No way am I strangling you in the middle of our sitting room—and no! No, no!” John waved both of his hands for emphasis. “We are not going to the forest. I’m not strangling you anywhere.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest we go to the forest,” Sherlock muttered, looking crestfallen.

“Yes, you were. Moving on.”

Sherlock seemed torn between the wish to make a point and the need to discuss the case. Naturally, the case won.

“We should keep an open mind, but I’d say the murderer was a male. The brother’s chances have dropped—he doesn’t quite have the physique for this, but I wouldn’t rule him out yet. Right. Her killer strangles her; she falls heavily into his arms. Why didn’t he just leave the body on the path?”

John went for the obvious answer. “Because he wanted to hide it.”

“I told you, if he did, he’d have done a better job of it. This was…half-way.”

“Maybe he was interrupted.”

Sherlock contemplated.

“It’s possible. The other question that needs an answer is how Veronica got to Hainault Forest.”

“Are the police following that?”

“Yes.”

They stood quiet again, then John walked to his chair and sank into it. In a second Sherlock followed to sit in the chair across.

“Do you think her date drove her there?” John asked.

“Unlikely. He wouldn’t have left a girl alone in the forest at ten o’clock at night.”

“Unless he was the murder.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Again, unlikely. Why bother taking her to dinner before-hand?”

“If they’d only met recently, he couldn’t just say ‘How about we go to Hainault Forest in the middle of the night?’, could he?”

“John, I know you’re tired but use your head. Hainault Forest would have been out of the question, dinner or no dinner. She was popular. She was used to certain standards. She wouldn’t have gone there with someone new, especially if she didn’t intend to have sex. And why else would people plan to go there at night? A stroll?”

John had to admit Sherlock was right. Of course he was right. Even when he was venturing into the murky waters of human interactions, Sherlock was on top of the game where crime was concerned. John rubbed his eyes.

“What else did you find today while I was at Bart’s? What did the father say?”

Sherlock spent the next hour filling John in on the visit to the Havishams’ house. He got up to pace around a few times and to check various notes on the mirror. John opened his diary and made some notes of his own for his future blog entry.

The family all had alibis that were cutting it fine. Tom Havisham had gone out with his colleagues for a Friday night drink at the pub. He’d come back home, taking the tube from St Paul’s and arriving at his doorstep some twenty minutes after ten o’clock. It would have been possible for him to murder his daughter and get back at the time he did, but only if there’d been a vehicle involved. Diane Havisham and George Havisham had both been in the house: the mother had watched TV downstairs, while George was in his room doing something on his computer. She’d not checked on him for a couple of hours so technically he could have snuck out and come back, but the risk of being caught missing had been very high. Not to mention that he lacked transportation. (“He does have a bike, John.” “Yes, and with his chicken legs he’d have ridden it for all of ten minutes before he collapsed.” “You’re biased. Sibling rivalry makes for an excellent murder motive…Oh, shut up!”)

But John had to agree: George didn’t have a solid alibi. Neither did his mother. George had heard the TV on downstairs when he’d come out of his room to use the loo, but he hadn’t actually seen Diane Havisham. He couldn’t say exactly what time that was, but he put it at around the time his father had come home. Again, technically it was possible for Diane Havisham to be at Hainault at the time of the murder but there were too many ifs: if she’d driven there and back; if she could count on George never going downstairs and looking for her; if she could count on her husband not coming home before she’d returned. Nevertheless, John could see that Sherlock hadn’t entirely dismissed any of the three family members.

No one had been worried when Veronica hadn’t come home by midnight, but her father had started making calls in the early hours of the morning. Two names were mentioned a couple of times: her best friend Lisa and her boyfriend Simon. Both had answered their mobiles and told Mr. Havisham they hadn’t seen or spoken to Veronica all night and knew nothing of her whereabouts. Finally he’d called the police. Lisa and Simon had both rung for news in the morning. The man who’d found the body was a middle-aged local, called Steven Horsewood. He’d called the police immediately but according to Sherlock the interview with him hadn’t provided any useful information. The Havishams had both been at home when they were informed about the death of their daughter. Tom Havisham had been distraught; Diane Havisham had seemed shocked, but kept her composure and answered the initial enquiries. George Havisham was at school.

Lestrade was going to interview Simon Sinclair at his home at ten o'clock the next day. Veronica and Lisa Langley were friends from Veronica's secondary school--Mr. Havisham had provided Lisa's contact details and suggested the police first get in touch with a couple by the name of Archer, who were not only both in the Epping Forest College Board of Governors and able to assist in liaising with it, but were also friends of the family. The police had a long list of people to talk to: Veronica had been a popular girl and a busy one, too. Friends and acquaintances had already been interviewed and this was going to continue for the next couple of days.

Sherlock didn’t elaborate much on what he’d found in Veronica’s room but John was used to his friend’s ways. As much as Sherlock relished opportunities to impress, he also disliked revealing his observations before he found solid ground beneath them.  John knew Sherlock had noticed things in the dead girl’s room—his reaction to George’s words about the ribbon on the mirror spoke volumes—but to Sherlock they were still isolated pieces of the jigsaw. John didn’t press him.

He did ask him what he thought about the parents, but Sherlock waved a hand. “It’s not important. People’s appearances can be deceptive.”

John had thought about the Havishams on his way to work. The husband was obviously younger than the wife, who appeared to be in her mid-fifties. Tom Havisham had been incredibly haggard at the interview but John could imagine that on a good day he looked in his early forties. He didn’t have the typical City boy’s appearance, but that wasn’t entirely surprising, considering that his business was no longer in banking. He was handsome the way handsome men often were: in a bold, straightforward manner. Tall, fit, with deeply set dark brown eyes, he was only a couple of skin shades away from looking Mediterranean. His hair was slightly long and he wore it combed back in what John’s granddad used to call “the Italian way”. He was greying just a bit but the silver strings by his temples only added to his overall smooth look. If John was Mrs. Havisham, he’d have been very worried about the husband’s choice of new career. Advertising often meant meeting with a variety of clients, but more so with models.

But Mrs. Havisham had more than that to worry about. The woman lacked any warmth; neither her looks nor her demeanour inspired a desire to get to know her better. John wondered if he wasn’t strongly influenced by the way she’d spoken about her daughter. After all, it wasn’t every day that one heard a person speaking not just ill of the dead, but ill of their own dead. John hated to admit it, but with her flat chest and plain face Mrs. Havisham would have been excused for harbouring some jealousy towards her daughter. Veronica would have graced any magazine’s cover and John was sure Mr. Havisham must have had plans for her in that respect. There was hardly any likeness between the mother and the daughter, with the exception of the eyes. Mrs. Havisham had very beautiful hazel eyes with a startling, almost black line circling the very bright iris and making its colour stand out. In fact, when he was trying to remember her that was all John could recall vividly: her eyes.

Sadly, when void of life, they were striking in a very different way. John had felt chills run through him at the memory of Veronica’s wide open eyes: glassy, seemingly protruding; empty in that finite way John knew only too well. Death still managed to affect him. Good.

He and Sherlock discussed some small details for a bit longer. It was half past eleven when they both stretched simultaneously, John groaning as well. He was glad he’d had a sandwich at the end of his shift—there was no energy left in him for having food now. He didn’t even bother asking Sherlock if he’d eaten. John would just have to keep an eye on him as usual.

“I’m turning in,” he said as he got up. “Shall I come with you to Veronica’s boyfriend’s house tomorrow morning?”

“Of course.”

John nodded. “Night.”

Sherlock’s voice reached him in the hallway.

“John?”

John popped his head back into the room. Sherlock looked up at him.

“I want to go to her college afterwards.”

John waited.

“Are you working tomorrow?” Sherlock said.

“No. I’ve arranged for cover the next couple of days.”

Sherlock’s voice was even but melodic. “Good. Goodnight.”

 

***

 

On the following morning John was just pouring hot water into his cup when he heard Mrs. Hudson’s feet on the stairs. A few moments later came a delicate knocking. John opened the door from the kitchen to be greeted by Mrs. Hudson’s lively face, which was accompanied by the divine smell of hot croissants.

“Oh—morning, John,” she said with one of her trademark half-chirps. “Good, you’re awake. I got you both some croissants for breakfast. They were on sale at Tesco’s yesterday—well, not on sale, but they had one of those yellow stickers, when they’re about to expire. It was a jumbo pack of six so I thought I’d have two for my breakfast and bring some for my boys.”

“Thanks, Mrs Hudson. That’s very kind of you.” John took the plate with sincere gratitude. “Good timing, too—our bread’s no good and there’s nothing left to eat. I was at work yesterday and you know what he’s like when he’s on a case.” John’s eyes pointed in the direction of the bathroom, where there were faint clinking noises.

“Oh, I know.” Mrs. Hudson lowered her voice. “Is it that murder that’s all over the news?”

“Yes, the young girl.”

She shook her head with a solemn expression.

“Poor thing: so pretty and young. It’s not right. I know I’m not supposed to say it, but it’s always more horrible when someone young dies. If someone bashed me over the head tomorrow, it wouldn’t be such a loss—“

“Don’t say that, Mrs. Hudson!”

“Aw, you’re sweet.” John could almost feel invisible fingers pinch his cheek. Mrs. Hudson moved her head closer.

“They said she wasn’t sexually assaulted?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“Hmm…I wonder why that is.”

John had expected the traditional sad nod, with an “at least that” or something similar, but once again Mrs. Hudson had proven that interesting characters came in harmless packaging. Her comment reminded John that there were good reasons why Mrs. Hudson was one of the very few people with whom Sherlock had a genuinely nice, functional relationship.

Mrs. Hudson saw John’s expression and waved a bony hand. “Oh no, I don’t mean it in a bad way. It’s only that she looks very pretty and you read about this sort of thing all the time. There’s some poor woman who’s a victim of a sex crime every few minutes, they say.” She absentmindedly brushed some old crumbs from the table into her palm and dropped them into the sink. “It’s always been that way, you know. Only back in the sixties it was better, because everybody could just get off with everybody else so there weren’t as many repressed men lurking in the parks and attacking some innocent girl.”

John felt a bit dazed.

“Would you like a cup of tea, Mrs. Hudson?”

Mrs. Hudson made an apologetic face. “Oh no, thank you, dear. I only popped in to drop you those. I’ll leave you to it now. Ah, good morning, Sherlock.”

“Morning, Mrs. Hudson.”

Sherlock had appeared in the kitchen, clean shaven, his damp hair arranged in obedient waves. John was caught off-guard yet again by his youthfulness in the early morning. Sherlock’s features looked almost porcelain—and the motif of fragility in the association wasn’t lost on John. He was often privately stunned by the fierce protectiveness he felt towards his friend. John attributed it to instances like this one: the privilege to observe a very rare creature in its ordinary routines and thus to revel in its true character. Only in moments like these was he able to see that, underneath his savvy exterior, Sherlock was definitely not impervious. That his inadequacies were really very easy to expose if you knew where to look, both because they were so widespread and because Sherlock didn’t suspect the existence of half of them. He really was the most unusual mixture of astonishing intelligence and worldliness—and had an equally astonishing inability to understand life.

John turned his gaze away from Sherlock. Sherlock’s aftershave, for all its unobtrusiveness, had still managed to wage a cunning war for John’s nostrils against the bold scent of baked goods.

Mrs. Hudson was patting Sherlock on the arm. “You’re too thin, Sherlock. You should fill up a bit more. I was just telling John I dropped you these for breakfast—I’ll go now,” she finished but turned towards the kitchen counter instead and started putting plates and cutlery into the sink.

John immediately took the plate and lifted it in Sherlock’s direction. Sherlock turned his back to open the fridge.

John sighed quietly. “Come on, Sherlock. You have to eat.”

“Yes, but not now.”

“Yes, exactly now; you won’t have lunch or dinner. You have to put something in your mouth.”

“I will. Water.” Sherlock pointedly lifted the bottle of cold water he’d taken out off the fridge.

John used his fingers to tear the croissant in two: soft and warm, it smelled even more delicious with the scent liberated from its insides.

“Have a half.”

“I don’t want a half.”

“Well, you won’t have the whole.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, but I still don’t care. Have it.”

There was nothing subtle in Sherlock’s sigh. “Don’t you ever get tired?”

“No. Don’t you?”

They had a staring contest for five seconds after which Sherlock pursed his lips and took the half from John’s fingers to stuff it all at once in his mouth. He chewed it twice before swallowing and rounding on John.

“Why aren’t you dressed yet?”

“You’re not dressed either.”

“Because I’ll be ready in five minutes and you insist on having breakfast.”

“It’s eight o’clock,” John said, his tone mild. “We don’t have to be there until ten.”

“Yes, but by the time we get a cab—“

“First of all, it’ll take us about thirty seconds to get a cab. And second, I’m calling Lestrade to pick us up.”

Sherlock put his childish face on.

“I’m not going in the police car.”

“And I’m not paying the fare to Chigwell. Do you have any idea how far that is?”

“Of course I do. I went to Loughton yesterday.”

“So you know how much it costs. We’ll be running a cab bill in the hundreds in two days. Pull all the faces you want, we’re going with the police.”

Sherlock glowered at him, but John ignored him and turned to Mrs Hudson who had quickly washed up the small load she’d collected into the sink.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

Mrs. Hudson moved quickly to the hallway. “Oh don’t worry about it! It’s normal to fight when you live together. Happens to the best couples! I’ll be off then. I hope you catch that nasty man soon.”

“Me too.”

“Bye, Sherlock.” Mrs Hudson called.

“Bye, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock replied automatically from the sitting room, where he was looking at the items on the mirror.

John took some jam out, balanced a knife on the plate and carried everything to the sitting room. He came back for his cup of tea and finally settled in a chair to start his breakfast.

“Any new insights on the case?” he asked Sherlock.

Sherlock slowly shook his head without turning away.

“No. Although I have been thinking about the marks on her throat.”

“What about them?”

“I can’t quite put my finger on it—“

John made an amused noise. Sherlock turned with a questioning eyebrow.

“That was a dreadful pun,” John said.

Sherlock frowned for a moment, then his face cleared and he lifted his eyebrow at John again, but now John could see he was trying not to smile. Sherlock turned back to the mirror and tilted his head to look at a close-up of the throat marks in one of John’s photos.

“There’s something wrong, John. I might need to look at the body again—your photos are good, but I need to run some experiments.”

John groaned inwardly.

“Okay. Any other ideas?”

“No.”

“Well, let’s hope something comes out off the interviews today.”

Sherlock turned around again, eyes sharp.

“I know it will.”

***

They were on their way to Chigwell, and Lestrade was talking about the breakthrough the police had made just before he came to pick them up. His eyes shone with the pride of a job well done and he looked like a dog more than ever—a husky breed, perhaps, especially with his spiky silver hair glinting under the bright sun coming through the open car window.

“The cabbie called the hotline to say he’d recognized Veronica. I’ll speak to him later—you can come along if you want.” Lestrade looked at Sherlock. “He might have noticed something without knowing he had, if you know what I mean—and you’re good at getting that kind of information out of people.”

Sherlock opened his mouth for a sarcastic reply but John gave him a light kick on the shin. Sherlock looked at him, mouth still open, but his words showed he’d got the message.

“He picked her up from somewhere in Central London,” Sherlock said, “and was taking her to Loughton when somewhere along the way she suddenly told him she needed to go to Hainault Forrest. She paid cash. She was alone when she got into his car.”

It was time for Lestrade’s mouth to fall open.

“Have you read the notes? You can’t have figured it all out.”

“I don’t know why you’re all still surprised. It’s like going through the same routine every time. If you only did what I do, we wouldn’t have to waste time, but judging by the stage of your brain development, I was a few hundred years early inventing of the science of deduction.“

John decided Sherlock’s ego had taken enough of its morning walk.

“Can we go through that part of the routine now where you tell us how you know about the cabbie?”

Sherlock didn’t roll his eyes but it came close.

“We know she went to meet someone who wasn’t her boyfriend.”

Lestrade started to protest but Sherlock didn’t give him a chance.

“She argued with Simon a lot and he hadn’t been to her house for weeks,” he went on. “That tells us all about the state of that relationship. So, the reason—“

John had a protest of his own. “Wait a minute—arguing doesn’t prove their relationship wasn’t working. People can argue and still, you know…care about each other.”

Sherlock gave him a sideways look. “It’s the exception.”

“Fine,” said Lestrade, butting in impatiently, “let’s say their relationship was on the rocks. And?”

Sherlock turned to John.

“Remember when we were talking about her date last night. It occurred to me it was just easy to just assume Veronica went out with boys her own age. But when I got the autopsy report and saw the food she’d had I was finally certain she’d been seeing a man. This kind of food is served in restaurants. It’s expensive to dine out in London, and it’s not really a boy’s style. I can’t claim to have much first-hand experience but my impression is that boys don’t take their dates out for fine cuisine.”

“Seems plausible,” Lestrade said, “but it’s not what you’d call hard evidence. How do we know for sure?”

“There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence. And also, I say so.”

“Yeah, yeah—what other evidence?”

“I found a box in her room—a jewellery box for the bracelet she was wearing the night she was murdered. The brand is Links,” Sherlock said with some triumph.

John and Lestrade each mirrored the other’s clueless looks. This time Sherlock did roll his eyes.

“Good God, what kind of information do you find important to keep in yours heads? Links of London, high street jewellery brand, bracelet prices range in the triple figures—Veronica’s is around two hundred pounds. Unfortunately it’s a generic enough brand to be found in Selfridges, so we can’t get much out of that. Leaving aside the fact that, again, very few boys would have the means to buy such an expensive gift, there’s the choice of jewellery itself: classy, very grown-up. We have expensive gifts, fancy restaurants. Then there’s the fact that she never gets calls from this mystery person—he’s someone very careful. A boy wouldn’t have to worry about being with a girl his age. But a man…” Sherlock took a breath, eyes glowing.

Lestrade had a different question. “How do you know the bracelet wasn’t a gift from her parents? Her father seems very fond of her.”

Sherlock leaned forward.

“Because the box was hidden at the very back of Veronica’s underwear drawer.”

Lestrade and John contemplated that.

“Okay, she was seeing a man,” Lestrade conceded. “Give me the rest.”

Sherlock didn’t need much encouragement.

“I’m surprised he bought her such an expensive bracelet, but on the other hand it doesn’t look flashy and she does have a lot of jewellery—he was probably counting on no one noticing a couple more pieces. And men do lose their sound judgement when they—if they…“ Sherlock actually stumbled in his speech.

“When they think with their penises.” Lestrade finished for him, casually.

“Quite.”

John was delighted to see smidgens of pink at the tips of Sherlock’s ears. Sherlock hurried with his deductions.

“So, Veronica had a parallel relationship, had had for approximately two to three months. She obviously didn’t care much about keeping Simon happy and she kept all the mementos from the other man: She had feelings for him. The only explanation for why she wasn’t involved with him ‘officially’ is that he wasn’t available. It can’t be her age, since the legal age of consent is sixteen. Unless—” Sherlock stopped abruptly, eyes unblinking.

“What?” said Lestrade.

“No, that can’t be it,” Sherlock said.

“Sherlock?” Lestrade insisted.

Sherlock wrinkled his nose.

“I suppose we can’t discard the possibility that she had sex with him for the first time when she was still underage. But there’s nothing to back it up. No, I’m convinced that wasn’t the reason for the secrecy.”

John had known where this was going from the moment Sherlock said the man wasn’t available.

“He is married,” he said.

“Of course. And from here to the conclusion about the cab ride it should be obvious.”

John nodded slowly. “He wouldn’t take her anywhere nearby, but would choose a big place instead. Somewhere they’d go unnoticed. Central London is perfect for hiding. She looked old enough to be served alcohol, so that wasn’t a problem. How did you know she was alone when she got in the cab?”

“Come on, John—just think.”

John bit both his lips and thought. Why wouldn’t he want to be seen with her? They leave the restaurant. They won’t be having sex so she’s going home—Oh, right!

“He was careful, in case someone asked the cabbie about him.”

Sherlock looked like he was ready to undo his seatbelt and hug John.

“Yes. The only thing I don’t know is if he was specifically worried that the cabbie’s potential description would make Veronica’s parents recognize him, or if he was just being very cautious in general. Either way, their age difference would have made them stand out and he didn’t want to risk any identification.”

For a few seconds everyone stayed quiet. John’s eyes glided over the passing London suburbs as he digested the new data. The older man and the teenage girl. Some things never changed, like Mrs. Hudson had said. And John was right that Sherlock had seen something in Veronica’s room.

“Why didn’t you say anything about the bracelet yesterday?”

“Because I wasn’t really sure until now. Lestrade is right, there’s no solid evidence.” Sherlock turned to Lestrade. “But when I told you what the cabbie had said, your reaction showed I was obviously right.”

Lestrade had another question.

“You said she’d paid cash.”

“Of course she’d pay cash. He gave it to her—he wouldn’t leave her to pay and he couldn’t give her his card.”

“How do you know she changed her destination during the ride?” John asked.

“It’s simple. She was going home, but she turned up in Hainault Forrest. That means something made her change her mind on the way. It could have been only a call or a text message.”

They were all silent again. Lestrade rubbed his neck; he’d been twisting for about thirty minutes, talking to Sherlock and John. He sighed.

“Well, if you’re right, then Simon Sinclair has just gone up on my list of suspects. Jealousy’s a prime motive. Report says he spent the night at home, alone. Let’s hope for his sake someone can confirm that.”

***

Simon Sinclair’s house was a semi-detached bungalow with an overgrown front garden. John thought that this house—and the whole street—conformed a lot more to the stereotype for that part of London. Lestrade pressed the bell and the door opened immediately, as if someone had been lurking on the other side of it. They were greeted by a very worried-looking, overweight woman in her forties. Lestrade flipped open his ID.

“Mrs. Sinclair?” The woman nodded. “I’m Detective Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard. This is Sherlock Holmes and this is Doctor Watson. They’re helping me with the investigation of Veronica Havisham’s death. We’re here to talk to your son.”

The woman tried to smile, but the anxious twitching of her facial muscles ruined the effect.

“Yes. Hello. Come in. Simon’s upstairs—I’ll get him.” They moved into the narrow hallway, as Mrs. Sinclair continued talking.

“I told your colleagues that my boy would never do anything so horrible. He wouldn’t steal a newspaper. He’s a good boy.”

Lestrade sounded very professional.

“We’re only conducting interviews, Mrs. Sinclair. There’s no reason for you to be alarmed.”

Mrs. Sinclair nodded again and led them to the sitting room.

“Please, er, make yourselves comfortable. He’ll be right in.”

In her absence they all remained on their feet and took the time to look around. The sitting room was tidy but the corridor and the kitchen—which John had glimpsed in passing—weren’t. There was bric-a-brac all over the place: little porcelain figurines, candleholders, decorative plates, photographs. The same boy at different ages was looking out off most of the frames: evidence that, in addition to being an only child, Simon was the apple of his mother’s eye.

“Take a look at this,” Sherlock said from near the window. Both John and Lestrade went to the low entertainment unit with the TV and the DVD player, where Sherlock was examining some ornaments while holding the birthday card that had clearly gotten his attention.

“What is it?” John asked.

“It says ’To Simon, happy birthday, all my love: Nazia.’ Signed with a big X for a kiss.”

Lestrade was just preparing to speak when they heard steps coming down the stairs. He went to stand in the middle of the room just as Mrs. Sinclair walked in with her son.

Simon Sinclair was almost a head shorter than his mother. He was burly with no excess weight at all, and where Mrs. Sinclair’s features were almost colourless, her son had thick black eyebrows, full lips, and hair that was almost black. John could see why girls his age might find him good-looking: When you were a teenager looks mattered, and Simon’s shortness could easily be overlooked in favour of his well developed chest and his attractive features. John hadn’t been that lucky at his age.

Lestrade made the introductions and turned to Mrs. Sinclair.

“Thanks for letting us do the interview here.”

She shook her head. “Oh, no—it would’ve been awful to do it in the police station. I’d rather the neighbours saw the car parked outside than—They’re talking, anyway; my neighbour next door has seen Veronica round here a few times and you can’t make her shut her gob.”

“Nosy, is she?” Sherlock said. Mrs. Sinclair jumped a little, but nodded.

“Okay,” said Lestrade.”We’ll begin if you don’t mind. Simon, I know we’ve taken your statement, but could you tell us again what happened on Friday night?”

The boy’s voice was as deep as Sherlock’s and unmistakeably masculine—it gave John a small pause.

“I was home all night watching telly. My mum came back from Aunt Julia’s around ten, maybe a bit later. She made cheese on toast and then I went to bed early. I was tired. Veronica’s dad called me on my mobile around three to ask about her. I told him I didn’t know where she was. When I woke up in the morning I called Veronica’s mobile, but it went straight to voicemail. I called her house, too, but no one answered, so I called Mr. Sinclair’s mobile. He answered, he was crying—” Simon’s voice quivered the tiniest bit. “He told me Vee was found dead and then hung up on me. I didn’t find out more until later, when I talked to Lisa.”

Lestrade made sure Simon had finished before asking his next question.

“Had you spoken to Veronica earlier that day?”

“Yeah. We talked on the phone. I didn’t say it the first time—I mean when the other officer was here on Saturday. I was all over the place, and then later when I thought about it, it didn’t seem important.” He hesitated briefly. “We argued but we argued a lot of the time so it wasn’t really—It was nothing.”

“What did you argue about?” Sherlock asked.

Simon’s eyes had mostly been darting around the room, but now they shot to Sherlock’s face before dropping. John noticed that his hands were folded tightly in his lap.

“Nothing serious. Just some stupid stuff.

“Can you be more specific?” said Lestrade.

“I called her to ask what she wanted to get Sharon—she’s a mate of ours—for her birthday, and she started making these stupid suggestions about a foot spa or something, that cost fu—cost a fortune. It all went from there.” Simon’s face had begun to flush.

“What did you get Veronica for her birthday?” Sherlock asked. Simon looked at him, surprised.

“One of those chains with a charm on it.  Er, a heart charm.” The transition to red was complete.

“And what did she get you?”

Simon frowned in concentration. He didn’t answer for a few seconds then his face cleared up.

“Yeah, she got me a tie. And a DVD box-set.”

“When was that?” Sherlock asked.

“When was my birthday?”

“Yes.”

“Two weeks after hers, in February. Why?”

Mrs. Sinclair shuffled anxiously. Sherlock didn’t answer but shared a quick look with Lestrade, who took charge again.

“Were you alone in the house throughout the entire evening?”

“Yeah. Mum was at my aunt’s.”

“I went to my sister’s,” Mrs. Sinclair said in a hurry. “She lives in Basildon. I usually go there on Saturday or she comes to mine, but I wanted to do a boot sale on Sunday—Simon got his driver’s license a couple of months ago and my car is too old for him to drive, so I thought ‘Every little helps’*, you know…” She looked at her son with a mixture of affection and anguish. “I wanted to go through some stuff in the house on Saturday and sort it out for Sunday morning, and that’s why I went to Julia’s Friday night.” Suddenly her chin was trembling furiously and her eyes were filling with tears. “I wish I hadn’t.”

“Mum, come on.” Simon turned to his mother and awkwardly patted her on the arm. She grabbed his hand.

“You know that if I’d stayed—“

“Mum! We’ve been through this already. Stop worrying.”

Mrs. Sinclair wiped away a few tears, but her lips were still trembling. “Excuse me,” she murmured and dug a half-empty pack of tissues from her cardigan pocket. The cardigan was shapeless and John was sure it was worn out of habit rather than comfort—June had been very humid and warm this year. Mrs. Sinclair blew her nose discreetly and wiped her eyes, hands shaking. Evidently she’d kept a lid on her emotions for too long, because now she didn’t seem to be able to stop crying. John thought it was time for intervention.

“Mrs. Sinclair, I could do with a cuppa,” he said.

The poor woman’s breathing hitched a few more times, but she made a visible effort to pull herself together.

“I’ll make you one. Sorry, I should have offered earlier, I’ve not been—“

Her bottom lip wobbled again and John got up. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”

She nodded and led the way. John followed her into the small space, crammed with furniture and all kinds of…stuff. His eyes hadn’t lied to him: the kitchen was messy. As if she’d read his thoughts, Mrs. Sinclair apologized.

“Sorry about the mess. I knew you were coming and I managed to do the lounge, but I couldn’t get to the rest of the house. I hadn’t bothered to keep tidy because of the boot sale, been leaving most things out to keep them in my sight…”

“That’s perfectly all right.” John smiled. “You should see our kitchen.”

Mrs. Sinclair gave him a small smile back. She put the kettle on and got a couple of cups from the cupboard, before turning to him.

“Will your—Will the other officers want some tea?”

“No, I don’t think so. The inspector drinks coffee, but he just had one in the car and Sherlock hardly drinks anything while he’s working.”

“Are you a criminal doctor? I’m sorry, I don’t know what your job is called—“

“No, I’m not. I’m not working for the police and neither is my friend—we just assist them with some cases.”

“Like freelance?” Mrs. Sinclair frowned in an attempt to understand.

“Yes. Something like that, yeah. They call Sherlock—“John chose his words carefully. “The police call Mr. Holmes when the case is delicate, like now. You know: young girl, dead in the park—they want to catch the murderer as soon as possible and put everyone mind’s at rest.” He tried to be both economical and confident in what he was saying—it was easy for Mrs. Sinclair to show them the door. Thankfully, she seemed reassured.

“I hope you find who did this quickly. I’ve not been able to sleep, I’ve been ever so worried. They always say it’s someone close to the person and Simon was her boyfriend. If I hadn’t gone to Julia’s that night, he’d have what-do-you-call-it…” Mrs. Sinclair’s round face creased in mental effort. “When I can say he was here all night and he didn’t go out anywhere.”

“An alibi,” John said.

“That’s it.” Mrs. Sinclair’s voice quavered again. “But now there’s no one to say where he was and the police will think he did it.”

John hurried to distract her. “Two sugars, please.”

Crystals of sugar rained all along the path between the bowl and the cup.

“You shouldn’t upset yourself,” John said. “If Simon hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s got nothing to worry about.”

“He hasn’t! He’s such a good boy, Doctor…I’m sorry, I forgot—“

“Watson.”

“Sorry! Doctor Watson. Simon would never ever do anything so horrid!”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” John said soothingly. Nevertheless Mrs. Sinclair started crying quietly again. John didn’t know what else to do. He was just considering patting her shoulder, when she suddenly moved to close the door.

“I knew this was going to be bad!” she erupted. “I didn’t think he should go out with that girl, but what can you tell him? He’s in college now and all! I wish he’d never met her—she was a good girl, but she was too fancy for us and half the time they were in a tiff.“ Mrs. Sinclair put a hand in front of her mouth and looked at John wide-eyed. “Oh, I’ve gone and done it now, haven’t I?! You’ll think they had an argument and he killed her. Oh God—”

“No, no, don’t worry,” John said but he could see Mrs. Sinclair wasn’t listening.

“Mrs. Sinclair!” he said firmly. She lifted her eyes, instinctively responding to his tone.

John looked her squarely in the face: reddening and tear-streaked, it was a picture of hysteria in the wings. He kept his tone firm.

“If Simon is innocent, you can rest assured nothing will happen to him. My friend is brilliant. He never makes mistakes. He won’t let Simon be charged for something he hasn’t done. And I can assure you that Detective Inspector Lestrade is very professional and will carry out this investigation in the best possible way. No harm will come to your son if he hasn’t done anything wrong. All right?”

Mrs. Sinclair swallowed a couple of times, then moved her head to indicate she’d understood. John smiled. “Shall we go back to them?”

***

John was glad when they left Simon’s house. It wasn’t often that he had to deal with people in the throes of emotion, and living with Sherlock had made him forget how difficult it could be. John found himself silently grateful for Sherlock’s character. True, his nightmare of a flatmate had all kinds of personality…quirks, and disturbing habits. Their closeness meant that sometimes John had to handle Sherlock’s emotional needs, too—but overall, tears and hysteria were very far out of Sherlock’s behavioural range.

The interview had continued for about ten more minutes after John’s and Mrs. Sinclair’s return. When they walked in, Lestrade was just asking Simon for a more detailed account of his activities that night.

“I told you, I was watching TV.”

“Anything in particular?” Sherlock had asked.

The boy looked taken aback again.

“No, not really. I was just flipping through the channels.”

Lestrade lifted his eyebrows for the first time. “The entire evening?”

“Yes.” Simon frowned. “It’s only a few hours; it’s not a big deal.”

“Did you not speak to anyone, or go to the shop, or go to your room?”

“No.”

“Did no one call at the door?” Lestrade went on diligently.

“No—there’s no one to say I was here.”

There had been tension in Simon’s voice and John wondered if it was because he’d felt pressured or because they’d touched a sore point. Mrs. Sinclair had looked close to tears again and Lestrade hadn’t pressed further.

As soon as they left the house John asked what else had happened while he was in the kitchen. But Lestrade turned to Sherlock and said. “Before that—I’m going to the Archers’ to arrange the interviews at the college. You coming?”

“Yes,” Sherlock replied.

They all got into the car and Lestrade gave the driver an address, then finally turned back to answer John’s earlier question.

“I asked him about Veronica: how they met, how often they saw each other. They met at the college canteen and they saw each other at least three times a week. I asked if he knew why she would have gone to Hainault at that time of night. He said he had no clue. He seemed genuine enough to me, but...” Lestrade donned what John secretly called his “hardened cop” face. “What I know is he says he was at home but there’s no one to back him up. He can’t even tell us what he was watching on TV—that’s why you asked him, right?” Lestrade turned to Sherlock with the last question.

“Oh? Hmm.” Sherlock confirmed.

“Oh—and he said they never went to Hainault at night, but he knew some mates of his who did: they brought girls there to have sex,” Lestrade finished.

“Did he seem upset about Veronica’s death?” John asked.

Lestrade shrugged. “Did he seem upset to you? You can’t tell with teenagers, especially boys. What did the mother tell you?”

“She was really upset,” John said. “She thinks Simon will be charged with murder because he doesn’t have an alibi and she blames herself for leaving him on his own that night. And I don’t think she liked Veronica very much.”

Lestrade was instantly alert. “Did she say that?”

“Not exactly. She said Veronica was a nice girl—you know, the way people do when there’s a big ‘but’ coming afterwards. She said she’d always had a bad feeling about the relationship, and that Veronica was too fancy for Simon. Actually, she said ‘too fancy for us’. It kind of—I don’t know, I remembered it.”

Sherlock finally broke his silence.

“Yes, it’s quite telling. Her life obviously revolves around her son.” He turned to Lestrade. “You might want to check her whereabouts. She says she went to see her sister, but she was on her way back at the time of the murder. Check what time she left her sister’s house.”

Lestrade didn’t look at all convinced. “You don’t think she did it, do you?”

“She’s the right height and she’s big enough, plus she’s got an unhealthy attachment to her son. We can’t dismiss her.”

John had to object. “She loves her son, Sherlock; we can’t say for sure the attachment is unhealthy.”

“Well, you know more about this sort of thing than I do.” Sherlock looked at him intently. “I’m only saying I need more data.”

“Fine, you’ll have your data.” Lestrade turned around and threw his next words over his shoulder. “I was going to check her story anyway.”

John remembered something.

“Sherlock, what about that card, the birthday card—you said it was interesting.”

“It’s a birthday card with some bears hugging, signed with a big kiss. With a name like ‘Nazia’, it’s unlikely to be from a relative. The paper hadn’t faded or yellowed—it was recent, then. But I needed to know exactly how recent. Simon was already going out with Veronica in February.” Sherlock took a breath and turned to John. “Don’t you think it’s odd that there’s a birthday card from another girl—one, who obviously has affection for Simon—on display in their sitting room? A room, by the way, that’s almost entirely his mother’s territory.”

“What are you saying?” John asked.

“I’m saying there are things that need explanations, John. February was four months ago and that card is still there. Where’s Veronica’s card?”

“Maybe it’s in Simon’s room.”

“It isn’t.”

John looked at Sherlock astonished. “How can you know that?”

“Because,” Lestrade said, voice  stern, “he went to the loo upstairs, while you were in the kitchen.” He twisted back again. “Sherlock, I’ve told you before that you can’t just go into people’s houses—“

“Relax. I didn’t break anything, I promise.” Sherlock pulled a teasing face, but his voice was serious. “The card wasn’t there.” Then he hesitated.

“What else?” John asked. When there was no answer he touched Sherlock’s shirt sleeve. “Sherlock?”

“When can we see Veronica’s friend Lisa?” Sherlock said, turning to Lestrade.

“Tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Her parents took her to stay with some relatives in Scotland for a few days. Apparently she was really shaken up—she and Veronica had been friends since they were five.” Lestrade checked Sherlock’s face in the front mirror. “Why do you want to talk to her?”

“Because of something Simon said.”

John grinned. Sherlock narrowed his eyes.

“What?”

“Well, it’s funny,” John said.

“What’s funny?”

“You know: ‘Simon says’.”

Sherlock’s face was blank.

John sighed. “Never mind.” He made a mental note to make some recreational education time after the case was over. The gaps in Sherlock’s knowledge never ceased to amaze him with their randomness.

“There’s one thing I can tell you about Lisa right now,” Lestrade said. “She has a solid alibi. She was at the cinema with a friend and the friend has confirmed it.”

Sherlock was looking out the window and didn’t say anything.

***

 

The journey to their next destination could have been made on foot—the Archers lived practically next door to Simon Sinclair by London standards. Their house was also the closest to Hainault Forest. Lestrade asked the driver to pull away and stop before they made the final turn onto the Archers’ sunny, quiet street. He had just begun sharing what he knew about the couple.

“They’re old friends of Veronica’s family. Well…” he dragged, unsure. “Tom Havisham said friends, but I gather it’s more of a forced situation. They had a daughter Veronica’s age. The girls went to primary school together, played at each other’s houses, that sort of thing. Then one day when the girls were twelve they went on a school trip to Southend. The Archers’ daughter”—Lestrade shuffled through his notes—“Katie, drowned. I had my team check all there was on her death. It was a clear, straightforward incident; the investigation was very thorough.” Sherlock moved to speak but Lestrade’s tone rose, firm. “No, Sherlock, I’m saying it again—it’s checked. I want to make sure you’re not going to barge in there and start being…well, yourself. We don’t want to upset the parents.”

Sherlock’s eyelids trembled in demonstrable exasperation with the petty mindset of some people.

“Fine. I won’t ask any questions about their daughter. Can you at least send me the report of the investigation?”

“Yeah. You’ll find a way to get it anyway, with that brother of yours.” Lestrade shifted so that he could turn back properly and face Sherlock. “Who, incidentally, I’d like to meet one day, if he’s going to be breathing down my neck from his invisible office. Don’t look surprised—it’s not hard to figure out he’s behind half the orders I get these days.”

Sherlock’s tone could have taught Inuit children the meaning of cold.

“’Whom’, not ‘who’,” he said. “And you’re wrong if you think I know how my brother occupies himself. I can assure you any attentions you might be getting from him are not at my request. Can we please get back to the case? Every minute wasted on Mycroft is a minute lost twice.”

Lestrade cast John his look of ‘How do you live with this?’ but went duly on. “Now, Tom Havisham said that George and Viv Archer—what?”

Sherlock had groaned at the mention of the name “George”, and was looking at John as if he were personally responsible for naming all babies in England.

“Nothing, just—go on.” John, forced himself to look less amused.

Lestrade looked from John to Sherlock with some bewilderment, but then continued, resigned.

“The Archers were devastated after their daughter died. She was their only child and they never went on to have others. They’ve stayed in touch with the Havishams and are—were—very fond of Veronica.” Lestrade paused and made an awkward face. “Tom Havisham didn’t actually say it, but he gave the impression that he found their attention unwelcome. What he did say was that it constantly reminded everybody about the incident, especially Veronica. But since it obviously helped the Archers to cope, the Havishams did what they could.”

He flipped through some more papers, his eyes scanning over pages of print. John had barely registered his own wariness at the prospect of another high-pitched emotional encounter when Lestrade shut the folder.

“That’s all I’ve got on their personal connection. They’re both on the Epping Forest College Board of Governors. The school is understandably trying to keep things quiet and there are some underage students, too, so the Archers are going to be helping us out with the interviews. I’ll have to make some arrangements along those lines after we talk to them—will you stay for that or...” Lestrade looked at Sherlock questioningly.

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Okay, then. Let’s go.”

They got out of the car and turned onto Beech Grove. The number they needed was about forty doors away, and John relished the short walk: his legs had gone stiff from all the sitting about and by the looks of it, there was more sitting on the way. He was beginning to itch for some action.

The street looked quite nice, with rows of differently painted houses on both sides and flower baskets hanging above some of the doors. There was something so unimaginatively innocent about the scene that John couldn’t reconcile it with the knowledge that a murder had occurred not three miles from here. It wasn’t just the colour splashes that made this area different from the one they had just visited—the street did have a more well-off vibe about it. The houses were bigger and the cars in front didn’t seem cheap. John didn’t know much about car makes or prices but was able to tell when a vehicle had been around for years—like Mrs. Sinclair’s car—and when it was new, like the shiny dark green Vauxhall beside the front of the house whose front gate they’d just pushed through. Still, for all its suburban pleasantness, Beech Grove was no match for any of the streets in the Havishams’ part of Loughton.

They had to wait for a good minute before the front door finally opened. John’s first feeling was one of relief: A petite woman greeted them, and she didn’t appear to be distraught or close to tears. She had ink-black hair, pulled tightly into a short ponytail and there was no make-up on her heart-shaped, pale face. At least John didn’t think there was—he could never tell with women. In addition she was dressed in a tracksuit that outlined a fit, childlike figure, so he was probably right about the lack of make-up. If this was Mrs. Archer, it seemed incredible her daughter would have been nearly eighteen. The mother looked in her mid-thirties. Only her eyes were ahead by a decade: their blue was quite pale and for an instant they seemed…implacable? As if they were denying entry to the intruders at the door. Perhaps that was the way eyes looked when their owner had spent years hiding emotion from curious observers. But as soon as they fell on Lestrade’s face, the lines around them relaxed and the look warmed.

“Detective Inspector Lestrade? Vivian Archer, hi. Come in, I’ve been expecting you.”

***

“You’ll have to excuse my husband—he’s upstairs in bed,” Mrs. Archer spoke to Lestrade as she came into the sitting room carrying a tray with cups of tea and coffee. “He’s been terribly sick since Friday. We were supposed to be in Spain right now, but we had to cancel our holiday.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said Lestrade. “What’s he have?”

“The doctor thinks it’s just the summer bug that’s been going around, and said George needed some rest. He could barely walk when he got home Friday. He had to take a cab home, he was feeling so ill.” She shook her head and smoothed her already immaculate hair. “I heard his keys at the door and was glad he’d been sensible enough to come home early and get some rest before we flew out the next day. Well, so much for that.”

Lestrade thanked her as she handed him a cup of coffee, then said, from her—“Thank you.”—then went on to clarify. “We don’t need to speak to him now. Strictly speaking this isn’t a formal interview, although we’ll be taking some notes.”

“Sure. Anything to help—anything,” said Mrs. Archer emphatically. “I suppose Tom’s told you how close we are, and the circumstances—“

It was the first time John observed a crack in Mrs. Archer’s composure, but she managed to carry on quickly. “We were very fond of Veronica and we probably understand better than anyone what her family is going through. It was a terrible shock for us, stirred up a lot of memories…” She took a sip from her tea.

“Yes, I’m sorry about that,” Lestrade said. John offered a look of condolence.

“You said your husband was back early on Friday evening.” Sherlock’s casual voice—not that his voice could ever be truly casual—seemed clueless about the sudden silence. Mrs. Archer turned to him, straightening her posture.

“He wasn’t home early—just earlier than usual, which is after eleven. That’s on some Fridays, I mean—he usually goes out with friends on Friday: it’s his one night out, really. But he felt so unwell, he came back a bit after ten.” Mrs. Archer drank from her cup again and coughed, covering her mouth quickly. “Sorry. I was just going to say that George was already under the weather on Thursday night, but we both hoped it was just something he’d eaten and that it wouldn’t ruin our vacation.” She looked at Sherlock’s unmoving—and not particularly moved—face, and then turned to Lestrade. “Sorry, it’s not relevant to your investigation. I was just thinking that at least we didn’t have to find out about Veronica while we were out there.”

“Is your husband a gambling man?”Sherlock asked.

Everyone in the room stared at him, but he kept his open, oblivious eyes on Mrs. Archer, clearly awaiting her answer. She quickly recovered from the randomness of the enquiry and replied without questioning its pertinence.

“I believe he enjoys a game of backgammon but that’s about all. We both pick a horse for the Grand National, but that doesn’t count for gambling, does it?” Her tone was lightly humorous and she raised her eyebrows at Sherlock, expecting another question, but he just thanked her and leaned back in his seat. No one said anything for a few seconds, then Lestrade broke the silence.

“Do you have any idea why Veronica would have gone to the forest at that time of night?”

Mrs. Archer shook her head in regret.

“I really can’t think of anything. I didn’t know her that well—well, I did, but not as well as I used to when she was younger. You know how it is: They grow, and before you know it they’re young adults themselves…” Her voice trailed off and her face became meditative. A few moments later she lifted her head and offered an apology.

“I’m sorry, I was remembering Veronica only a few years back. Hard to believe she’s so—was so grown up. It’s hard to believe she’s…” Mrs. Archer’s eyes filled with tears; her knuckles were white as she lifted her cup. She breathed in deeply and tried smiling.

“I do apologize. It’s been difficult. I promise I won’t make—there won’t be any outbursts. You’ve got your work to do.” Her last words were directed at Lestrade.

“That’s quite all right, Mrs. Archer—“

“Vivian.”

Lestrade lifted his head from his notes and paused for a second with his mouth open.

“Right, yes. Vivian, I understand it’s hard for you. Thank you for your time.”

Mrs. Archer nodded.

“So no idea why Veronica was there,” Lestrade continued. “Can you tell us anything about her friends at school? Anyone she might have gone to meet—let’s say, without her parents’ knowledge?”

Mrs. Archer seemed surprised.

“Without—No, I don’t think so. Well, like I said, I wasn’t so close to her anymore, but she’s been going out with Simon, hasn’t she? They met at our college, actually. I like Simon; he keeps himself to himself and he’s a good student. She wasn’t meeting him that night?”

“No, it doesn’t look like it,” Lestrade confessed.

“Then I really don’t know.” Vivian Archer appeared to concentrate, then hesitation ran through her features and she repeated, “I don’t know.”

“Did you have something in mind?” Lestrade pressed. “Please don’t withhold any information.”

“Oh it’s not information as such, at least I think not. It’s just that...” Mrs. Archer’s fingers ran over her hair again and the gesture seemed to give her the necessary resolution. “Veronica was a very attractive girl, so boys did follow her about. Everywhere she went they took notice, if you know what I mean. There was a man from a casting agency—he came to the school to see the Drama Class last—or was it this year? Yes, just after New Year’s. He immediately singled Veronica out. We had to keep an eye on him, poor man—not that there was anything going on! But he was forty-odd years old and she was our student, and of course we need to be careful…” Mrs. Archer rolled her eyes.. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling. What I mean is that Veronica wasn’t short of admirers, so who knows? Maybe she did go to meet one of them.”

“Could you provide us with the details of the casting agent?” Lestrade asked, writing something down.

“You don’t really think he could have anything to do with it? It was months ago and we never saw him again. Besides, he wasn’t the most alluring man for a young girl. It was a long time ago for me, but I still remember how it is when you’re seventeen.” Mrs. Archer smiled but her eyes didn’t move.

“We just need to follow every possible line of enquiry,” Lestrade said neutrally.

“Hm. I suppose we should still have his details at work. I’ll send them to you—you’re the investigating officer?”

Lestrade nodded, and as he sifted through his pockets to produce a card with his information, John cast a quick look at Sherlock. He’d been sitting completely still, but his eyes were in clear focus. John couldn’t wait to go home so they could discuss the morning’s developments.

Mrs. Archer’s mobile phone rang. She looked at it and got up.

“If you excuse me, that’s my husband calling from upstairs. I’ll just go and check on him.” She was already at the door.

“Sure, no problem,” Lestrade said.

As soon as Mrs. Archer’s footsteps were heard on the stairs Sherlock was on his feet. John and Lestrade gaped after him as he disappeared into the hallway. They both followed and found him crouching by the front door, magnifier in hand. He appeared to be examining the lock.

“Sherlock!” John whispered loudly.

Apart from a “Shh!”, John got nothing. Lestrade moved closer to Sherlock while John looked up the stairs in apprehension and strained his ears to hear anything. Mrs. Archer’s voice was barely audible. John looked back at the door to find there were now two people huddled by it: Lestrade was towering over Sherlock and trying to see what he was doing. Sherlock stopped and looked up, face imperious.

“Do you mind?”

“What are you doing?”

“Sherlock!” John hissed and pointed upstairs with his eyes—Mrs. Archer’s voice had just gotten louder. Lestrade swept into the sitting room immediately; Sherlock stood up with liquid grace and was brushing past John in a second, dragging him into the room with him. When Vivian Archer walked back in, everyone was in his seat, looking as nonchalant as they could be: Sherlock was excelling in it, of course. John burned with curiosity.

“I’m sorry, George needed me,” Mrs. Archer said. “He sends his apologies. Hopefully you’ll be able to speak to him when you come to the school in the next couple of days. Should we make arrangements about that now?”

“I’d just like to ask you a few more questions if that’s all right.” Lestrade turned a new page in his notebook.

For the next fifteen minutes further details about Veronica Havisham were jotted down. She’d always been a good student: not highly academic, but with good exam results. Mrs. Archer hadn’t been surprised that Drama was the choice of such an attractive girl.

“I don’t know if she had any real talent,” she said, then lowered her voice and added, “Well, to be honest Erica Connolly, her Movement and Dance teacher, said she wasn’t really—I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but…” Vivian Archer had avoided everyone’s eyes. “Anyway, she didn’t have to become a stage actress; I could see her on TV easy enough though, in one of the soaps or another series. The camera loves her.” At this point the realization about Veronica’s death had hit her again and she’d become tearful for the second time.

Veronica had never missed a class, was liked by most of her peers and, as far as Vivian Archer could tell, she and Simon had been going strong. John doubted the woman had any real access to Veronica’s private life to know the ins and outs of it, but she seemed to acknowledge that herself.

While the interview proceeded, John cast a proper look around the room. This was the tidiest, most organized sitting room he’d seen in a while. Mrs. Sinclair’s was the worst—John infinitely preferred theirs at Baker Street, because for all Sherlock’s mess, it was…cosy, somehow. He’d only had a glimpse of the Havishams’ drawing room when he’d been on his way to their garden, but he remembered items being strewn about.

Here everything was more or less symmetrical, and the room was spacious. The only thing in abundance was photographs. John noticed there were no photos of a young girl anywhere in sight. Some of the pictures were full of strangers’ faces, likely relatives and friends. In a few there were groups of people, amongst whom Mrs. Archer was distinguishable. John didn’t feel it was appropriate to get up and study the photos closer, even though he wanted to see what George Archer looked like: his was undoubtedly one of the faces in the group photos. There were also pictures of Mrs. Archer alone or with a friend: in skiing equipment, in martial arts attire; and in traditional Indian sari, with some ethnic drawing on her face to boot. John took advantage of a pause in the conversation and turned to her.

“You’ve been to India?”

She followed his gaze and her face brightened.

“Yes, just the once. I do a lot of yoga. In fact, I teach yoga twice a week—it’s great for the body and the spirit. Yoga and sport helped me through—They were instrumental in coping with my daughter’s death.” She said the last sentence calmly, but John felt the door shutting again. He quickly nodded and averted his eyes, unwilling to pry into someone’s grief.

Again it was Sherlock who ignored the obvious mood of the conversation. “What did you do on Friday night?”

Mrs. Archer’s features twisted so suddenly that it made John wonder if, for all her friendliness, the woman in front of him wasn’t the owner of a temper.

“I’m sorry—are we on your list of suspects?” she turned to Lestrade, who ran a tired hand through his hair.

“I apologize for my colleague’s bluntness,” he said. Sherlock looked at him with incredulity but Lestrade ignored him and finished with a dull voice. “But we do need to ask everyone these sorts of questions.”

As soon as he’d started speaking, Mrs. Archer’s face had cleared. John’s eyes quickly darted from Lestrade to her and then back. On top of his handsome features, the detective inspector had some extra charm that came with his position of authority. Some time ago John had heard an eyewitness—a bawdy woman in her late fifties whose use of make-up hadn’t been in any doubt—call Lestrade “that rugged, gorgeous policeman”. Her clichéd assessment had more than a grain of truth in it. John didn’t really suffer from inferiority when it came to his appearance, but between Lestrade and Sherlock, he sometimes felt like a common potato.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Archer was answering Sherlock’s question but talking to Lestrade.

“I was alone. I just sat around and read my book all evening. When George got home around ten I made him a Lemsip; he didn’t want anything to eat. He was so poorly that he fell asleep on the sofa.” The corners of her mouth drooped with worry. “I ran him a hot bath and made the bed...” Mrs. Archer contemplated, chewing her lip, then shrugged in frustration. “I really can’t tell you what time I came downstairs to wake him up. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes after he came in. I helped him get upstairs and wash, then helped him into bed. He dropped off straight away and I came downstairs and tidied up, then I took my book to bed and read until around one.”

“Anything interesting?” Sherlock asked again, like he had Simon Sinclair.

“Well—not for everyone, I guess.” Mrs. Archer smiled at him, her earlier hostility forgotten. “The book’s over there. It’s about bees.”

Sherlock was instantly more animated than John had seen him all morning.

“Oh? May I?”

“Go ahead. Do you like bees?”

“I do. John, come and see.”

John walked to Sherlock and looked at the book cover—a picture of three men in protective wear under the title “Urban Beekeeping”—and then at his friend’s face. An eloquent eyebrow was lifted. Trouble was, John had no idea what it was trying to tell him.

“You like bees?” he murmured.

“Yes—they’re fascinating. Look!”

“What am I looking at?”

Sherlock was standing with his back to Mrs. Archer and Lestrade. His finger swiftly pointed to the bookmark, then opened the book to the pages where it had been tucked.

“It’s a book on how to keep bees, John.”

That kind of obvious comment coming from anyone else would have sent Sherlock into a fit of sarcasm. John grew even more confused, until a thought struck him. Mild horror bloomed in his soul.

“You’re not thinking—You can’t keep bees in a flat! If we lived in the country, yes. But not in the flat!”

Sherlock regarded him peculiarly.

“Of course not. But we all grow old one day.”

John looked at Sherlock—was he serious? Sherlock cast him a slanted look. An invisible finger was tugging at the left corner of his mouth. John was at a loss; there were still times when Sherlock’s moods and expressions were an enigma.He was an enigma.

Lestrade cleared his throat and John realized he’d been standing close to Sherlock, the two of them just looking at each other. John had stopped wondering why everyone insinuated they were…together that way, but he still wished they didn’t so easily provide more evidence to support the opinion.

“Sherlock, do you have any more questions?”Lestrade asked.

Sherlock swivelled on the spot and sent Mrs. Archer a rare, dazzling smile that made “Danger! ” signs flash in John’s mind.

“No. Thank you, Mrs. Archer. You’ve been most helpful.”

“You’re…welcome,” she said, perplexed, looking first at Sherlock and then at Lestrade.

“Now," Lestrade said. "We should make arrangements about the college visits.”

Sherlock moved to the door.

“We won’t be staying for that part. Don’t see us off.”

Vivian Archer had got up, but now stood still, uncertain.

“Nice to meet you,” John said. “And, er, thanks.”

Sherlock waited for the last word to die on John’s lips, looking at him with a silent “Ready?”, and then they were both in the corridor, Mrs. Archer’s goodbye echoing after them.

Sherlock opened the front door but let John out first. As they reached the front garden gate, the house door opened again and Lestrade came out in a rush.

“Wait! Sherlock! Where are you going?”

Had it been winter, Sherlock would have twirled in his coat. Now he simply made a turn that would have made a ballet scout sit up in attention. His face was glowing.

“We are going to Hainault Forrest, to take the air. John needs some exercise. You can find us there in the next hour, but I have nothing for you yet. I will, by tomorrow afternoon.”

Lestrade spread his hands, helpless.

“What does that—” The hands dropped, defeated. “Oh, just go. Don’t do anything stupid. John! Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

John tried to nod at the same time he was hurrying after Sherlock, who was already four numbers down the street.

 

***

 

“You need to take us to the crime scene,” said Sherlock to the driver, climbing into the back of the police car. “Drop us off at the north entrance.”

The driver just looked at them in the rear view mirror to make sure they had their belts on and started the car without any questions. Sherlock had that effect on people. He probably considered the way he’d addressed the driver the normal way of making a request. John wondered if Sherlock realized that very few things sounded like requests in that baritone voice with its imperious tone.

However, there were far more pressing wonderings after their morning visits to Simon Sinclair and the Archers. John tried talking to Sherlock but his questions were met with expressive eyes that pointed mutely to the driver. John bit his tongue and waited; for all Sherlock’s frustrating need for secrecy, there was something quite flattering in knowing its veil didn’t extend to John, too.

As soon as they got off the car, Sherlock dove through the gate, and John had to skip to keep up with him.

“Sherlock! Could you slow down a bit, please?” John’s breathing hitched. “Sher—Slow down and tell me about the damn book!”

Sherlock didn’t reduce his speed, nor did he look back at John, but at least he spoke.

“The top of the bookmark, the part that was sticking out—it was covered in dust. A layer of dust,” he emphasised. “The entire room was clean; it must have been dusted yesterday. But that amount of dust on the bookmark means the book hasn’t been touched for a minimum of five days. I don’t know what Mrs. Archer was doing on Friday night, but she wasn’t reading.”

John forgot their speed was too high for comfort. He hadn’t noticed the dust; he’d been stuck with the obvious for once: the cover and the title of the book.

“What do you think she was doing then?”he said.

Sherlock finally looked at him.  “I don’t know. Question is why she lied to us about it.”

John considered for a moment. Was the lie related to the case or was there a personal reason behind it that had nothing to do with Veronica’s death? Sherlock said people always lied, that it was in their nature to be secretive. He was irked the most by those who were secretive for the sake of it. Not only did they obstruct justice—although likely that didn’t matter much to him—but they wasted his precious mental energy by re-directing it to unravel the “tedium of their useless little lies”.

Mrs. Archer didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d deceive the police, at least not without a very good reason, but John had felt the air of inaccessibility around her and wasn’t actually surprised to find she’d kept something to herself. He doubted the mystery was related to the case, though. Perhaps she used her husband’s only night of fun to have some fun herself, of the non-marital kind.

“I can hear your thoughts take their predictable turn, John,” said Sherlock, with a familiar note of humorous derision in his voice. “There is more than sex to people’s lives—perhaps you’re aware.”

John found himself on the verge of blushing, then irritation replaced embarrassment.

“Of course I know. But in my experience sex is behind a lot of secrets.”

“And would that be your experience as a doctor, as a soldier, or as a man?” There was now dry teasing in Sherlock’s voice, but he had turned his head and looked at John when he’d asked the question. John allowed for several seconds to pass and then turned the invisible page of the conversation.

“What were you doing at the door?” he asked. “Examining the lock?”

“Ah!” Sherlock stopped and pivoted so suddenly that John walked into him. Sherlock grabbed him by the arms to steady him, pulled him away but didn’t let go. Instead, he leaned forward talking intently.

“There are all kinds of novelty toys these days, John: power saw pizza cutters, Rubik’s touch cubes. USB memory sticks designed to look like something else entirely. You only need the tiny memory chip and you can put it anywhere. For instance, in a novelty key ring in the shape of a dice.” Sherlock let go of John and stared at him, eyes gleaming.

“It was the keys at the door. You were looking at the key ring.” John paused, computing. “Is that why you asked if George Archer was a gambling man?”

“Yes. I needed to make sure it was bought for the purpose of the memory stick and not because of the connotations with gambling. People buy things for different reasons. A—One—“ Sherlock suddenly lost the grip on his words but recovered quickly. “I knew someone whose car keys were attached to a roulette chip that doubled as a mini-torch. He didn’t care about the torch, but he loved the chip—he was a betting man to the point of distraction.”

John found his curiosity changing lanes rapidly and before he knew it, the question had shot out of his mouth.

“Who was that?”

Sherlock pulled himself up to his full height and regarded John carefully. It wasn’t a forbidding look, but it wasn’t a promising one, either. John added the mysterious betting man to the list of little details that had slipped out here and there—details of Sherlock’s personal life and history, awaiting further illumination. Then John resumed his attention to the tangible matter of the key ring, to which Sherlock had already returned.

“I had a closer look,” he said. “The memory stick has been in regular use. The dice is dark grey; there were two spots where the colour had faded. They match with the spots where the fingers would press down to release the spring that holds the two parts of the dice together. It opens and the memory stick comes out. This particular novelty gift has been out only in the last six months.”

“How do you know that?” John asked in amazement. It was one thing to know about expensive watches or the latest laptop models, but this was one of the million trivial items on sale out there. Sherlock frowned, confused at John’s—obviously—redundant question.

“I checked it on my phone,” he said.

“Oh.” John remembered Sherlock’s fingers flying over the screen of his phone while they were in the car. He’d got so used to seeing him do that, he hardly noticed it anymore. “Okay. It’s a new key ring.”

Sherlock moved his face forward to John’s again, as if someone had released his spring.

“Yet only six months later the colour has already rubbed off in those particular places. Infers someone’s fingers have been pressing there a lot.” Sherlock used his fingers to illustrate his point—it looked like he was closing invisible pegs over items of laundry. “The memory stick is in frequent use,” he concluded.

John was probably gaping a bit because Sherlock shrugged. “It’s the perfect camouflage for hiding information you need to have constant access to, but that you want to prevent others seeing,” he said. “People usually keep their keys on their person at all times. As I’ve said before, the art of disguise is knowing how to hide in plain sight. Who would pay attention to a small key ring?”

John licked his lips in anticipation.

“So you think there’s something on the memory stick?”

“Of course there is. I’ll know what soon enough.”

“How?”

Mrs. Hudson would have called Sherlock’s smile wicked but Sherlock didn’t speak—he only turned around and started in the direction of a gravel path a few hundred yards away. There were some figures standing and crouching along it, and the familiar yellow and black of police tape. John rushed to ask one more question.

“What about the boyfriend, was there anything in his room—Hold on, you said he said something and you wanted to talk to Veronica’s best friend, that Lisa girl.”

“He mentioned Lisa’s trip to Scotland, but he used the name of the relative she was visiting. You don’t remember details like that unless they are important or they’re connected to someone important to you.” Sherlock slowed down. “Also, there was only one photo of Veronica stuck on the wall in his room—and it was one of him, Veronica and Lisa. I had a quick look through his mobile while I was in there—oh please!—and all you could see in his log were calls to and from someone with the initial L. Obviously there’s something going on between them. I need to find out what.”

“Do you reckon it’s relevant to the case?”John asked.

Sherlock’s tone was almost robotic.

"At this point everything is relevant to the case.”

They were approaching the small group of people at the crime scene and John wasn’t happy to spot Anderson amongst them. He’d been quieter of late, what with Sherlock’s hundred percent success rate at resolving the few crimes the Yard had called him in on, but John still disliked his attitude.

Anderson’s third-tonsil voice greeted them.

“Oh, look who it is! Sonny and Cher!”

The remark had a staged ring to it, suggesting it had been thought up, and likely considered very witty, some time ago. The look Anderson gave to a tall, leggy redhead in a nicely fitted constable’s uniform confirmed he was after some applause. He got nothing—the girl just glanced at Sherlock and John and went back to talking to another officer. John gave her an appraising look, wondered if she’d even heard of Sonny and Cher—and felt a sudden pang of sadness that he had, though that was quickly buried under the satisfaction of seeing Anderson’s disappointed face. Like he’d have a chance with that girl! He was lucky he’d had Donovan even looking at him. Meanwhile the whiny git had come over to them.

“What are you doing here?” he addressed Sherlock. “You’ve already checked out the scene. I don’t want you walking all over the evidence.”

“If I hadn’t spotted the pattern in the stones, there would hardly be any evidence.” Sherlock had turned his back to Anderson mid-sentence. “John, come and have a look. This was where she was found.”

John followed him, leaving Anderson to call after them pointlessly, “Don’t touch anything!”

A long patch of landscaped grass divided the gravel path and the woodland section of the park, where trees extended as far as the eye could stretch. They were spread sparsely but the spot where the body was found was thickly grown: in addition to few clustered trees, there was some bushy vegetation, too. John followed the body’s path backwards. He started from where it had been left: hidden well enough by the greenery and the massive trunk of one of the trees, yet too close to the path to go unnoticed for long. He could clearly see the traces, which Sherlock nevertheless pointed out to him: leaves and branches twisted differently from those around them, showing something had disturbed their peace. Over the neatly cut grass patch the two lines where the feet had dragged were clear, especially to a trained eye. Finally John crouched next to Sherlock to examine the gravel path. Veronica had been killed very close to the edge with the grass. Sherlock had managed to see different patterns in the stones on the path, but they all looked random to John.

“What do you think?” Sherlock asked.

John pursed his lips. “It’s a short distance and the body could have been better hidden further between the trees. Why bother to hide it at all?”

“Exactly! It doesn’t fit.”

John looked at the stones carefully.

“Can you not see, I don’t know, where the shoes of the murderer dug in? And Veronica’s feet—She must have left some marks while she was struggling.”

Sherlock shook his head.

“Nothing suggests she struggled, remember? I can only see this.” He pointed at a small hollow spot. “That’s from her heel, I’m sure of it. And this here”—He now pointed to some stones that didn’t look any different to John—“is where her other foot has been. Everything else: the state of her clothes, her hands, her hair—it all suggests there was no struggle at all. The murderer must have been very strong to disable her so quickly.”

Sherlock continued crouching, a finger pressed to his mouth. Eventually he spoke again.

“It’s not—It doesn’t matter how strong the pull. With a sudden attack like that the body becomes a chemical laboratory, and a highly flammable one, too! It fights for air. Something’s wrong. There should be more traces.”

John scratched his head. “Maybe the murderer came back and covered them?”

“It’s a possibility,” Sherlock said reluctantly, “although I doubt he or she would have risked coming back, even for a few seconds. It’s also possible that the man who found her walked over the traces with his dog. I asked—he’s got a large Collie breed. But I don’t think either of those happened.”

Sherlock stood up and squinted at the area, then walked a few steps around it and squinted again. He turned to John, face serious.

“I know you object to strangling me, but I need your help. I must check what traces would be left.” Sherlock paused, then added pleadingly, “John.”

John could feel his neck prickling at the prospect of trying to fake-strangle Sherlock in front of Anderson and the redhead. He looked at Sherlock’s face and saw no peevishness on it, then looked at the gravel path and its seeming entropy. Finally he sighed.

“Can we at least do it somewhere else?” he asked. “I don’t fancy rumours that we’re into S&M.”

Sherlock’s lips quirked in understanding, then he pointed at a distant spot where the path took a ninety-degree right turn. “Let’s try over there.”

The spot they found was very similar to the murder spot but now they were completely out of sight. John turned around awkwardly a few times and shuffled in place.

“Stop fidgeting,” Sherlock said. “You’re already making patterns on the gravel.”

“Well, I’m sorry if I’m nervous at the prospect of strangling my flatmate in public.”

“I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss about it. You want to strangle me half the time.” A pair of pale eyes twinkled at him. John tilted his head, grinning too.

“Yeah, but it’s the timing that matters. You’re not particularly infuriating at the moment.” He straightened in typical military fashion. “Okay, how are we going to do this?”

Without a word Sherlock started undoing his belt. John’s eyes widened. Sherlock was still busy with the buckle when he said, without lifting his eyes, “We don’t have anything else to use for a scarf. Your belt would make your jeans slide. My trousers fit me without my belt. I only put—“ Sherlock cut himself short and looked at John sheepishly. John shook his head, eyes narrowing.

“Jesus, you put it on hoping we’d do this. Why didn’t you just bring a scarf?”

“In this weather? You’d have noticed.”

John heard himself tut.

“You know how I said you weren’t infuriating now. You’re getting there.”

“Good—that should make it fun for you.”

Something dawned at John out of the blue.

“Hold on a minute! Why am I strangling you?”

Sherlock lifted an eyebrow. “Do you want me to strangle you, John?”

“No. No! I mean—I’m just asking why—“John felt like a spider that had produced its own net and gotten tangled in it, while another thin, refined spider was just amusing itself by observing from the sidelines. Sherlock’s reply seemed to take ages.

“The chances of Veronica being strangled by someone considerably taller than her are very low,” he said. “And the angle and pressure of the hands of the murderer bearing down on her would make a difference. That’s the reason you need to strangle me. Obviously.” Sherlock only added the last word after a small pause.

“Okay, fine. Good. Right, er…” John cleared his throat. “Go stand over there.”

Sherlock moved to a spot that was the accurate distance from the grass patch and silently passed his belt to John. John took it and moved to stand behind him. God, Sherlock was tall.

John carefully put the belt across Sherlock’s throat, but two hands shot up and removed it straight away.

“Wait. She was wearing it. Here, try now.”

John went for the belt’s ends, hanging over Sherlock’s chest, to find that he couldn’t reach them. He stretched on his toes and pressed his front to Sherlock’s back. Just as he’d got a proper hold on the belt and was wondering how exactly to wrap it around Sherlock’s throat, Sherlock’s hands closed over both of his.

“No, wait,” he said again. “Of course you can’t do it like that.”

John moved away hastily. “Why?”

“Because she already had the scarf wrapped around her neck once,” Sherlock said. “The murderer only needed to grab it and pull. Sorry, I’m not being—I haven’t thought this through. Here. Oh, what now!”

Sherlock had wrapped the belt around his neck like a scarf, but the belt’s hard leather was refusing to hang flat over Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock pressed it down a few times but it was constantly trying to unfold. The belt was very new—the leather hadn’t softened one bit yet. John wondered if Sherlock had ever worn it. On top of everything, it wasn’t even long enough for the ends to weigh down by themselves. John shook his head again.

“Your belt is short because you’re skinny. And it’s a new belt, the leather’s hard.” His hands went to his belt buckle on their own accord. “Shall we try with mine?”

“You’re not bigger, John. You’re quite slim. It’s your shortness that creates the impression—“ Sherlock blinked a few times, frowning. “Never mind that. Your belt won’t be long enough either. I really should have just brought a scarf. This wouldn’t have happened if you’d agreed to do it in the first place,” he finished crossly.

John pushed his lips forward and his eyes shifted with guilt. They just stood silent for a little while, thwarted unexpectedly. Now that they’d started this, John found himself unwilling to give up.

“Erm, we can—I could use my hands,” he said hesitatingly. “You only want to see the patterns on the gravel, right?”

Sherlock nodded, eyes glued to the path. “We still need to do this properly. Now that we’ve actually staged it, the marks on Veronica’s throat are even more curious.”

John groaned. “Please don’t tell me you want us to try and find a scarf now.”

Sherlock brushed his fringe off his forehead, wiping it in passing. It was getting very warm and there were tiny droplets of perspiration on his face; John had also smelled some dampness on Sherlock’s neck and in his hair, when he’d pressed into his back. He shuffled and wiped his own face. Sherlock was still deep in thought, eyes moving over the ground, assessing. At last he lifted his head.

“Okay, let’s do this like you suggested,” he said. “We’ll go home afterwards and do it with a scarf there. The surface beneath won’t matter much at that point: I’ll only need to check the height of the person. We can take turns then—It’s improbable the murderer was taller than Veronica, but it’s not impossible. Ready?”

John gulped, nodded and stepped forward.

***

A couple of hours later they were in the cool shade of their sitting room; John was grateful they didn’t get most of the sun in during the summer. Sherlock had disappeared into his room and John had taken advantage of the lull to pop into the loo and splash his face. He’d sweated a fair bit during the hand strangulation session, what with the effort of pretending he was pulling when he really wasn’t, and with Sherlock’s body exuding so much warmth. John still felt a bit bewildered by the sudden turn of events in the afternoon. He poured himself a big glass of water, drank half of it in one go, then went back into the sitting room to fall into his chair and wait for the madman to appear with his scarf.

So far, their experiment had both answered questions and raised new ones. Sherlock had left visible traces on the gravel during his weak, pretended struggle. John the Strangler had left traces, too. Because of their height difference, he’d had to fall back on his heels, digging them in to get stability. Sherlock had pondered whether that accounted for the lack of traces at the actual murder spot—maybe this was evidence that firmly dismissed a shorter person. Sherlock took photos of the patterns their feet had left and compared them with the ones at the crime scene. There was the slightest trace of similarity between only two marks—everything else was different.

Anderson had persisted in being annoying with his attempts to impress the pretty constable. Sherlock had blocked him out completely but John had taken some petty pleasure in the fact that Anderson already looked disgusting with his shapeless trousers and the huge wet patches at his armpits. All while Sherlock was of course immaculate in his perfectly tailored charcoal trousers and his matt-silver grey shirt—folded sleeves the only thing betraying the fact that the temperatures had gone up to almost thirty degrees.

Sherlock had gone very quiet during their journey back. John knew he’d hit his stride in thinking and didn’t bother him.

However, there was nothing quiet about the hyper figure that bounced into their sitting room now, a long silk scarf in hand.

“Where did you even get that from?” John touched the posh-looking material—he fancied it almost recoiled under the roughness of his fingers.

“This? It was a gift.”

“Nice.”

“I don’t like it.” Sherlock was shuffling the furniture, clearing space. “Come over and stand right here.”

For the next half hour they moved about the sitting room, creating bizarre human sculptures and exploring all kinds of variables. They tried strangling each other from the front and from the back. They approached their “victim” quietly or jumped from behind. John had even stood on boxes and random items to vary his height. At one point he got so carried away that he knocked Sherlock forward and sent him crashing into the wall, while he himself landed on all fours on the floor. Sherlock had been thoroughly pleased with the result of John’s enthusiasm and had talked for five minutes on velocity and trajectory, rubbing his elbow distractedly and pushing away John’s insistent checking hands.

For an afternoon filled with such surreal moments, the peak was something rather uneventful. John had stood on some sturdy folders and books that made him exactly as tall as Sherlock. To have Sherlock turn around and face him at such close proximity had been...startling. It took Sherlock by surprise, too, if the widening of his eyes and their silent waltz over John’s features was anything to go by. They’d stared into each other’s faces—almost strangers’ faces from such an atypical perspective—and then the makeshift stand had given way. Only Sherlock’s excellent reflexes had prevented John from landing on the floor for the second time.

Unlike the ambivalent results of the forest experiment, their indoor one proved entirely successful. There was now no doubt that the murderer could have managed strangling Veronica only if he or she were of equal height, or marginally taller. A slightly shorter person could have done it, too, but it was a long shot. Veronica had to have been approached quietly from behind: her scarf was grabbed, likely where it crossed at the back of her neck, and then pulled: sharply, tightly, steadily. The first fifteen seconds had been critical. (John didn’t want to remember how they’d established that.) All the empirical evidence suggested the murderer had to have considerable upper body strength. Sherlock hadn’t completely rejected women as possible perpetrators, referring again to adrenaline fuelled-actions and reactions that far surpassed a person’s average abilities to run, hit, lift—or pull.

Now they were both slumped on the sofa, physically tired and—at least in John’s case—fraying around the mental edges. He felt dazed, just like he had during his conversation with Mrs. Hudson that morning. True to form, time on the case had warped—John couldn’t believe he’d eaten the croissants only this morning. His stomach had been waiting for this cue and protested loudly at being so neglected. John wanted to go to the kitchen, but he’d half-morphed with the sofa. It surprised him how much energy the afternoon had taken—it was almost as if he’d spent a long afternoon with his sister. He always felt similarly knackered afterwards. Thankfully, now it was minus the bitter taste in his mouth.

He managed to turn his head to look at Sherlock. His friend was sitting in perfect stillness, the epitome of intense concentration. John watched his profile for a few seconds, considering if it was worth wasting precious energy to ask if Sherlock wanted to share some takeaway—he wasn’t sure Sherlock would even hear him.

He got up with some effort and fetched his mobile, which he’d taken out of his pocket during their shenanigans. He ordered a pizza and some cheesecake for good measure, while dragging his feet to the kitchen and getting a bottle of water for Sherlock out of the fridge. Sherlock took it, eyes not leaving the invisible spot right ahead of him and drank most of it. John dropped back onto the sofa and closed his eyes.

He opened them again when the sofa shook. John’s mind flailed blindly for bearings: how long had he slept? What time was it? What woke him up? Quickly everything came back to focus: He’d simply fallen into the kind of instant slumber that felt like the deepest sleep. The pizza wasn’t here yet. It was just gone four. And as for what had woken him, John heard it closing the front door. He rubbed his face and picked up his phone from the table, texting quickly.

Where are you going?

In less than a minute his phone beeped.

Bart’s. Then to see a man about a key ring. Don’t wait up.

John knew Sherlock still preferred to do some things alone. That was fine, he respected that. He even tried not to be too disappointed. He typed his reply:

Don’t do anything illegal

He paused, his chest heaving with amusement, then finished:

or dangerous.

There was no harm in trying.

 

***

 

By seven-thirty in the morning it was already getting warm. John had slept with the window ajar and still found his covers pushed down to his waist. His body felt pleasantly rested, and so did his mind. He’d gone to bed as early as ten last night, having spent most of the evening on the sofa, battling drowsiness and pondering both the case and Sherlock’s whereabouts. He’d sent Sherlock a text around eight—‘You okay?’—and had gotten an immediate reply: ‘Fine’. Sherlock came home minutes after John slipped under the covers. John waited for a rush of feet up the stairs to his room, and when none came, he finally allowed himself to fall deeply asleep.

Now he shuffled to find a more comfortable position and moulded into his spot, enjoying a rare serene moment. For a while his thoughts floated freely in his head, driven by their own forces like luminous fish in the depths of the ocean.

It was going to be another busy day with the interview of the best friend and the visit to the school. The case was developing in a typical fashion, although Sherlock had seemed a tad…calmer. Not calm, goodness no. But not like a cat on a hot tin roof, either. Maybe he was getting into a routine, in a good way. Maybe Sherlock had realised he had a real job—his and John’s business, so to speak. Maybe with a home at Baker Street, with cases no longer an oddity but a fairly common occurrence, and with John always by his side, Sherlock had finally settled—and that had a calming effect on him.

John pushed his sheets further down. This was what happened when thoughts were left unharnessed—they ran away with a man’s fancy! Even if all this were true, it would have happened to Sherlock with or without John’s involvement. Yes, he knew he had his place in Sherlock’s life, but the sun would still rise every morning even if the Earth wasn’t there to circle it and bask in its light.

He’d definitely acquired a more poetic turn of phrase since he’d started writing his blog.

His reflections returned to the assistance he offered to the only consulting detective in the world. It wasn’t much, but on a couple of occasions it had been the difference between life and death. And that time, when John hadn’t listened to Sherlock but had followed him to the illegal kennel anyway, Sherlock had told him—Probably it was the drugs he was stuffed with, but his speech was clear and his eyes were more unguarded than John had seen them since the pool.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, John.”

Those were the words, no more, no less. John had been taken aback, and then emotion had flooded him. He still felt awkward when he thought about it. It seemed inappropriate that a grown man should cherish a single moment so much. It was his inferiority complex, no doubt—any man would have that in the presence of the brilliant Sherlock Holmes.

John wasn’t important for Sherlock, but he liked to think he was of some value. These days Sherlock seemed to spend more time discussing the cases with him, as opposed to reciting conclusions at him. He took time to listen to what John had to say. John only wished the same applied to other areas of their relations.

In his entire life he’d never thought that living with another person could have so many intricacies. Why would he? He’d spent years sharing with people: first with Harry, then with flatmates at University and finally in the army. John felt he’d learnt the ins and outs of it. So when he moved in with Sherlock the traps of everyday co-habitation hadn’t even made it to his List of Concerns Re: Living with Sherlock Holmes—his focus was somewhere else entirely.

Yet from day two the new Concern had announced itself with a bang: in the shape of thirty-two slugs, slithering slowly in the sink—where, incidentally, the washing up from the night before hadn’t been removed. John had looked at them in revulsion and several questions had fought for dominance. The winning one was the classic “What the hell?!” which was followed by anxious uncertainty about whether he was expected to do something. Only after that had John wondered about the slugs’ purpose, about their precise location. In a haze, he had even counted them, then proceeded to ponder if their number held any significance.

The question of who put them there was never raised.

That incident set the tone of their joint existence at 221B Baker Street. For a year and a half now there’d been at least one occurrence a month to push the boundaries of traditional flatshare. In all fairness the incidents weren’t always in-your-face. Okay, there was that time when John woke up to find Sherlock exactly in his face, blowing a dog’s whistle. Sherlock had said he wanted to see if John’s brain would react to the sound waves. John had sworn at him for the first time, and Sherlock hadn’t been affronted one bit.

The thing about Sherlock the Flatmate was that he acted as if he’d read a book on how things were supposed to be, or as if he’d arrived from another planet, studied the peculiar conventions of human beings, and attempted to replicate his findings. The result was just a bit on the grotesque side—it looked right, but it definitely wasn’t.

Sherlock’s log would have read something like this:


Borrowing the other person’s belongings: tick.
But Sherlock omitted the most important element: asking permission first. Nor did he differentiate between generic items and extremely private ones.

Sharing food: tick. The problem here was that Sherlock regarded everything in the kitchen as fair game. The latest example was John’s very own jar of organic honey turning a surprisingly pleasant shade of maroon. Or something more recent: Three days ago John had only popped into the kitchen for a moment to top up his coffee, and on his return to the room he found that his piece of toast was missing a very large, perfectly round bite. It didn’t require someone’s massive intellect to solve the mystery—there was an innocuous-looking crumb hiding in the curve at the tip of the culprit’s upper lip.

Meeting the other person’s circle of friends: tick. For Sherlock of course that didn’t mean making new friends, but new enemies. Harry’s first contact with him was via text message. She’d had the misfortune to text John while the internet was down and Sherlock was using both of their phones, trying to work out the sequence of songs in three different West End Musicals. The case had been tricky, but to add insult to injury it had also thrown Sherlock into the deep end of plebeian popular culture. So untimely sisterly needs had been met with a brusque ‘Go away.’ After a very awkward conversation with Harry, in which impertinent questions were asked, John yelled at Sherlock for a whole minute. At first Sherlock was utterly confused—this was before John learnt he deleted things from his mind. Their quarrel had resembled a bizarre mental game of Snakes and Ladders. At the end John was no longer sure about the topic of the argument, only that he was still angry. After the incident Sherlock continued offending people via John’s phone but took to signing the messages with his initials. He made it clear to John he believed this was the height of consideration on his part.

Sharing personal space: tick. This was a big one. When they were on a case John had to prepare for any and all breaches of his personal space. Like being suddenly addressed through the bedroom door very late at night, when a man was allowed to be occupied with some very private activities. In fact, at first it’d been more like being addressed face to face by a manic, arm-waving, gangly…thing. Sherlock had burst in with exhilarated shouts about the growth of some mushrooms—John felt he could be forgiven for not listening—and had frowned at John’s form, frantically entangled in the bedding and shooing him off. On the very next day John had obtained the key to his bedroom door from Mrs Hudson, pointedly ignoring her disappointed face. As it turned out, though, this wasn’t necessary—Sherlock was a quick learner. Next time he had contained himself to talking outside John’ door. And Sherlock the Alien, being a stickler for the little things that in his mind clearly made all the difference, had yelled “Goodnight, John!” upon completion.

There were other incidents, too, that were harder to untangle or define. They were too—They blurred boundaries that John wasn’t even sure had names. Compared to them thirty-two slugs in the sink qualified as ‘fine’. John knew the slugs for what they were. The slugs he dealt with. But there was something else entirely about living with Sherlock, something elusive—John only knew it was there, and that it hadn’t been there with any of the other people John had shared with. He supposed it was just that Sherlock was like no one else.

John shuffled in his bed and looked at his watch. Time to get up.

***

He wasn’t surprised to find Sherlock at the desk, books of all sizes open around him. Sherlock had his nose buried in one of them and was studying a photo of strangulation marks through a big magnifier.

“Morning,” John said.

“John!” There was far too much vigour in the greeting, especially coming from a man who probably hadn’t slept more than six hours out of the last forty-eight.

Sherlock flicked his wrist at him without looking up. “Get dressed,” he said. “You’re going to Veronica Havisham’s school.”

“Right.” John went to stand by the desk. “And where will you be?”

“Busy.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Sherlock finally looked up. “There’s no fooling you,” he said, giving John a lopsided smile. “I’m waiting for the results from the memory stick. They should be here in the next hour or so.”

“Wait—so you got it? How—Do I want to know how you did that?”

Sherlock contemplated. “Probably not,” he said at length.

“Was it something—Did you break any laws?”

“I might have.”

“O-kay,” John dragged the word, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Were humans or animals harmed?”

Sherlock grinned. “No.”

“Good.”

John headed to the bathroom. He stopped in the kitchen on his way back and five minutes later was standing by the desk again, two cups of tea in hand and two apples. “Tell me about yesterday,” he said.

“First the less significant details,” Sherlock began. “Simon Sinclair’s nosy neighbour is certain Simon left the house around five-thirty. She missed him when he drove back, but she heard the car engine start again later, and only saw the lights of the car as it was leaving the driveway. She thinks that was around nine-thirty. She couldn’t say when he came back.”

John all but whistled. “It doesn’t look good for Simon.”

“No. The neighbour was rather garrulous; I almost wished I’d sent you there. But I don’t think she’s prone to lying or twisting the truth. There’s something she was certain about: there was no light from the TV coming out the sitting room window all afternoon and evening. She might have gone and looked right through the window, in fact—I wouldn’t put it past her.”

John looked at Sherlock quizzically. “Do you have any theories?”

“Just the one but luckily it’s the right one.” John waited, but Sherlock changed the subject entirely. His posture became alert, too, making John straighten his own back with attention.

“I also went to Bart’s,” Sherlock said. “I needed to check those marks on Veronica’s throat for myself. I found two interesting things. One is that I can confirm the murderer was the same height as she. Not taller, not shorter—only an inch and a half difference either way, at the most.”

“How can you tell for sure?”

“Look at the forensic photos of Veronica’s throat marks, John. Now look at similar marks on other victims—here.” Sherlock drew one of the books closer. “Can you see the difference?”

John peered at both photographs for a few seconds, but again Sherlock was too excited to wait for an answer. John could feel him positively buzzing.

”Veronica’s are perfect!” Sherlock exclaimed, then pointed at the photos and began to speak crisply. “The line is thin—very straight and the bruising is very dark. It means once the scarf was locked onto her throat and pulled, it didn’t move at all until she was dead. And there’s no angle to it. The bruising isn’t just deep and straight—the line is perfectly horizontal all around her throat, like a collar. That wouldn’t be the case if the murderer was shorter. He or she would have been pulling down and the marks would be different. If he was taller, he’d have pulled from higher and again, there would be an angle to the bruising.”

John had leaned over the desk and was following Sherlock’s deductions with the help of the visuals. He could see what Sherlock meant: the bruising on the other victims’ throats was less intense and more…smudged. More noticeably, on most photos the lines had a curvature that Sherlock had outlined with a pencil. John doubted he’d have spotted it on his own without that aid, but now he could see each strangulation mark was more or less like a parabola.

He turned to Sherlock, “That’s quite a break then. There can’t be that many people who are approximately Veronica’s height.”

Sherlock hummed in agreement.

“Would you say Simon is the same height?” John asked.

“No. He could only have done it if he’d got her to take off her shoes. There would be marks from the gravel on the soles of her feet then.”

John chewed a piece of apple, mentally going through the list of people they’d already met. Sherlock interrupted his thoughts.

“His mother yes. Her mother yes. Her brother just about, but he does lack the physique. Her father no—he’s quite a few inches taller than she was. And we still have all those ‘persons unknown’.”

John reflected on this new list of suspects, then remembered Sherlock’s words about Bart’s.

“What was the other thing you found interesting about the body?”

Sherlock stretched and put his hands behind his neck. His glee was very ill-concealed.

“There are a few tiny red marks on Veronica’s wrists.”

“What, like someone was holding them?”

“No, more like an allergic reaction.”

“An allergic reac—To what?”

“I don’t know yet. But something irritated her skin there. I’m not surprised you missed it—you doctors see a rash only if it’s big and ruby red.”

“Do you think anyone, I don’t know, tied her hands or something?” John asked, ignoring the jab. “It would account for the lack of struggle.”

“What would be so thin as to leave no other marks but at the same time manage to restrain her? It’s not impossible, but if that’s the case, it must have been something very creative.” Sherlock had pressed the tips of his steepled fingers onto his lips and his voice had dipped to an almost salacious octave.

John sighed. “You’re not supposed to glow—you’re supposed to figure it out and send that poor girl’s murderer to prison.”

“I don’t see how the two are in conflict. And I’m not glowing—I’m intrigued. This is a very interesting case, John; there are all these things I need to work hard to explain. You of all people should appreciate how rare that is.”

John just gave him a downsizing look, while secretly admitting Sherlock was, of course, right. He finished his apple in silence under Sherlock’s meditative gaze and pushed the other apple toward him. Sherlock took the cup of tea instead and had a sip. They drank their tea together, lost in thought.

“Do you know if Lestrade got in touch with that casting agent?” John asked in a while.

“Hmm? Yes. He’s interviewing him now.”

“What?” John looked at Sherlock, startled. “Why aren’t we there?”

“Because the casting agent is short, like you. What is it with short men who go for tall girls? You were practically comatose when you saw that constable yesterday.”

John gaped. “I was not—I didn’t even look at her properly!”

Sherlock had a derisive “Please!” written all over his face.

“She might go out with you,” he said. “Anderson can make anyone look good.”

“Thanks. That’s great to hear.”

Sherlock smirked. “Relax, you’re fine even without him. By the way, your ex-military status might do the trick. She probably likes a man in a uniform.”

“Can we please change the subject?” John could feel his neck flushing. “And by the way, it’s quite offensive to put women into stereotypes. Just because she’s joint the police—“

“John, I might lack political correctness but when have you ever known me to base my deductions on stereotypes? No, she had this small tattoo, the kind they do only in—“

“I don’t want to know about it!” John raised his hand. He really didn’t want any steamy fantasies about leggy red-heads running around his brain, courtesy of Sherlock’s smug voice. “Can we go back to the casting agent?”

“Fine. He’s short. That’s all.”

“How do you know?”

“I know. I have contacts in show business.”

Of course he did.

John stretched luxuriously. “I’m going upstairs to get ready. What time do I have to be at the school?”

“Ten o’clock. Lestrade will meet you there.”

John nodded and left the room.

***

At half past ten all serenity had vaporised from John’s life. He’d spent nearly an hour on the tube, changing trains and being stuck in delays—there were some signalling problems on the Central Line again, like there’d been the first time he took it to go to Loughton. Now he found himself getting antsy. His need for action had grown steadily over the last couple of days and after a night of good rest, the last thing he needed was to be in a London Underground train carriage for minutes on end with very little ventilation and nowhere to move.

He’d just walked into the improvised interview room in the college to find Lestrade talking to a tearful blond woman, and  had just apologised to them for the interruption, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. There was another vibration only a few seconds later. John decided it would be more polite to wait before fumbling with his phone to read the messages. His consideration was short-lived: The phone vibrated again, and John was convinced it could be heard around the room. Sure enough, the woman cast him a smudged mascara look. John smiled nervously and slipped a hand into his pocket, pressing buttons randomly. The vibration stopped—only to resume five seconds later, longer this time. John squirmed in his seat. The blond woman, likely one of Veronica’s teachers, now had tears streaming down her face and was talking about what a wonderful girl Veronica had been and how horrible this all was. It was a most awkward moment for another interruption. John arranged his features into a sympathetic expression, scowling internally, and extracted his mobile in the most discreet way possible. It vibrated loudly in his hands. He didn’t even need to look at the display to know what the name of the pest was.

There were three messages from Sherlock and one missed call. John sighed, murmured, “Excuse me,” and made a beeline for the door. Lestrade only sent him a helpless look of curiosity and gloom before turning his attention back to the crying woman.

Outside John read his messages.

George Havisham called my phone to ask for you. I didn’t give him your number.

Call him. He said it was about the case.

Kindly make it clear to him I am not your secretary.

John, the point of a mobile phone is to answer it anywhere.

John dialled Sherlock’s number.

“Have you spoken to him?” Sherlock said without preamble.

“How would I speak to him?” John thought he was permitted to sound miffed. “I don’t even have the number.”

“I’ll send it to you in a text message. Call him!”

“All right, all right. What did he say?”

Sherlock’s voice took on the properties of icicles.

“I told you he wanted to speak to you. He doesn’t have your number so he found mine on the website.”

John rubbed his eyes.

“Did you ask him what he wanted to talk about exactly?”

Okay, it was time to start worrying that he was able to see Sherlock’s petulant face with just the aid of short silence over a phone line.

“If it was really important, he would have called the police, or told me on his own,” Sherlock said curtly. “I don’t have the time to chit-chat with him—or you for that matter. I’m sending you the Havisham’s number.” The line went dead. John looked at his mobile phone’s screen as if expecting it to display helpful advice on how to handle mad geniuses. Instead a new text message delivered only a line of numbers beginning with 020—the Havisham’s landline. He dialled.

***

John was sitting in George Havisham’s room, watching George’s fingers fly over the keyboard of a laptop with an electric blue lid. They were going through the contents of Veronica’s computer, after John had taken a cab and gone for a short ride to Loughton. Their phone conversation had been short and awkward, and the atmosphere had remained the same for the first few minutes in the house, until they’d started on this. George was obviously more relaxed doing something he was confident about.

He’d spent the last couple of days retrieving all the web addresses his sister had visited in the months prior to her death. George had also checked out every folder on Veronica’s laptop as well as all her emails. John didn’t even ask how he’d figured out Veronica’s passwords. He had to admit George was saving everyone a lot of work; more so, John simply trusted that the sieve of George’s brain had allowed in only the bits of ‘gold’, while ‘the sand’ of useless data had been allowed to slip away. The fact that Veronica had been looking at double-rooms in the Cotswolds for a weekend in July—and sending the offers to an email address—definitely sparkled with promise. It was frustrating that the email address in question consisted of random letters and numbers, but John hoped specialists in that sort of thing would be able to make something out of it.

Another good ‘find’ in George’s digging was the fact that amongst Veronica’s most frequently visited pages were two luxury underwear websites—she’d started going to them some ten weeks prior. But like a conjurer saving his best act for last, George just smiled shyly at John’s thanks and said, “Wait until you see what I retrieved from her Recycle Bin.”

John, who had been slowly upgrading his typing skills over the last year, watched the dance of George’s fingers over the keyboard with awe. He couldn’t help but feel ancient—the second time in the last twenty-four hours. He shook himself mentally and turned to George.

“I thought you said she was careful in what she kept and her Recycle Bin was empty.”

“It was. There are ways to recover things, deleted from the Recycle Bin.”

John frowned. “That can’t be right. The little box that pops up when you empty it says the items will be deleted permanently.”

“Pop-up windows say a lot of things,” said George dismissively. “Don’t trust computer software—it’s designed by people.”

John couldn’t keep the smile from his voice. “How did you get to be so smart at this age?”

George looked at him with unblinking eyes, his gaze so reminiscent of Sherlock’s that for a second the room spun.

“It’s just observation.” George’s tone continued to be dismissive, but there was the thinnest layer of pride in it now. “People are too lazy to think.”

John laughed softly. “You’ll be calling people idiots next—and me with them.”

A crease appeared between George’s eyebrows. “People are idiots,” he said, then paused. “But you’re all right.”

John suddenly wished very badly he’d met Sherlock twenty years ago.

“Here.” George tilted the laptop screen for John to see well. There were some random lines and big writing that looked like names. John moved closer and licked his lips, trying to get his head around what he was seeing.

“Hold on, the font size is too big,” George said. “Here, see now?”He tapped the touchpad a couple of times and the screen changed to reveal something more homogenous. Something that looked like…a screenplay? Yes, definitely a script of some sort.

“What is this?” John asked.

“It’s a screenplay for a film. There’s a character, the main character—she’s about my sister’s age.” George’s eyes weren’t leaving the screen. “She just gets to—she gets shagged a lot. I read it—it’s rubbish.”

John’s eyes moved over the letters, unseeing, while he digestied this information.

“Someone sent your sister this, possibly offering her the part,” he said slowly.

“That’s what I thought. Do you know who?”

John had an instant idea of who that could be, but now looked at George startled. He had to be very careful about what he said. This was official police business and George was only fourteen years old. John had debated with himself earlier about the appropriateness of coming here in the first place, but there was no doubt the boy was very intelligent and could have found something important about the case. George had said so himself, when John called him; in addition, it was obvious that John was the one he had chosen to turn to. Still, now they were getting into confidential police territory.

The boy scanned his face and frowned.

“The police should have some suspicions by now. I—No one tells me anything. I’m her brother.” The last words had come out with a sudden squeak, George’s voice giving a reminder it still hadn’t completed the journey to maturity. John regarded him for a long while, then sniffed sharply.

“What do you want to know?”

George’s face caught up with his voice—he looked at John the way only a teenager could, when he was assaulted by emotions hard to untangle.

“What’s on her mobile phone, have they been checking that?”

“Her mobile and her bag were missing.” Abruptly John felt angry that no one had told George that, and probably most of the facts around his sister’s murder. He didn’t want to dwell on the reason—the thought of George spending all that time here, in this room, in the dark, was enough to make John fume.

“Have you found who she went out with that night?”

“Not yet. But we will—Sherlock will.”

“Are you just saying that ‘cause that’s what people say to children?”

John’s eyes crinkled.

“No, I’m saying it because it’s true. Sherlock always figures things out. He’ll find who Veronica went out with.” John hesitated, then finished calmly, “And he’ll find who killed her.”

George’s face didn’t change a muscle. “He’s very clever then,” he said at last.

“He is. The most brilliant man I’ve ever met. Probably one of the most brilliant men on the planet.”

George’s eyebrows rose. “Are you his boyfriend or something?”

John shook his head. “No, we’re not—I just know him really well. He’s amazing. Actually, you’re a bit like him.”

The boy looked utterly…befuddled. John smiled encouragingly at him; after a few long seconds George tried to smile back, while turning in his chair to face his own computer. John took advantage of the fact that he wasn’t being watched and looked wide-eyed about the room, awkwardness giving him mental pins and needles.

“Are you two like private detectives then?” George asked, still looking at his screen.

“Yeah, something like that. What about you?” John asked. “What do you want to do?”

There was a small change to the boy’s demeanour but it was unmistakable; it was as if an invisible cameraman had put his face in a flattering close up.

“Computer game designer,” he said, voice excited. “I’m already pretty good. Erm—do you want to see some characters I’ve created?”

“Erm,” John echoed, shuffling closer, “Sure.”

 

***

 

John listened half-heartedly to George’s explanation of graphics software and thought that an age gap seemed to be all around him. Though unlike yesterday with the redhead, he didn’t feel bad now. Maybe it was the reminder that youth wasn’t just a blessed time, but a challenging one, too. The first real sense of exclusion, from others or self-inflicted. The discrepancies between physical growth and emotional maturity. The emergence from the cocoon of childhood into the world of adolescence—with the added sense of self and the new burden of introspection that went along with it. The anger that no one could really tell you what was going on with you, and worse—that often you didn’t even know anything was going on, but felt its confusing effects anyway. John knew all young people went through these experiences to various degrees, but there was no doubt the Georges of this world got the particularly rough end of the deal.

John’s good spirits weren’t connected only to the realization that he felt comfortable in his—aging—skin. It was George’s work, too. It was impossible to feel anything but elated after seeing it—his computer game characters were incredible! John felt irrationally proud that this was the work of the washed out, slightly un-coordinated person in front of him, clicking on the screen to reveal one new detail after another. And it was the details that took John’s breath away. The drawings— Were they drawings? George had also explained the design process but John hadn’t understood much and had been too absorbed in the visual stimuli anyway. The drawings were great, from the faces of the characters, to their clothes, to their personalities. John still couldn’t believe anything computer based could even have a personality. Every choice of colour and line was simply masterful. While John could only express his admiration in an exhalation of wonderment and an out loud “It’s beautiful!”, George’s face had transformed into that luminous mixture of pride and incredulity John found all too familiar. So it was entirely possible that John’s uplifted spirits were also due to his conviction that he’d made George feel good.

Or at least better. They spoke about Veronica at the end, in the corridor by the front door. John wondered if it was the only conversation George had had about his sister’s death. Grief was an odd thing. Sometimes one didn’t even know it was there, but it certainly sought an escape and curled out to freedom like thin grey smoke from a chimney.

“Were you and your sister close?” John asked, almost instantly regretting his foray into the sensitive topic. But George just shrugged.

“No. We hardly spoke. I mean, we did, but like the usual stuff. ‘Mum called to say you should take the washing out,’ or ‘Don’t use my cup.’ I mean, we lived together, but…I don’t know. We don’t talk much at home anyway.”

“Yeah. Lots of families are like that.” John put his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. “My sister’s a lesbian. It took me ages to get my head around it.”

“No way!” George’s eyes were bulging.  

“Yep. It’s all right now. We’re still not—we’re not great. But not because of that. It’s just…other things. Sometimes you just get on with it, because they’re your family and you can’t change that.” John hesitated, feeling like there was something else he needed to say, something that sounded less like a dead end. Because everything he was saying was true, yet he wasn’t unhappy. He looked at George to find the boy pinning him with a gaze that held a million expectations. Great, that’s all he needed. John Watson, guru to the young.

But he found his footing at last—and he hoped George picked up on it, too, despite the meagre words John had to offer.

“The thing is,” John said, “that you grow up and you start your own relationships. So one day you’re happy with the people around you, because they’re the people you’ve chosen to be with and they make you feel all right about yourself. And then it’s easier to accept that things with your family aren’t exactly the best.”

John coughed, embarrassed at the end of his relationship advice, and consoled himself that at least it wasn’t impromptu—there’d definitely been a curious audience.

George swallowed and tried to say something; his mouth opened with the intake of breath, but he just held it in his chest. John observed his own hand extend and pat the boy’s thin shoulder. George pursed his lips, took another breath through his nose and finally spoke.

“It wasn’t the same after Katie died. Vee and I used to play before that, in the garden and things. It—Someone at school came once to talk about psychology, and then I went to her and we kind of talked. I’ve read some stuff…There’s this thing called ‘survivor’s guilt’.”

John hummed. “Yes, I know about that. It happens to soldiers a lot. Ehm, I used to be in the army.”

“Has it happened to you?”

John scratched his head.

“No, I don’t think so.” The corridor seemed too narrow and the front door’s handle was a welcome phantom in his palm.

“I think that was—maybe that’s what happened to my sister.” George’s face was serious. John didn’t know what to say, but George closed the topic himself.

“Anyway, we didn’t—we weren’t close, especially after she started being all like a girl.” The derision was clear in George’s voice, but his eyes had withdrawn to a private corner John knew he had no place in.

There was something he could tell George, though, the irony of which wasn’t lost on John.

“It’s a good thing to have someone to talk to, like you did with that lady—that’s what psychologists are for. The good ones at least.”

George looked at him suspiciously. John held his scrutiny—he had gotten indecently good at holding piercing gazes—and when he felt the moment was right, he thanked George for his help and left the house.

***

The vibe of over-energetic youth made John’s head spin. He was waiting for Sherlock at the main entrance of Epping Forest College and the place was a swarm of chatter and colours at lunch hour. His eyes fell on a familiar tall figure making its way towards him through the campus yard—unfailingly noticeable in any crowd, despite the plain black trousers and the white shirt—and John hurried to meet him half-way.

“I thought you were going to wait for the memory stick files at home,” he said by way of greeting.

Sherlock was scanning the area and his tone was distracted, albeit still carrying a small sting of irritation.

“I was. They’re taking ages to crack the files. I should have worked on improving my IT skills—you can’t rely on people to hack anything these days.” His eyes finally rested on John’s face. “At this rate I might have to call Mycroft.”

“Heaven forbid,” John said, smiling.

Sherlock lifted his eyes in mock pleading to the skies, then shot them back to John.

“What did the brother say?”

John reported, trying to be as thorough as he could. When it came to drawing mental lines between seemingly unconnected elements, Sherlock was the most capable individual on the planet, and John didn’t want to risk omitting anything. He even told him about the virtual characters George designed.

“Seriously, Sherlock, they’re amazing! They’re so real and so—They move and run and everything. He’s got a real eye for detail, I have to say.” John was reliving the memory.

Sherlock looked at him from the tip of his nose.

“Of course they move and run; that’s what computer games require, John. All characters move.”

“No, but Sherlock,” John insisted softly, “they were beautiful, so well…drawn, I suppose.”

“Fine. He’s the wonder of the century. Perhaps I should give him the memory stick.” Sherlock was being sarcastic, but his words gave John pause. Could they? No, not really. John’s features reflected his reluctant defeat.

“He’s too young; there could be anything on there,” John said. “I’ll tell you what, though—I’m sure he would have cracked it. He managed to get that script from Veronica’s Recycle Bin—wait, no! From the Recycle Bin after it’d been emptied.”

 “God, you are so easy to impress.” Sherlock huffed. “A child could do that—oh wait. A child did.”

John squinted up at Sherlock to find his face marked by condescension, but there was also something unmistakably childish in the curvature of his eyelids. John lifted his hands in a classic display of surrender.

“Fine, okay. Forget about it. Oh, and he’ll send me an email with links to all the websites Veronica visited in the last three months—said it might give us some clues. There are over a hundred of them.”

“It shouldn’t take you long,” Sherlock said.

“Me? Aren’t you going to have a look, too? You’ll be able to spot something I’ll surely miss.”

“When you're done, we’ll go over some of them together.”

They’d reached the building’s main door. Sherlock went in and marched straight ahead. John didn’t know where he was going but just followed, continuing the conversation.

“What do you think about the rest of the stuff, though—the script, the hotel enquiries and all that?”

“The script is most likely from Stevens—that’s the casting agent.” Sherlock spoke over his shoulder. “Veronica’s phone records have finally come through and there are a few calls from his mobile to hers, most of them made in January. Did the brother say when the file of the script was saved?”

“Yes, he said January!” John exclaimed.

“Hmm, thought so. Before we go back to Stevens--there's a text message Veronica recieved on the night she was murdered, at ten minutes past ten. It's from a Pay-As-You-Go sim card. The number goes straight to voicemail."

John looked at Sherlock. "Do you reckon someone texted her to go to the forest?" he asked.

"Obviously," Sherlock replied. "But who and what the message said we don't know. As for Stevens, his number quickly disappears from the records, but there are a few calls made from phone boxes in April and May, which could be from him. Although my money is on the man Veronica was seeing in secret. Finally, my source informs me that Stevens doesn’t have the most sparkling reputation in the business. Nothing official, but he has been known for his interest in young actresses. And in films of dubious quality.”

“Is this delicate talk for porn?”

“Not pornography as such. Just films with little artistic merit and plenty of gratuitous nudity.”

“You don't think that Stevens guy is our mystery lover,” John said.

Sherlock turned right and started up the stairs. He didn’t answer for a moment; his eyes were mapping the posters and notices on the wall along the stairs.

“No,” he said slowly. “Stevens doesn’t fit the profile: He’s neither affluent, nor particularly discreet. He’s also short, as I said—so he can’t be our murderer.”

“Where are we going?” John finally asked.

“To meet Lestrade.”

“What, he’s still interviewing people? It’s past one o’clock.”

“Popular girl. Have you forgotten?”

John had forgotten. Or rather that poster side of Veronica had stepped back, and for the first time since the beginning of the case John felt there was a real girl lying dead in Bart’s morgue. It was a harrowing feeling, but it was better than his earlier discomfiting detachment. John knew he had Veronica’s brother to thank for the change. It wasn’t just George’s words; like the resin on the bark of a freshly cut pine tree, George’s grief had subtly wept to the surface and John had been awoken by its scent. Veronica had stopped being a generic nice girl, the kind that smiled out from newspaper pages—the photo almost always of a girl in her school uniform, set against the traditional blue canvas background.

John realized Sherlock had stopped on the stairs and was now towering over him, looking oddly uncertain.

“John?”

“Hmm? Sorry,” John said, coming to focus.

Sherlock searched his face. His voice could have been easily drowned in the symphony of sound around them, but John heard it clearly.

“Are you all right?”

John looked up confused—at this angle, he had to really strain his neck. Sherlock moved closer to John’s upturned face, his own confusion evident.

“I’m fine.” John frowned. “Of course I’m fine.”

Sherlock straightened and slowly nodded. “Good. I was saying that Lestrade must be in the canteen. That way.”

“Sherlock…”

Sherlock stopped again, turned, and walked down a few steps to look John squarely in the face. People were bustling about, occasionally brushing past them. Sherlock was like a pine tree himself—tall, lean and solid, only occasionally swayed by the wind.

“John?” he prompted.

John looked at various points at the wall behind. Sherlock’s face seemed too close somehow and its habitual intensity made John regret he’d opened his mouth. Sherlock was probably going to get dismissive again. Well, John might as well finish.

“George thinks…He mentioned the incident with the Archer’s daughter. Apparently Veronica changed afterwards. He said something about survivor’s guilt. I mean, I don’t really know if that’s even the case or if it’s relevant, but I thought, I don’t know—it might become useful. You might make sense of it…later. At some point.”

Sherlock didn’t say anything, his eyes boring into John’s—how did John ever think anyone’s scrutiny could come close to this?!

“Yes. Good,” Sherlock said evenly. “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.” After a brief pause he gestured up the stairs. “Shall we?”

***

They found Lestrade in the canteen, chewing despondently on a piece of sandwich, his shirt sleeves folded and his elbows on the table. John went to pick up a tuna baguette for himself and grabbed Sherlock a small bottle of orange juice. When he came back the two men were catching up on the morning interviews. Lestrade’s demeanour soon became easier to explain.

“So then he said he knew something about Veronica that could help. It turned out he was talking about her arguing with her boyfriend. Apparently she was jealous.”

She was?” John asked.

“That’s what he said.” Lestrade quickly stuffed crisps in his mouth and swallowed after chewing them only a few times. “It was the only bit of information that was in any way useful. Or even interesting.” He wiped his fingers on a napkin and rubbed his face with both hands. “I hate sitting through hours of nothing. They all liked her. She was a very nice girl. No one knows who might have wanted to kill her or what she was doing in Hainault Forrest at night. One or two hints that she was popular with boys and she didn’t find the attention unwelcome. Nothing we didn’t know already.” He ate some more crisps and turned to Sherlock. “What have you been up to? Tell me you’ve got something for me.”

“I do. And John hasn’t been idle, either.” Sherlock looked at John invitingly.

“No, you go first,” John said. “I’m going to have some food now.”

Sherlock updated Lestrade on most of his recent discoveries. John found it helpful to hear them outlined once again—and besides, it was almost lulling to be able to lift his foot from the pedal, to just eat and listen to Sherlock talking. He hadn’t realized how demanding interactions with teenagers could be.

Sherlock spoke about the marks on Veronica’s throat the longest; Lestrade listened attentively but said nothing. They then moved on to speculations about what could have possibly left a rash on Veronica’s wrists, and as a follow-up Lestrade made a couple of phone calls and arranged for more photos to be taken, as well as for another inspection of the body. The account of Simon’s neighbour stirred the inspector the most—John could feel all the police instincts kicking in and was sure Lestrade was already staging Simon’s arrest in his head. But Sherlock put a damper on the fantasy.

“I don’t think it’s the boyfriend. There’s a good explanation for his actions that evening and it has nothing to do with the murder. I still can’t say exactly why he lied to us, but we’ll know this afternoon when we speak to Lisa.”

“Do you think she was involved?” Lestrade asked.

“I’m sure of it,” Sherlock said. “They were together that night. She arrived quietly and sneaked out quietly—he drove her home, then came back. The timing is very unfortunate for him, but his height is in his favour. I told John this morning—unless Simon managed to make Veronica take off her shoes, then somehow strangled her while preventing her bare feet from touching the gravel, put her shoes back on while keeping her body upright, and then dragged the body to the place it was found, he is not your killer.”

Lestrade had a mulish expression.

“Maybe you’ve got the heights wrong.”

Sherlock’s face went stony. “I haven’t got anything wrong. It was impossible for a shorter person to leave those marks on her throat.”

“Fine, fine.” Lestrade sighed. “I’m still going to need a lot more than that for Mr. Sinclair to stop being my number one suspect. And Sherlock, why did you even go talk to the neighbour alone? No, forget that—why didn’t you call me immediately afterwards? You can’t keep important information about a suspect to—“

“Because he isn’t a suspect!” Sherlock interrupted, losing patience. “He’s just a distracting puzzle, which I am planning to solve today. Someone else is the murderer.”

Lestrade opened his mouth to argue but thought again and shut it, his shoulders sagging. They all stayed quiet for a moment, during which John cast a quick glance at Sherlock. He was looking around the canteen, clearly with no intention of sharing his up-close and personal acquaintance with George Archer’s memory stick. John wondered how he’d brushed off Lestrade’s curiosity about what he was doing examining the Archer’s front door. It was possible Lestrade had forgotten about it, but John was more inclined to believe a conversation had taken place and lies had been thrown like sand in Lestrade’s eyes. John felt sorry for him, then timid pride rose in his chest—he didn’t suffer such treatment from Sherlock.

“What did Stevens say?” Sherlock broke the silence, turning to Lestrade.

“He admitted to calling Veronica ‘a time or two’. His face was a picture when I showed him the records of his calls to her. He got very defensive, started talking about lawyers—they always do. Said he’d just seen a lot of potential in Veronica and didn’t want her to miss out on opportunities.” Lestrade’s tone was half-bored, half-put off. “Then he started stuttering when we asked him if he’d spoken to her parents at all. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. He was drinking with some people all night; there are at least three eyewitnesses he says he can produce.”

Sherlock drummed his fingers on the table, looking about.

“Yes, I thought he would,” he said. “He’s not the killer, we can forget about him.”

“Excuse me,” John interjected, “but what about the script?”

Sherlock fixed on him frowning.

“What about it?”

“Well, shouldn’t we follow this through? At any rate we need to check if it was him who sent it to Veronica.“

“It was him.”

John didn’t waste time questioning Sherlock’s certainty; he had an important point to make. “Yeah, okay, but he’s still…dodgy. He deserves investigation.”

“Sorry, what are we talking about?” Lestrade did his dog impersonation again, metaphorical ears standing up to attention.

“John’s just been talking to Veronica’s brother,” Sherlock clarified before addressing John again. “And since the script isn’t related to the case, I don’t care why Stevens sent it, or whether he’s ‘dodgy’ or a saint.”

“You can’t be serious!” John almost laughed in disbelief.

“I am perfectly serious.” In a beat or two, Sherlock’s mouth twisted. “Oh please, wipe that kicked dog look off your face! How many times do we have to go through this?”

“Until you come to your senses and you—”

“I have never taken leave of my senses. It is precisely my senses that allow me to keep my mind clear and my brain uncluttered, while yours is wailing its moral concerns for the entire human race with very little result. What I do brings the perpetrator of the crime to justice. Isn’t that enough?”

John’s nose flared. “Not for me.”

His reply had shot out thoroughly uncensored and now it hung in the air, shockingly personal. Sherlock stared at him.

Lestrade’s grounding drawl broke the tension. “All right, you two sort out later whatever you’ve got going on. I need to know about that script. It’s bad enough Sherlock’s going off investigating on his own. Now I have to chase information after both of you!”

Sherlock had lowered his head, fringe obscuring his eyes. John felt anxiety rising; he had an irrational impulse to reach out and brush away the hair—Sherlock was enigmatic enough without John being unable to see his expression.

The trailing disappointment in Lestrade’s statement made John avert his eyes—he felt some guilt stirring in him and quickly began sharing all the relevant data he’d got from George Havisham. Lestrade listened carefully and when John finished, sighed again and got out his mobile phone.

“I’ll get someone to do a thorough check on Stevens. Even if he isn’t our guy, she was sixteen at the time, for God’s sake.”

“Thank you,” John said emphatically.

Sherlock shuffled in his seat and turned around, scanning the part of the canteen behind his back. He faced the table again, his foot touching John’s to get his attention. Sherlock widened his eyes, moving them to the left—John’s made the same journey and saw Mrs. Archer approaching their table. She hovered uncertainly, obviously waiting for Lestrade to finish his conversation. When he did, she closed the remaining distance and spoke in a quiet voice; John wondered if it only sounded quiet because of the noisy background or if Mrs. Archer was making an effort to keep things confidential. After all, both she and her husband were respected members of the College Board.

“My husband’s just parked outside and is coming in for a couple of hours,” she said. “He’s still unwell, but there are two or three things here that can’t wait. I thought maybe you’d like to speak to him since he’s here anyway…” She looked at Lestrade expectantly. He pushed his chair away, ready to get up.

“That would be great. Is now a good time?”

“Yes, he knows you’re here. I’ll go and tell him to wait in the same room we had the interviews in this morning if that works for you.”

“Thanks. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Mrs. Archer smiled and left. Lestrade turned to Sherlock. “Are you coming? We can finish this quickly and go to Lisa’s house. I told them we’d be there after two.”

Sherlock nodded and got up. Lestrade made his way to the exit, but John caught Sherlock lightly by the elbow to get him to fall behind, then whispered, “Let’s see if Archer’s worried about his key ring being missing.”

“Did I ever say his key ring was missing?” Sherlock responded, not looking at John.

“Then how did you—What did you do?”John asked in amazement mingled with some wariness.

Sherlock donned his expression that said ‘I’m secretly pleased with this opportunity to show off but I’ll just pretend that it’s a chore for me to have to explain myself to you’.

“I acquired another key ring of the same kind. The wonders of chemistry aided replication of the faded colour, then a well-timed visit to the house while Mrs. Archer was out and George Archer was in the bedroom allowed for a quick exchange of the two items. Upon visiting this morning under the same circumstances, the two key rings were swapped again. It took less than a minute. It was very helpful that everyone around their house isn’t home during the day—I rarely have such perfect conditions to work in. And if George Archer had tried to use the memory stick meanwhile, he’d have been puzzled to discover that for some reason the device would not show on his computer.”

John knew Sherlock could read his face easily and didn’t bother telling him off for what was essentially a common case of breaking and entering, with theft to boot. For all that, it was also brilliant. Sherlock took a moment to appreciate John’s eloquent silence, then abruptly turned and started walking. After a moment’s delay, John followed.

***

The room in which the interviews took place was small and very bright. It had cheerfulness about it, in direct opposition to the purpose it was being used for. It also made the individual waiting in it appear out of place, since he was neither small, bright, nor cheerful.

George Archer could have killed Veronica Havisham, all right—but only where his height and strength were concerned. John was ready to bet his diploma that the man in front of him hadn’t been up to lifting more than a cup of hot beverage in the last few days; he wasn’t sure exactly how unwell Mr. Archer had been on Friday night, but his current state suggested he had definitely already been sick. So at least Mrs. Archer wasn’t lying about that.

In addition George Archer looked completely overdrawn on energy, the pastiness of his face made more prominent because of his eyes. Even from a distance John could see their whites had turned the colour of white laundry after years of being washed together with the darks. It wasn’t surprising the eyes were bloodshot as well, since that was often the result of strenuous coughing and nose blowing. But in spite of Sherlock’s confidence that the swapping of the key rings had gone unnoticed, John sensed the strain in George Archer’s eyes was mental, too. Perhaps he’d discovered someone had tampered with his secrets after all. At first impression John found it hard to imagine what kind of secrets, if any, the pitiful creature shaking hands with Lestrade could keep.

As soon as they all sat Lestrade thanked George Archer for his time and co-operation.

“Anything I can do to help,” was the tired, short reply. Just like Simon Sinclair’s masculine voice had taken John by surprise, George Archer’s melodic, soft tones did, too. John cast him another surreptitious glance—unlike Sherlock, he always felt uncomfortable scrutinizing people unabashedly in their close company—to find that if the patina of illness was scraped away, the voice would actually be in harmony with the face. Mr. Archer had thick, silky light-brown hair, with a cow lick parting it to the left; his whole face had soft contours that verged on feminine.

“Your wife told us your family was close to Veronica’s,” Lestrade began. “Can you help us with any information at all?”

George Archer took a breath to speak but dissolved into a vicious coughing fit. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and hid his face in it, turning aside. When he finally stopped gasping for air, he turned back to the table, face apologetic. His eyes had gone redder and more watery.

“I’m very sorry,” he said with a rasp. Lestrade hastily lifted a hand. “No, no. I apologize for bothering you now, but we’re really trying to push forward with the investigation.”

“Yes, of course. Sadly, I don’t know that I can help you. Vee was a lovely girl and I can’t think of anyone who would want her de—who would even hate her.” George Archer’s voice trembled. “Sorry, this has—It’s been a great shock to me—to all of us here, but to my wife and me especially. I wish I could help but I don’t really know anything. I wasn’t close to her. I rarely see—saw her these days.” He rested his arms on the table and rubbed his face with his palms, keeping it hidden in them for a several seconds. He took a deep breath and looked up at Lestrade, waiting for the next question.

It was Sherlock who spoke.

“Your wife said you returned home earlier than usual on Friday night. Do you know what time that was?”

George Archer’s eyes moved quickly between Sherlock and Lestrade, trying to establish the exact chain of command. However, as was often the case for less assertive individuals, Sherlock’s demeanour was enough to draw out an answer without objections.

“Yes, around ten. I was unwell in the morning when I left, but I had to go to work. I work at Canary Wharf, online security systems and data protection.”

Sherlock threw John a quick look that spoke volumes—John hoped he was going to cut his IT “helpers” some slack now that he knew they were up against a professional.

Meanwhile, Mr. Archer was still talking. “I was supposed to go out with a few people for a drink after work, but they decided to go to the West End. I had a pint by myself at West India Quays, but I just wanted to go home, really. In fact, I felt so ill that I had to take a cab. I suppose that’s what happens when you sort of let go. You pull yourself together during the day to do your job and then you suddenly crash.”

“Yeah,” John said, sympathetic. George Archer looked at him and nodded. John wondered if he remembered Lestrade had introduced him as Doctor Watson.

“Then?” Sherlock said.

“Then I went home and Vivian took care of me, made me a Lemsip. It finished me. I dropped off on the sofa in five minutes. When she woke me up, I thought it was midnight, but I’d only slept for twenty minutes. I was so out of it, Vivian had to help me with my bath. I must have been in bed around eleven. That’s all really.” When no one said anything, he added, “Erm, the whole evening is a bit of a blur.”

Lestrade looked at Sherlock; when he saw no visible intentions of further questioning, he made a final attempt to find any useful information.

“Is there anything you can think of that could give us a clue about what Veronica was doing in Hainault Forrest that late?”

“No. I don’t know why she would go there, I really don’t.” George Archer dropped his head and pressed his fingers to his eyes for a few seconds. John thought all this wasn’t doing wonders for the man’s health, and his doctor’s instinct rose.

“We’re very sorry for bringing this on you now; it must be hard.”

George Archer looked at him and John was moved to see gratitude so plainly written on his face.

“Yes, it’s been really hard. So many memories—I mean, if I was well maybe I would have taken it better, but now—I wish I could help you, I really do. Have you got any leads at all?”

The question was directed at John, who transferred it to Lestrade with his eyes.

“We’re checking a few theories,” Lestrade said in his professional, uncommitted way. “If anything occurs to you meanwhile, anything at all, your wife has my details—give us a call.”

“I will. Thank you for your work.”

Lestrade nodded. Everyone got up and stood silent around the table, before Mr. Archer said, “If that’s all, I have to go catch up with a couple of people…”

“Sure, yes. That’s all.” Lestrade moved out of his way. George Archer wished them a good day and left. As soon as the door closed behind him John spoke.

“Poor sod.”

“Yeah,” Lestrade agreed. “Well, nothing here, either. I hope the afternoon’s more productive. Sherlock, what did you think?”

“About what?”

“About Archer.”

“Not much.”

Lestrade waited, obviously hopeful a deduction would follow out of the blue, but when there was none he squeezed his neck and said, “Let’s go to Lisa’s. We’re done here for today.”

 

***

 

Another suburban street, another suburban house…John was beginning to feel like they’d been involved with this case for a month, instead of just three days. It wasn’t that he bemoaned the lack of adventure—he enjoyed being part of all of Sherlock’s investigations, no matter their nature. But lately there’d been a string of cases with a singular lack of thrill. Sure, they were all intricate and provided plenty of nutrition for Sherlock’s extraordinary mind; in each instance John had watched the incandescence of pure intellectual pleasure spread over Sherlock’s face, and that alone had made the cases more than worth their while. Nevertheless, he was beginning to miss action. He needed his kind of adrenaline surge which he just couldn’t get from work of the brain alone. It wasn’t that he needed a fight or a chase, per se. He just needed to be shaken a bit.

The generic door they were standing in front of with the generic doorbell they were ringing held little hope of anything explosive.

The same went for the woman who greeted them. She was the closest to mousy John had seen on this case, though, in a roundabout way it was also quite nice. Veronica, her mother, Mrs. Archer, even Simon Sinclair’s mother: they all had something to make them stand out. It was restful to see someone so nondescript. In an equally nondescript voice the woman introduced herself as “Kate Langley, Lisa’s mum”, then invited them in.

The house’s interior reflected its owner: very ordinary, from the carpeted floors throughout to the catalogue furniture. John could already taste the tea as they were brought in into an airy conservatory. Its big glass doors opened directly into a decently-kept but unimaginative garden.

They sat down and, as John had expected, Mrs. Langley offered them drinks. Sherlock mumbled “Water, thanks,” and cast a quick look around before pinning his nose to his mobile phone. John and Lestrade asked politely for their tea and coffee, and Kate Langley took the time to ask about sugar and milk.

As soon as their hostess headed to the kitchen, Sherlock was out of his seat and darting through the doors into the open air. John was sitting with his back to the garden; startled, he turned to follow Sherlock with his eyes but only managed to see him stop by the shed when Mrs. Langley’s voice calling her daughter’s name made him jump and turned around face the room again. There was the sound of feet on the stairs; John’s neck cracked as he turned to look at the garden anxiously—only to see Sherlock strolling back.

The moment he sat down next to John, Lisa Langley appeared. She was the spitting image of her mother but for a waterfall of thick, sun-kissed curly hair, tied into a big ponytail. The hair was enough to include her among the distinguished, but John could see that if Lisa always wore her hair pulled up, she must have been virtually invisible next to Veronica. The girl strangely resembled Mr. Archer, too, in her overall paleness and the red brimming of her eyes.

“Hi,” she said awkwardly, tugging down on a baggy t-shirt that featured a cartoon cat chasing a little yellow bird.

Lestrade made the introductions. Lisa seemed a touch startled when her gaze fell directly on Sherlock’s face, and when she looked at John, he realized there was one emotion in her eyes they’d not yet seen in anyone else’s: fear. John knew that, unlike in criminal novels and films, in real life those who had something to hide often appeared utterly composed. It was scary how well people managed to conceal an awful lot—the world had a lot of good actors who never found fame. But here, uncovered, there was fear.

“How are you, Lisa?” Lestrade began. “Can we start now or shall we wait for your mum to come back?”

Lisa sat at the very edge of an old settee that had probably been demoted from the sitting room. Her eyes dropped to the floor and she spoke with a very gentle voice.

“No, it’s okay. Er…what do I have to tell you?”

Lestrade upped the kindness of his tone.

“Just anything you think could help us. You were Veronica’s closest friend, so we’re hoping she shared with you more than she did with others.”

Lisa’s throat moved visibly and her lips trembled. Her reply was almost a whisper.

“I can’t think of anything. I’ve been thinking about it all the time, trying to figure out—the only thing I can think of is that it was a gang or something, and they killed her.”

“We don’t think it was a gang,” Lestrade said. “We believe Veronica was murdered by a person or persons who knew her. That’s why we’re trying to find out who she was meeting that night.”

“No one, I don’t know…” Lisa nearly sobbed.

“Please, don’t distress yourself,” Lestrade said hurriedly. “We don’t want to put you under pressure—we’re just trying to gather as much information as possible. Anything could help us. For instance, do you know if Veronica could have gone to the forest to meet a man?”

Lisa’s eyes shot to Lestrade’s face, anxious. “Do you think—Was it a man that killed her?”

“We don’t know,” Lestrade said. “But there is some evidence to suggest Veronica was on a date earlier that night, with someone other than her boyfriend. Do you have any idea who that might be?”

Lisa shook her head vehemently.

“No. But I know she didn’t see Simon that day—they had an argument.”

Lestrade and Sherlock both looked at Lisa—Sherlock drilled into her, was more like it—but neither said anything. John waited for a few seconds, then cleared his throat.

“We hear she and Simon had argued a lot lately,” he said. “Do you know why?”

“No! I mean, yeah, they did argue, but lots of people argue.”

“Here we are.” Mrs. Langley walked in with a tray. She put it on the table and bent to look at her daughter’s face. “Are you all right, honey?”

“Yeah,” Lisa muttered.

Mrs. Langley passed out the beverages; John took a sip of his tea to find it excellent.

“Lovely tea, thanks,” he said and smiled at Mrs. Langley.

She smiled back. “Glad you like it. You must be gasping, going around in that police car all day.”

Sherlock’s baritone gave them all a jump.

“Where were you on the night Veronica was murdered?” He was looking at Lisa, who turned to Lestrade pleadingly.

“I already told the man who was here on Saturday: I was at the cinema with my mate Sharraine—“

Sherlock cut her off mid-sentence. “She admitted she was lying to cover for you.”

John barely managed not to gape at Sherlock, but Lestrade wasn’t that successful. “Sherlock, what—“ he started, but Sherlock leaned sharply forward, locking eyes with Lisa. She was evidently shocked—her mouth was open and a succession of ‘buts’ were coming out.

Mrs. Langley frowned at Sherlock.

“How do you mean Sharraine’s admitted she was lying? They were at the cinema, she and Lisa.”

Sherlock turned his cool gaze to Mrs. Langley.

“There are two people who can confirm that at the exact time she and Lisa were supposed to be seeing a film, Sharraine was at home,” he said, then looked at Lisa again. “I know you were at Simon Sinclair’s house”—gasps from both Lisa and her mother made Sherlock raise his voice—“and I don’t care what you did there, but I need to know what time he dropped you off near here and if he texted anyone at any point during the evening.”

Lisa was in tears, and her mother’s features reflected confusion and some budding anger. She sprung to her feet and turned to her daughter.

“Is this true?”

There was only a whimper in response.

“Lisa, is this true?” Mrs. Langley pressed. “Did you ask Sharraine to lie? Did you go to see that—Is this—What’s going on?”

Lisa’s sobs were now plentiful—she’d hidden her face in her hands. Kate Langley got hold of her  wrist and yanked it down.

“Oh for goodness’ sake, stop crying and blow your nose!” Lisa automatically reached for a tissue and used it as she was told.

“Do you understand how serious this is?” asked Mrs. Langley, traces of hysteria in her voice. John was watching the scene wide-eyed and speechless, but at least his mouth was shut. Lestrade’s wasn’t. Sherlock had the look of someone sitting through the adverts in the cinema.

“Lisa!” Mrs. Langley raised her voice to an outright yell.

The girl’s shoulders shook but she finally lifted her crimson, distraught face. Her hands instantly started tearing the tissue into shreds. She spoke: her short account was broken by her irregular breathing and new outbursts of crying, but it boiled down to a confession that Sherlock was right.

“Why didn’t you tell this to the officer who came to talk to you on Saturday?” Lestrade said reproachfully. “This is obstructing justice by withholding important information.”

“I didn’t want to give Simon away —that I was at his—because of what dad said that time.” Lisa spoke with her head inclined slightly towards her mother. Mrs. Langley boggled at her and slowly lowered herself onto the armrest of the sofa. For a moment she just sat there with a glazed expression, then she remembered there were other people present in the room.

“I—My husband and I found out Lisa was involved with Veronica’s boyfriend,” she said. “A neighbour had seen them kissing in his car a few streets away from here. Anyway, Simon—oh God!” She shook her head, her eyes huge and unblinking—she was obviously thinking very fast.

“Mrs. Langley?” Lestrade said firmly.

Mrs. Langley ignored him and turned to her daughter.

“Oh God, oh God, Lisa! Do you know how much trouble this means for you? Your future—no top University will—“

Sherlock had clearly got to the end of his tether and wanted to see the main feature. “Mrs. Langley,” he said. “Your daughter has lied to the police in a murder investigation. I suggest both of you keep to the relevant facts now and deal with your family affairs later.”

Lisa looked up at her mum but didn’t speak, evidently expecting instructions. Mrs. Langley took a tissue and wiped her own sweating face as she started talking.

“Two months ago John—that’s my husband—John and I left for my brother’s in Kent for the weekend. My husband had a very severe asthma attack on the way there. We had to go to the hospital and then we came back here. We found Lisa and Simon…smoking marihuana.”

Mrs. Langley avoided looking at anyone and seemed to rally herself for the finish.

“There was a terrible row. My husband told Lisa that if he ever caught her smoking again or seeing that boy, he was going to go to the police and tell them Simon sold the marihuana to Lisa and was involved with drugs. Quiet, Lisa!” Lisa had started weeping again, and Mrs. Langley’s voice was steely as it issued the order. John made a mental note to finally stop judging a book by its cover. Mrs. Langley had seemed so plain, and in every way as far removed from John’s first dispatch officer as could be—yet for the last few minutes she’d emitted the same unexpected nastiness, the kind that made a person wary.

“Is Lisa—Are you going to press charges because of the drugs?” she asked.

Lestrade took a large sip from his coffee and cleared his throat.

“I need to know exactly what happened on Friday night and I need to hear it from you, Lisa,” he said. “I’ll also need you to come to us for a written statement. Since I have no solid evidence of any drug use by you or Simon Sinclair, I need you to tell me—and I need the truth—if he is involved with drugs”—He was interrupted by the girl’s squeaky “No!” and raised his hand to demand silence—“and if this was a one-off incident then, without any evidence to follow up, there won’t be any charges. Is that clear?”

“Yes. It was a one-off, I promise! Simon isn’t doing drugs! It’s not even drugs—it was one joint and we did it together, because I wanted to try…” Lisa’s tears started rolling down her cheeks again, but at least she went on talking. “I wanted to try and I was scared of doing it alone so I asked Simon to do it with me, because…I trust him.” She wiped her tears and continued crying quietly.

Lestrade turned to her mother. “Can we get a glass of water?”

Mrs. Langley got up and rushed to the kitchen then back. John hadn’t missed the relief on her face when Lestrade said there’s be no charges.

“Go on.” Lestrade said encouragingly, after Lisa had a sip of water. She waited for her breathing to steady, then said, “I’ve been—we’ve been seeing each other for months—“

“How long exactly?” Sherlock asked.

“February. I don’t know what—We didn’t think—It just happened. He tried breaking up with Vee a few times. We thought that maybe if they broke up and we waited some time, like a year even, and then sort of acted as if we’d just bumped into each other and started going out—that maybe Vee would be okay with it. I was feeling horrible.” Lisa’s voice shook and she drank some more water. “She kept on nagging him that they didn’t spend time together, and it was because he was so busy studying and working at the Golf Club, plus he was seeing me in what little free time he had. Vee thought he was seeing this girl at the Golf Club—but it was me.” Lisa sniffed a few times; John pushed the napkins closer to her. She took one and blew her nose loudly, then continued talking.

“Later she stopped being jealous but just argued with him. It was like she wasn’t into him anymore, and she was constantly bitching about him to me, but every time they fell out and he thought that was it, she called him and begged for them to stay together. Two weeks ago was the last time. I don’t know what she told him—he never said, but he got all worked up and said they weren’t breaking up, full stop—he was really mad, and we had a row and didn’t speak for like ten days, but he called me last Friday and…and…” Lisa cried quietly for several seconds, before finishing: “He said he wanted to see me and he’d missed me—I’d missed him, too—and I went to his. I tried asking him about Veronica and what was going on, but he got cross again so I let it go…I was just glad to see him.”

“Did he text anyone that night?” Sherlock asked once more.

“I don’t really remember. We all fidget with our phones a lot, checking Facebook and all…I don’t know.”

Sherlock pursed his lips and said nothing for a few seconds, then asked, “What time did you leave his house?”

“Around half-nine—no, later. I was at home around ten and it’s only a fifteen-minute drive, tops. He dropped me off down near Bancroft School and I walked from there, in case anyone saw me. He texted me in like half an hour or something, to tell me he was home all right. We went on texting until later, and then I called him the next morning to ask if he’d heard anything about Vee, because Mr. Havisham had rung me during the night. He’d rung Simon, too. We talked, we were both worried—Vee wasn’t the kind of girl to stay out for the night. Then the police came and they said she was found dead. Simon and I talked, and I said I was going to say we’d been together, but he insisted—he said mum and dad were going to kill me and there’d be trouble if they said about him doing drugs, and that he was going to be fine because he hadn’t done anything wrong.” Lisa’s chin wobbled and she didn’t look older than twelve. “I know Simon hasn’t done anything bad. He’s not that kind of person.”

Lestrade waited for her to continue, but she remained silent, just sniffing and wiping the odd tear. He looked at Sherlock who had sat leaning forward throughout the entire scene, face as impassive as pharaoh’s on a sarcophagus. Now Sherlock sat back—it was apparent he’d got all the data he needed from Lisa, but his face was clouded. Lestrade turned his attention back to the girl.

“Is there anything else you’re hiding—anything at all?”

“No, I swear that’s all! If it wasn’t for Simon I was never going to lie. I don’t know why Vee went to Hainault and what was—She had got a bit secretive, and I was—I was feeling shit—sorry!“ Lisa drank from her glass again. “We didn’t talk that much lately, not like we used to.”

The phone rang in the kitchen and Mrs. Langley excused herself.

As soon as her mother was out of earshot, Lisa turned to Lestrade and started whispering urgently. “I don’t mean to say anything, but Vee’s mum was horrible to her. She wasn’t just bad like my mum, she genuinely hated her—I don’t know, maybe—Don’t tell mum!” she shot, panicked upon hearing Mrs. Langley’s returning steps.

Lestrade closed his notebook and turned to Sherlock.

“Any more questions?”

Sherlock shook his head.

“Someone will get in touch about your written statement,” Lestrade told Lisa. “If you think of anything else, these are my numbers. We’ll talk again.”

Both mother and daughter nodded mutely—it seemed the emotional exertion of the past hour had suddenly drained them of the energy for talking. John knew how they felt.

Everyone got up and headed to the front door in laboured silence.

The door lock clicked behind them just as Sherlock’s mobile beeped. He pulled it out eagerly and read the message—his exuberant eyes told John the files on the memory stick had finally been cracked. They looked at each other in silent understanding.

“We’re off,” Sherlock said.

“Hang on,” Lestrade protested. “We need to talk about Simon Sinclair.”

“No, we don’t,” Sherlock countered. “You’re going to be obtuse about him and I’m in no mood to indulge your narrow-minded tendency to focus selectively on details.”

Lestrade sighed heavily. “Fine. Have you got anything to prove he didn’t do it? Other than his height?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Then I’ll pull him in and see what other things he was holding back. Jesus, if people just stopped to think how—Sherlock!”

Sherlock had started walking down the street and just lifted his hand in a farewell gesture.

“We’re obviously off,” John said apologetically.

“Yeah. Go on,” Lestrade said. “He’ll get to the end of the street in three sides with those legs of his.”

John smiled and rushed to catch up with Sherlock. They were extremely lucky to see a cab not a hundred yards away as soon as they turned onto the main road.

He expected they’d go back to Baker Street right away and was surprised to hear Sherlock give the driver the Havishams’ address. John gave him a questioning look.

Sherlock, who had been busy on his mobile all the time they were walking, settled into his seat, slipped the phone into his pocket and flashed his eyes at John.

“Drop in on people unannounced,” he said. “Mycroft practices that one. Much as it pains me to admit, it’s a strategy that works.”

“What are you hoping to find out?” John asked.

Sherlock’s face fell. “Anything really—I need more data. I want to look around Veronica’s room again.”

“When you got that text, I thought they’d cracked the memory stick.

”Sherlock sighed. “They have, but for some reason they couldn’t attach the files to an email. That Archer fellow is good at his job. Anyway, they’re bringing it from Worcestershire—it’ll be another couple of hours at least. I gather there are numbers and tables on it. We’ll see.”

He lowered the car window and exposed his neck to the cool air, closing his eyes. John watched Sherlock’s curls jump and tussle, giving him the look of an eighteenth-century poet. In several seconds the eyes opened to reveal themselves once again as the portals to a highly intellectual mind, dispelling any romantic allusions.

“What?” Sherlock said.

“Nothing,” John said, starting. “You were saying?”

“I wasn’t saying anything. But since you asked, a couple of observations I made in the house are curious.”

John shuffled forward. “Go on.”

“For instance, Lisa’s parents.”

John hadn’t expected that. “What about them? They both have alibis for Friday night—both were with other people.” When Sherlock cast him his patent ‘I’ll let that pass’ look John’s brow creased. “Lestrade mentioned it—I assumed that was why he didn’t ask about their whereabouts.”

“Yes, they say they were with other people. John Langley owns an MOT business; he says he had ‘a few pints with the lads’ but I’d like to see the day when ‘a lad’ refuses his boss’ request to provide him with an alibi. Mrs. Langley was at the hospital where she works. Do you know which hospital that is, John?”

John just shook his head, face burning with curiosity.

“Holly House Hospital, Buckhurst Hill,” Sherlock said, as if announcing the Queen’s arrival. “It’s a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to Hainault Forest. Mrs. Langley is part of the Fertility Centre at the hospital. They had an IVF Open Evening on Friday night. Can you tell me that the short absence of a general staff member can’t go unnoticed at such an event?”

“No,” John said. “No. I see.” He recalled his impressions of Lisa’s mother and was surprised at the strong surge of dislike he felt. “So, Mrs. Langley. What’s her motive, you think?”

Sherlock looked at him, puzzled. “How would I know? You know my methods, John. I don’t care for motives until I examine all the facts. The onlything that’s important at this point is whether she had the opportunity to commit the crime. She did: she’s the right height and technically she could have been in the forest at the time of the murder.”

“What about Lisa’s father?” John asked. “What’s interesting about him?”

Sherlock’s eyes drooped, tantalizing.

“I’ll give you three clues: fishing rods, bike, books.”

John looked at him, trying to hide the helplessness he felt. The words meant nothing to him.

Sherlock’s tone was imploring. “Come on, John, think. Think about the house.”

John cast his mind back with little hope for success. He was nowhere near as observant as Sherlock on principle—No one was!—but to top it off, the unexpected drama at Lisa’s had practically erased whatever useful images had been stored in John’s brain. Still, he concentrated. Fishing rods, fishing rods…Nope. Nothing.

Bike. Something stirred. Was there a bike propped outside the house? John could almost visualize something, a shape—No! It was in the garden: leaning on the shed had been a bike!

“The bike!” John looked at Sherlock, who was already smiling at John’s evident recollection.

“What can you remember about it?” Sherlock asked.

“Erm, shiny,” John said. When Sherlock visibly suppressed a sigh. John hurried to elaborate.

“Okay, I mean it’s got to be new then, or very well looked after.”

“Um-hum.”

“It was big,” John recalled. “I can’t say it’s a man’s bike for sure but it didn’t look like a woman’s.”

“Good. What else?”

John thought. Big, okay. Shiny—but there was something about that, something wrong. His forehead wrinkled in concentration and John spoke slowly. “I’m thinking about it and I can see it gleaming in the sun, bright colours and everything, but something’s not right.”

Sherlock leaned forward, looking like a child on Christmas morning, praying to get the presents that had been requested. John locked eyes with him and thought harder still. Bike, shiny, gleaming. Okay, how about he went over it in order: There was the seat, the body of the bike, the tires—The tires!

“The tires were filthy; there was mud all over them!”

Sherlock clasped his hands. “Excellent, John!”

“Did it rain last week?”

“Yes, on Thursday,” Sherlock said.

“Right. But it was hot...so by Friday night most of the ground should have dried. But if you rode the bike, say, in a shady forest…then there’d be mud on the tires.”

“Correct.” Sherlock’s voice was as velvety as his eyes.

John stared at him silently for a few more seconds, adrenaline bubbles popping through him like champagne. The bike, the mud—they were little things, but they had their place in a bigger picture.  The two of them only had to put everything together. So this was how Sherlock felt—and this was what it meant to share that feeling, too.

They both leaned back in their seats, more questions pushing in. Sherlock started narrating his train of thought.

“The family was away over the last few days, but no one leaves such an expensive bike out in their garden for days on end: it must have been locked in the shed.”

“Hang on—they could have taken it with them to Scotland, where it rains every other day.”

Sherlock shook his head. “No. The seat didn’t look like anyone had sat on it in the last couple of days. Besides, when I touched it the metal was still cool. If it had spent the morning tied up on the roof of the car, it would have been very hot. Infers the bike was taken out of the shed minutes before we arrived. Why would you take it out and just leave it in the sun? One explanation is that it was about to be cleaned, and the other that it was about to be ridden. Either way, there was an interruption.”

Sherlock carefully put his hand into his pocket and extracted something into his folded palm. “Thankfully it means we’ve got some mud samples.” He knocked on the driver’s window. “Excuse me, have you got a tissue at hand?”

“Here you go, mate.” The driver passed a pack of tissues through the narrow slit. Sherlock thanked him and gestured to John who took it, extracted one and returned the pack to the driver, closing the window again. John opened the tissue for Sherlock to fold the mud into it. Sherlock hesitated, then passed the improvised evidence bag to John—“Your pockets are bigger.”—who slid it carefully into his pocket and looked up at Sherlock.

“So what does it all mean?”

“I don’t know.” Sherlock shrugged. “There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation, unrelated to the case. But when you add the books and the fishing rods there are quite a few curious little details about John Langley that beg for attention.”

“Okay, the fishing rods and the books, what’s that about?”

Sherlock moved forward again.

“Money, John. The bike is obviously expensive and it is a man’s bike. The fishing rods were propped in the corner of the conservatory. I checked them online. One was a CTS Affinity X.”

Sherlock had whipped out his mobile and was looking at the screen. “The same rod, second-hand, is going for three-hundred-twenty pounds right now on eBay. The others rods in the house were just as expensive and there were four of them.”

John listened intently while his brain made connections. He’d considered the house generic; the furniture had looked like it’d been all straight out of ARGOS. Generic British houses didn’t have fishing equipment worth thousands of pounds.

“Wait—why did the fishing rods get your attention in the first place?” he asked. “You don’t fish, do you?”

Sherlock looked at him startled.

“Do you fish?”

“No.”

“Me neither.”

“Erm, okay.” John said. Something in Sherlock’s face made him add impulsively, “It’s not a crime, you know. I mean, if you did. It’s probably quite nice. I’d try it. You can fish when you retire. It’d kind of suit you.” He smiled at Sherlock, who lifted his chin and turned it sideways with a look of suspicion and interest. John’s ears started to warm. “I mean, you weren’t serious about the bees before, right?”

“I was,” Sherlock said. “Not now—as you said, it wouldn’t be practical in the flat. But in the country, maybe if—Um, I imagine it might hold a certain allure one day.” His face suddenly broke into a smile. “If I make it to fifty.”

The traffic in John’s head was too heavy for him to react coherently, so he went with his first instinct. “Don’t,” he said seriously. “Don’t joke about it.”

Sherlock’s face softened. They both looked away at the same time.

In a moment John cleared his throat.

“Right. So why did you check the rods, exactly?”

“Because I don’t fish, John, but I read.”

John pinched the bridge of his nose.

“What?”

“I read. My reading material may not comply with John Watson’s List of ‘A Hundred Books You Should Read Before You Die’, but I know about books. And I can recognize an old book—maybe even a first edition—when I see one.”

John just lifted his eyebrows in a silent repetition of “what?”.

Sherlock’s eyes shone with a scholar’s brightness.

“When we walked past the sitting room I noticed the big library. A short row in the middle contained several old books, a few by the same author. I remembered his name and the title of one of the books: Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island”. I checked it quickly back in the house—if I’m right about the edition, its price is around a hundred and fifty pounds. There were three more books by the same author, also first editions or very early limited editions; I had a look at their price just now—the same or higher. Anyway, it was enough to make me look around for other signs of hidden prosperity.”

“So what are you saying—the family has money but hides it? Why would they do that?”

“Not the family. John Langley. That bike you so aptly described as ‘shiny’ costs a small fortune and is a man’s bike. The fishing rods—statistically more likely to be a man’s hobby. The books—would you say this is a woman’s kind of literature or a man’s? Or both? It doesn’t matter, really—the bike and the rods are sufficient—but it’d be nice to know for completeness’ sake.”

John bit his lips hard to stop them from stretching into a wide grin.

“You’ve not heard of Robert Louis Stevenson? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

A shadow passed over Sherlock’s face.

“If you’re done mocking, there is something familiar about the two names,” he said slowly, obviously running through the tons of files in his brain. “Oh,” he said suddenly, then looked at John almost embarrassed. “When I was little I once overheard Mycroft’s German teacher call him the little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was a curious for a person to be called two names at once and I remembered it, but I always assumed—”

John burst out laughing. Sherlock frowned.

“John? John, as much as I live for providing you with free entertainment I’d appreciate it if you let me in on the joke.”

“Oh, sorry!” John waited for his laughter to die away enough for him to speak. “Jekyll and Hyde are Stevenson’s most famous characters. People use them to refer to split personalities. Dr. Jekyll was a physician and a really decent man; he invented a drink or something—I can’t remember exactly. I read the story when I was still a kid. Anyway, the drink or whatever it was unlocked—It sort of turned him into this other person, Mr. Hyde, who was a pretty nasty character. The comparison with your brother is just…” John snorted.

Sherlock watched him for a few seconds and then chuckled.

“Oh,” John sighed, then wiped his eyes, still cheerful. “So, okay. We’ve got the father buying expensive stuff for himself while living the life of a working class bloke.”

“Quite.”

John proceeded carefully with his next question—he knew Sherlock didn’t like jumping to conclusions.

“Do you think he could be the man Veronica was seeing secretly? He does fit the bill in a lot of ways.”

“Yes, he does. But not enough data yet. There’s a lot of work ahead of us, John.”

They were approaching the Havishams’ street. John scratched his neck, trying to shake off his sudden feeling of guilt. “Erm, speaking of work, I’m back to the surgery tomorrow. Early shift though, should be back around three.”

Sherlock just nodded.

 

***

 

When Diane Havisham opened the door, John was taken aback by how much smaller she appeared in contrast to his memories. His first impressions had been of a stout, very tall woman; but now, in front of his very eyes, she was neither. Part of the discrepancy might have to do with her face: It seemed to have shrunk and the colour of her beautiful eyes had faded. John didn’t have time to assess the changes in detail, but his instinct was that they reflected the endurance of considerable turmoil.

She looked at them blankly—if it wasn’t for Sherlock being quite memorable John would have guessed she couldn’t remember them—and then turned to Sherlock.

“Mr. Holmes, right?” she said. “Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon,” Sherlock’s voice was polite. John’s eyes flicked to him and found his expression neutral. “We were wondering if we could have another look at your daughter’s room. I apologize for dropping in on you unannounced but we were in the area and it seemed like an opportune moment.”

“Come in,” Mrs. Havisham said abruptly, and moved away to let them inside.

“Thank you,” John murmured. He smiled at her as he passed, and her lips trembled but didn’t quite accomplish a smile in return.

“My husband is upstairs in Veronica’s room,” she said. “If you could give me a moment to—“

“No, it’s fine!” Sherlock interrupted her. “We won’t be long—and he might be helpful.”

Mrs. Havisham had already begun climbing the steps but had stopped to listen to Sherlock, barely turning, her tense profile outlined starkly. She now swivelled on the spot and fixed Sherlock with her gaze. John was sure his existence was forgotten as the two pairs of striking eyes connected. Then Mrs. Havisham turned suddenly once again and continued up the stairs, calling “Follow me” over her shoulder.

They walked into Veronica’s room and found Tom Havisham standing in the middle, hands full of papers; he’d obviously heard strange voices coming up and had waited to see who they belonged to. Surprisingly, his eyes lit with recognition as they fell on John, but Mrs. Havisham saved everyone potential awkwardness by saying, “You remember Mr. Holmes and Doctor Watson—they’re helping Scotland Yard. They’ve come to look at Veronica’s belongings.” She turned to Sherlock. “Was there anything in particular you wanted to check?”

“Her clothes,” Sherlock replied.

John wondered if he was improvising—just like he’d wondered if Sherlock’s politeness at the front door wasn’t just a ruse to get in—or if he really had something in mind. John felt a pang of regret that he should still ask himself such questions, but evidently Sherlock didn’t let him in on everything after all. For instance, John had been clueless about Sherlock’s associations with Lisa’s friend Sharraine and the subsequent confession he’d extracted from her.

Mr. Havisham stepped aside to reveal Veronica’s closet.

“I’ve not touched her clothes yet,” he said, and John’s heart really dropped. He hadn’t heard such a grief-stricken voice since…oh, probably his Cousin Albert’s funeral all those years ago, when John’s uncle had spoken in the church. John was surprised Tom Havisham had even been able to go into his daughter’s room so soon after her death.

“Have you found anything useful amongst her belongings?” Sherlock asked with his usual disregard for context. Tom Havisham looked at him in a mixture of anguish and shock.

John wanted to kick Sherlock, but instead cleared his throat and pointed at Mr. Havisham’s hand.

“I see you have some photos of Veronica there,” he said respectfully.

Mr. Havisham looked down as if he’d forgotten what he was holding, then nodded.

“I’ve been going through her drawers, looking at photos and…things. I—We don’t know about the funeral yet, but I wanted to—I’ve been looking for her old scrapbooks.” His voice shook. John thought that, unlike his wife, Tom Havisham looked quite the way John remembered him, if not worse. He seemed to have lost some weight, too, all within a few days.

“I’ve told you three times all her scrapbooks are at your mother’s.” Mrs. Havisham’s voice made John jump—he’d completely forgotten she was standing behind him. He swivelled instinctively to look at her and noticed her lips had gone red, as if she’d sucked on them. There was something deformed in her face at such close proximity and it unnerved John. He found himself utterly discombobulated by this woman.

She held John’s eyes—John tried not to look away too quickly, but he was glad when he faced the husband again. Mr. Havisham was looking at his wife with something indefinable in his eyes. It was as if he knew she was supposed to be there, but didn’t quite see her. Chills ran down John’s spine and he suddenly didn’t want to be there at all. He cast Sherlock a slanted look, to find him watching the Havishams with a deadpan expression.

It was Mrs. Havisham who spoke again, and again gave John a start. He hadn’t been this jumpy even after he’d just been deployed, but then again you knew what to expect back then. This scene had all the rational consistency of a nightmare.

“If you won’t need me, I need to get back to my work,” Diane Havisham said, ending the interval of silence.

Sherlock turned to her and nodded once, quite formally, and thanked her for her time. She nodded in return and was out of the room.

Tom Havisham didn’t seem to know where to stand; eventually he lowered himself into the dark red office chair by Veronica’s desk. John finally took the opportunity to look around the room, prompted by the feeling of how out of place the chair was. He could now see his brain was right to single out the chair: in every other respect the room was a typical teenage girl’s room. There was a lot of colour, most of it warm. The stereotypical pink was kept to a minimum seen only in the fairy lights with fluffy balls attached along the shelf above Veronica’s headboard, and in the tip of a slipper that protruded from beneath the bed. The bed itself was unmade; a few clothes and a fleece bathrobe were thrown over. The sheets were white with a beige geometrical motif. They hadn’t been touched since they’d been pushed to one side when the last occupant of the bed had rolled out of it. A shadow of a warm body fluttered semi-consciously through John’s mind to be replaced by the cold, fully conscious memory of Veronica’s body on the flat table in the morgue. John licked his lips and swallowed, then turned to Mr. Havisham.

“Is your son at home?”

Mr. Havisham had been watching Sherlock examine random items of clothing with his gloved hands. “He’s at Anna’s,” he replied distractedly, then looked up at John. “Was it you he spoke to when he found the stuff on Veronica’s computer?”

“Yes,” John confirmed, wondering who Anna was and hoping she was a friend—Maybe even a girlfriend!—and not a tutor.

Mr. Havisham spoke to himself.

“I didn’t even know he’d been through his sister’s files. We only found out when the police called to ask us about the script Veronica was sent.” His face darkened. “I had no idea. None of us did. I’d never heard about this Stevens—“ He choked and didn’t finish his sentence. 

“Your son has done an amazing job,” John said. “Please thank him for his help.”

Tom Havisham looked up, and it was the first time John had had a real eye contact with him. The look was intense, but it wasn’t malevolent.

“I will,” Mr. Havisham said, then his shoulders slumped again. His hands were hanging limply between his legs, still clutching at the random bits of paper.

Sherlock crouched and pulled out the large drawers at the bottom of the closet to reveal a collection of shoes, some arranged neatly in pairs, others thrown haphazardly in. Sherlock lifted a few, examining their tips carefully. John walked to him and bowed to look, but then realized he was obscuring the light and withdrew. He moved to Veronica’s desk—Mr. Havisham didn’t stir—and his eyes fell on a funny-looking box. It was made of wood and shaped like a big snail. Every colour under the sun was splashed on it in an eclectic mixture; by all accounts it should have looked tacky, but it didn’t. John pushed the shell of the snail to find that it opened upwards. There was a small bowl inside that held miscellaneous items: buttons, hairpins, some coins, a single earring, a pendant in the shape of an anchor. John picked up the earring—some precious stone in a golden setting, quite classy—then put it back and picked up a tiny mother of pearl button. He heard movement behind him and turned to see that Sherlock had stood. Mr. Havisham rose from the chair as well and John could see why Sherlock had dismissed him as the murderer: they were of equal height, which meant a good four inches taller than Veronica in her heels.

“Did your daughter have a lot of money at her disposal?” Sherlock asked.

Mr. Havisham frowned. “No, not really. She’d had a credit card with a five-hundred-pound limit since she turned sixteen. She never exceeded it. Both my wife and I covered whatever she did spend on it. I gave her cash regularly, maybe around twenty or thirty pounds a week. She sometimes asked for more if she was going out with friends or shopping. I always gave her at least a hundred quid.” Mr. Havisham’s fingers tightened around the papers he was holding. He took a deep breath through his nose and added, “Both sets of grandparents gave her a bit of cash for her birthday and on Christmas. That was all.”

“Thanks,” Sherlock said, then turned to John. “Anything?”

John looked at his hands, still holding the button. “Erm, no.”

Sherlock’s eyes returned to Tom Havisham. “We’ll be on our way. Thanks again.” John hastily put the button back in the box and closed the lid, then made a move towards the door.

“Er, Mr…Holmes?” Mr. Havisham called.

“Yes?”

“Have you found anything? Are you following any leads? Why did you ask about the money?” He spoke almost meekly.

Eyes shining, Sherlock took a step in and regarded Tom Havisham. At length he spoke, reminding John of their very first meeting at Bart’s, when he’d recited half of John’s personal history in one breath.

“The clothes your daughter was wearing on the night she was murdered were brand new. However, her gown and her slippers are quite old. Further inspection of her wardrobe reveals that while Veronica has a lot of clothes and shoes, nearly all of her summer wardrobe is a year or more old. On the other hand, the spring and winter clothes at the back of the closet, while just as numerous, are mostly new. Some of them still have their tags on; only one of them was bought on sale. The prices range from thirty to eighty pounds for a top. The same applies to her shoes: She bought two pairs of boots in the January sales, one of them ‘Russell and Bromley’, the other ‘Fat Face’. The first pair must have cost at least a hundred fifty pounds on sale.  Obviously your daughter had a substantial budget for such purchases, yet she’d clearly stopped spending money on clothes and shoes in the last three months. She hasn’t stopped receiving money from you, though, so the question is: What happened to it?”

Mr. Havisham had been looking at Sherlock with increasing alarm.

“How is that connected to her murder?” he asked. “Do you think she had a lot of money with her and she was robbed?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock said evenly. “At this point all I have are conjectures and I’d rather not make them.”

Mr. Havisham opened his mouth to say something else, but Sherlock turned his back with a “Come on, John,” and was out of the room. John smiled apologetically at the father and hurried out. Downstairs, he hesitated for a moment about the appropriate course of action but decided it would be downright dodgy if they snuck out without a word.

“Mrs. Havisham,” he called. Sherlock had just opened the front door and looked at John, startled. Mrs. Havisham appeared instantly from the room on the right.

“We’re leaving,” John said. “Thanks, and, er, sorry for disturbing you again.”

Diane Havisham nodded and this time managed a smile, wished them goodbye, and softly shut the door behind them.

John waited until they were well away from the house and turned to Sherlock. “Was that true? What you said about the clothes?”

“Yes,” Sherlock replied, looking up and down the street for a cab as he walked quickly.  

“Did you notice anything else in there?” John asked.

Sherlock shook his head. “Only that it wasn’t the way she walked that made the tips of her shoes dirty.”

“What do you mean?”

“The shoes she was wearing when she was murdered—they weren’t new, but they were in good condition. Yet their tips were bedraggled. I wondered if it was the way she walked in general—whether dirt had accumulated over time. The answer is no.” Sherlock paused, considering. “Perhaps she walked through the park before she got to the gravel path.”

They were near Loughton station and a rebellious thought formed in John’s mind.

“Listen,” he said, “if we’re a few minutes away from the station anyway, why don’t we just take the tube? We’ll be at Baker Street in forty minutes, more or less the same as with a cab. Especially,” John said, looking at his watch, “now that it’s peak hour.”

Sherlock looked at him, mortified. “Do you expect me to spend forty minutes on trains in peak hour?”

John sighed. Sherlock’s brilliance evaporated as soon as it touched on matters of practicality. “This is zone six, Sherlock,” he said. “Peak hour in the evening means trains will be full going this way, because people are coming back from work. We’re going the opposite way—to Central London.”

“Oh,” Sherlock said. “Hm. I still prefer we get a cab.”

“We’ll save at least forty quid that you can give to Mrs. Hudson for the carpet. And we could spend ages in traffic while the memory stick is waiting for you at home,” John pointed out calmly.

“In the army, do they teach you how to manipulate civilians?” Sherlock said as the big red and blue sign of the London Underground loomed into view.

“No.” John shook his head. “I’ve been kind of self-taught since the end of my service.” He cast Sherlock an affable look but his voice had a sarcastic twang to it. “Needs must.”

***

They came out of Baker Street station on mostly speaking terms exactly forty-seven minutes later. The last seven had been tricky. First they got off in the bowels of Oxford Street station to change trains. They’d gone from one platform to the other through the maze of the station—the place was heaving with Londoners on their way home or out and about, as well as with hundreds of dazed tourists. Then they got on the Bakerloo line; in the crowded, hot carriage Sherlock had pressed against John like a sticky stamp on an envelope and had hissed in his ear for all of the two stops. John still thought seven minutes of hell were worth it, considering they’d travelled in reasonable comfort for the first forty minutes and had saved some cash, but Sherlock passionately disagreed. John thought he’d have to wait until Christmas before suggesting they used public transport again.

They walked up Baker Street in silence, both grateful the station was only a few minutes away from their flat.

Then it all happened in a matter of seconds. A figure of Sherlock’s height and stature but decidedly less sophisticated rushed out of Melcombe Street, collided with Sherlock and grabbed him by the hands. John’s jaw tightened instantaneously and in the blink of an eye one of his arms had circled the man’s neck while the other had locked both the man’s arms in a tight grip. His prisoner struggled and mumbled something in a foreign language, twisting his head to Sherlock.

Sherlock was staring at John, lips parted but not a sound coming out of them. John stared back, and at that moment his ear caught one familiar word in the stranger’s mutterings: “Sherlock". John released him immediately and stood back, hands lifted apologetically. The man glared at him through a long fringe, parted in the middle; his right hand clasped Sherlock’s wrist and his left hand slid over Sherlock’s palm. Sherlock finally moved his eyes away from John and down to his own hand as the stranger disappeared running up Melcombe Street. John was left wondering if all that didn’t just happen in his own head.

“Come on,” Sherlock urged, walking on.

“Who was that?” John asked in dismay.

“Someone who’s supposed to be brilliant at breaking software defence,” Sherlock replied. “Knowing the trouble he’s in back in his home country, I’m not surprised he looked for an inconspicuous way to give me the memory stick.” He stood on the top doorstep of 221B and looked down at John. “That didn’t quite work out for him. And I’ve no keys.”

John got his keys out. Sherlock stepped aside to give him a little space and John unlocked the door, feeling Sherlock’s eyes on him. “Sorry,” he said under his breath, trying to push the door open. “I thought he was a criminal.”

“He is,” Sherlock said, following him inside. “But not the kind you thought. “

“Sorry,” John repeated as they stood in the hallway.

“Don’t be. It was…fine,” Sherlock said. John started up the stairs, very self-conscious. When they got to the second flight of steps he turned to Sherlock.

“Are there no ordinary people you can ask favours off?”

Sherlock moaned a quiet “Oh dull,” but John went on. “Normal people, you know, who have legal jobs?”

“What, like my brother?”

John’s eyes shot to his hairline.

“I’m not even going to answer that.”

Sherlock’s smile extended to his eyes, which then blazed with excitement. Once in the sitting room, he marched straight to his laptop, opened it and inserted the memory stick. “Come on, come on,” he muttered while the computer took its time to start. John hesitated for a second—this looked like it would take at least a minute—then spoke en route to the kitchen.

“Do you want some tea?”

Sherlock made a non-committal noise. John took down two cups anyway, then located the pack of bourbons—or what was left of it—and ate a biscuit, waiting for the water to boil.

“Anything?” he called in a moment, as he was adding milk to their tea. When there was no reply John carried the cups and the biscuits into the sitting room.

Sherlock had sat down and was now looking straight at the laptop screen, a finger pressed to his lips. From what John could see, there were only numbers on the screen.

“There are two files like this,” Sherlock said.

“What is it?” John moved to look closer over Sherlock’s shoulder. There was no response. John examined the screen to make sure this was way beyond his comprehension, then pulled up a chair and sat down. He slid one of the cups over to Sherlock and passed him the open packet of biscuits. “Time to refuel a bit.”

Sherlock took a sip of his tea, extracted a biscuit and munched on it—all without taking his eyes off the screen. He pushed his lips forward meditatively. “I don’t understand this.”

“Hmm.” John could do nothing but agree. The only thing that distinguished some figures from others was that they were in bold. They were organized in rows and columns, too, of which John could make no sense. He chewed his own biscuit slowly, eyes glued to the screen like Sherlock’s.

“Do you think it’s some sort of a code?” John asked.

“I don’t think so. There are no patterns in the numbers, no repetition of any sort to indicate they stand for other symbols. There are patterns in the columns though.” Sherlock paused. “It’s like there are—“

His gaze sharpened and he pulled his face away from the screen. John knew better than to speak. Sherlock’s eyes began flickering from one random point to another; his surprisingly light eyelashes barely trembled, like the smallest leaves on the very top of a grand tree. Then the eyes widened, their colour glowing like exotic seaweed…John remembered to breathe just as Sherlock exhaled his name.

“John. Embezzlement, John!”

“Are you sure?” John’s voice hitched. This was something!

“Yes. Look at these empty lines and spaces—this is where the text should be. The plain numbers are the official figures; the bold ones—“

“—are the real ones.” John finished. “Right,” he added quietly.

Sherlock moved closer to the screen again. “Pass me a pen and paper, quick.”

John picked up the pen lying on the desk behind the laptop and pulled a sheet of paper from right under Sherlock’s arm. Sherlock started scribbling numbers frantically, putting some of them together, crossing out others. A minute later he lifted his eyes to John, and there was no mistaking that victorious look.

“I’m right! All the bold figures are higher than the plain ones.” Sherlock had returned his eyes to the screen and was now tapping on it. “They’re scattered quite cleverly but you only need to subtract the corresponding numbers and then add the resulting figures and you’ll have the scale of it. Not a lot, but if this is a monthly spreadsheet—and I think it is—it looks like a bit below a thousand pounds a month. See here, these are expenditure figures,” Sherlock pointed at some numbers.

“Do you think it’s for his tax?” John asked.

“No. A tax return’s form is quite different.”

They sat in silence staring at the numbers and—on John’s part— not really seeing them. Money. Where there was money, there was motive. They’d been so busy focusing on a possible crime of passion that they had dismissed another major reason people got killed.

“Yes, money is always a possibility,” Sherlock said, reading John’s thoughts. “I told you not everything revolved around sex.”

“So—what, do you think he killed Veronica because she knew about it? Did she threaten to expose him?”

Instead of answering Sherlock did a quick search on his laptop—Epping Forest College—and stood up, mobile phone in hand. He dialled the general enquiries number on the screen and started pacing up and down.

“Hi,” he said in his sing-song, normal-people’s voice. “I was wondering if you could help me. I’m doing some research on the government support for higher education. Is it possible to put me in touch with your college treasurer?” Sherlock directed his eyes at John. “George Archer…I see. No, thank you, I’ll just come by next week at some point. Thanks again. Bye-bye.”

He lowered his phone. “Mr. George Archer is the college treasurer,” he said smoothly. ”But Mr. Archer is unwell at the moment and is probably going to be off until the end of the week”.

“You need to call Lestrade,” John said.

“Not yet. Not until I’m sure what this is.” Sherlock contemplated John’s upturned face. “Are you up for a stretch?”

John simply nodded, thoroughly failing to mask the hunger in his eyes.

***

“We could have come here during the day and just asked for information,” John whispered when at last they were safely inside the Epping College administrative building. The wicked softness of Sherlock’s steps didn’t help John in his attempts to distinguish his surroundings—he was hoping the corridors upstairs had the generic night lightning most office buildings had. The basement through which they had entered—broken and entered—was pitch black. Sherlock’s black shirt and trousers and his dark head made him practically invisible.

John’s whisper grew harsher. “Can you say something, please? I don’t even know where you are anymore.”

He suddenly bumped into a warm body, gasped, and felt his fingers tighten reflexively into a fist.

“All right?” Sherlock’s quiet words floated near John’s ear.

“Yes,” John replied. “Just don’t stop so abruptly next time or you might get punched.”

“Strangling me, punching me—sounds like a whale of a time for you, John.” Sherlock remained very close. John lifted his eyes in a futile attempt to read his face.

Then there was a movement of air and Sherlock’s voice was distant and barely audible again. “I only stopped for you to find your bearings.”

Despite the fact that Sherlock couldn’t see him, John still shook his head. “You could have just spoken, thanks. Like answering my question.”

“What question was that?”

“Why didn’t we come here during daylight and just ask what we needed to know?”

“Yes, that would’ve worked out marvellously: ‘Hi, we’re a couple of nobodies who would like to examine your treasurer’s office, preferably when he’s out of it.’

Funny how sarcasm managed to come across in a whisper, John thought—if the whisperer was Sherlock Holmes. In a few seconds Sherlock added, “Besides, you’ve been dying for some action. I couldn’t risk losing whatever little time you still had for me.”

Dry humour came across in whispering, too, it seemed—but John had other things on his mind than wondering if there were any bounds to the capabilities of Sherlock’s voice.

“What do you mean lose whatever time I have for you—which, by the way, is really not little!”

Evidently Sherlock had waited for John because the warmth of his body was nearer again, as was his voice.

“Three times since last week I’ve seen you checking out the Sports Centre brochure that’s been gathering dust for six months. We swim twice a week; in addition, your regular rounds of push-ups and sit-ups suffice to keep you in good shape. You haven’t started going out with a woman in the last couple of weeks so you’re not self-conscious about your body image. Your budget is tight. Therefore the only reason for you to consider joining the gym is that you’ve grown really restless.”

John’s eyes had become accustomed to the dark and he could outline Sherlock’s profile, just as it ceased being a profile—Sherlock turned to seek his face in the dark, too. “This little trip should help quench your thirst for adrenaline. If it’s not enough, I’m sure I can come up with alternatives,” Sherlock finished quietly.

Now there was nothing to read in Sherlock’s tone—and yet it added immensely to John’s heighted sensitivity. The hour, the darkness, the whispering, their close, forbidden steps…Sherlock’s extended observations and deductions about him—everything mixed in John’s belly, making it somersault.

“Just keep walking,” he finally managed to say.

Sherlock did, and they both trod carefully for another few minutes. There was the smell of recently repainted walls and their surface seemed smooth under the occasional brush of John’s fingers. Sherlock had brought his torch but had decided against using it—security guards did occasionally check the basements, too, and the single point of bright light would have stood out for a mile.

Finally they climbed some steps and directly on their left was a thin sliver of light, indicating the presence of a door.

“That should open at the very end of the corridor where Archer’s office is,” Sherlock said.

The light in the corridor was very dim but after their trek in the black of the basement, it assaulted John’s pupils with its brightness. They moved through the corridor in seconds and instantly Sherlock was on his knees, picking the lock of George Archer’s office door. In a moment they were in, darkness engulfing them again.

“Watch the corridor,” Sherlock said, working the blinds down and switching on his torch.

To John the next fifteen minutes seemed to drag into fifty—he could understand that Sherlock needed to read through some of the papers and not just scan them; he also knew there were bound to be a lot of papers, seeing that this was an administrator’s office. But it didn’t help John’s frustration. He was like a giant balloon that had been filled with air and the promise of release, and then kept tied to the ground. He wanted to look at papers, too, even if he didn’t understand them! He needed to do something other than keep an eye on the most uneventful corridor in Britain.

“Ah!” At last came the much-anticipated exhalation.

“What?” John asked.

“I’ll tell you later. I need five more minutes and we’re done.”

John saw Sherlock casting a longing look at the desktop computer, but he didn’t touch it—temptation was evidently reined in. It would have been too dangerous to turn it on: the room had a big window that faced the campus yard directly. Sherlock had checked the blinds again and complained under his breath that they weren’t good enough to provide total obscurity.

After ten more minutes he closed the bottom drawer of the desk and stood up. “Ready.”

John checked both sides of the corridor to find it just as empty as it had been all along, and they were on their way. Their journey back through the basement was quicker now that John had some sense of its duration. He fought to reconcile his conflicting disappointment and relief—yes, they were leaving the building undisturbed and not empty-handed. But it had also been so…It was over too quickly. They came out of the back door into the warm night air—

“Hey! Stop right there!”

John didn’t have the time to register how close the yell had been or from where exactly the stream of light had appeared. His body became aerodynamic: he was flying with exhilaration that made his entire being condense into the motions of his feet and the burn of his lungs. His eyes had one aim (the trees and bushes which fenced the building from the road) and one point of reference (the lithe dark figure ahead of him).

They had certainly lost the security guard by the time they got onto the main road, but they didn’t slow down until the lights of Debden Underground station were in sight. Their breathing was still broken as they climbed into one of the two black cabs parked outside. Sherlock gave their address and scooted further in to let John drop next to him.

John made sure the driver’s window was closed before saying with a rasp, “At the last moment.”

“Hmm,” Sherlock agreed between breaths. “Better now?”

John turned to look at him. “Well, we usually run after someone. Didn’t quite have in mind being chased myself.”

Sherlock waved a hand, panting. “Oh, you know what they say: Variety spices things up. It’s the key to keeping your blogger happy.” He suddenly grinned at John, and John’s vision swam. He tucked his chin into his chest and laughed. Sherlock’s chest shook with his own laughter.

They both let their lungs recover for a while, then John prompted, “So, what did you find in the office?”

Sherlock produced a folded sheet of paper from his pocket.

“A few contacts that need checking. The college has had money coming in from a few big budget schemes: a local authority, a charity, and I’m not sure about the third but I gather it has something to do with diversity. Archer has managed the budgets—these are some of the companies that have been contracted in the last six months.”

“Why those exactly?”

“I’ve remembered the name of the one really big contractor just in case. But a big company has its contracts diligently checked out.” Sherlock tried to stretch his legs and failed, then went on. “A small contractor knows his business to the last nook and cranny and the last man-hour—you can’t steal from him. The easiest embezzlement scheme from George Archer’s position is to go for small amounts of money from the medium-sized contractors: pocketing three hundred pounds out of seven thousand is not a problem.”

John nodded. “I still think you should tell Lestrade though. Whether or not this is related to Veronica’s murder, the police need to investigate Archer.”

“I need to have something substantial first. I can’t let the police get in the way. They’ll go to Archer immediately—“

“You can’t let the police get in the—It’s the police, Sherlock! It’s their job to—“

“Archer mustn’t be aware we’re onto him, John!” Sherlock’s tone was imploring. “I need to find out whether his wife was involved, too. If she was, then she could have covered up for him that night and—” He interrupted himself this time and began listing his goals, using his fingers as a visual aid. “I need to check if they’re in it together, check for how long this has been going on, check if Veronica Havisham could have known about it, and check what George Archer needed the money for—he’s not exactly poor.”

“True,” John agreed on the last point. He waited for Sherlock to continue, but when he didn’t, John pressed. “So what do you think?”

“I think this is an interesting case and my time is not being wasted.”

Sherlock rested his head on the window and averted his eyes to the road again. John mirrored his pose and they travelled the rest of the way in silence.

 

***

 

John had slept barely four hours when he woke up. He spent thirty minutes squeezing his eyes shut with little result before he decided to get up; there was only an hour left before his alarm, anyway.

He’d dreamt of tunnels. He was making his way through them, knowing that Sherlock was at the other end, but when John got there, he only found sheets of paper, hundreds of them, floating down through the air in slow motion. John could hear Sherlock saying his name over and over, and he kept going backwards and forwards trying to find him.

It was odd, as usual, to see Sherlock in the real world after he’d appeared in John’s dreams, but this time the oddness was magnified by the fact that Sherlock himself was fast asleep at the table in the sitting room. John considered him for a moment. He tended to let him be, with a few notable exceptions—such as finding  Sherlock bent over the sofa’s armrest and sleeping with his head down like a bat. John wouldn’t have disturbed him this time, either, if it wasn’t for the fact that Sherlock’s laptop was digging into his face: His head had dropped onto the keyboard and stayed there long enough for John to notice small red creases where keys had pressed into the skin. John hesitated—smiling suddenly at the sight of Sherlock’s full mouth, now pressed on one side to become even plumper—then at length reached out and lifted Sherlock’s head with one hand. He slid the laptop away with the other, gently lowered Sherlock’s head back onto the desk, shut the computer, and was on his way out.

It was a relatively easy day at the surgery. John saw his patients and caught up on some paperwork but in every free second he had, he was ruminating on the recent developments of the case.

To say he was surprised that so many people had something mysterious about them would be a lie. The trick was to separate the circumstantial oddities and personal quirks from the genuinely sinister qualities that revealed a real suspect. Thankfully, Sherlock was very good at doing just that, and John had to admit part of Sherlock’s success stemmed from his lack of personal involvement. Case in point: While last night John was musing on whether Mrs. Langley’s unsympathetic character could have extended to complete disregard of right and wrong, Sherlock had spent some time checking if there were speed cameras between her workplace and Hainault Forest. John felt small pride that, even if couldn’t deduce Mrs. Langley’s actions, he was at least able to deduce Sherlock’s—Sherlock was obviously trying to establish if she could have driven her car far over the speed limit, saving herself time and lessening the risk of her absence being noticed.

Eager for updates, John checked his phone every few minutes for text messages—a rather futile exercise, since the phone was always on vibrate in his pocket and there was no chance of John missing anything. It did buzz twice over the course of his shift, to deliver two texts from Sherlock. The first was asking about Sherlock’s microscope lenses. John smiled and replied with a short ‘Just think, Sherlock.’  During his last mighty fit of ennui Sherlock had used the lenses to burn holes in the carpet and they were currently in Mrs. Hudson’s possession until she got reimbursed for her damaged property. The second message contained a picture of Sherlock wearing a pair of glasses, a crisp white shirt, and a shrewd look in his eyes. In addition, his hair was combed and flattened to one side. The text read ‘Do I look like a harmless clerk from the Inland Revenue?’  John responded ‘A clerk, yes. Harmless—not in a million years,’ saved the photo for future mocking, and counted the hours to his return home.

His journey back was tedious. The weather was growing very hot again and there was traffic, too, so John got off two stops early and walked the rest of the way. Last night’s little adventure had whetted his appetite for more action and John enjoyed walking briskly through the quieter back streets. His thoughts marched with him: Was George Archer’s embezzlement connected to Veronica’s murder? Yes. Was Mrs. Archer in on it? No. Was Simon Sinclair hiding something about Veronica? Yes. Did he kill her? No. Was Mr. Langley richer than he let people think? Yes. Was it through something illegal? Yes.

Was Veronica’s family involved in her murder?

John had let the answers to his previous questions come to him in a flash, more or less following his gut feeling. He left the reasoning to Sherlock—John would have never admitted it to him, but he relished being free from the science of deduction once in a while so he could let his instinct run the place. However, the question about Veronica’s family gave him pause, even as his feet continued eating up the distance to Baker Street.

Since the very beginning of the case, John had reflected on the Havishams time and time again. He really wished he had the opportunity to spend more time with them, but for very different reasons. George Havisham he simply liked, and felt sympathy for. Diane Havisham was a real puzzle—John was torn among strong dislike for the woman, some begrudging respect for her brusque honesty, and something else entirely. He couldn’t identify it, but he suspected it had something to do with her mind. John hadn’t forgotten she was a very unassuming self-made millionaire: The Havishams’ house cost at least seven-hundred thousand pounds and Diane Havisham had supported the entire family for quite a while—she was obviously a very intelligent woman. It also hadn’t escaped John’s attention that she’d barely cast him a look the first time they met, yet had remembered both his name and his occupation.

As for the father, he was the one person in this case about whom John had no real feeling. All that came to John’s mind when he thought of Tom Havisham was how devastated he was over his daughter’s death.

Sherlock was right—the case was very interesting. John sincerely hoped he’d find new developments at home.

What he found was a small party consisting of Mrs. Hudson, leaning on the kitchen portal, cup of tea in hand; Lestrade, sitting in the leather chair, looking dishevelled and impressed; and Sherlock, no longer bespectacled but still sleek-haired and shrewd-eyed. Something else flashed in his eyes, too, when they fell on John—John would have liked to call it gladness to see him—before Sherlock served him with a question as means of ‘hello’.

“Do you think George Archer has a drug habit, John?”

John looked from one person to the other, mouth hung between “What?” and a greeting, before he actually considered Sherlock’s question.

“Erm, I can’t really say,” he said. “When we saw him he looked awful, but he was barely on the mend.”

Sherlock flicked his wrist impatiently. “Yes, yes—but drugs? In your medical opinion?”

“Medic or no medic, you can’t always tell when people have a drug habit,” John said, eyes not leaving Sherlock’s.

“Fine,” Sherlock said after a beat. “I don’t think he does. No gambling, no drugs—what does he need the money for?”

“Prostitutes,” Mrs. Hudson spoke from her corner. “They’re expensive these days. Mrs. Stubbs—you know her, John, from across the road, three numbers up. The elderly lady with the white hair—we met her once in Regent’s Park, when she was chased by that Canadian goose and you were so brave, remember?“

John nodded, because he did remember, and suppressed a smile at Sherlock’s incredulous expression.

 “Well,” Mrs. Hudson continued, “she used to rent to this nice girl, and only found out she was a call girl after she moved out. Apparently the girl—Jenny, her name was—was earning hundreds of pounds for one evening.”

Everyone stared at Mrs. Hudson.

“She was a very attractive girl,” she added fairly, unfazed by the presence of a police officer.

The staring continued for another moment, then Lestrade turned to Sherlock and said, “It’s a possibility.”

Sherlock propped himself on the desk edge and pressed his steepled fingers to his mouth.

“There is of course the most obvious explanation,” he said at length.

“Which is?” Lestrade asked.

“That he was Veronica’s mystery lover.”

John almost barked his laugh. “Sherlock, that’s ridiculous!”

Sherlock didn’t seem offended at all. “He is older,” he began, “he’s in her circle of close people; he started embezzling around the same time we suspect Veronica started seeing the other man. And I didn’t even have to resort to the more unreliable—but equally convincing—explanations that any psychologist worth his diploma would give you. No, George Archer fits the profile perfectly.”

John found he didn’t really have anything to counter Sherlock’s words. He should’ve got used to it by now, really—Sherlock never said anything without solid back-up.

“I see what you mean,” Lestrade was saying meanwhile. “It’s sick, but he’s kind of perfect: Grieving for his daughter and transferring his affections onto Veronica. And Veronica was a ‘daddy’s girl’, so George Archer was perfect for her, too—the father of her friend. The friend who died.” Lestrade rubbed his face. “Blimey, the more I talk about it, the more messed up it seems,” he said.

There was a long moment of silence, then Mrs. Hudson spoke again, voice serious. “Oh, I hope it’s not that poor man—the papers would love it.”

“We all hope it’s not him, Mrs. Hudson,” John said sincerely. He turned to Sherlock. “What have you been up to today? Anything new?”

“Yes!” Sherlock jumped back to life. “Quite a few things! First, the mud from Langley’s bike—it is from the Essex area. Trouble is, there’s plenty of woodland in that part of Essex. The nearest place to the Langleys’ house is Great Monks Wood. I’ll have to go collect samples from there, from Epping Forest, and—“

Lestrade interrupted. “My people can do that. You don’t have to do everything yourself, Sherlock.”

“Yes, but if I do it myself, it gets done quicker and better,” Sherlock replied crossly.

Lestrade rolled his eyes and got up from his chair. “I’m going to call them now—give me the places we need samples taken from.”

Sherlock turned and rummaged through the papers on the desk until he found a few colourful print-outs of maps—green patches had been circled on them.

“Here.” He handed them to Lestrade. ”Tell your people to collect the samples not just from the cyclist routes but from the more rural areas, too.”

Lestrade picked up the papers and studied them for a few seconds, then walked to the kitchen. Mrs. Hudson moved out of the way and helped him shut the doors, then looked at John. “Have you had any lunch, dear?”

“Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock said, eyes narrowing, “can we leave that for now?”

Mrs. Hudson only lifted her hands in a pacifying, wordless ‘of course’ and cast John a regretful look. John smiled at her, finally moving away from the door and into the room.

“Go on,” he told Sherlock.

Sherlock didn’t need telling twice.

“We’ve got evidence for the embezzlement. The police are checking the contract details now, but I could spot straight away at least one instance where a couple hundred pounds didn’t add up. Lestrade’s dying to confront George Archer, but apparently Archer collapsed this morning and was taken to hospital—the doctors won’t let the police in.”

John’s jaw dropped at the news. “Why didn’t you text me?”

“What could you have done?” Sherlock asked, puzzled.

“I wouldn’t have done anything, you twit. I just wanted to know.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh’,” John mimicked. “How many times have I asked you to keep me posted?”

“Well, you were going to be here any minute and I got…” Sherlock didn’t finish. He looked rather remorseful. John sighed.

“Yeah, I know how you get,” he said, some bitterness still lingering. “Go on, what else have I missed? You haven’t got the murderer, have you?”

Mrs. Hudson tutted. “Let me go and make you a cuppa, John, dear; you’re stressed out.”

“Er, thanks, Mrs. Hudson, that’s all ri—“ John started but Mrs. Hudson spoke over him.

“He hasn’t stopped all day, either, you know.” She pointed a pair of motherly eyes at Sherlock and disappeared into the kitchen, closing the doors behind.

Finally alone, Sherlock and John looked at each other in silence. John moved to the sofa and dropped onto it, then lifted his eyes to Sherlock. “I’m listening,” he said.

Sherlock swiftly sat down next to him.

“I found out who Nazia is!”

John dug through his memory for a few seconds to recover where he’d heard the name, but he got it—the girl whose birthday card was displayed so proudly in Simon’s house, months after his birthday.

“Mrs. Sinclair works at a golf club in Essex,” Sherlock said. “I went there first, thought it was a good place to start. Mothers aren’t usually so keen to pair up their only sons, especially if there’s no father around—it was obvious Nazia had to have something that made Mrs. Sinclair forget her possessiveness and cheer for her. The answer was simple: money.”

John frowned. “That’s a lot of psychology for you to rely on.”

Sherlock looked at him with mild pity. “Don’t be naïve, John. I know murder motives are mostly in the realms of psychology. It’s only in investigating ‘how’ that I rely on scientific facts and objective data—the ‘why’ can’t be seen under a microscope. It can still be deduced from facts but in its nature it’s about people. I’d be a fool not to recognize it.”

“Okay.” John was surprised how relieved he was to hear Sherlock thinking like a human being himself. “So money?”

Sherlock nodded, eyes bright. “Money. They’re poor. The mother wanted to do a boot sale because their car wasn’t good enough for Simon. She obviously can’t provide for him long-term. Golf is expensive—it’s not the hobby of the working classes. So I went to the golf club and asked around.” Sherlock leaned forward. “Nazia is Nazia Wilbury—daughter of the club’s owner, Mr. Alistair Wilbury. Simon’s been working there on and off over the past couple of years and, as the janitor’s lady friend put it, ‘the boss’ daughter fancies Simon rotten’.”

“You think Mrs. Sinclair is hoping they’ll get together.” John was thinking out loud.

“I don’t know for sure,” Sherlock said. “But she obviously didn’t think Nazia was too fancy for them.”

John contemplated. Some parents did whatever they could to ensure their children’s future was secure, and going out with the daughter of a golf club owner would certainly make someone’s future prospects brighter.

“Mr. Wilbury’s fortune is estimated at a bit over four million pounds,” said Sherlock, watching John.

John couldn’t care less that his mouth seemed to be catching flies all the time lately—that was a lot of money!

“Nazia would be any mother’s favourite daughter in-law,” he said.

“Just what I thought. Mrs. Wilbury is Pakistani and had what’s called a ‘humble upbringing’. So it’s safe to infer there wouldn’t be any objections to the union from Nazia’s side of the family, either.”

John nodded slowly. He rubbed his face and shook himself like a dog. “Okay, next?”

“While I was investigating parents, I thought I’d check Mrs. Langley’s workplace,” Sherlock continued. “Her alibi checks out—she was one of the two meet-and-greet staff members at the IVF Open Evening, and she was in plain sight the entire time. John Langley’s ‘lads’ swear they did have pints with him all night, but one of them has a heavily pregnant wife who’s about to go into labour—er…” Sherlock suddenly stopped, eyes shifty.

“What have you done?” John asked wearily.

“I haven’t done anything,” Sherlock said, defensive. “There was a bit of an altercation with Lestrade earlier, when I suggested the wife should be pressed about the real time her husband came home.”

“You can’t go pressuring pregnant women, Sherlock! Jesus!” John looked askance.

The corners of Sherlock’s mouth drooped slightly. “You sound just like Lestrade. I only meant that we should go and ask her whether her husband came home straight after work as usual. You know people respond to statements better than they do to direct questions. I wasn’t suggesting we bully her. I’m not a monster.”

Sherlock was studying the coffee table with great fascination, the corners of his mouth still pointing downwards.

“Of course not,” John said. He smiled before he could help himself. “That would have worked perfectly.”

Sherlock’s eyes jumped to John’s face and shone. “I know it would have. That’s why I suggested you call her. I think your voice has a better ring to it; you sound very…trustworthy. But Lestrade said they’d deal with it.”

John was saved responding by Lestrade’s return to the room, a cup in hand and Mrs. Hudson on his heels, carrying another cup and a plate of Oreos. She left them on the table in front of John, waved off his thanks and went to sink into the shabby armchair.

“Samples of mud will be collected today and sent to Bart’s for you,” Lestrade told Sherlock.

“Thank you.”

Lestrade nodded and looked at John. “Speaking of Bart’s, you going to George Parish’ birthday drinks tonight?”

John was genuinely surprised. “He mentioned something about his birthday, but I thought it was next week.”

“All I know is he’s having a few people round at The Tavern tonight. Sorry, I thought he’d asked you.”

John shook his head, then fished his phone out to find one unread text message.

“Hang on,” he said, opening it. “Yeah, it’s from him.“

Sherlock’s bored voice rose. “If it’s not too much to ask, can you compare your busy social calendars after we’re finished talking about the case?”

“Sorry,” John mumbled and hid his phone. “Yes?”

Sherlock looked at him blankly for a few seconds, before resuming his exposé, excitement breaking through his voice.

“Finally, I did some research on that rash on Veronica’s wrists. It’s most likely a reaction to something synthetic that was in direct contact with her skin.” Sherlock’s fingers seemed to pin the word ‘direct’ onto an invisible board.

“Yes, our experts confirmed that,” Lestrade said.

“What they forgot to mention was that whatever provoked the rash had to have rubbed onto the skin for at least half an hour in order for the reaction to occur,” Sherlock finished.

They all looked at each other, expectant that someone would speak, and when no one did they all sank into their own thoughts. John certainly had plenty to chew on! His head was aching from an accumulation of data that at best looked numerous, and at worst chaotic and confusing.

Mrs. Hudson startled them all.

“She couldn’t have been tied up for half an hour before-hand, could she, Sherlock?”

Sherlock shook his head. “Highly unlikely. She’d have had to be gagged or drugged to keep quiet for such a long time, and no traces of either were discovered at the autopsy.”

“Oh dear,” Mrs. Hudson said solemnly, then sighed. “Poor thing.”

In a moment another sigh floated from the same end of the room, and Lestrade got up. “Well, I’m off to take Lisa Langley’s written statement. By the way,” he looked at Sherlock in a half-hearted attempt to scold him, “don’t think I don’t know you lied to Lisa that her mate Sharraine had given her up. Sharraine didn’t even know the cat was out of the bag. I’ve told you before—you can’t lie to people to coax the truth out of them.”

When there was no response from Sherlock, Lestrade made his way to the door where he paused, scratching his head. “And um, thank you for your help,” he said, looking at Sherlock earnestly. “I appreciate it. Just…keep me involved, all right?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said mechanically. John could see his mind was miles away. He got up to see Lestrade off.

“So, you coming tonight?” Lestrade asked quietly when they were in the landing.

“Not sure yet,” John said, “but I think I might, yeah.” Lestrade nodded and disappeared down the stairs. John turned to go back into the sitting room and almost collided with Mrs. Hudson.

“I’ll be off, too, John,” she said, then pressed her hands together against her chest. “Oh, it’s so interesting! Too bad I can’t tell anyone, not until the case is closed— that’s what the inspector always says.” Mrs. Hudson gave him a pat on the shoulder as she walked past him. “You make sure Sherlock eats something. He’s gone very pale again, even with the sun on his nose and cheeks.”

“I will, Mrs. Hudson. Thanks.” John closed the door behind her. It was hot, but a draft could be made by opening the kitchen window instead—he just didn’t feel like leaving the door to their flat open right now.

Sherlock had stretched out on the sofa, and was holding his violin to his chest, plucking its strings lightly; his face was slack and his eyes unfocused. John went to the kitchen quietly and made him some tea, then buttered a slice of toast and brought it all back to the sitting room. He placed them on the table with a single command: “It’s Wednesday—eat.”

Sherlock looked up at him; their eyes locked for a few seconds, then Sherlock picked up the toast and took a large bite from it. John returned to the kitchen for his own toast and came back into the sitting room to start checking the websites Veronica had visited. The links had been in his inbox since the previous afternoon, duly sent by George Havisham.

In a couple of minutes the soft, random notes of the violin floated around the room again.

***

The Jerusalem Tavern—or just The Tavern, as John knew it from his student days—was a very small pub only a few minutes’ walk from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. John hadn’t favoured it back in the day, preferring instead to walk three times the distance to another pub. It wasn’t that The Tavern was bad. On the contrary, not only did it tick every single box on the list of what a traditional British pub should be, but it offered excellent ale, too. Two things had bothered John: that it was such a small place and that it was a favourite with a lot of suited people. Everyone had been friendly but John used to feel out of place—he’d arrived in London only a few years before that. Still, nowadays he was nostalgically attached to the pub; he and Mike Stamford had popped in for a pint a few times over the last eighteen months.

George Parish must have been a regular, because he’d managed to reserve the long table at the back for his little get-together. John arrived soon after eight and there were already a few people drinking, Lestrade one of them. He lifted his hand to beckon John. The gesture was completely unnecessary since most people had chosen to take their drinks out and there were only a handful of people inside; besides, the place was tiny. But John nodded with a smile—never laid back when he met new people, he appreciated the welcome from a familiar face. George’s face lit up, too, and in a moment John was standing with a pint in hand, chatting to both men and to a friend of George’s, whose name he’d failed to remember.

John was glad he could remember his own name. After three hours staring at the screen of his web search, he felt like his temporal lobe had gone on a holiday to join his occipital lobe. Dresses, shoes, holiday destinations, gloves and hats, tips on healthy hair, gossip columns, blogs, blogs, blogs…His head was filled with the online world of a seventeen-year-old girl, and John craved the company of blokes.

When he’d left the flat, he felt like a dog that was being let out alone after a very long stay indoors. On one hand, he was dazzled by the smell of summer evening and the reinvigorating bustle on the street—hordes of Londoners and tourists were walking past the doorstep of 221B on their way to Regent’s Park. But he’d also been reluctant to leave, in case Sherlock needed him or there were new developments on the case. Sherlock had thought and thought, never moving from his spot. That was where John left him. Sherlock’s eyes were closed but he wished John goodbye after John’s “I’m off. Call me if there’s anything.”

As the evening progressed in suitably male conversations and as the drinks in him multiplied, John found his dog metaphor less and less insulting. It had been discomfiting initially—he doubted he’d ever forget what Moriarty had insinuated that night at the pool; never had the word “pet” carried such a demeaning connotation as it had in that taunting Irish accent.

But if John was going to be honest with himself, he had to admit it was an apt comparison. He had no illusions about the dynamics of their relationship: Sherlock led, John followed. John also fetched, ran—and bit, if anyone threatened Sherlock. And it was fine, more than fine. There were many like John and very few like Sherlock. Since this was his own goddamn head, John was even willing to confess that there was, in fact, no one like Sherlock. And to be chosen to witness him work—no, something more—to be part of Sherlock’s work, part of his life, was just—

It was a privilege, really.

Alcohol was a notorious disinhibitor and usually expanded self-honesty to encompass others, so John found it a natural progression that he should inform Sherlock of this epiphany. It was hardly breaking news as such, but John had just achieved a rare level of succinct and accurate phrasing. He suspected this was indicative of how long it had been since he’d last been on the sloshed side. He took his phone out and opened a new message, then squinted at the screen. Just the name of the devil promised to be a nightmare to type with the keys and the letters pleasantly blurred in front of John’s eyes. “Sherlock,” John started, aided by the miracle of predictive text, then stopped. He couldn’t really rattle out his entire dog’s chain of associations, yet he desperately wanted Sherlock to understand. Although maybe, seeing that even John didn’t quite understand how it was possible for one person to be so…so…Hell, if John lacked the words to describe to himself how Sherlock was, what he was, then how was he supposed to explain it to him?

“You all right?” Lestrade’s hand squeezed his shoulder.

“Yeah,” John said, putting his capitulated phone back into his pocket. He felt exactly the way he did when he saw Sherlock after he’d dreamt about him. Thankfully Lestrade didn’t look remotely as insightful as Sherlock; indeed, he only nodded, head moving like a marionette’s. John watched him for a few seconds and concluded Lestrade must have had a few drinks as well. The marionette’s head suddenly tilted towards the door. “Fancy coming out for some air? I’m dying for a smoke.”

John found the idea excellent. He’d spent most of the time out, anyway, but he’d been back inside for the last twenty minutes. “Sure,” he replied, and led the way.

People had spilled onto the tucked-in, narrow street, and the dusk was filled with chatter and occasional laughter. The bright colours of loosened ties and the eclectic patterns of students’ t-shirts formed a giant patchwork quilt that stood out against the dark background. The scent of flowers from some nearby hanging baskets and the smell of beer mingled with all the sights and sounds to create the unique atmosphere of a London summer night. Lestrade and John had to squeeze through small groups of people and walk a fair bit away, before they found a quiet spot. Lestrade had been gingerly holding a single cigarette; as soon as they came out, he propped it between his lips and asked a fellow smoker for a light. The flickers of the flame were both flattering to his features and indiscreet about his age; John was reminded Lestrade was older than he, and a good decade older than Sherlock.

“I didn’t know you’d gone back to smoking,” John said. “You were doing quite well.”

Smoke came out from Lestrade’s curled lips in guilty rings of pleasure. “This is a one off,” he said. “I have a single cigarette once in a while. Last time was four months ago.”

“Really?” John marvelled. “Doesn’t it kill you to have that hit and then stop yourself from having any more?”

“Well, it does if you put it that way,” Lestrade drawled, mockingly telling John off, then grinned. John grinned back and let it go. They stood in silence for a long while, both drinking slowly. Lestrade was nearly finished with his cigarette when he spoke again.

“Does he ever go out? Like this, like a normal bloke.”

John’s voice came through cotton wool into his own ears. “I don’t even think of him as a ‘bloke’, let alone a normal one.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Lestrade did the marionette nod again. “I s’pose we’re too boring for him.”

John considered his words for a moment, then said agreeably, “He is a genius. Everyone’s too boring for him.”

Lestrade took a final drag on his cigarette—its small red tip like a tiny volcano seen from above. He blew the smoke out quickly, squinting.

“Yeah, the rest of us are.” He made a sweeping gesture to everyone around them, then his eyes returned to John. “You’re not. Boring to him.”

John shook his head once. “I don’t know about that.”

“Well I do. I’ve seen him before and I see him now, and I’m telling you—I don’t know what goes on in that head of his, but you’ve found yourself a spot there.” Lestrade smirked, but there was something melancholic about his mouth. “Don’t know if you should be glad or terrified.”

John didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything.

Lestrade’s eyes tried to focus on the writing over the pub door; he pointed an accusing finger at it.

“1720, right! Did you know the actual pub only opened like twenty years ago? Cheeky buggers, putting that over there.”

“I like it, though,” John said, suddenly realizing it was now true.

“So do I.” Lestrade rolled his head and stretched fully, the glowing outline of his shirt making him look like an eagle, spreading his wings. “So do I.”

***

John walked through the front door a bit after midnight. He’d taken a cab and spent half the journey with his head out the window, letting the cool air beat his face. That, and the fact that he’d left when he should have, meant that inserting the key into the front door lock took only two attempts. His head was clearer, but he was still grateful he didn’t have an early tomorrow.

The whole house was unlit and silent as he entered. Not surprising for Mrs. Hudson, who always said the sleep before midnight was the real beauty sleep. John climbed the steps to their flat in darkness and wondered if Sherlock hadn’t become so carried away in his thinking that he’d forgotten to turn on the lights. It wouldn’t have been a first. However, street light revealed the sofa was empty and so was the entire sitting-room. John felt gladness that even Sherlock’s manic brain must have demanded some time off tonight. He headed for the bathroom—and as soon as he walked into the kitchen he could see there was light coming from under the bathroom door.

John knocked on the door once, in case Sherlock was asleep in his bedroom and the light had just been left on. When there was no response he knocked again, calling quietly, “Sherlock?” This time, he thought he heard a faint squeak, as if someone was moving a finger over glass.

“Sherlock, are you in there?” John’s voice had reached its normal strength.

This time there was definitely a scratching noise coming from inside. John placed his hand over the doorknob. “Sherlock, I’m coming in.”

He lowered the handle, pushed the door, and even before it had opened fully he could see Sherlock’s white shirt on the floor—only it was no longer white. Violent, unmistakeable red spots had ruined its immaculate look. John’s ears went deaf. His eyes burned as they finally fell on the half-filled bathtub where Sherlock—a mess of hair, dirt, and rivulets of the same vile red colour—was feebly trying to lift himself up.

***


When John was in Afghanistan—even before that in fact, during his military training—people said there were times when you separated from yourself during action. You’d rush to the field and there’d be seven soldiers needing you: some bleeding, others unconscious, some staring at their own leg, lying a few yards away from them. Apparently that was when you started hearing your own voice both in your head and outside it, as if someone else was speaking. “You do what you’ve got do,” one of John’s training officers had said, blinking at the tiny bubbles of beer in his glass, “but it’s like you’re also watching yourself do it.”

John had tried to get his head around that. Of course, the phenomenon wasn’t unknown to him in theory: The human psyche jumped through all kinds of hoops to preserve itself from lasting damage. But John had tried to imagine what it would feel like. He never found out while he was out there. His nerves shook but he mastered them without fail; he was always in complete, hundred percent possession of his focus and presence.

Now he saw Sherlock bleeding in the bathtub and suddenly, he was also watching himself, too. As he rushed upstairs to collect his medical bag, John observed his own feet take the steps two at a time, his own hands open the bag swiftly and run over its contents. He heard his own breath as it measured the seconds necessary to return to the bathroom. He told Sherlock what to do and what not to do, and he listened to his voice both in his own head and as if it were someone else’s voice—a capable someone; a calm someone whose tone didn’t leave any room for hysteria or objection.

As a result Sherlock was now sitting on the lid of the loo, silent and ready for examination. John had used a big towel as an improvised blanket and had wrapped Sherlock’s bare feet in another towel. When he was confident that Sherlock wasn’t freezing and there was no danger of him going into shock, John began working. His hands became a calculated blur over Sherlock’s naked body: Check for concussion, check the ribs, check for internal haemorrhaging, check the lungs, check the multiple bruises and grazes over the torso, check the kidneys—pain in the left kidney area. Apply pressure, ask questions, catalogue answers. Mental note to self: No serious kidney damage; take urine sample to hospital tomorrow.

John felt all incoming information compartmentalize at entry point—all that was medically relevant remained, everything else was dispatched immediately to a special colony very far away, where it was left for the time being.

His hands continued their downward journey, but upon finishing with Sherlock’s lower abdomen, they stopped. Suddenly John felt like he was returning to his body through a tight and burning passage, the size of a pipette. He took a deep breath through his nostrils and looked up at Sherlock, to find his face white and his eyes shut.

“Sherlock.” John’s voice had ceased coming from outside his ears.

Sherlock looked down, eyes having the almost obedient look they’d had all along—John was able to acknowledge it only now. He steeled himself.

“Is there—“ John took another breath and forced his face to relax. It could get much worse; he couldn’t let himself panic now, he couldn’t allow himself even to think about—Right.

“Were you…hurt in any other way?” he asked.

Sherlock’s eyes tried to focus, some confusion in them; then they fell on John’s fingers near his pelvis and understanding dawned.

“No,” Sherlock’s voice was quiet but calm. “No. I’m fine.”

John nodded, feeling so light-headed that he had to bow his head and wait for the spell to pass. His eyes focused on Sherlock’s navel; the spiral of his belly-button was hypnotic and John followed its swirl for a few seconds, until he could feel his mind go down to a simmer and then to flatness.

He continued his examination, now attending to Sherlock’s legs and feet: some broken skin, one big graze on the knee, small swelling of the left ankle—possible damage of the calcaneofibular ligament. Monitor and x-ray, bandage for the night.

John picked up his bag and observed the small, oddly shaped stain on the inside of the bag (like a bee or a wasp perhaps); he got up and observed the drag of his own feet. He heard his own breathing next to his ears and he knew he’d departed once more. Good—he could do with a steady hand now.

He turned to Sherlock.

“You need a few stitches for the cut above your eyebrow. It’s not a big gash but the place is very vascu—the area is richly supplied in blood and that’s what makes it look far worse than it actually—“

Sherlock managed a small look of ‘I’m not an idiot, John,’ so John cut his own sentence short. “I’ll be done in a minute,” he said.

He cleaned the spot, half an inch over Sherlock’s right eyebrow, wet Sherlock’s curls and pushed them to keep them back and away from the skin, administered the local anaesthetic, did the stitches…all the while feeling as he was watching himself over his own shoulder. He covered the area with a plaster and bowed to look at Sherlock’s lip, uncertain. Suddenly he was accosted by the memory of how Sherlock’s mouth had looked this morning: sleepy, round and disarming. Now it was darkened with dried blood and the bottom lip was split, no two ways about it. Again, something rushed through John’s chest and he could feel every single pound of his weight. He ordered himself to concentrate.

“You won’t need stitches here,” he said. Sherlock met his eyes in complete consent. John spent a few minutes cleaning the lips carefully—Sherlock tried to take the cloth, but John put his hand back in his lap—and when he was done, he went to the sink to wash his hands. He spoke with his back to Sherlock.

“We’re going to the hospital tomorrow. I’ll monitor you during the night.” John turned around and pursed his lips. “You need to wash,” he said. “Then I’ll give you a shot of painkillers and you’re going to sleep.”

Sherlock spoke for the first time since John had come in.

“I wanted to shower but I couldn’t stay upright—I thought a bath might also relieve some of the…” His voice trailed off.

“I’ll help you,” John said.

He pulled the plug to let the water drain—the same removed part of him observed how it sloshed about and disappeared; its colour had a hint of copper from the dirt and blood that were still visible on Sherlock’s body. John used the shower to clean the bathtub with piping hot water, then began filling tit. His efficient mind produced the mental image of a sponge. John rummaged below the sink and dug out the unopened basket of luxury bath items Harriet had given him for Christmas. John could fill a cupboard with his sister’s useless gifts, but this time, in a literal cupboard, there it was: The basket that contained a big, ridiculously soft, useful sponge. John ran the hot water tab in the sink and quickly disinfected the sponge. His hands got incredibly red, but he didn’t seem to feel the scalding water. He turned back to the bath to see it half-full, touched the water with the back of his wrist to ensure it wasn’t too hot or too cold, then stood in front of Sherlock, who lifted his face to look at him.

“Let’s get you in,” John said.

Once Sherlock was sitting in the tub, John detached the shower rod, switched the water flow and turned to him again.

“I’m going to wash your hair now,” he said, “but you need to tip your head back. We need to watch your face.”

Sherlock got hold of the side of the bathtub and tilted his head backwards, wincing.

“I’ll be quick,” John said. “You’ll get that shot in a few minutes.”

“I’m okay.” Sherlock’s voice was barely audible over the running water.

John washed his hair in the space of thirty seconds, threading his fingers through it gently, afraid there were some small cuts or bruises on the skull that he’d missed. Sherlock’s face didn’t flinch; he’d closed his eyes and his eyelids weren’t frantic so John rinsed his hair thoroughly, touch more assured. The water had a muddy, grey colour but thankfully the copper tinge was gone from it—just dirt then, no blood.

John used the sponge and a drop of Sherlock’s shower gel to work up a bit of lather—then the observing distance somehow increased as he watched his steady hands run over the pale body, avoiding areas where the skin was broken. The muscles on Sherlock’s chest tensed a few times and once he let out a hiss. “Sorry, sorry,” John heard himself say over and over again.

Finally, he pulled the plug again and ran the shower over Sherlock’s body, watching the gentle spray wash away the last remnants of soap, dirt, and blood. When Sherlock was clean John stopped the water and grabbed his own towel which thankfully he’d changed only this morning. “Tilt your head back again,” he commanded.

Sherlock obliged, his eyes closing once more. John pressed the towel onto Sherlock’s hair, giving it a few seconds to absorb the moisture, then rotated the towel three or four times until it was damp and Sherlock’s hair was no longer dripping.

“I’ll be back in a second,” John said and rushed into Sherlock’s bedroom to retrieve his largest and fluffiest clean towel—the distant thought of kissing Mrs. Hudson next time he saw her crossed his mind, as he watched his hands close the cupboard.

Back in the bathroom Sherlock had managed to stand up—a lean tower of shivering, marred ivory. John helped him out of the bathtub, expecting the gasp when Sherlock stepped on his left foot.

“Lift your arms a bit,” John said, and the towel moved over Sherlock’s form efficiently, barely fluttering over the bruised and grazed areas. Finally John used it to pat Sherlock’s hair again, then wrapped it around Sherlock’s waist. Sherlock fumbled with it, but managed to secure it.

“Come on,” John said, lifting Sherlock’s right arm—there’d been fewer signs of pain on that side when he’d examined the torso earlier—and the two of them limped through the small space between the bathroom and Sherlock’s bedroom. John let go to sweep the papers from the bed onto the floor and quickly straighten the bottom sheet, then he was back with Sherlock to manoeuvre him down onto the mattress.

It was time to take care of the few spots where the skin was broken; John dressed them, dispassionately noting the record short time it took. He cleared his throat, suddenly wondering if actual sound would come out—it felt so raw, like he had screamed for hours.

“Let’s get you dressed,” he said, and was grateful to hear himself. “I’ll give you the painkillers, then I’ll bandage your ankle, and then a sleeping pill.”

Sherlock nodded. He had been turning his limbs and torso to allow John better access and was now sitting on the bed, hands in his towelled lap, looking like a shy visitor in his own bedroom. His eyes met John’s and they looked at each other for a moment, frozen. Then John turned and went through Sherlock’s drawers to find a pair of clean pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, handed them to him, and turned back to search for a clean sheet. When he turned around again, Sherlock had just managed to struggle into his bottoms. John waited for him to put on his t-shirt.

“I’ll give you that shot now,” he told him. “The primary pain is coming from your left kidney area—I assume you were kicked there, but the kidney doesn’t appear to have sustained any real damage. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

Again John observed how his doctor’s precise hand handled the needle and placed the shot into Sherlock’s left buttock. The moment he finished, there was only the next thought: take care of Sherlock’s foot. John bandaged it—“It should be comfortable for the night. There’s no fracture but we’ll check it properly tomorrow.”—then a single next thought arrived, as if it had been waiting in some sort of mental queue: sleeping pill. Food!

“I’ll be right back,” John said, covering Sherlock with the clean duvet sheet. A temporary thought seemed to override the main one. “You’re not cold, are you?” John asked.

“No.”

John turned to leave.

“John?” Sherlock called.

“Hm?”

“Can I have some water, please?”

John just nodded.

Water. Why hadn’t he thought of water? Because water became a priority only now, a voice answered in John’s head, and he was grateful to it for providing an explanation.

John poured a glass of water and took it to Sherlock, watched him drink thirstily, then returned to the kitchen to put a slice of bread into the toaster. Once again, he recorded from an alarming distance that there were only three slices left now, before he shook himself and went to the bathroom to use the loo and wash his hands. The toast was ready by then and John proceeded to butter it lightly, watching the creamy yellow intensify in the tiny pores of the bread where the butter penetrated.

He carried the toast into the bedroom. Sherlock had slid down and rested his head on the headboard, but as soon as John walked in he opened his eyes and looked up. Something jolted through John, an unpleasant spasm—it was as if someone had run a sharp fingernail down the inside of his trachea. Sherlock’s features had already begun slacking from the double dose of painkillers.

“Eat some of this,” John said. “You need to have something in your stomach for the sleep meds.”

Sherlock took a small bite of his toast and chewed on it, swallowed, took another bite. John sat on the edge of the bed and watched him, mind absolutely blank but for registering the whole tableau with all its little details, soothingly factual and incredibly important. There was the stitching on the neck of Sherlock’s t-shirt that had begun fraying at the front. There was the definition of Sherlock’s curls—John watched his own fingers reach out and straighten them, then tuck them away as far back behind Sherlock’s ear as they would go so they didn’t brush the stitched area. There was the patina on the wood of Sherlock’s bed frame that, together with its shape, indicated the bed was probably a hundred years old. There was the flash of Sherlock’s softly shaped white teeth as pieces of toast were mashed between them. None of these details really got through to John, but nor were they deported to the colony with the rest of the rejected data from the last half hour—they just floated in John’s mental space, suspended like time itself.

A movement from Sherlock unleashed seconds and air into John again; he took a deep breath and looked at the plate—there was only a small piece of bread left on it. John picked up the pill from the bedside table and offered it to Sherlock who took it and drank from his glass until it was half empty. He put the glass back on the bedside table and looked at John, awaiting whatever was next.

Like the hem of Sherlock’s t-shirt, John’s mind began undoing itself, but it wasn’t just a small stretch—it went on and on until John felt there wouldn’t be anything left of him but a soft pile of thread. With supreme effort he hauled himself to his feet.

“What happened?” he asked.

The usual tilt of Sherlock’s eyes that gave them such an exotic shape disappeared as they turned round and childlike. Sherlock had been expecting the next instruction from a doctor, but had got a question from a friend instead, John realized—just as he realized all his own sensations were returning to him with mind-blowing speed.

Sherlock’s lips trembled before he spoke. “I went to Hainault around the time of the murder. I needed to check the light and the visibility. On the way back, there were—I met some unfriendly people and a fight ensued. I was greatly outnumbered—they took my phone and my watch, as well as—”

A high-pitched sound had begun in John’s ears as soon as Sherlock had started talking, and it now drowned the remainder of the sentence. The scratching finger returned to John’s insides, bringing along the rest of the hand. John tried to take a proper breath. He felt his upper lip tingle and his ears and neck, too, and rushed to the bathroom; his knees wobbled in perfect timing and dropped him on the floor over the toilet bowl, where he was sick over and over again.

For an indefinite time everything was soundless and dark. All sensation was focused in John’s heaving chest and it felt like he had to lift a mountain each time he took a breath. The horrid sensation that the world was slipping away slowly became relief that alcohol and incredible tension had left his body. John retched in vain a couple more times, tears coming to his eyes, and then finally slumped down into a small exhausted heap, arm propped on the toilet seat. His other arm managed to extend itself and flush the toilet, the rush of cold water exuding some welcome coolness to caress John’s face. He kept his eyes closed and focused on his breathing; when it was steady enough, he managed to drag himself upwards and prop himself on the sink, where he ran the cold tap.

For several seconds John just stood there, head lolling forward, and listened to the water running. He didn’t risk letting go of the sink with both of his hands, but placed one under the spray and then wiped his face with it. The first cold touch arrested his breath and brought him back to reality with a sharp slap that felt good. John let go of the sink and began splashing his face, each contact feeling like resuscitation. Sounds returned and his vision cleared, too, enough for him to see the blurred shapes of the world as if his eyes were open underwater.

When he felt well enough, he turned off the tap and propped himself on the sink again, lifting his head. His own face looked at him from the mirror and it was with a different kind of detachment that John observed the two sharp, white lines on both sides of his mouth—the residual effect of the blood rushing away from his head earlier—and the redness of his eyes, a charming, always-present side-effect of exertion when he was vomiting. His pallor was as unhealthy as they came, and atop it, under the unforgiving artificial light from the ceiling, John could see a crown of rapidly greying hair. The silver strand that used to stand out—the one John kidded himself made him look distinguished—was now lost amongst many companions. He was greying. He was greying and God, he did not look well at all.

John grabbed Sherlock’s towel from the floor and roughly burrowed his face into it; then, damp hair still plastered all over his forehead, he stormed out into the corridor and right into Sherlock’s bedroom.

Sherlock’s eyes seemed to have grown even bigger since John had left him.

“Are you all ri—” Sherlock began but John let out a bitter giggle and shook his head, lifting a hand.

“No—No!”

He bowed his head, shaking it, then lifted his eyes to stare at Sherlock, unable to choose from the torrent of things he wanted to yell. Sherlock’s face became a distant riddle.

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” John asked, voice rising with the sentence.

Sherlock didn’t say anything but John couldn’t care less. A microscopic sliver of selfishness that had started as thin as a hair was now spiralling into a vortex of needs, needs, needs—John’s needs!

“Do you have any idea—Why didn’t you—Can’t I go out just once, just one fucking night without—“ John was shouting now, an invisible guillotine chopping off the ends of his sentences.

Sherlock’s voice, underused the entire time, felt like hot wax; it trickled right through John’s auditory canal all the way down to his belly.

“You go out an average of once every three weeks and nothing out of the ordinary happens,” Sherlock said. “This is an exception.”

“No, no!” John repeated, finger pointing at Sherlock. “Don’t try and do logic with me! I don’t care how often I go out—you only need to serve me with something like this once a year and I don’t—I’ve not even managed to put the pool behind me!”

“Is this about then?” Sherlock asked, and there was finally a break of tension in his tone. John flinched—they shouldn’t be doing this now! Sherlock should rest; his cells should be allowed to do all that hard repair work cells did during sleep.

But the question grew heavier and louder, refused to be ignored.

“No. Yes. No.” John paused and tried to explain the idiot what this was all about. He shook his head again. “This is about you…living like you’re still alone, like there’s no one else here. Like I’m not here, Sherlock.”

John was shocked—shocked and mortified—to hear the ring in his voice that could only mean one thing. He hadn’t heard it for a long time, certainly not outside his bed after a nightmare. He grabbed air and stuffed it ferociously into his lungs, managed with extraordinary effort to subdue the raising wave.

Sherlock spoke in a low voice, and there was sluggishness in the way his tongue rolled over the vowels that John’s hyper-sensitive ear caught immediately.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” he said. “I can’t be any other way, John. My work comes first. If there’s something I think needs doing, I go do it. You know that about me. This, tonight, could have happened to anyone. It’s not very fair to—“

John shook his head. “No. God no! I’m not having a go at you about the incident. Of course it could bloody happen to anyone. This isn’t about anyone, though, Sherlock. This isn’t about how you are. This is about me. I don’t want to be—I want to be part of it. If it happens to you, I want to be there so that it happens to me—or so that it doesn’t happen to either of us.” John dropped his head and closed his eyes tiredly for a moment, then lifted his chin and looked Sherlock squarely in the face. “I hate it that you’re lying to me.”

“I’m not lying to you.” Sherlock’s reply was his most immediate yet. He had watched John, the light from the small bedside lamp insufficient for John to see much of his expression besides his eyes.

“Yes, you are,” John countered. “Not telling me you were arranging to meet Moriarty that night—how was that not a lie?”

Sherlock eyes fluttered closed; his expression was pained.

“Do I have to tell you how much I regret everything that happened that night?” he asked quietly. “You know I do. But that was then. Things aren’t the same—I haven’t done anything like that since then; tonight wasn’t like that. You—You just weren’t here, and it couldn’t wait.” The vowels were growing softer and softer. Oh God, John thought. Oh God, he needs to rest. He needs to rest.

He walked towards Sherlock’s bed. Sherlock’s eyes were attached to John’s face and moved with it; as John stood beside the bed, Sherlock’s chin lifted. His face was clearer at this proximity. It was a brave face, the face of someone who was tired and scared, but was doing an excellent job of keeping himself in check. John didn’t know what Sherlock was afraid of—or whether it was just the trauma of the earlier assault—but he vehemently refused to be part of it. He sat back on the edge of Sherlock’s bed.

“I have a phone,” he said. “You could have called me.”

A slight frown crept over Sherlock’s brow and disturbed his wound; he let out a tiny gasp and his fingers involuntarily lifted to touch the spot but stopped just in time. He looked at John furtively from underneath his hand.

“You were in the pub,” Sherlock said.

“So?”

“I can’t call you when you’re in the pub.”

“You call me everywhere all the time. How is the pub any different?”

Sherlock’s legs shuffled under the sheet. He didn’t reply.

A depressing thought occurred to John.

“Did you even remember—Did you even consider calling me?” he asked, his voice taking on that stupid ring again.

Sherlock stared at him, right at him and John was grateful he was sitting down. At length came the answer.

“Briefly,” said Sherlock. “Not at first.”

He suddenly moved forward and spoke with a naked, pleading face. “I don’t think about these things sometimes, I don’t think about—I lose sight of everything else. I needed to check a hypothesis. It was all I could think about.” His throat contracted and his eyes moved to somewhere behind John’s shoulder. “I was in the cab on the way there and then I thought that maybe—” Sherlock’s mouth was forming circles like it did when he was trying to formulate sentences around experiences that were novel or startling to him. “I—I was sure I’d be all right and that you wouldn’t want to—Or that you would try to stop me and reason with me, and that you wouldn’t understand.” Sherlock’s eyes returned to John’s, the chemicals in his system stripping them of their habitual razor sharpness. “Sometimes you don’t understand, John. You can’t understand what it’s like when I need to know.” The urgency of the last sentence made John’s fingers tighten over the sheets.

“You’re right, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t think I ever will, not really. But that doesn’t mean I won’t follow, wherever you need to go, whatever you need to do. I just don’t want to be left out. I know I can’t be of great use to you with my brains, but I hope I can be with my gun—or my hands.”

Sherlock blinked slowly, face serious, almost solemn.

“You are useful to me in more ways than you can imagine,” he said quietly, “and your over-decorated accounts of our ‘adventures’ show that you have no shortage of imagination.” He looked at John, eyes drooping. “But you are—you don’t need to be useful to be valuable to me.”

John was aware his mouth had fallen open, but he didn’t care. Once again he wasn’t sure if Sherlock knew what he was saying or if—

“It’s not the drugs,” Sherlock said.

John closed his mouth and looked down at his fingers, still creasing the material of Sherlock’s top sheet.

“You should sleep,” he said. “You should have been completely gone ten minutes ago.”

“You’re keeping me awake,” Sherlock said. “I don’t mind.”

John smiled and got up.

“I’ll go and bring my duvet down.”

Sherlock attempted to frown but thought better of it. He suppressed a big yawn and asked, “Why?”

“Because I intend to sleep here and keep an eye on you.”

There was a pause. “The floor isn’t sanitary,” Sherlock murmured.

“That’s all right,” John said. “I’ll just wash the covers after.”

Sherlock regarded him, eyes straining to keep open now. “No health hazards—just don’t go into that corner under the window.” He gestured vaguely.

“Okay.” John nodded. “Do you need anything?”

Sherlock slid further down and his reply was a sigh. “Just water. Thanks.”

“Has the pain gone?”

“Hmm.”

John picked up the glass and switched off the lamp. The darkness of the room was a sharp relief to his senses—he felt unbelievably tired and couldn’t wait to come back and plunge into it again.

There was something he needed to do first, though, before anything else. He got out his mobile phone and sent a text message to Mycroft:

Sherlock was robbed at Hainault Forrest tonight, around 10. At least three attackers. Nothing broken, no internal bleeding, left kidney in pain, right ankle is swelling. Some bruising, a split lip and a gash on the forehead. I’ve patched him up and administered medication. He’s sleeping now. Hospital tomorrow. His mobile phone, watch, and wallet are gone.

John hesitated, but by his calculations Lestrade would have half-sobered by that point—they’d left George’s do together. He sent him the same message, then typed a second one to Mycroft.

I’ve texted DI Lestrade.

He brought Sherlock his water and left it on the bedside cabinet, then went up to his own bedroom. There he changed into some clean clothes just in case—he didn’t want to waste time getting dressed if Sherlock woke up unwell. He got his duvet out, put it into a cover and carried it downstairs. The streetlight softly illuminated Sherlock’s bedroom so the space wasn’t pitch black anymore, but the darkness was still restful. John positioned the duvet on the floor near Sherlock’s bed, leaving enough space to prevent Sherlock from treading on him if he got up disorientated during the night.

John lowered himself onto his improvised bed and crawled to the end of it to peer at Sherlock’s sleeping face. Sherlock had turned to his left side, facing the room, and had tucked a hand beneath his face, his lips barely open. John watched him and listened to his breathing for half a minute. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and just as John retrieved it, it buzzed again. He opened the first message.

Will take care of the matter. Thank you, John. Mycroft

The second message was from Lestrade: I’m on it.

John wriggled down to lie on his side facing Sherlock, placed his phone in his line of vision, and rested his own head on his hand.

 

***

John didn’t sleep much during the night, and when he did, he dreamt in colourful, kaleidoscopic images that made no sense. Every time Sherlock stirred or moaned in his sleep, John jutted awake and found it hard to drop off again. Thankfully, there were things to keep him occupied: Opening the windows fully to let in precious moments of quiet and rare gusts of fresh air, closing them again to protect Sherlock’s medicated body from getting stiff, drawing the curtains as the first morning light began licking the edges of the room.

Once John had to support Sherlock’s warm, half-dead weight to the loo and back; twice he helped with a change to a dry t-shirt, after Sherlock had sweated profusely into the one he was wearing. Eyes still closed, Sherlock just lifted his arms obediently for John to remove the damp t-shirt and rolled back into his mould, all bony limbs and hips, without even smoothing down the new shirt.

Just as dawn began to break Sherlock shuffled and propped himself on one elbow, then fumbled around on the nightstand for his glass of water. John passed it to him; heavy-lidded, Sherlock drank half of it, but instead of returning the glass to the nightstand he pressed it back into John’s hand with a soft “Thank you.” At that point something popped in John’s gut as if a light bulb had burst—and tenderness erupted in his chest, reaching every corner, filling in every hollow and every crevice, quieting John’s mind and sending his body into a shut-down.

When he opened his eyes next it was morning, and Sherlock was wide awake. He was lying on his side in the same position in which he’d gone to sleep, but this time both hands were tucked beneath his cheek. His eyes, reflecting the brightness of the air, met John’s. For a few seconds neither said anything, then Sherlock’s lips opened.

“Morning.”

John blinked a few times and yawned.

“Morning,” he replied, and cleared his throat. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

John studied Sherlock’s face for a moment, then drew his phone nearer to look at the time: twenty-five to ten. He rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in his pillow, stretching all his limbs with a groan. For a moment he just remained sprawled, face down. God, the very idea of getting up was loathsome, but—

“Don’t move,” Sherlock said quietly.

John froze, mind racing. Was there a spider? A spill of dangerous chemicals? Had Sherlock picked up a strange noise? John heard a faint creak and a rustle, and there was movement near his head. He was about to lift it—

“Don’t!” Sherlock’s voice was urgent and low. “Just…don’t. Stay exactly as you are.”

John obeyed instinctively. He heard a soft crack that the medic in him recognized—Sherlock’s knee—so Sherlock must have crouched somewhere near. John could hear him breathing, but there was no other sound. He felt the endless ticking of the seconds, and somewhere in their perfect rhythm, awareness suddenly clicked into place.

This was about the case. Sherlock had an insight! John’s entire body was awash in anticipation and disproportionate excitement. He knew how Sherlock’s mind worked; he knew that even the smallest, seemingly random spark could ignite a blaze of truth. So John lay still, face full of pillow, and prayed he was being instrumental in lighting that fire.

Feet shuffled again, limped about—revelations or no revelations, Sherlock’s ankle had to be checked as soon as possible—and then there was a rattle of drawers being opened and closed. After a few seconds another movement of air brought Sherlock’s scent closer. The next sound John heard had an oddly disorientating stereo effect, before he realized that Sherlock had dropped onto his knees, each touching the ground on either side of John’s head, next to each ear.

The touch of Sherlock’s hand felt immense in the hushed atmosphere; it made John swear quietly under his breath.

“Sorry,” Sherlock mumbled, then repeated, “Don’t move.”

John tried to go as limp as possible. Sherlock lifted his head carefully and removed the pillow from underneath—John covertly filled his lungs with oxygen to the full—then lowered John’s head onto the floor, again face down. His nose was somewhat squashed, but it wasn’t unbearable. In this position his neck was very exposed.

Then there was the rustle of fabric again and something thin, made of fine material, circled John’s throat. He gulped. The material closed around fully and neatly; there was a slight tug and pull, and then nothing. Behind his closed eyelids John could visualize Sherlock looking down at him, equally frozen. John strained his ears but couldn’t hear any change in Sherlock’s breathing.

In a few seconds the material loosened and then disappeared altogether. John wondered if he’d be allowed to move now, and only at that second did it occur to him that he could just ask. Sherlock hadn’t forbidden him to speak. Yet John thought it would be wrong—he felt like he had been transformed into a tool that was now in the hands of a powerful sorcerer; it wasn’t John’s place to dispel the magic with his material voice.

Sherlock didn’t move or say anything for at least thirty seconds after he removed the scarf—and John was convinced it was his old acquaintance the silk scarf that had been wrapped around his throat. John parted his lips, hungry for more air. It was easier to breathe now than when his face was buried in the pillow, but his airways were still half-blocked by his squashed nose.

The sudden movement of Sherlock—Getting up?—startled John again. “I’ll be right back,” Sherlock said as he limped away. His voice was devoid of any emotion besides concentration. How a voice could be concentrated, John didn’t know. The same way a whisper could be sarcastic, he supposed. It was all about the owner of the vocal cords. Or maybe it was just that John knew this—knew how Sherlock got when he was really onto something. He was like an arrow, fired from the billions of invisible electrical impulses in his brain. A straight and taut arrow whose white, brilliant light outlined its single-purpose flight—John only had to wait until it hit its target. He was both thrilled and a little bit scared to find himself in its way.

He also wanted to pee rather badly.

The uneven sound of moving feet reached his ears again. Sherlock resumed his previous position and John felt the scarf woven around his throat once more. This time it was…Was it wet? Definitely sticky. There was also an odd scent John couldn’t identify.

The scarf straightened and John could feel it dig into his flesh. It closed around his throat, tightened properly and remained so for one, two, three, four long seconds—and then it loosened. John’s heart was thumping in his chest. He released a shaky breath through his mouth.

Suddenly Sherlock’s scent was dominating the air, overpowering the unidentified smell that still lingered. John fancied he could feel Sherlock’s breath on his nape, and at that instant he felt the soft pads of Sherlock’s fingers touch the skin there. Sherlock’s breathing finally changed, and John heard a soft, almost loving, “Yes.”

John couldn’t take it anymore. “What is it?” he whispered without shifting.

The touch withdrew but the proximity of Sherlock’s body didn’t change. “Turn around carefully,” Sherlock said.

John started rotating with the utmost care. He realized he’d unconsciously closed his eyes only when he opened them and the bright daylight blinded his lulled pupils. He shut them back immediately and, as he settled onto his back, slowly opened them again.

All he saw was Sherlock’s upside-down chin and flushed neck. No wonder John’s nostrils had filled with his scent.

Sherlock’s mouth moved into John’s line of vision, stretching into a blazing smile that twisted into a grimace as the cut on the lip opened and made Sherlock hiss. He didn’t stop, though—his grin, even more manic from this angle, was reflected in his jubilant eyes that were now looking into John’s, stranger still from the reversed perspective. John could easily see this becoming the most bizarre eye contact he’d ever had.

“Yes!” Sherlock exhaled louder.

“Sherlock, what—”

“I had it all wrong, John!” Sherlock clasped his hands. “What were the chances of Veronica being killed by someone exactly her height? Minimal! But change one variable…”

John made a motion to lift himself but stopped. “Can I move now?” he asked.

Sherlock’s ridiculous face disappeared, only to reappear right-end-up and far above.

“Yes! You can move.” Sherlock beamed at him from all six feet away. “I need you to move. I want you to come to the mirror.” Sherlock outstretched his hand. John grabbed it and pulled himself to his feet, then felt Sherlock’s arm tense to support him as he swayed from the head rush.

“Come. Come!” Sherlock limped to the bathroom, John at his feet. Sherlock manoeuvred him by his shoulders and John looked at himself in the mirror.

His hair was a mess, the bags under his eyes massive, but this time it didn’t matter. He had eyes only for his throat: Right across it ran a perfectly straight, albeit smudged, dark line. Like a collar. John boggled at it and moved his face closer to the mirror.

“What is this?” He instinctively tried to tuck in his chin and look down at his throat—an impossible task for anyone who wasn’t an ostrich, the failure of which sent John back to examining himself in the mirror. “Sherlock?” he said.

Fascinated, Sherlock had been looking at John’s throat, but now stirred back to life.

“It’s ink,” he said. “I had to improvise. I couldn’t wait for the bruising to show.”

John stared wide-eyed at Sherlock’s reflection.

“And er—I didn’t want to hurt you, of course,” Sherlock added, then spun John around to face him.

“Don’t you see, John? The line is exactly the same as the bruising on Veronica’s throat. She wasn’t strangled and then dragged to the place where she was found! She was dragged there first and then she was strangled, as she lay on the ground face down. I don’t know how the murderer kept her quiet and I still don’t know why there wasn’t any struggle. But the marks fit. And so does the position of the body.” Sherlock’s eyes shone, almost silver.

John stared at him for a few seconds, then turned around and touched his skin where the fake bruising appeared—the ink was almost dry but there were still tiny dots left on John’s fingers. John looked at them, wheels turning in his head. His eyes found Sherlock’s in the mirror.

“But that means…” he started slowly.

Sherlock nodded in the mirror. “That anyone could have done it,” he finished. “The height is no longer relevant.”

They stood silent, looking at each other’s reflections, and then John took a deep breath.

“Right,” he said. “We need to check your injuries and get you to the—”

“What? No. No! I need to re-examine all the evidence—”

“Do it later. I need to look at your stitches now, and—”

“John, are you listening to me? This is a brand new—”

John raised his voice. “You were a victim of assault less than twelve hours ago. You have stitches on your face, a split lip, multiple bruises all over your body and pains in the left kidney area. And your ankle is injured. If you don’t want to develop an inflammation resulting in massive swelling that will stop you from going to any crime scenes in the next two months, I suggest you go to your bedroom right now and wait for me there.”

Sherlock’s face had rippled from incredulous through fractious to baleful during John’s speech. Now his bottom lip extended subtly as his jaw moved forward to produce an exemplary pout. He rose to his full height and looked down at John, who held his eyes stoutly. Sherlock pursed his lips, hissed again at the pain, and pivoted to exit the bathroom without another word, limping to his bedroom. John sat on the edge of the bathtub and rubbed his eyes, then looked at his fingers with alarm—the dots of ink weren’t smudged, thank goodness. John got up and examined his throat in the mirror, sighed again, dropped his chin onto his chest and giggled quietly.

He had to find a way to clean himself before they left for the hospital. But before anything else he really needed to use the loo.

When he was done in the bathroom, he filled a bowl with tepid water and got a small washcloth out, then went back to the bedroom to find Sherlock sitting in bed, deep in thought. John began by examining Sherlock’s eyes—brightly lit, the pupil withdrew into a tiny dot and left the iris to dominate in a staggering fusion of translucent green and blue circled by an opaque dark line. The brightest eyes in the world stared back at him; John gulped and noted that their responses were excellent.

The check-up went a long way towards untwisting the knot in John’s stomach. The speed of the patient’s overnight recovery would have raised suspicions that he was an alien life-form in disguise, had such suspicions not existed already. In particular, the cut above Sherlock’s eyebrow looked so much better that John’s mind leapt to a cat: He could imagine Sherlock taking advantage of the healing contingents in his saliva by licking his wrist and swiping it over the cut, time and time again. Sherlock’s lip recovery wasn’t as prominent—or rather, it was probably reversed by how animatedly he had used his mouth since he’d woken up. John held Sherlock’s chin while he cleaned his lip. Sherlock didn’t even wince; he was in a world of his own.

John moved to the bottom of the bed and examined the foot. This time Sherlock took a sharp breath as John studied the swelling and checked for fractures again. Thankfully it still looked worse than it actually was, but as John began undoing the bandage, he thought once again that a hospital visit would be best.

Sherlock’s voice floated from the head of the bed.

“I wonder if I shouldn’t just scrape off everything and start from scratch. Examine the evidence more…creatively.”

John’s hands stopped their work and he looked up, agog at this sacrilege. Sherlock’s eyelids lifted in mock exasperation.

“I’m not a purist, John. I realize that sometimes all the scientific data may be there, but the answers come from the way you look at things—quite literally, as we just saw.” His eyes twinkled. John smiled, hopeful that the sudden invitation into Sherlock’s more private thoughts wasn’t over.

“Creativity is behind the best, most sophisticated cases,” Sherlock continued, his tone almost lyrical, “but that’s beside the point.” He lifted himself from the pillow. “All I care about is solving the case,” he said. “Not being right. I expect you to—If the day should come when my arrogance obscures my judgement, I need you to tell me.”

“Okay,” John said slowly, unsure where this was going. Sherlock heard the unspoken question.

“I’ve been thinking about Simon Sinclair, and wondering if I’m not missing something there. Even Lestrade has to be right once in a while—he is the best of the lot.”

“I don’t think this will be the time when he’s right, though,” John said distractedly, frowning down at Sherlock’s bare ankle and wondering if he shouldn’t have tried to put ice on the swelling last night.

“Why not?” Sherlock asked.

“Just a hunch,” John replied, before he could check himself.

He lifted his eyes as soon as the words had left his mouth, but instead of a lecture on John’s appalling lack of scientific approach, Sherlock just nodded.

“What—you’re okay with that?” John’s eyebrows rose.

Sherlock ignored him, mind clearly busy elsewhere.

“What else have you been wondering then?” John asked as he started on the new bandage.

“I’m just going through every single assumption I’ve had the stupidity to make.” Sherlock’s tone was rueful. “Like assuming that Veronica’s brother couldn’t strangle her because he’s skinny. Or that Veronica’s mystery lover was a man.”

John had shaken his head as soon as Sherlock mentioned George, but at the last statement he heard himself say, “No.”

Sherlock’s lips twitched. “Another hunch?”

“I—maybe,” said John, unsure. “I just don’t see it.”

“Your hunches include a gaydar, do they?”

John opened his mouth, certain he had lots to say, but found nothing ready to come out. Sherlock watched him keenly.

John shuffled. “Do you seriously think Veronica was seeing another woman?” he asked.

Sherlock hesitated. “No. No, I don’t—but I don’t trust ‘hunches’, especially when it comes to people’s sexuality.” He lowered his eyes. “I’ve been wrong about that before. I’d rather not presume.”

John lowered his eyes, too, and continued bandaging. The silence stretched; he was just finishing when Sherlock spoke again.

“You know,” he said meditatively, “the more I think about the lack of struggle, the more it bothers me.”

“How do you mean?”

“What could make someone voluntarily lie on the ground, face down, and let herself be strangled? You’d try to scream, or at the very least you’d kick about and writhe. I’d show you, but the circumstances are not favourable.” Sherlock gestured to his foot in John’s lap.

“That’s okay,” John said, humour crawling into his voice. “As you say, I have an overactive imagination—I can picture it.”

“Hmm.” Unable to stretch his lips, Sherlock wrinkled his eyes in lieu of a smile but then they became serious. “Veronica wasn’t just thrown or dropped forward, face first,” he said. “From that height, there would have been bruising on her face from the impact with the ground. So how did the murderer get her in that position?”

John knew an answer wasn’t expected of him, and was simply glad to be Sherlock’s soundboard. There was a question he’d been meaning to ask, though, since the previous evening.

“Did you find anything there last night?”

Sherlock shook his head. “No. I wanted to check if the murderer could have been seen by someone. Whether that was what interrupted him or her hiding the body further into the trees. The answer is no. In full darkness visibility is virtually non-existent. I did a full three-hundred-sixty-degree scan.”

They both sat quietly for a moment, mulling things over. John thought the case was getting more and more unfathomable.

He looked back down to Sherlock’s re-bandaged foot. “Is that too tight?”

Sherlock had closed his eyes and said nothing. John touched the skin right on the edge of the bandage and Sherlock’s eyes snapped open. “Is that too tight?” John repeated.

“No, it’s okay.”

John looked around, stretched again and rubbed his neck. “I’d better take care of this,” he said, pointing at the ink on his throat. “I’ll go and have a quick shower, then I’ll help you get ready for the hospital.”

“Hmm.” Sherlock’s eyes had shut again, but the eyeballs were moving under their soft covers. John doubted Sherlock had even heard him.

***

Fifteen minutes later, just as he had put on some clean clothes, John’s mobile phone rang. He looked at the caller and answered quickly.

“Hello?”

There was the barest rasp in the smooth tone of Mycroft Holmes’ voice to indicate the night hadn’t been his most peaceful. “John. How is he?”

John had sent Mycroft messages every couple of hours with updates to the effect of “Still sleeping. Seems okay,” but now realized he hadn’t texted for the last five hours.

“He’s fine,” he said hurriedly. “He’s awake now. No complaints, but—well, you know your brother. The foot is worrying me; I don’t think it’s broken but he needs an x-ray. I was just going to get him to eat something and help him get ready. Can you send a car? I’ll take him to Bart’s—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Mycroft interrupted. “I’m coming to pick him up myself and take him to his doctor.”

“He has a doctor?” John blurted, before he could assess whether he was more surprised or affronted.

“He did have a life before he met you—though not a great one, I must confess,” Mycroft intoned. “Yes, Sherlock has a doctor, and he should be the attending physician. I believe it will be in both your interests that some boundaries are kept in place.”

Images from last night flashed through John’s mind and he was sorely tempted to tell Mycroft it was a bit too late for that. But he bit his tongue because, as conflicted as he felt, his professional ethics told him Mycroft was right.

Mycroft clearly treated John’s head like his summerhouse, locating all John’s unspoken remarks and anxieties with ease.

“I’m not implying you shouldn’t be kept posted,” he said mildly. “Merely that everyone would feel better if Sherlock was treated by someone with whom he didn’t have a…personal relationship. Besides, the facilities at the private practice we both patronise are more than adequate, and are readily at our disposal.”

“Right,” John said. He could just picture ‘the facilities’, and decided it was just as well he wasn’t going there with Sherlock. He was bound to feel out of place in a state-of-the-art clinic, with doctors who were likely centuries more advanced than an ex-military medic.

He took a breath. “What shall I tell Sherlock?”

Mycroft chuckled. John blinked rapidly and pressed the phone close to his ear to make sure the line wasn’t breaking.

“I’m not that cruel, John,” Mycroft said. “I won’t let you experience my brother’s wrath. You are far too valuable to be shot down as the poor messenger. If you’d be so kind as to take your phone to Sherlock, I’ll inform him about his morning myself.”

“Okay,” John said, and made his way out of his bedroom. “What time will you be here?”

“In about thirty minutes, I should think,” Mycroft said. “Detective Inspector Lestrade needs to interview someone at eleven o’clock—we thought you might want to join him.”

John had stopped halfway down the stairs. “Lestrade’s still with you?” he said.

“Indeed he is. We’re having breakfast in a charming East London food establishment. Sadly it seems to specialize solely in varieties of English breakfast. I am convinced there’s some sort of a sham going on between the proprietors and the local private health practitioners: The level of cholesterol—”

Mycroft’s lecture on dietary requirements was interrupted by a muffled voice at his end, and then Mycroft spoke again. “The inspector is impatient to speak to you, John. I shall see you in half an hour. If I knew my brother was able to express his gratitude, I wouldn’t have to bother you with mine. But let me assure you that your presence there has been truly appreciated.”

John murmured his thanks, and then Lestrade was on the phone, his voice considerably rougher than Mycroft’s.

“John? Is Sherlock all right?”

“Yes, he’s fine—more than fine, actually. He’s made a breakthrough on the case.”

“Excellent,” Lestrade said. “First things first, though—we’ve got the people responsible for last night. Er—Mr. Holmes is taking care of them.” Lestrade paused, then John was sure he heard him murmuring, “God help them.” John resumed his descent of the stairs as Lestrade went on. “We’ve got Sherlock’s belongings, too,” he said. “I’m bringing them with me—he needs to sign for them. Then I’m going straight to the office to interview Simon Sinclair. Come along if you want.”

“Thanks,” John said as he entered Sherlock’s bedroom. “Um, I’ll put Sherlock on the phone now.” Sherlock looked up from his bed, curious. John felt like a bit of a traitor as he passed him the mobile and retreated to the kitchen.

Half an hour later, words had been had on the topics of why it was reasonable behaviour to inform one’s sibling when one had been in trouble, why one’s health took priority over everything else, and why the world and his wife—or rather, the world and his brother—were not joined in a sinister conspiracy to make Sherlock Holmes’ existence a living hell.

In addition, 221B Baker Street had become quite a busy place. First, Mrs. Hudson had popped in to see “what all that racket last night was about”. The subsequent fuss she made upon hearing of the incident didn’t help Sherlock’s mood, but thankfully she left before long to do some of their shopping for them. Then the most bizarre crime-fighting duo appeared in the shape of Mycroft Holmes and Gregory Lestrade. They walked in and just stood in the middle of the sitting room side by side: one the epitome of an upper-class, invisible-spec-on-the-sleeve, conservative toff; the other an iconic working-class, loosened-collar-and-rolled-up-sleeves, rough bloke.

“I need a shower and a shave,” was the first sentence Lestrade said after Mycroft had departed to Sherlock’s room. Both Lestrade’s and John’s eyes had followed his retreat before turning to meet in mute understanding. Lestrade’s eyes had then returned and lingered on the scene of Mycroft’s exit, and his second sentence was, “And I need a stiff drink.” He sighed. “Can I have a cup of tea? I’ve OD-ed on coffee already.”

John made him one, then caught him up on the morning’s developments. Lestrade listened very carefully and when John finished, pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and stayed quiet for a moment. At length he squared his shoulders and looked up.

“That’s great,” he said. “But it also means we’ve got to go back and look at all the evidence again—”

John lifted a hand. “Yes—just don’t tell him that. He’s been saying it all morning, but he needs to go to the doctor first.”

“Sure,” Lestrade said, nodding. He suddenly smoothed his hands down his shirt as if it were some sort of livery and a smug look spread over his features. “It’s good to hear him correct himself for once. I knew Simon Sinclair couldn’t be dismissed just because he was short. You coming to the interview?”

At that moment Mycroft reappeared in the room, the only difference in his demeanour marked by the thin line of his lips. He turned to John.

“I feel that I haven’t been courteous enough to you since you started sharing accommodation with my brother, John,” he said and coughed.

John didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so he just gave him a gilded smile.

“Sherlock will need assistance with movement,” Mycroft continued, smiling back. “I wonder if you could lend him your cane for the trip to the clinic.”

“Erm, sure,” John said and made quickly for his bedroom, relieved to have something practical to do.

When he returned, cane in hand, Mycroft nodded politely in gratitude. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to Sherlock and assist him with his morning routine. I believe Detective Inspector Lestrade will have to leave in a moment, and perhaps—”

“John!” A shout came from Sherlock’s bedroom. John just pointed apologetically in its direction and scurried away, still carrying the cane.

Sherlock was sitting on his bed, hair in disarray, head hanging between his shoulders. He looked up at John, doe-eyed.

“I’m going to the clinic,” he said.

“I know,” John replied, adopting his mildest voice. Sherlock spotted the cane in John’s hand and rolled his eyes.

“I’m hardly the invalid, am I?”

“Well, it’s either that,” John said, unperturbed, “or you can put your arms around Mycroft’s neck and mine, and we can all limp about together.”

Sherlock’s eyes turned to slits, but he quickly outstretched his hand. “Fine. Give me the cane.”

John passed it to him and walked over to the bed; he started putting together his medical bag in silence. Sherlock fidgeted with the cane, passing his fingers up and down the length of it and folding them over the handle. John had just clasped the bag and turned toward the door when he heard Sherlock call softly, “John.”

John turned around. Sherlock took a moment to form his sentence.

“Go with Lestrade to interview the boyfriend,” he said at last. “We can come and pick you up.”

John nodded. “Text me if you’re done first,” he said. “And tell your doctor all your complaints, all right?”

A ‘kay and a nod in return, and John was on his way out.

***

John was irrationally pleased to see Simon Sinclair hadn’t acquired an overnight personality change because his secrets were now in the open: He was the same serious, not particularly talkative young man they’d met a few days earlier. His apology for lying was cut short by Lestrade, who then proceeded to interrogate him for thirty minutes. Simon repeated Lisa’s version of events, but no amount of stern pressure or tactical questioning made him stray from his story.

“Lisa Langley told us,” Lestrade said, consulting the papers in front of him, “that two weeks ago you and Veronica had a big argument and you were very ‘worked up’. What did you argue about?”

Simon lifted his dark eyes, which had been pinned on his hands as tightly as his hands were pinned to each other. His shoulders completed his defensive look—defensive but not evasive—and John was sure Simon’s neck would give him trouble for days to come.

Unlike the previous times, when he’d been laconic yet immediate with his answers, now Simon opened his mouth a couple of times but said nothing. Finally his hands clenched tighter, then dropped apart as he lifted his head.

“I told Veronica I wanted to break up with her,” he said. “I really put my foot down and—She told me she was pregnant.”

Lestrade and John exchanged glances. John didn’t need to go through his memory to know this was a lie. Veronica wasn’t pregnant, and hadn’t been—at least not in the last few years.

“Son, if you’re lying to us again—” Lestrade began, but Simon spoke over him.

“I’m not. It’s true. That she said it, I mean. But you never said anything—you’d have asked me if she was pregnant. I’ve been racking my brain…” He suddenly seemed very boyish as he looked at Lestrade, uncertain. “I read up on the internet—she could have lost the baby. It said lots of women lose their babies in the first few weeks and they don’t even know about it.”

John looked at Lestrade, silently asking for permission to speak. Lestrade nodded.

“What you read is true,” John said. “But the autopsy revealed no traces of a miscarriage.”

Simon frowned. “Yeah, but if she’d been only like a few weeks pregnant, would it show?”

“It would show,” John said. Simon looked at him—or rather through him—and his shoulders slumped. It was as much a gesture of defeat as of relief. “Then I don’t know,” he said. “She must have lied to me.”

“Why would she do that?” John asked.

“I have no idea. To keep me from leaving?”

John thought that there was more to Simon Sinclair than a fit figure and a brooding appeal.

Simon continued thinking out loud. “Don’t know why, really. We just argued, all the time. We hardly even had sex. I was surprised when she said she was pregnant; we’d only done it like three times in the last month.”

John fought the impish impulse to bump his knee against Lestrade’s under the table—he was sure Lestrade had also noted with bittersweet amusement what constituted “hardly any sex” to a twenty-year-old.

“What protection did you use?” Lestrade asked.

“Condoms.”

Lestrade went on asking Simon questions, some about his relationship with Lisa, others about Nazia Wilbury. Simon confirmed Lisa’s descriptions of their relationship, and insisted that Nazia was “just a mate” who had a crush on him. At this point Lestrade fired his final shot: he told Simon that Veronica had been seeing another man. Simon looked up sharply, but when he spoke his voice didn’t carry much emotion.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “I haven’t been the perfect boyfriend myself.” He paused, then shook his head. There was something weary and thoughtful in the slow swing of his chin.

“It makes—It’s weird thinking how much time we spent in a relationship neither of us wanted to be in.”

Lestrade eyed him, weariness and depth of a whole new category in his own eyes, then started lecturing him on withholding information. His heart wasn’t in it, though—John was sure that this interview had ensured Simon Sinclair’s demotion on Lestrade’s list of suspects.

After Simon had gone, Lestrade turned to John. “I’m going to the hospital to pester Archer’s doctors, see if they’ll let me talk to him,” he said. “You want to come along? Or I can drop you off at Baker Street?”

“Let me just—” John began, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He drew it out and read the message from Sherlock: Done. Shall we come to collect you?

John typed, No need, Lestrade will drop me off, sent the message, and smiled at Lestrade. "A lift to Baker Street would be great, thanks.”

***

When John walked into the sitting room he found Sherlock standing right in the middle, leaning on John’s cane and looking at the wall behind the sofa in a quietly mad way.

“Hi,” John said. Sherlock swayed gently and gave no response. John waited a few seconds before saying loudly, “Sherlock? How did it go at the clinic?”

Bewildered, Sherlock’s eyes moved to rest on John, but in a moment they cleared.

“Fine,” he said, tone dismissive. “Too much fuss, and of course my brother’s paranoia made him insist on every possible test under the sun. Where’s that list with your notes on the websites?”

“I left it under the laptop,” John said, heading to the kitchen to wash his hands. “And it wasn’t paranoia that made Mycroft insist on tests,” he called over the running water. “People actually worry about the people they care about—you’ve heard of the sentiment.”

“Yes, yes, very droll,” Sherlock called back. “I can’t find it, John!”

John walked back into the room, pulled the sheet of paper from underneath his laptop, handed it to Sherlock, and turned to drop into his chair. He smiled as a slightly sullen voice trailed behind him. “How would I know you meant your laptop?”

“Because unlike you, I have a sense of personal boundaries so when I’ve work to do I do it on my laptop? Did they x-ray your ankle?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, pulling out the chair at the desk and sitting down, eyes glued to the list.

“And?”

“I told you—it’s fine.”

“Did they check your kidney?”

Sherlock threw his head back. “Oh god, it’s like Mycroft’s your brother. Yes, they did. It’s fine. I’m fine!” He enunciated the last “f” and John resigned himself to giving Mycroft a call later. But aside from Sherlock’s reticence on the subject, he did appear as fine as could be expected.

“Shall I tell you about the interview with Simon Sinclair?” John asked.

“No need.” Sherlock had abandoned the list and was now busy on his mobile. “I called Lestrade, when I saw the car pull up downstairs.” His eyes were flicking over the phone display.

“So what do you reckon?” John asked. “Veronica was obviously lying about being pregnant.”

“Mhm.”

John waited, hopeful, but Sherlock continued clicking away on his phone. John sighed.

“Anything interesting?”

“Hardly,” Sherlock droned as he slipped the phone into his pocket. “Lisa's father organizes illegal cock fights.”

Judging by Sherlock’s amused eyes, he was taking a moment to appreciate John’s gawking.

“I can’t take full credit for closing that particular line of investigation,” he added, voice laden with regret and annoyance. “Apparently a protégé of Lestrade’s has been chasing that for the last few months, and my brother saw solving the case as a fit way to express his gratitude to Lestrade for putting up with me.” The last few words had been sieved thinly through Sherlock’s teeth. “Anyway,” he continued, “Mycroft put most of the pieces together, although it was that mud sample from the bike that did it. I’d have figured it out, anyway.” Sherlock’s face was downright sour.

“Of course you would’ve,” John said. Sherlock’s eyes ran over him, scanning for signs of insincerity, but then his face mellowed.

“Anything new on the case—our case?” John asked.

The quiet madness flashed in Sherlock’s eyes again.

“Obviously we now know why Veronica’s shoes were in such a peculiar state,” he said. “She was lying on her front being strangled, and she was digging the tips of her shoes into the ground.”

Sherlock got up and limped to the fireplace, looking at the papers pinned on the wall above.

“If only I knew why there weren’t any traces of mud or grass on her hands,” he said crossly. “Nothing under the fingernails, either. Why would she struggle with her legs but not with her arms? Her hands should have been scraping the ground! How did she—“

John made a choking noise.

“Sherlock!” he said, his own voice dangerously low in his ears.

Sherlock swivelled and stared at him. John didn’t even know how this had come to him, but it seemed so plausible

“John?” Sherlock’s voice was urgent. “What is it?”

“That list—it was on the list—” John stammered. “There was a website—”He shot out of his chair and grabbed the list from the desk. Sherlock’s gaze followed him as if John were the simmering lunatic, but John didn’t care. His eyes ran frantically over the websites, searching—there!

“She was wearing gloves!” he exclaimed, reaching the fireplace in one stride. “That night, Sherlock—she was wearing gloves.” John was struck by another thought. “That could explain the rash on her wrists!” His mouth had gone dry as his mind rushed to form new connections. “The murderer must have taken the gloves off afterwards—that’s why there weren’t any traces of mud or grass on her hands. Everything was on the gloves.”

Sherlock was staring at John, unblinking. His eyes were now so fervent that John’s hand sought the mantel and grasped it.

“Of course,” Sherlock whispered. “Of course!” he growled. “Brilliant!” He grabbed John’s shoulders. “John, that’s brilliant!”

John stared back, unable to respond. He felt exhausted.

He lifted the paper and pinned it to the wall, then spoke, trying to sound less euphoric.

“She was visiting this website about bridal hats and gloves,” he said, pointing to the reference on the list. “But they offer hats and gloves for any formal occasions, not just weddings. We can call her brother and ask if he remembers whether Veronica was wearing gloves.”

Sherlock shook his head. “No need—her mother said Veronica had ‘pulled out all the stops’ that night. Her whole attire was very formal, remember? We can call the family later, but I’m sure you’re right. The gloves are a perfect explanation, John, perfect.” Sherlock all but purred the last word.

They looked at each other, new conclusions forming simultaneously.

“So there was a struggle,” John ventured.

Sherlock turned to examine the photos of the body.

“Yes,” he said. “There was nothing on the gravel path, though. She didn’t fight her murderer there, but only later, as she was strangled on the ground.” Sherlock closed his eyes and started narrating. “Face down; gasping for air; tips of the shoes digging in; hands flailing; fingers scraping for purchase.”

John frowned. “There was no bruising on the body—I mean, the killer must have held her down while she was wriggling about—”

Sherlock suddenly thumped his fist on the mantel, rattling the skull and making John jump.

“Why? Why did she keep quiet while she was dragged along the path?” he moaned. “It doesn’t make sense! Why wasn’t she kicking and screaming?”

He buried a hand in his hair and turned to John.

“Is it possible that I’m wrong again? It’s very improbable that I’d be wrong twice in one case, but I don’t understand, John! There was no sign of a blow on the head, nothing! What could have made her slump, pliant and limp, in the murder’s arms while he or she dragged her to—”

Sherlock’s hand froze in his hair. “Unless…” His breath didn’t leave his chest. John’s own breath burned his lungs as he watched Sherlock’s pupils dilate.

“Oh, clever,” Sherlock exhaled, the word rolling gently off his tongue.

“Sherlock?” John dared speaking, voice coarse. “What is it, what?”

Sherlock licked his lips as his eyes lowered to John’s. The look in them was so intense that John sought stability from the mantel once more. He didn’t press—he knew Sherlock was arranging all the pieces of the puzzle at that very instant and so John just stayed quiet, waiting in painful anticipation.

Finally Sherlock’s back straightened and a conceited, enthralling look took over his features.

“Have you heard of Kodokan Judo, John?”

***

The two police cars arrived outside Epping Forest College as unassumingly as possible. Lestrade didn’t want to alarm his suspect, taking no notice of Sherlock’s derisive comments on the low probability of a chase. John couldn’t blame Lestrade, though. Now that they were so close, of course Lestrade didn’t want to take any chances.

Through a whirl of whispers and nudges from teachers and students their small group made its way into the building and headed for the administrative wing. The startled looks followed them everywhere, and John felt discomfort mingled with a low-humming thrill at the pit of his stomach. He could see why their party would attract so much attention. Lestrade led the way, two policemen on each side. John had noted the difference in the inspector’s posture as soon as they got out of the car—he walked in a brusque, confident manner, but there was also stealth in his movement. Sherlock and John followed as briskly as Sherlock’s ankle allowed. John cast Sherlock a glance and saw he’d stretched his neck forward like a bird of prey. There was a keen singleness of purpose in his eyes, and with his striking face now colourfully injured, too, he was undoubtedly the one who drew the most looks.

They moved through a corridor, climbed a flight of stairs, walked through a small open area at the end of which they turned into another short corridor—

And there at its end, under a doorframe, Vivian Archer stood like a fragile statue in its own showcase.

She’d just seen off a student, an Asian girl who was now walking towards them carrying a heavy-looking bunch of folders. Mrs. Archer’s eyes fell on Lestrade, and for a second her features attempted to arrange themselves into a pleasant expression before they froze. As Lestrade made his last few steps forward she studied his face, her own emptying completely.

John heard Lestrade tell her she needed to come with him to Scotland Yard; his words echoed in the corridor, which had turned eerily silent. The few witnesses around them wore the unconscious, stupefied mask people got when unusual action happened out of the blue right in front of them. John’s gaze dwelled for an instant on the Asian girl: she had stopped in her tracks, clutching the folders tightly to her chest, oblivious to the fact that some papers had slipped and were now hanging on by a thread. His eyes brushed over a balding young man straining his neck by the water machine before John looked back at Vivian Archer. She was running a hand over her neat hair, and John saw her lips open to say something to Lestrade.

And through all this observation John’s brain was short-circuiting, trying to comprehend. This woman—John knew this woman. He’d spoken to her. She’d smiled at him. He’d stood very close to her, maybe even brushed shoulders with her. She hadn’t just become a murderer here. She hadn’t become a murderer when Sherlock had pronounced her as one back in the flat. She had been a murderer, the murderer all along, and that knowledge made John’s mind stumble over and over again in a futile attempt to integrate it, to make it true.

Sherlock swiftly stepped forward, closer to Mrs. Archer, and with his movement reality came back into some focus. Vivian Archer had to crane her neck to look up at Sherlock’s face; when she did, John was struck by the similarity between them. It was there so plainly, in the thin lines of their figures, in the dark hair and the pale complexion—Sherlock seemed like a ridiculously elongated reflection of Mrs. Archer, seen in a funhouse mirror.

He stared at her intently, as if her face was the final page of a book he had been reading. She stared back, her eyes black and yes—implacable. They didn’t even blink; John had an impulse to move closer and check if it was the play of light, or if she really didn’t seem to have eyelashes. Finally, she slowly transferred her gaze from Sherlock’s face to Lestrade’s.

“I would like to see my husband in the hospital first, if you’d permit,” she said calmly. “Then I’ll answer all of your questions.”

Lestrade hesitated and looked at Sherlock. Sherlock narrowed his eyes and then, without looking away from Mrs. Archer, he turned his chin to Lestrade and nodded.

***

They were all in George Archer’s hospital room, where its occupant sat in his bed so gaunt he was barely recognizable. His eyes, sunk into a sallow face, were circled by the darkest orbits John had seen on a man who wasn’t close to his grave.

“What’s going on?” George Archer said, weakness in every syllable. His eyes darted from his wife to the two policemen on either side of her, then to Lestrade. He didn’t seem to notice Sherlock and John. “Vivian?” he said again, his breathing hitching.

“Your wife is detained for questioning and will be taken into custody on suspicion of murdering Veronica Havisham,” Lestrade said, voice carefully void of emotion. He ignored the panicked look on George Archer’s face and continued. “She wanted to speak to you before we take her to Scotland Yard.”

“Viv—Wha—” Archer swallowed, then shook his head feebly and tried again. “What’s going—Vivian, tell them you didn’t—”

Mrs. Archer didn’t speak. There was a faint flush on her cheeks—it was the first time John had seen so much colour on her skin. Her eyes didn’t leave her husband’s face, as his own eyes searched her in vain; slowly they turned wide and crashed.

“Why?” he said.

Vivian Archer’s neutral expression didn’t change, but her flush deepened. John saw her nostrils flare minutely.

“She killed Katie,” she said. “You and her, you both killed Katie. ‘Please Uncle George, please, let Katie come on the trip.’

The mimicry was so sudden, so void of drama in its coldness that John felt his skin crawl. Mrs. Archer went on, still not raising her voice. “She begged and begged, and you agreed. Katie was too young to go, I told you, George, I told you—but you didn’t listen to me. You listened to a vile, stupid, stupid, stupid twelve-year-old girl.” The repeated word hissed and slashed through the air like a whip.

George Archer’s entire face seemed to have shrunk; the skin looked as if it were draped loosely over miniature scaffolding. His wife studied him for a moment and her tone was pensive when she spoke again.

“I don’t know if I would have killed her if she hadn’t come after you. But then it was impossible not to; not after I found out. You’re so obvious, George.” She pursed her lips in regret, suddenly reminding John of Moriarty. “How could I let her live—why would I?” She shook her head, face ridden with genuine lack of understanding.

Sherlock made a sudden motion and John’s eyes jumped to him. Sherlock had locked his hands behind his back. He was watching Vivian Archer, and something in his face reminded John of his earlier image of Mrs. Archer as an exhibit. Only this time, instead of a statue, through Sherlock’s eyes she seemed like a wax figure.

Silence fell in the room and John could hear nothing but hospital sounds, a blanket of familiar background noises that wrapped around him, and he held onto its edges for dear life. His eyes glided along the linoleum floor, found the back of Sherlock’s dark shoe and studied the perfect curvature of the heel, watched how it stood still and solid—the worn rubber tip of John’s cane right next to it.

“Take Mrs. Archer to the car. I’ll be right behind.” Lestrade’s professional voice wove itself effortlessly into the secure blanket of noises. John heard a rustle and finally lifted his head—the policemen and Vivian Archer were gone. Lestrade closed the door and turned to George Archer, who spoke before he did.

“How—” His voice was pleading. “I was at home—She was with me the whole time.”

“Not the whole time,” Sherlock said.

“I slept for less than twenty minutes, and—”

Sherlock stepped towards the bed. “Did she tell you that?” he asked with interest. “Or did you actually check the time yourself?”

“I—I don’t remember,” George Archer said, crestfallen.

“No,” Sherlock said coolly. “You wouldn’t. You were drugged. It was an opportunity she’d have been a fool to miss.” Before Archer had a chance to reply, Sherlock continued. “You probably checked what time it was on your mobile as usual.”

Archer’s face slowly changed with recollection. His lips parted. “Yes, I did.”

Sherlock nodded. “You don’t wear a watch. There isn’t a clock in your sitting room and your wife made sure you went straight upstairs without going into the kitchen, where there is one. I imagine she changed the time on the alarm clock in the bedroom just in case.”

“This is—How do you—” George Archer was looking at Sherlock, a different type of fear on his face.

“Where did you keep the second SIM card?” Sherlock asked quietly.

The other man’s eyes glazed. “How do you—“ he started again, but this time Sherlock moved to tower over him, body tense and imposing. “Because I do,” he said. “I know exactly what happened.”

George Archer looked up at him and gulped. “My mobile…under the back panel,” he said.

John could see the God, dull hanging over Sherlock’s head like a banner. Sherlock took his phone out of his pocket, pressed a few keys, and turned the screen to face George Archer. “Was that your number?”

The man squinted at the display and then, the last drop of blood draining from his face, just nodded.

Still holding the phone in Archer’s face, Sherlock turned to Lestrade.

“You have some evidence now. This is the number that texted Veronica less than thirty minutes before she was murdered. Although I don’t think you’ll need evidence—you clearly have a confession.” Lestrade had folded his arms over his chest; he rocked on his heels once and nodded, face sharp. He might have been going to say something, but George Archer’s raw voice startled them all.

“How did she—Tell me,” he said. His fingers were clutching the sheets so tightly the knuckles weren’t far from breaking. Sherlock pulled back and regarded Archer from the tip of his nose. John knew what was coming and felt his own back straighten.

“You came home ill and reeking of Veronica,” Sherlock began. “You’d clearly just parted with her. Your wife saw an opportunity and seized it: She made you a Lemsip instantly—every second was precious—and drugged you. My guess is a heavy dose of prescription sleep medication—a woman who’s been through the trauma of losing a child would have all kinds of substances like that at hand. You dropped off in a few minutes. She changed the time on your mobile, swapped the two SIM cards—you should have put your ‘secret’ SIM card in your key ring really—” George Archer made a gurgling noise.

“We know you’ve been embezzling to buy Veronica gifts and pay a few restaurant bills—it’s the least of your problems,” Sherlock said. “Your wife sent a text to Veronica. It’d be interesting to find out what she told her. Actually—not important. I’m sure what she did tell her was exactly where to wait for you in the park, choosing the spot perfectly. She’s familiar with it—she jogs there, doesn’t she?” Sherlock didn’t wait for an answer. “Her jogging kit is dark blue and black. I saw it hanging freshly laundered in your garden. She probably put the kit on—with her black hair, there was little chance anyone would spot her as she ran to Hainault. And if someone did, she could have always said she’d been out for a late-night run.”

Sherlock took a breath and went on like a sophisticated machine gun. “Veronica certainly didn’t see her as she sneaked up behind her. This is the clever bit. Your wife grabbed Veronica and applied a Shimewaza technique. More precisely, Hadaka-jime.”

George Archer was gaping, mouth looking sore with dryness. Smitten by his own revelations, Sherlock misinterpreted his expression entirely.

“Most people confuse that technique with a blood choke,” he explained like a patient educationalist, “and in some ways it is. But unlike a blood choke, it doesn’t require particular physical strength. You just need the expertise to know how to do it—where exactly to apply pressure on the neck. Your wife knows. In your living room there’s a photo of her wearing her judo uniform. I’ll bet anything it’s the Kodokan variety.”

Sherlock’s face became more animated. “A well applied Hadaka-jime technique causes temporary unconsciousness in a few seconds,” he said. “Your wife dragged Veronica’s limp body to the first trees that provided cover, where she lowered her on the ground, face down, straddled her and strangled her with her own scarf. She had the perfect conditions: no visibility, easy grip and angle, no resistance. The only trouble was that Veronica’s brain must have kicked into emergency mode, and she came back to consciousness for a feeble struggle just before she died.”

A movement drew John’s eyes away from Sherlock—George Archer had bowed his head with a sound between a sigh and a whimper. He sat there, immobile, as if someone had pulled the plug on the machine next to him and he’d been switched off along with it. Sherlock watched him, eyebrows knitting together, then blinked quickly a few times. When he spoke next, his tone was still cold but his voice was quieter.

“Your wife is quite intelligent. She acted swiftly on the circumstances as they presented themselves. The murder method was chosen on the spot for its convenience —it was quick and quiet. Her initial plan was to let the blame fall on a gang; she still took Veronica’s bag, just in case. But only after she killed her did she have a moment to think. She then realized the advantages of the situation she'd inadvertently created. If everyone believed Veronica was strangled on the path and then dragged to the trees—it was such a natural conclusion that even I made it— then the suspicion would have naturally fallen on someone taller and in possession of considerable physical strength. So she cleaned up whatever grass there was on Veronica’s face and removed Veronica’s gloves to confuse the investigation.” Sherlock’s eyes glanced at John in dark affection.

“She left Veronica’s body where it was,” Sherlock said, fresh excitement flickering over his face. “It did puzzle me at first. Obviously she needed her energy for a fast run back home, and Veronica’s body was heavy while your wife is tiny. So she ran back home, dropping Veronica’s bag in a container not far away, after she’d taken out her cash and her mobile. Back at home she swapped the SIM cards again, hid Veronica’s belongings—she got rid of them the next day—then changed into her old clothes and ran you a bath. She woke you up, letting you believe you’d slept for twenty minutes. In reality I’d estimate she was gone between forty and sixty-five minutes. I’m not familiar with her jogging routine and I don’t know her average speed. The distance is about two and a half miles, and a woman who’s been jogging for at least five years should be able to run a mile between seven and twelve minutes. I’d say twenty minutes for each direction and the strangling wouldn’t have taken more than five—she strikes me as a most efficient woman.”

George Archer’s upturned eyes rounded into fresh shock. Sherlock looked at him blankly, then his eyes sought John’s, this time filled with heeding uncertainty. John pursed his lips and just nodded—this wasn’t the place to talk about delicacy.

Lestrade cleared his throat.

“I’ll need your written testimony, of course,” he said, “but it’d help if you told us some details now.”

George Archer’s eyes dropped to his hands. John couldn’t see his expression, but something in his shoulders twisted John’s gut and squeezed out reluctant pity. He shuffled, and Archer’s eyes lifted at the noise and met John’s.

“I never—We never had sex. I was in love with her, but she was—I couldn’t.” He took a breath. “She was always special—Last Christmas, we were away for two months, and when we got home the Havishams had gone away, so I didn’t see Vee for a while. When she came back, she was so—” He buried his face in his hands, his voice muffled as if coming from behind a thick curtain. “She was different. I didn’t do anything, didn’t even let myself think about her that way.”

He lifted his face and John wasn’t surprised to see that his eyes had gone red.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “I couldn’t help it. She was still like herself—grown up, but still like the old Vee, the girl, my—” His voice shook and he made a visible effort to pull himself together. “She found me out—I thought she’d start avoiding me, but she started coming to me, coming up with excuses…I didn’t want to believe it at first; then she caught me alone one day and she kissed me, and—We only—She wanted to have sex and said she loved me, and I was mad, utterly mad—“

John believed him.

“She started collecting money.” The words were coming out in a desperate rush now. “She was making plans for us, wanted to break up with Simon—We argued, I said—I told her to stay with him at any cost, that no one must suspect anything. I’m in a—I was in a position of authority, but I was also—I felt horrible. I’m not going to—I won’t tell you I didn’t have any part in it, but I swear, I swear to you, I didn’t touch her!” He was looking at Lestrade now, face contorted in ferocious conviction. Lestrade barely nodded. “Go on,” he said.

George Archer looked out the window—the first cloudy day in weeks cast its grim, subdued light over his features. “I lied to her. Before she died—that was the last thing I did.” John could see his throat contract and his chin stutter in anguish.

“I told her I wasn’t going to go to Spain,” Archer said, still looking outside. “I said I’d come up with a lie about having to stay at the last moment because of work, and then we’d spend the weekend together. She was so happy—she had plans to go sunbathing at a friend’s house on Sunday, and she cancelled…I wanted to stay—I half believed myself that I’d do it.” He was talking to himself now, far away in a place John had no desire to visit. “We went to the West End for dinner that night. It was our three-month anniversary; Vee had kept talking about it. And then I was so sick, I could barely eat… I didn’t want to get her sick and I didn’t kiss her goodbye—she got upset…” The last words came out in a whisper.

He looked at John, chest finally shaking with silent sobs.

“She was very beautiful that night. Very, very beautiful…”

John nodded.

***

Sherlock was pulling down bits and pieces from his case board, putting some of them away himself and handing others to John who tucked them into various plastic A4 pockets. They’d finally come home an hour ago—after the hospital they’d gone for a wobbly stroll and a big meal at the new Italian restaurant. Once back in the flat it had occurred to John that Sherlock’s usual anti-climax might be bigger this time—proportionate to the length of the case—and he’d suggested they start clearing off the wall immediately. Sherlock’s hearty agreement surprised John, but put some of his concerns to rest.

They went about the job at a leisurely pace, with Sherlock stopping to examine a piece of writing or a print out, eyebrows trembling with the inner dance of his thoughts. Occasionally he made a comment to the world at large, but overall they worked in silence. The windows were open to let in the cool, early-evening breeze and the noise from the city; Mrs. Hudson’s TV could also be heard faintly, or maybe her radio—there was more music than talk.

John was unpacking things in his mental space, too. Several weeks ago he’d come across a TV program called “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking”. Sherlock had lifted his head upon hearing the narrator’s voice, which was uncannily similar to his. The program mentioned the Big Bang—John was more than familiar with the theory, but nevertheless he watched, fascinated. He’d thrown Sherlock a glance and had found him scrutinizing the screen with his head turned to one side and his eyes both disturbed and riveted. Let’s see how you delete that, John had thought.

Right now the case felt like the universe before the Big Bang: All the matter existed together in the tiny, tiny space of John’s head, in incredible density. There was hardly any distinction among facts, images, and feelings yet—it was going to take time for the elements of the case to start breaking down and apart from their overwhelming unity.

Still, there was one question that stood out, alone.

“Do you think she has some kind of pathology?” John said, breaking the quiet. “I mean, I wonder if her mind sort of just— snapped when she lost her daughter.”

Sherlock took down another piece of paper and John remembered they had a mirror on that wall. An uncovered patch of its surface reflected Sherlock’s undamaged eyebrow, which now quirked.

“‘Her mind sort of just snapped’?” he said. “Your psychiatry professor would be so proud.”

“Yeah?” John raised his own eyebrows, both of them, just because he could. “At least I’m not using outdated terminology to give myself an inaccurate diagnosis.”

The uninjured corner of Sherlock’s mouth joined the eyebrow.

“I must say that being on par with me has made you quite…lippy,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“‘Lippy’—”

“Not that, I know what ‘lippy’ means,” John interrupted, rolling his eyes. “Mycroft would say it’s one of the entries for ‘Sherlock’ in the Oxford Dictionary.”

Sherlock’s eyes flashed. “See—‘lippy’.”

“What did you mean ‘on par’ with you?” John pressed.

Sherlock turned to face him. He looked down, his face suddenly soft and knowing. John was reminded of the two of them standing in exactly the same way by a police car on the night John shot the cabbie. Even the words that came out of Sherlock’s mouth were similar.

“Good work,” he said.

John frowned questioningly.

“With the case,” Sherlock added.

Ah.

“That doesn’t make us on par,” John said. “I helped. Erm—that’s it.”

“Well, that is true,” Sherlock conceded. “You’ve become so good at it, you don’t even have to lift your finger anymore. Even half-asleep and lying on the floor you spur deductions out of me.” His lips twitched.

John tilted his head to one side. “Oh, that’s very nice,” he said. “You’re taking the mickey. Can I remind you that—”

“John.”

John closed his mouth.

“You didn’t just help.”

“Yes, I did. You solved the case—“

We solved the case.”

John looked at Sherlock carefully—then at the corner of the room, and then at the ceiling. “Come on,” he bleated, his ears burning.

“It’s true,” Sherlock said. “You and I, we both solved this case. Welcome to real detective work.” Sherlock’s eyes were clear and bright.

John broke into a smile. “So I’m no longer the muscle?” he said.

Sherlock laughed. “No. No, you’re not.”

They continued smiling for a few seconds then John looked at Sherlock seriously. “Thanks,” he said.

Sherlock nodded once.

“I’m still the medic, though,” John said. “You should rest your ankle.”

Sherlock groaned, but limped to the sofa and flopped on it, resting John’s cane against the edge. John sat in his chair.

“You didn’t answer my question about Vivian Archer,” he prompted.

Sherlock’s tone was impassive. “I’m not the most prominent psychologist of my time, but I’d venture to guess she was pushed to her limits by losing one of the only two people she genuinely cared about—and by the perceived loss of the other.”

John considered that and then shook his head, incensed on Sherlock’s behalf. “And they call you a psychopath.”

Something flickered across Sherlock’s face but he said nothing. They looked at each other across the room, the air between them tinted with the rare orange-lilac haze of sunset.

“So,” John said. “Indiana Jones?”

***

Epilogue

A month—to the day—after Veronica Havisham’s case was closed, John received an email from George Havisham.

That wasn’t strange in and of itself—they’d exchanged a few messages, after John had initiated the first one. At first he’d hesitated about whether to get in touch at all, then about what was the most appropriate way to do it, and finally about what to say. Eventually he had sent George a short email, saying plainly how sorry he was about the trauma their family had suffered and thanking him for his help, emphasising the role George’s research had played in solving the case.

George had replied after a few days. John thought the delay was indicative to similar uncertainty on George’s part about what their conversation should be like, multiplied by the awkwardness of puberty and the lack of experience. The message consisted of a succinct “Thanks”, plus a few words about the attention the Havishams had had to endure from the press and the world in general—George hadn’t spelled it out quite like that, but John could read between the lines.

He hadn’t responded to that email, not wanting to add more pressure at such a fragile time. But after a week George had dropped him a line, asking questions about Sherlock’s work—evidently he’d checked out “The Science of Deduction” website. John wrote back and a correspondence slowly began its thread.

George managed to locate Veronica’s savings—ironically, John had held them in his own hands when he was in her room. The eclectic snail jewellery box contained a hidden cavity, where George had found nearly five-hundred pounds in large notes. He asked John what he should do with the money. John thought hard and, after starting on half a dozen different messages, eventually advised George to keep the money. John was sure Veronica would have wanted her brother to have it, and he made sure he told George that.

Another week later John received the first message that contained a trace of cheerfulness—George had used the money to buy web space and some expensive software. He’d set up his own website which was still in progress; George worked on it every day and John made a point to check it regularly. The website showcased all George’s virtual characters. Its name was “The V World”. On the front page there was a note that the “V” stood for “Virtual”, but again John was able to read between the lines. This time there was something to be read between the literal lines, too. The background of the page consisted of unobtrusive patches in shades of grey. It was Sherlock who drew John’s attention to it.

“You see it, don’t you?” he’d said from the front door on the same day George’s email with the link to “The V World” had arrived. John was sitting at the desk with his back to Sherlock, exploring the website. He turned to Sherlock, puzzled.

“Come here,” Sherlock said. John obeyed; Sherlock turned him around and pointed at the laptop screen. From that distance John had seen it: The patchy background was in fact a carefully put together image of a beautiful girl’s face. It was there, and yet you only had to blink to lose it. Apart from being one of the finest exercises in gestalt that John had seen, it was also a fitting metaphor for a girl whose personality John continued to find elusive even after the mystery of her death had been solved.

The work on the image was exceptional and quite within George’s abilities, but something told John George had had a helper with the website. John asked him about it and in response found out about Anna. Anna was “alright”; George had met her on a gaming website and they did “cool stuff together”. In the same email George mentioned that his parents were probably going to split up, adding that ‘it was just as well’. John remembered the suddenly faded colour of Mrs. Havisham’s irises, and thought that some things in life were just inevitable.

The unusual thing about George’s latest email was that it contained the subject line “Hope you like”, but there was no message. Instead a single link took John to a website where he was supposed to download a heavy attachment. He did, then was unable to open it. John’s laptop didn’t seem to have the necessary program and all over his screen were now instructions about what software he might need and from where he should get it. He got tangled up with the download windows and, after scratching his head for ten minutes, gave up and asked Sherlock for help.

Standing behind John, having waved off his offer to sit, Sherlock did some wizardry on the laptop and the screen went dark. It remained so for a few seconds—then one of George’s online game characters slowly glowed into existence.

It was a knight, dressed in plain armour. He had a compact figure and a sturdy stance, and his hair was short and silver blond. There was no mistaking the features of his face but, just in case anyone did wonder, George had provided the knight’s name. It flapped like a flag in the wind at the bottom of the screen, written in an ancient-style font: Sir John the Wise.

John’s eyebrows rose to the ceiling.

Both he and Sherlock watched the character for several seconds in complete silence. Then Sherlock’s arm insinuated itself over John’s shoulder again and the tip of Sherlock’s thin finger glided over the laptop’s touchpad. Sir John did a full three-hundred-sixty-degree rotation, made a few steps forward, bowed, raised his sword. John couldn’t take his eyes off him.

He swallowed and turned his head to look up at Sherlock, dreading his reaction. Sherlock’s face was very near, yet inscrutable. Feeling his own face reddening John turned back to look at Sir John, who was now swishing his sword, stabbing it forward and ducking, thanks to Sherlock’s exploratory finger.

John felt warmth, of the very maudlin kind. Warmth, bashful pride—and a great deal of embarrassment.

“That’s…” Sherlock’s voice rumbled right next to his ear and John held his breath.

“Very good,” Sherlock finished.

John tried not to exhale too loudly.

“He’s very talented.”

“Hmm,” Sherlock agreed, then added quietly, “He has a gift for observation.”

They looked at the screen in silence again—Sir John had been pulled into a close-up and was now looking back at them, face decidedly brave, and—unlike his prototype’s—quite unfazed.

John cleared his throat.

“I should probably send a ‘thank you’ message,” he said. “Erm…Actually, I don’t know what to say.”

There was a pause. “Yes, you do,” Sherlock murmured. “You’re Sir John the Wise.”

He pulled back and John heard the patter of his bare feet returning to the sofa. In a few seconds Sherlock’s fingers resumed plucking the strings of his violin as if it were a mandolin. John fancied the music had a medieval, heroic ring to it.

He parted with Sir John and opened the window for a new message.

THE END