Chapter 1: A Quiet Weekend
Moira hesitated, peering up at the man on her doorstep through the gap permitted by the safety chain. Hmm. Not exactly her definition of tall, dark and handsome - but he was a hell of a lot closer than the Avon lady.
"Miss Moira Pickering?"
"That's me." She nodded, blonde curls bouncing with the movement.
The man held up his identification with the silver police badge clearly visible. "Detective Inspector Lestrade, New Scotland Yard. Might I have a word?"
Moira drew in a sharp breath and her hand flew to cover her mouth. Had something happened to...? No - they would hardly come to her. It couldn't be... "What's this about?" she demanded, heart racing. "Has something happened to -?"
"No, no, it's nothing to worry about, please don't be alarmed." He smiled reassuringly. "Just a routine enquiry. May I come in? I won't take more than a few minutes of your time."
Moira exhaled in relief, dropping her hand to her chest. "You frightened me," she told him, still feeling a little shaky as she unlatched the chain and opened the door fully. "Come in." She stepped back against the wall to allow him to pass her in the narrow hallway. "Please, go through."
She followed him into the living room, where he sat down on the squishy end of the sofa, looking slightly alarmed as his hips sank below the level of his knees.
"Sorry," Moira apologised, hiding a smile at his expression; he was clearly not a man who liked to appear undignified. "Springs are going - a replacement is on my 'things to buy when I earn some money I haven't spent already' list."
"Not to worry," he said, dredging up a smile and scooting forward until he was perched on the edge of the seat. He produced a notebook from his inside pocket and cleared his throat, then coughed. "Excuse me," he apologised. "I don't suppose there's any chance of a cup of tea, is there?" His smile turned hopeful. "It's just that you're my sixteenth interview of the afternoon and I'm absolutely parched."
Moira hesitated. It was already 4.30, which left only an hour and a half until Strictly Come Dancing and she had been planning on a nice bubble bath before settling in front of the telly with a bottle of wine and her fluffy slippers.
There was another, rather pathetic sounding, cough and she rolled her eyes, mentally consigning the bubbles to a post-show time slot. "I'll put the kettle on."
She headed for the kitchen, feeling rather relieved. If she was the sixteenth interview, then it couldn't be anything particularly personal. Nothing to do with Robert at least; he must be fine.
"Do you take milk?" she called back over her shoulder.
"Yes please," she heard as she clicked on the kettle and reached for the tea bags. Opening the cupboard, her hand hovered next to the mugs, but then she paused. A mug full of hot tea would take a while to drink. With the hope of salvaging her precious bubble bath time, she stretched up onto her tiptoes to reach the top shelf, getting down the cups and saucers which her Mum always insisted on and setting them on the tea tray, together with spoons and the sugar bowl.
Once the drinks were ready, she carried the tray through to the living room, putting it down on the coffee table.
She did get a "Thank you so much, that's very kind," but, before she could sit down, it was followed by another of those hopeful smiles.
"Don't suppose there are any biscuits?" The smile was accompanied this time by an expression which would be universally categorised as 'puppy dog eyes'. "Sorry," he added immediately. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to impose." The smile turned brave as he reached for the sugar. "Didn't have time for lunch, that's all."
Moira sighed. "It's no problem," she said, moving back to the kitchen in resignation. Well, he'd have to make do with custard creams, she decided, tipping the contents of the biscuit barrel onto a plate. She brushed off the worst of the crumbs, wondering if they were still in date, then shrugged her shoulders; they would have to do. He wasn't getting her double chocolate chip Saturday night TV treat cookies, she didn't care how cute he was.
"So, what's this about?" she asked as she resumed her seat at right angles to the sofa and picked up her cup.
He was still stirring his tea, the spoon tapping rhythmically against the fine bone china. "Are you familiar with the case of... well, most of the press are using the term 'The Week-Ender'?" he asked, setting down the spoon at last and reaching for a biscuit. "Thanks for this," he added, taking a bite.
"The serial killer?" Moira asked, sitting forward a little and feeling a slight thrill. Now this was interesting. A bit of inside information would certainly brighten up the water-cooler talk on Monday morning.
Her question was met with a grimace. "We prefer not to use that term, but yes, that's the case I am referring to. What do you know about it?" he asked. "Just to avoid repetition."
"Only what's been in the papers," Moira told him. "Three people killed in their homes, the last three weekends. On the Sundays, according to the tabloids - The Mirror called him 'The Sunday Slasher'. Is that right, is it the Sundays?"
"Well, we haven't officially announced that information yet, as it was difficult to establish the time of death in two of the cases - the victims all lived alone, so the bodies were not discovered straight away." He paused, raising his eyebrows hopefully in the direction of the biscuits.
"Oh, help yourself," offered Moira, wishing he'd get on with it. She drank some more tea while she waited through the munching. Didn't they feed them at Scotland Yard?
Her eyes fell to his chest as he brushed the crumbs off his jacket. Really, she thought, he wasn't half bad. A bit skinny for her taste, perhaps, but there was definitely something about him. She started to wonder about dinner, mentally inventorying the contents of her fridge. After all, it wasn't as if Robert was faithful to her, whatever he promised, and she could always watch Strictly on iPlayer in the morning.
He picked up his notepad again and she watched as his long fingers gripped the pen. Those hands certainly looked as if they knew their way around.
"But yes, we're now sure that the deaths all took place on Sundays."
It took a moment for Moira to tune back in to the conversation. "Right." She mentally shook herself. "So, how can I help?"
"Well, we have reason to believe that the killer's next target may be in this area," he told her. "We're just checking up on people who meet the victim profile."
"And I meet the profile?" That certainly wasn't news anybody wanted to hear.
"Oh, very much so, I'm afraid."
Moira shivered. This talk was making her feel a little peculiar. She picked up her cup again, sipping at the last of her tea.
"Well, I'm just planning a quiet weekend," she said. "I'll certainly keep my doors and windows locked tomorrow, you can be sure of that." She wondered if it actually might be best to go to her Mum's for the day. Better safe than sorry.
"I'm afraid that might not help," he warned her. "So far there have been no signs of forced entry." He glanced down at his notebook. "At first we thought that the killer might be known to his victims, but we have found no connection between them, so are now suspecting that he is gaining access to the properties under false pretences."
Moira thought about that for a moment. "Like pretending to read the gas meter, do you mean?"
"Something like that," he replied, smiling at her. Really, his smile wasn't nearly as attractive as she had first thought, Moira decided, a little vaguely. He could get his own dinner.
He leaned forward, his face showing concern now. "Are you alright, Miss Pickering?" he asked. "You look a little pale."
Moira blinked a few times and forced herself to concentrate. "I'm fine," she said. "Just tired, it's been a long week."
"I think we're almost done," he advised, his tone reassuring. "Just to wrap up, do you have a friend or neighbour who checks on you?" He smiled again. "It's more of a concern with women who live on their own."
Moira shook her head. "No, I'm not particularly close with my neighbours and, as I said, I was planning a quiet weekend, just catching up on some chores, watching telly, that sort of thing." She frowned. "I might go to my Mum's tomorrow, actually, now that you've told me this. How sure are you that he's going to attack in this area?"
"Oh, I'd have to say pretty confident," he replied, closing his notebook and tucking his pen away.
A sudden yawn took her by surprise and Moira covered her mouth hurriedly. "Oh, excuse me," she apologised. "Early night tonight, I think. At least I don't have to worry yet, do I? After all, it's only Saturday." She gave a nervous laugh, then wondered if it was inappropriate.
"Of course," he agreed, looking at her a little oddly.
Moira flushed, then reached her cup back towards the table, surprised to hear it rattling on the saucer. Really, this conversation was very unsettling, it was no wonder that she was feeling upset. He took it from her and set it down gently.
"Just one last question, if you don't mind."
Moira looked at him enquiringly, half wondering why his voice sounded further away, when he seemed to be getting closer.
"How long will it be before anyone misses you?"
Chapter 2: A Frustration of Time
John was sitting at the table in the living room, index fingers laboriously picking out the keys as he typed, until Sherlock's complaint broke his train of thought yet again. He huffed out a breath and looked around, casting an exasperated glare at the back of his flatmate's head. The man had been pacing the flat all morning and was now practically vibrating in his armchair.
"No, you're not," he said, before turning back to his laptop.
Sherlock twisted round to regard him curiously, momentarily diverted by the unexpected response. "I may not experience the full range of emotions which you seem to find necessary," his tone was disdainful, "but I believe that I am sufficiently familiar with the feeling of boredom to recognise its all too frequent appearance."
"You're not bored, you're frustrated," John replied, still focused on the screen of his laptop and trying to remember what he had been about to write.
Sherlock said nothing, but he said it in such a way that John found it impossible to concentrate. Sighing, he gave up on his blog for now and turned to meet that inquisitive gaze.
"If you were truly bored, you wouldn't have got dressed," he pointed out, enjoying the slight rise of Sherlock's eyebrows at his deduction. "You're perched on the edge of that seat, waiting for Lestrade to relent and call you in over this 'Week-Ender' case, and ready to leap into action if he does." He smiled at the resultant indignant look. "After the obligatory show of indifference, of course," he added.
Sherlock was torn between pride and petulance, not that he would have admitted to either. He turned back around and deliberately settled more comfortably into his chair, forcing his restless limbs to be still.
That lasted for two and a half minutes.
"One more body should do it," he announced, fingers now drumming against the armrests. "The media are already in a frenzy after three and the police are fobbing them off. One more should tip the scales." He leaned forward again, resting his elbows on his knees. "Is that too much to ask?"
John was uncomfortably aware that this sentiment would once have shocked him. Sometimes he worried that instead of raising Sherlock's understanding of acceptable behaviour, their prolonged association was merely diminishing his own.
"So, we're actually hoping for someone to be stabbed to death now, are we?" he asked, feeling that a token protest should be made.
"Hope is irrelevant," Sherlock replied, waving his arm irritably. "Today is Monday. The murder has already happened. We're just waiting for someone to find the body."
"Perhaps there isn't one?" John suggested. "It might have stopped."
Sherlock snorted. "Serial killers do not stop," he advised scornfully. "Really, John, have you learned nothing? And as the police seem to be no nearer, despite having three bodies and three crime scenes to play with, this one is clearly going to be fun."
John closed his eyes and silently counted to five, then exhaled.
Sherlock smiled, without looking round. "You used to count to ten," he observed. "You're getting used to me."
"God help me," said John.
Footsteps on the stairs drew their attention and Mrs Hudson appeared, tapping on the open door as she always did, despite clearly being able to see that both men were looking at her.
"Morning, boys," she said, sharing a fond smile between the two of them. "Peter's just got back and he's popping to Tesco's, do you want anything?"
John's eyes widened and he jumped to his feet, heading for the kitchen. If Sherlock was right - and John certainly wasn't going to bet against him - then they could be off on a big case before long, which would leave precious little time for anything the great detective deemed 'non-essential'... like food shopping.
"How's he getting on, your Peter?" he asked, as he checked the fridge contents. "Any luck finding a job yet?"
Mrs Hudson sighed. In some ways it was nice to have her nephew around; he was company in the evenings and she did feel safer with a man in the house, since Lord knows where these two were half the time. She threw an affectionate glance at Sherlock as she followed the doctor into the kitchen.
On the other hand, it wasn't easy to go back to sharing your living space once you'd got used to pleasing yourself, and having the telly constantly tuned to the sports channel was beginning to wear her down.
"Nothing so far," she replied, regretfully. "It's been a month now since he got to London; I think the poor boy's finding it harder than he expected." She shook her head. "I blame the government."
Sherlock smirked. "I'll tell him," he murmured, and Mrs Hudson gave him another fond, but uncomprehending, smile.
"Milk, definitely," declared John, voice slightly muffled as he rooted around in the fridge, his gaze expertly sliding over the various non-food items without taking in the details. "Also bread. A packet of bacon, and..." he re-emerged and opened the cupboard labelled 'Food Only', "yes, some honey. It doesn't matter what kind."
Safely unobserved in his armchair, Sherlock rolled his eyes. When John had finally noticed that a disproportionate number of the books on their shelves related to apiculture, he had made the completely illogical assumption that Sherlock liked honey, and now made sure of a constant supply.
It was ridiculous. There was absolutely no evidence to suggest that only people who enjoyed honey were interested in bee-keeping, any more than one could assume that dairy farmers were unusually fond of milk. Sherlock had naturally pointed out to John the absurdity of his conclusion, but the man had taken no notice, he just kept buying the damned stuff and whipping it out whenever he determined that not enough calories were being consumed.
The fact that Sherlock did, actually, like honey very much made the whole thing much more annoying.
Unable to sit still any longer, he got up and moved to the window, staring down at the singular lack of police cars in the street below. Behind him, John cleared his throat. "Er, Sherlock," he started.
"Back pocket." There was a pause, during which Sherlock made no movement to get his wallet out himself.
John huffed as he noted the slight bulge breaking the line of Sherlock's suit. The bloody man knew damned well there was no other cash in the flat - he'd probably pocketed it deliberately to see what would happen. It had taken John a while to realise that he was being experimented on between cases; sometimes he looked back on his day and tried to count all the hoops he'd jumped through.
Fine. He stepped forward, yanking up the back of Sherlock's jacket and tugging the wallet out. "Inappropriate!" he hissed, before stomping back to Mrs Hudson, who was smiling widely.
Sherlock's lips twitched, but the amusement faded as he got lost in his head again, dimly aware of the transaction taking place behind him, then of John puttering around the kitchen as Mrs Hudson retreated back downstairs.
The front door banged and he looked down on Peter's dark head as he emerged and slouched off towards the shops. It was hardly surprising that the man couldn't find a decent job; he inevitably looked as if wherever he happened to find himself was the place he least wanted to be.
"Why do you think Mrs Hudson always insists on calling me 'Doctor Watson'?" John asked, dropping down into his armchair. "She calls you 'Sherlock', after all." There was no response and he propped his chin on his hand, thinking about it. "I suppose she's known you longer," he mused, "but what about the neighbours? She's lived next door to Mrs Turner for years and still calls her 'Mrs Turner', but Tim gets his first name and the same went for Adrian, so it's not you that's the exception."
Still nothing. "Sherlock?" he prompted. "Sherlock, are you listening to me?"
"Hmm?" Sherlock glanced round from the window, mentally hitting rewind and registering John's words. "Oh, it's status," he said, turning back to gaze disconsolately at the empty street once more.
Sherlock sighed, then moved back to his armchair. Explanations. Dull. "Ongoing rivalry," he elaborated. "Mrs Turner had a university lecturer lodging with her last year and it was always 'Professor this' and 'Professor that'." He paused. "I'm quoting here, obviously."
He narrowed his eyes at John, but continued. "When you moved in, Mrs Turner had a hairdresser and a ..." He shook his head. "Sorry, what was the other one? Must have deleted it."
"Adrian worked at Barclays," John replied.
"There you are then," Sherlock finished. "Doctor trumps bank clerk. One up for Mrs Hudson." He got out his mobile, staring at it hopefully. "You would think, after three linked murders, that people would be checking on colleagues who fail to arrive at work on Monday morning," he complained. "So much for humanity."
John rolled his eyes. "That's rich, coming from you," he said. "Anyway, how do you know the next victim should be at work today? They seem to have been selected at random so far."
Sherlock glared at him. "Nothing is random," he snapped. "This killer is organised - just because the police can't see a connection doesn't mean..." He stopped, tipping his head to one side. "Are you being deliberately obtuse just to distract me?" he demanded.
John looked blandly back, then raised his eyebrows. "Is it working?"
Sherlock groaned and leaned forward, ruffling his fingers through his hair. "I should be on this case," he moaned. "Finally, something interesting and I'm just sitting here. It's intolerable!"
"Well you should have thought about that before you pissed off half of Scotland Yard, shouldn't you?" replied John, ignoring the resultant snarl. "Cause and effect, Sherlock, you're not immune, you know."
There was no response and John gazed at the bowed head of the lunatic he lived with. Sherlock looked miserable. There was no 'glass half full or half empty' with him - it was always either overflowing or completely barren. John found himself contemplating ways of getting Lestrade to change his mind, but when Mycroft's name popped into his head he quickly pulled the plug on the whole idea.
He stretched his leg out and nudged Sherlock's foot. "Hey," he soothed. "Like you said, I'm sure it's only a matter of time." Sherlock just grunted; John persevered. "So what's the connection, if there is one?" he asked. "So far we've had an office manager in his twenties, a thirty-five year old legal secretary, and a recovering alcoholic who worked in a call centre. That's a man, a woman and another man, one gay and two straight, two …"
"Yes, all right," interrupted Sherlock. "One white, one black and one verging on yellow - you could go on all day."
"I think the yellow was probably jaundice," John observed. "Either that or it was a really bad photo."
Sherlock groaned again. "That's exactly it, I need accurate information! Even just to see the bodies would be useful." He looked up, hopefully. "Do you think Molly would..."
"You are joking?" John gaped at him. "After your stunt with the organ swapping? Even Molly's not going to succumb to your dubious charms so soon after that effort."
"But I needed a fresh one!" Sherlock protested, throwing himself backwards so that he was stretched out in his chair. "And my charms are not dubious," he added, as an afterthought.
"Try fictitious," muttered John under his breath, then exhaled in relief as the window was momentarily bathed in blue light, which blinked out, then flashed back on again. He looked at Sherlock, who had his head tipped back and his eyes closed; the very picture of despondency.
"Time to wheel out that fake civility," he suggested, anticipation fizzing at the edges of his voice. "You don't want to get thrown back off the case before you've had a good crack at it."
Sherlock opened one eye, and then the other. He sat up, muscles tensing, and John watched as every brain cell suddenly refocused and switched into the 'on' position, energy seeming to crackle under his skin as they heard Mrs Hudson open the front door.
Curbing his urge to jump up, Sherlock instead leaned forward and gripped John's forearm, face alight with unholy glee. "John," he said, and his voice was low and intense as their gazes met.
John nodded, eyes bright but steady. "Play nice," he warned, as Sherlock squeezed briefly then let go and sat back in his chair, wiping his expression just as Lestrade appeared in the doorway.
For a long moment they stared at each other, then Sherlock quirked a brow.
"So, you found her."
Chapter 3: A Dangerous Attraction
"What's he doing here?"
Lestrade halted by the living room doorway, very aware of Sherlock's looming presence at his back.
"Now, Sally, we have a job to do, so let's just get on with it, eh?"
"Donovan..." The warning in Lestrade's tone would have halted a less motivated subordinate, but Sally's fingers just tightened on the laptop she was holding. She set it down on the coffee table and stepped forward, her movements stiff and jerky with outrage.
Lestrade's raised voice echoed through the victim's flat and silence fell as heads poked out of the other rooms.
He looked around from his vantage point at the junction of the 'L' shaped hallway. "Our priority is to find the killer and stop these murders. We will use whatever means I deem necessary," his eyes focused back on Sally. "Whatever means," he repeated, "in order to achieve this objective. Are we clear?"
Sally opened her mouth.
"Anyone to whom this is not clear may join the door to door enquiry with immediate effect."
For a moment it seemed that Sally was going to subside, but then she gritted her jaw and moved to brush past them, glaring daggers as she pulled her jacket closed against the heavy rain she was about to face.
Standing next to Lestrade, John turned and poked Sherlock with his elbow. "Look at me," he said.
Sherlock's head flicked round as he reluctantly tore his attention from the ongoing analysis of their surroundings. "What?" he snapped, ignoring Sally as she stalked by, and regarding John impatiently.
"Nothing," John replied as Sally disappeared out of the front door. "Just making sure you don't sabotage yourself."
Sherlock huffed and turned to Lestrade. "Right, if the histrionics are over, where are we?" he demanded, then waved his arm in dismissal. "Never mind." He strode into the living room, leaving Lestrade and John looking at each other.
"For God's sake, try to keep him under control," Lestrade pleaded. "I had to just about promise my first born child for permission to bring him in on this case."
"As you're unlikely to have children, given your age and lifestyle, that's hardly a significant offer," Sherlock's voice boomed out as he re-emerged, then disappeared into the kitchen. John took a step forward and watched him poking around in the cupboards and glancing over the notes on the fridge. He next vanished briefly into the bathroom, before indicating the activity visible through the open bedroom door. "Shall we?"
Lestrade drew a breath, then moved forward. "Right, everybody out. Clear the room, please."
A selection of officers trooped out, until only Anderson remained. "The Super said not to leave the body with him here," he told Lestrade, folding his arms and staying put. Sherlock ignored him, eyes darting around the room as he approached the body which was lying face-up on the bed.
Standing in the doorway, John surveyed the scene more slowly. In front of him was a large dressing table, with an upright chair and one of those mirrors with lights round the edges that always made him think vaguely of ballet, no doubt from being forced to sit through Harry's dance classes as a child.
Thoughts of Harry stuck in his mind as he looked over at the double bed in the corner. The girl was tiny. With her blond curls, soft pink cardigan and jeans tucked into matching fluffy pink slipper boots, she looked like a doll, and just a little too much like Harry during her brief 'girly' phase before she'd cut her hair short and developed an attitude disproportionate to her stature.
"Moira Pickering," recited Lestrade. "Twenty-three years old, single, worked as a secretary at an insurance company. She was found this morning by someone from the rental agency doing a routine landlord inspection - he checks out, it was all arranged; wasn't expecting anyone to be here."
He walked over to the dresser and picked up an evidence bag. "There was a note, just like the other three cases." He held it up to display a white sheet of paper with the words 'I'm Sorry' scrawled across it. "Same words every time," he said.
"Well, there's no pretence at suicide. Is that supposed to be killer's remorse?" asked John, his lip curling.
Lestrade shook his head. "No, we wondered that on the first case, but the writing turned out to be the victim's." He twisted his wrist to look at the note himself. "And this one looks quite feminine, the letters are all loopy." He raised his eyebrows at Sherlock, who nodded in agreement.
"So come on," Anderson chipped in, his tone laden with sarcasm. "Do your thing. Deduce her. We're all agog."
Sherlock threw him a withering look. "Well, as we are standing in the victim's flat, I would assume that even you would be capable of locating most of the relevant details. Surely information about the killer would be far more useful?" He was examining the body as he spoke, pulling up each eyelid in turn.
"Doctor?" he turned to John, who dredged up his professionalism and stepped forward, after a quick glance at Lestrade for permission.
"Right," he said, performing a few basic checks. "Obviously, she's been stabbed in the chest. Very little blood and," he indicated the rest of the room, "no sign of an arterial spray, so the weapon wasn't removed until after death and she bled into the chest cavity."
"Efficient," Sherlock murmured appreciatively.
John ignored him. "She's been dead for... hmm, twelve to eighteen hours and she doesn't seem to have been moved, certainly not this morning." He picked up her hand, which was dwarfed even by his own, and his lips tightened as her sleeve fell back.
"John?" Seeing his face, Sherlock moved towards him, standing a little closer than normal.
"What is it?" queried Lestrade.
John looked round. "She's been bound." He indicated the wrist he held and reached over to check the other one. "Something soft; it hasn't cut in, but you can see the bruising. She fought against it." He set the wrist down gently. "She fought hard."
Lestrade checked his watch. "So she was killed last night, between six and midnight," he calculated. "That ties in with what we could establish from the other bodies."
He turned to Sherlock. "What can you give me?"
Sherlock's hand rested unobtrusively on John's shoulder for a moment before he swirled away.
"The killer was male, obviously, probably above average height and good looking, at least by traditional standards." He glanced at Anderson. "And when I say traditional, I should specify that I mean by the victim's standards... clearly, there is no accounting for taste."
He turned his back on Anderson and focused on Lestrade. "It's unlikely that she knew him, but either way she certainly wasn't expecting him. A fake ID is the most likely ruse and she would have been easier to fool than most."
"Er... explain?" queried Lestrade, after a glance at John proved him just as lost.
"Am I the only one with eyes in my head?" Sherlock demanded. "Glasses," he said. "Her glasses are on the table in the hall - you all walked past them, I can't be the only one who noticed?"
He sighed at their blank faces. "Contact lenses in the bathroom but she's not wearing any." He waved at the body. "Minus three prescription in both eyes, which means she could function in a familiar environment, but no watching television, no using her laptop, so she was wearing her glasses." He moved over to the dressing table, indicating the range of products. "She's got a lipstick for each day of the month. A woman this vain, wearing her glasses - she wasn't expecting a visitor.
"So... the doorbell rings, she looks through the peephole and then she takes off her glasses and opens the door. She invites the killer inside, but leaves her glasses on the hall table. Why would she do that?"
He looked around hopefully, then shook his head. "I'm wasting my breath," he muttered.
John spoke up. "You mean she thought the killer was attractive?" he asked, doubtfully.
Sherlock threw his hands into the air. "Thank you, John!" he exclaimed, beaming proudly. He turned to Lestrade. "Why else would she not want to be seen in her glasses?"
He pointed back towards the bedside table. "The man on the cover of that book looks as if his upper torso has been inflated..."
Unable to see the book in question, Lestrade raised his eyebrows at John, who mouthed, "bodice ripper," at him.
Sherlock continued without pause, "... and there are a pile more like it on the floor. Photos in the living room show the victim with a variety of partners, but they are all tall and male, so her 'type' seems fairly clear."
John looked down at Moira's body sadly. "She looked through the peephole and liked what she saw, so she took her glasses off..."
"Which made her less likely to spot a fake ID," Lestrade finished.
"Vanity, thy name is woman," quoted Anderson sententiously.
"Er, it's frailty," came a voice from the doorway, and Sherlock spun to face the intruder, a fresh faced constable who immediately whipped off his uniform hat respectfully, revealing fluorescently red hair.
Lestrade spoke first. "Hopkins, what are you doing here?" he demanded, although his tone held resignation. "Get back to the door to door."
The young man hesitated, shuffling from foot to foot, his expression nervous but excited. "Can't I just..."
"Go!" Lestrade waved him away, then pushed the door closed. "Sorry about that," he said, turning back to Sherlock. "I'm afraid you've got yourself a fan."
The effect of these words was startling. With an indrawn breath and a flurry of movement, Sherlock disappeared through the door, leaving it swinging behind him.
John and Lestrade looked at each other, then followed, briefly squashed together in the doorway before they burst out into the hall and found Sherlock holding the young constable pinned to the wall. The lad looked a little startled, but predominantly thrilled.
"What the bloody hell..." Lestrade's tone was angry and John stepped forward, putting his hand on Sherlock's arm.
"Back off," he hissed. "Or you'll be out again."
Sherlock didn't move. "I'm not kidding," insisted John, his voice low. "Step away now."
After a few seconds, Sherlock released the boy and took a single step back, looking him up and down analytically before finally seeming to relax.
"It's my fault, Sir," Hopkins proclaimed, looking at Lestrade. "I stumbled and Mr Holmes stopped me from falling."
Lestrade rolled his eyes. "That's pathetic," he said. "You must be the worst liar on the force. I don't know why you bother."
"Sorry Sir," Hopkins looked abashed, but his gaze kept going to Sherlock. "Can I come in now, Sir?"
"What did you mean?" Sherlock asked him, and Hopkins virtually jumped to attention. "Frailty," Sherlock prompted, when he clearly didn't understand what was required.
"Oh, it's a quote, Mr Holmes," he explained. "From Hamlet. 'Frailty, thy name is woman.' Often misquoted," he glanced at Anderson, who was glowering in the doorway, "as 'Vanity', but it's when Hamlet is fed up because his mum married his uncle less than a month after his dad died."
Sherlock's eyebrows rose at this blast of trivia and he glanced around.
"Don't look at me," said John. "I only know that Mel Gibson was in it."
Lestrade opened his mouth, then thought better of getting sucked into the morass of missing knowledge gaping before him. "Can we get back to work?"
Sherlock held his gaze for a moment, then swirled towards the bedroom, nodding towards Hopkins and snapping, "Bring him," over his shoulder as Anderson hastily retreated back into the room, apparently concerned that sociopathy was contagious.
"Have I missed the deductions?" Hopkins muttered to John once they'd all filed back through the doorway. John just looked at him, unsure what to make of this rather earnest young man, or of Sherlock's bizarre reaction to him.
"I'm going to need to see the other crime scenes, all the photos, and the bodies," Sherlock declared, his eyes automatically darting around the room to ensure it had given up all its secrets. "There must be a link between these victims."
Lestrade grunted. "When I said something similar during that Pink case, you texted all the reporters to say I was wrong."
"The link there was that they all got into the wrong cab, without knowing where they were going," Sherlock told him. "Nothing to do with their own lives, nothing which could be predicted." He prowled around the room. "No, this time the killer is coming to them, so there must be a reason why he is picking these people."
He pulled up his mental map of London and highlighted the four murder locations, then considered them from every angle, but there was no obvious pattern.
"Is there anything more you can tell us about this victim?" Lestrade asked and John almost flinched as Hopkins started practically jittering with anticipation next to him.
Sherlock shrugged. "You don't need to root through people's bins any more - they hang out their dirty laundry all by themselves. Facebook, Twitter, all those sites. Weekend plans, upcoming appointments, hopes and dreams... all the little details a killer needs, laid out neatly on their computer screen."
He looked towards the corner again, thoughtfully. "The bed tells us she didn't have a boyfriend who stays here regularly, or they would have turned it around; no one likes sleeping up against the wall - nowhere to put their phone, no table for a glass of water."
He pulled open the top drawer in the bedside cabinet, scanning the contents. "Clearly sexually active, so either a string of one-night stands or a lover who doesn't stay over." He opened the second drawer. "More toys than condoms, so probably the latter."
Lestrade was slightly disturbed to find himself exchanging a look with Anderson and turned his head away, directing his gaze anywhere but at John. "Anything else?" he asked.
"Nothing particularly relevant," Sherlock replied. "She was getting over a cold, but that's hardly helpful."
Constable Hopkins was looking round desperately, trying to work that one out and John took pity on him. "How do you figure, Sherlock?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Sherlock was crouched down inspecting the chair now and answered absently. "Oh, box of tissues in the living room is nearly empty, but the cardboard oval from the top is still in the recycling tub in the kitchen and that was collected on Tuesday, according to the council schedule on the fridge door."
"That doesn't mean she had a cold!" Anderson complained. "People use tissues for all sorts of reasons."
Sherlock threw him a disparaging look. "It may well be true that you would get through a box of tissues in a week if you were not being regularly serviced, Anderson, but let's not assume the same for everyone, hmm?" He ignored the resultant spluttering.
"Also, there's a box of Lemsip sachets out by the tea caddy, but the rest of her medical supplies are on a shelf in the cupboard above. Only two packets left, but she hasn't added it to the shopping list, which is also on the fridge door. So - she'd had a cold, but was getting over it."
He straightened up, still looking rather unhappily at the chair. "As I said, not particularly helpful."
"What if she was drugged?" offered Constable Hopkins. "If she had a cold, she might not have tasted it." He looked at Sherlock hopefully and John was struck by the thought that if he'd had a tail, it would be wagging.
"Were the other victims drugged?" he asked, but Lestrade shook his head.
"Nothing showed up in the tests," he replied. "Although the bodies weren't as fresh as this one."
Sherlock was regarding them with exasperation. "Irrelevant, since the killer could not have relied on his victim's taste buds being impaired," he pointed out. "Unless you're suggesting that this is the link and the killer's motive is a particularly ineffective attempt to eradicate the cold virus."
He turned away, heading for the door. "I need to see that laptop," he declared, sweeping out dramatically.
Lestrade rushed after him, looking back at Constable Hopkins as he went. "Back to work!" he commanded, and the young man deflated.
John gave him a small smile as they left Anderson behind and was about to follow the others into the living room when Hopkins spoke up.
"Doctor Watson?" he said, tentatively. "Doctor Watson, can I ask you about something?"
John stopped in the doorway, looking towards the sofa where Sherlock was already engrossed in the victim's laptop. Then he turned back to the young man, who was now fiddling with his hat as he stood awkwardly in the hallway.
"You can ask," he said. "But aren't you supposed to be getting on?" He nodded towards the front door.
"Yes, Sir. I'm sorry, Sir," Hopkins replied, making no move to leave. "But it's about Mr Holmes, Sir."
"Go on," John invited, cautiously.
"Yes, Sir." He shuffled his feet a bit, then took a deep breath. "You see, I applied for this job because of Mr Holmes, Sir. My friend Ryan, you don't know him, he's very junior. Well, not as junior as me, but he's not someone you or Mr Holmes would know, Sir. But he was on a case that seemed impossible. I mean, no one could work it out; not even D.I. Lestrade and he's really good, Sir. So they called in Mr Holmes, and Ryan said he just solved it straight away. Just like that, he worked out what had happened and they caught the murderer and recovered the necklace and everything. Ryan said it was like magic, Sir. Well, he said Mr Holmes was a ... well, never mind that bit, but anyway it sounded amazing and I, er, got hold of the notes from the other cases he'd helped on, and he's so brilliant, the things he's done, just incredible and I applied for a transfer and finally got accepted a few weeks ago, so now I'm a Trainee Detective Constable." He paused, a hint of pride crossing his face.
"Breathe," instructed John.
"Yes, Sir. But when I got here, they said Mr Holmes wasn't working with the police any more, but no one would say why, Sir. And I asked Sergeant Donovan but she said... well, never mind that bit either, but she didn't explain. And I don't understand it, Sir, because he's such a genius and if he's willing to help then why..." He trailed off at last.
John sighed. He really didn't want to talk about this. "I'm not going to tell you what happened," he said, watching the young man's face fall. He sighed again, and relented somewhat. "But a couple of months ago there was an... incident." He shook his head. "I was away at the time." He paused, the familiar sense of guilt filling him. "Anyway, it led to an enquiry which covered civilian access to crime scenes, chain of custody, missing files, that sort of thing. As a result, the Assistant Commissioner ruled that Sherlock was no longer to be called in." His gaze had wandered back to the man in question as he spoke, and he watched fondly as Sherlock waved an arm around while talking animatedly to Lestrade. "That's it," he finished, turning back to Constable Hopkins.
The lad looked about to protest further, so John cut him off. "Now, I think you have work to be getting on with?" he prompted. "I know I do."
"It's not right, Sir," insisted Hopkins, but he put his hat on obediently and headed for the door, a thoughtful look on his face.
John watched him go, wondering how on earth Sherlock was going to cope with that level of verbosity, because something told him they'd be seeing more of the young man; he seemed extraordinarily tenacious. He smiled slightly - could be interesting to watch.
Turning back to the living room, he went in and waited through Sherlock's analysis of the laptop, watching as he sank lower and lower into the sofa until he stopped talking and looked surprised to find himself folded up like a deckchair.
Springing up with his usual agility, he straightened his jacket then turned to John and quirked an eyebrow. "All right?" he asked.
"Fine," John confirmed. "Ready to go?" With a promise from Lestrade to have copies of files and photographs delivered to Baker Street that afternoon, they set off back home, managing to avoid both Hopkins and Sally on the way out.
Once in the taxi, Sherlock knew it wouldn't be long before he was asked about the new constable; already John's quizzical glances were gaining in frequency. He attempted a diversionary tactic.
"Why did that victim bother you?" he enquired, monitoring John's expression. "You've seen worse, even here in London and you don't usually display such a strong reaction. Not like Lestrade," he added.
John was successfully distracted. "What do you mean?" he asked. "About Lestrade, that is."
Sherlock looked at him. "Oh, come on, you must have noticed - a crime is written in his body language before he even opens his mouth to describe it."
He peered at John. "No?" he checked. "Really?" He looked disappointed. "Lestrade's degree of tension is directly proportional to the level of protectiveness he would have felt towards the victim," he explained. "Children are the most obvious but women, especially young ones, come a close second."
"Right," John nodded. That accounted for Sherlock immediately knowing the victim was female; at the time he'd thought it was just a lucky guess.
"I never guess," said Sherlock, following his train of thought with customary ease.
"Well, I'm still ahead on predicting the fortune cookies," John pointed out.
Sherlock muttered something unintelligible under his breath.
John sighed. "She reminded me of Harry," he admitted. No point trying to hide it; Sherlock would figure it out anyway.
"But you don't get on with Harry."
"She's my sister."
"You hardly ever see her, and you come back angry and upset whenever you do."
"She's my sister."
They stared at each other. Dead end, Sherlock acknowledged.
"So what about you?" John asked, and Sherlock grimaced. This wasn't going to go down well.
"Why did you accost Constable Hopkins? What made you dash off like that when Lestrade said you had a fan?"
"Because, the last time I heard those words," Sherlock replied, "was from the cabbie in your so called 'Study in Pink' case." He turned his head, looking out of the window. "And the fan they referred to was Moriarty."
The silence was heavy but short-lived.
"You absolute tit."
Chapter 4: A Calmness of Tea
"Look, I'm sorry, all right?"
There was no response. John pulled the sliding door open a little wider.
"I didn't mean to call you a tit."
There was the slight purse of a lip as Sherlock refrained from a cutting remark on the theme of accidental speech.
John slipped through the gap and into the kitchen. "Sherlock, will you please stop sulking? It's not as if you don't call me five worse things before breakfast."
He watched as Sherlock twisted in his seat to pick another file out of the Scotland Yard box then set it down on the table, which for once was clear of experiments.
"Let me help. I want to help." He moved closer and put his hand on Sherlock's arm, arresting his movement. Sherlock looked down at the restraining hand then up to meet his gaze, eyebrow quirked in an expression of absolute disdain. John wavered but didn't back down. "I want to help," he repeated, a hint of distress starting to creep into his expression.
Sherlock pulled his arm away and picked up another file, throwing it down on the other side of the table. "You can check through the autopsy reports from the first three cases," he said. "Look for any similarities which might indicate the killer's routine and see what you can work out about the weapon used."
He was looking through one of his own files as he spoke and John sank down onto the opposite chair with relief, aware that he had handled the situation very badly. Sherlock clearly knew that he had over-reacted with Constable Hopkins, and if John had kept his cool he might have finally had the leverage to force the discussion he'd been attempting for the past two months. Instead, his angry words had given Sherlock the perfect excuse to get on his high horse and he had taken the hump most decidedly.
To say that Sherlock did not respond well to criticism would be an understatement even by English standards. He didn't always mind 'idiot', if he could translate it as 'foolishly brave', or even just 'incomprehensible', but he had an extremely low tolerance for ridicule. John could get away with a lot under the guise of banter, but you didn't seriously try to take the piss out of Sherlock Holmes unless you wanted to be verbally eviscerated or, in John's case, shut out and ignored, which inevitably reminded him of those early weeks in London and the pointlessness of his solitary life.
John opened the file and started reading though it. From the other side of the table, Sherlock sneaked a glance at his lowered head and became aware of a strange feeling. It felt suspiciously like guilt, which he hadn't truly experienced for many years, and only ever in connection with Mummy.
He squashed the emotion as soon as he recognised it. John was unreasonable on this issue, and attack was the best form of defence. Definitely. He concentrated his attention back onto the photographs he was holding.
For a while it was quiet in 221B, the only sounds being the turning of pages and rustle of folders, together with the scratches of John's pen on his notepad.
"You know, we've never really talked about it."
Sherlock had to force himself not to look up as John's words took him by surprise. Truly, the man was tenacious. It was clear that he found it upsetting when there was discord between them, and yet he seemed willing to risk it for the sake of making his erroneous point.
"And we're not going to now." Sherlock's tone was final.
There was silence for a few minutes.
"He's not the only criminal in London."
Sherlock said nothing.
Deciding that if he was in the dog house anyway he may as well get this off his chest, John tried again. "OK, so he's 'the one that got away', but don't you think you've blown him out of proportion? He's only actually figured in a fraction of the adventures we've had."
"Adventures?" Sherlock scoffed. "What are we, featuring in Boy's Own now?"
"You know what I mean," John insisted. "Fine then: of all the cases we've had, let alone all those you investigated before I came along, how many has he been involved in? And yet you look for him in everything."
He was approaching the critical issue and instinct warned him to back off, as he had done every time so far, but he forced himself on. "Sherlock, the thing in September..."
"Drop it, John."
"I can't!" He'd gone too far to retreat now. "Can't you see that you're obsessed with him? It was bad enough during the actual case, but you've only got worse since then." John hoped his words were registering but Sherlock wouldn't look at him.
"As soon as you decide he's not involved in something, you lose interest and at the slightest hint of a lead you drop everything. What happened in September - that poor family - we both know that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't suddenly dashed off on another wild Moriarty goose chase."
Sherlock's head rose at that. "Nor would it have happened if you hadn't been so desperate for a shag that you went all the way to Yorkshire," he snapped.
John's face paled. "Don't you think I know that?" he demanded. "There's not a day goes by that I don't wish I'd been here."
Sherlock waved his arm dismissively. "It wasn't your fault," he acknowledged. "I don't see why you're still moping over it two months later. You can't save everybody."
"No, but I should be able to save you," John replied. "Even if it's only from yourself."
The unexpected words caused Sherlock's eyebrows to rise in query. He had assumed that John blamed him for what had happened. Certainly everyone else seemed to.
"You got yourself banned, Sherlock," John explained. "These last two months have been a nightmare and then today, when finally they get desperate enough to call you in, you risk it all again and for what? For the same damn reason - bloody Moriarty!"
He sat back, frustration and worry clear on his face.
Sherlock regarded him for a long moment, then dropped his gaze. "John, I..." He paused, then started again. "I admit that I had not entirely grasped the nature of your concern," he said, fingers absently straightening the photographs in front of him. "But while your... consideration for me is appreciated, I must make plain to you that I would still class catching Moriarty as my number one priority."
John bit back a smile, suddenly reminded of that first conversation at Angelo's all those months ago - Sherlock always got more pompous when he was feeling disconcerted.
"Fair enough," he said, feeling infinitely better to have said his piece at last. "But I'll be here to make sure that everything else doesn't fall by the wayside."
"Fine," Sherlock agreed, shuffling papers again. "Good." He glanced up and produced a small, almost shy, smile.
"Tea?" offered John.
Half an hour later, Sherlock observed that John's attention was no longer focused exclusively on the reports in front of him, but was now being interrupted by frequent glances in the direction of the fridge. A rumbling sound bore out the obvious conclusion and he determined that a distraction was needed if the day were not to deteriorate into an abyss of culinary excess.
He glanced at his watch. "Three o'clock," he announced. "Perfect." He jotted down an address and passed the note across the table. "I need you to go to Moira Pickering's office and talk to her colleagues," he instructed. "Find out her routine, where she went for lunch, how she travelled to work, who she regularly came into contact with, that kind of thing. If you leave now, you should have time before they close for the day."
John took the address with some reluctance. "I'll just grab a quick sandwich before I go," he said.
"No time for that!" Sherlock declared, making 'get up' motions with his hands. "Half of the food Billy dropped off last night is in still the fridge. You can eat later."
John looked unconvinced.
"Angelo's finest," Sherlock added, temptingly. "Something to look forward to when you get back."
A rather sly expression crossed John's face. "Fine," he replied. "I'll wait until later - if you share it with me."
Sherlock opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again. It wouldn't kill him to let John have this victory. "I'll eat a bit," he promised.
John was reading the address, which was fortunately not far away, as he trotted down the stairs and he didn't see Peter standing at the bottom until he almost ran into him. He lurched to a halt on the last step, finding himself disconcertingly nose to nose with the dour man.
"Oh," he said, attempting to convert his startled cry into some kind of greeting. "Hello Peter, can I get by?"
"Shopping," replied Peter, who seemed to personify the 'man of few words' philosophy.
"Shopping," echoed John, not feeling hugely enlightened by the conversation thus far. He edged to the right, hoping to squeeze past, but Peter didn't move. Realisation dawned. "Oh, right - the shopping. Yes. Thank you. Erm... look, can I pick it up later? I'm just on my way out now." He waved his arm in the direction of the door. "If I could just..."
"Peter, dear, do stop looming," Mrs Hudson's voice came from the front door and Peter half turned as she approached.
"Now, I was just round at Mrs Turner's and I've had a wonderful idea," continued Mrs Hudson. She did, indeed, look unusually perky as she regarded her nephew. "You can do up the basement flat!" she told him with the air of one proffering a great treat. "It will do you good to make yourself useful and you could even move in there for a while until you get sorted." She looked delighted at this prospect. "I'm sure it won't be a big job. Tim said he'd give you a hand and there's some furniture in storage which should be just the ticket..." her voice trailed off as she headed towards 221A, turning back at the door.
"Do come along, dear," she prompted. "No time like the present."
It briefly seemed as if the prospect of actual work might be enough to lift Peter from his apathy, and John offered him an encouraging smile, but the moment passed and he trudged off after his aunt, at last allowing John to escape the staircase. Mrs Hudson's flow of suggestions were still audible as he grabbed his coat from the alcove, and he smiled to himself. Sherlock might be hard to live with at times, but John didn't think he'd swap him.
It was nearly six o'clock when John finally got home, which was a bloody long time since breakfast. Only the incentive of getting Sherlock to eat something had kept his feet in motion as he passed the chip shop. They wouldn't normally be his first choice for dinner, but there was something about the smell as you walked past that seemed to tap into an inherently English instinct. The tang of vinegar, the briny evocation of seaside holidays – fish and chips was on the 'most missed' list of many an English soldier.
Sherlock had better keep his word about dinner, John thought grumpily as he stomped up the stairs. He walked into the living room, but it was empty. Well… it was covered in crap, as usual, but decidedly devoid of Sherlock.
"In here, John," came from the kitchen and he walked through to find Sherlock exactly where he had left him, although there must have been motion at some point as he now had John's laptop open on the table.
"Where's yours?" John enquired, not even bothering to inject any indignation into his voice.
Sherlock waved his arm in a gesture which could either mean 'Somewhere in that direction', or simply 'Your question is irrelevant'.
"Moira Pickering was surprisingly coy about her personal life when posting on her own Wall," he stated. "But hopefully she's been less discreet on other people's." He hit the Enter key, then turned his head. "Anything interesting?"
John walked round to peer over his shoulder. "Facebook?" he queried. "What are you doing on Facebook?" He looked again, an image of Moira smiling back at him. "How did you..."
Sherlock snorted. "Lestrade wouldn't let me take her laptop," he said disgustedly. "But it was already signed in to her Facebook account so I sent myself a friend request before I handed it back, and now I've sent my own to the people she chats to the most."
John stepped closer and reached in front of him to click on the Profile link. "Kelli Jones?" he queried. "Who the hell is Kelli Jones?"
"I set her up six months ago," Sherlock told him. "She's been invaluable for finding out about people's lives." He looked round, noting the 'I'm no wiser' expression. "Well I can hardly pretend to be obsessed with clothes and boyfriends under my own name, can I?" he challenged, brushing a speck of dust from the sleeve of his immaculately tailored jacket. "What?" he demanded, as John's lips twitched.
"Nothing," John replied, controlling his thoughts before another argument erupted. He looked at the screen again, and his eyes widened. "Is that..." He blinked a few times. "No, it can't be." He leaned forward, peering closely at the photo which had caught his eye and almost squashing Sherlock against the edge of the table. "It is!" he said. "It bloody is. That's Janet."
He stepped back, pointing angrily at the pictorial representation of the fictional Kelli Jones. "Explain to me why your alter-ego looks exactly like my girlfriend from Uni."
"I blurred it a bit," Sherlock protested. "I needed an image and it was right there on your computer. Anyway, it's ages old, no one will recognise her."
"It's not that old," objected John, indignantly.
Sherlock huffed. "It took me six minutes to find a snap which didn't look hideously dated," he complained. "Really John, your taste in women is only slightly less questionable than your taste in clothes. And as for the hair..."
"Well, what makes you think anyone is going to accept friend requests from some woman they don't know?" John interrupted. "Especially one with a dodgy haircut," he added sulkily.
"You'd be surprised," Sherlock answered, indicating the left hand side of the screen. "Look - 347 alleged friends, not one of whom has the slightest idea who I am. Some of them accept any request just so that they appear more popular; then once you have one member of a social circle, you're a 'friend of a friend' and that's enough for most of the rest. It's madness." He shrugged. "But it's useful madness."
John shook his head. "Janet married the Captain of the First Fifteen," he warned. "That's the rugby team, in case you've deleted sports terminology. And Doug is built like a tank - if he finds out about this, you'd better run for cover. And don't expect me to shoot him for you, either," he added. "Because a month in traction might teach you a lesson."
He looked at Sherlock, who was clearly paying him no attention whatsoever, and sighed. Who was he kidding? He wouldn't let anyone hurt the arrogant sod, no matter how much he deserved it. John settled for ruffling his hair, which produced the usual huff and hand flapping, then headed for the fridge.
"Ready to eat?" he enquired. "I'm starved."
"What?" Sherlock asked absently, one hand smoothing down his curls. The rattle of the fridge door snagged his attention and he looked round, then jumped to his feet and stepped across the room, reaching around John to push the door closed again.
"Notes first," he declared.
John's shoulders sagged and he leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the appliance. "But I'm hungry," he moaned plaintively.
"And you call me melodramatic!" snorted Sherlock. He put his hands on John's shoulders and steered him away from the fridge and out of the kitchen, pushing him along until he was standing in front of the fireplace.
"Right, I want to sort out some notes on the four cases," he said. "You can stick them on the wall for me."
"This is why I worked my arse off in medical school," John replied grumpily. "Sticking notes on a wall. Good job I paid attention in class."
Sherlock moved to John's left and regarded him carefully. "You're all right for a bit," he decided. "One hour, and then dinner."
John looked back at him, drawing energy from the excess which seemed to emanate from Sherlock in his 'case-on' excitement. "Fine," he agreed, at last. "But you're eating too." He hung on to the one victory he had managed today.
"Yes, Doctor." Sherlock held out a pad of large post-it notes and a pen, which John took from him resignedly.
"Right," Sherlock started. "Case one: Richard Simpson. His body was discovered on Wednesday the 27th of October; death was estimated to have occurred on the preceding Sunday." He glanced at John. "Don't write this one down, I already did a note." He handed it over.
"Is this in code?" asked John. Sherlock looked affronted. "Never mind," said John. "I'll write them all myself in the interests of consistency." And in case anyone ever wants to actually read them, he added mentally.
Sherlock regarded him suspiciously, then carried on. "Twenty-eight years old, white, gay, single, Londoner born and bred, lived alone in what was the family home in Putney. Brought up Church of England, but stopped attending services when his parents died in a car crash two years ago. He worked as an office manager at a marketing firm."
He looked at John's busy scribbling. "Got that?" he asked.
John's tongue was poking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated. "Got it," he said at last, writing 'Case One' at the top of the note and sticking it on the wall.
"Second murder," Sherlock carried on. "Philippa Saunders: body discovered on Tuesday the second of November, again estimated to have died the Sunday before. Thirty-five years old, black, also from London. She made a good salary as a legal secretary at some firm with an unfeasibly long name."
John chuckled. "That's a bit imprecise for you, isn't it?" he asked.
"Unless it's likely to be relevant, I'm not going to clutter up my hard drive with a list of 'London's most overpaid'," Sherlock told him. "Anyway, at the speed you're writing, you'd starve to death before you got to the end. I'm only thinking of you."
Ignoring the resultant snort, he carried on. "Divorced five years ago, no children. She lived in a studio apartment in West Hampstead. No identified religious affiliations and the police haven't yet tracked down the ex-husband."
He waited for John to catch up. "Third case a week later: Neil Benson. Thirty-two years old, white," he caught John's eye, "not yellow - it was indeed a bad photo - originally from Dorset, moved to London in his twenties. No living family, he spent two months in rehab after losing his wife to cancer, seems to have been clean since he got out a year ago."
"They were all murdered, John."
"All right, poor sods."
Sherlock felt he was missing something, but he pressed on. "Regularly attended 'Alcoholics Anonymous' meetings; there's a statement from his sponsor."
"Not massively anonymous then," John observed.
"She found the body."
"She?" queried John. "That's unusual - sponsors are usually the same gender."
Sherlock brushed this aside. "He held a fairly menial position in a call centre, which she helped him to get - the boss called her when he didn't turn up for work on Monday the eighth of November. She found him that evening at his ground floor flat in Acton, death was estimated at early Sunday the seventh."
"Religion?" queried John, who strived for consistency in his notes.
Sherlock sniffed. "Some sort of indeterminate Christianity, from what I can gather. Right," he continued. "You can do the last one later - tell me what you found out from her office."
John finished sticking the third sheet to the wall and pulled his own notebook from his pocket. "OK, well I spoke to her boss," he checked his notes, "Robert Thompson," he read out. "Not particularly helpful. One of those large, blustery men. Very officious. Said he'd already spoken to the police and that Moira was a quiet girl, no trouble, he had nothing more to add."
"When you say large..."
John bristled. "No, I do not just mean in comparison to me! Will you give it a rest? It was one time and that thug would have looked large to you too if you'd been tied to a chair and concussed when you saw him."
"He was five foot eight."
John gritted his jaw. "Well Mr Thompson was at least six feet," he said. "Possibly even six foot one, which would make him taller than some people who give an illusion of great height which is mostly hair and flouncing."
He turned back to his notepad, leaving Sherlock mouthing 'flouncing?' unnoticed.
"He was solidly built too, but probably not as old as he acted. The pompous type. Anyway, the girls in the office were much nicer." He smiled.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "When?" he asked.
John looked at him blankly.
"You've obviously asked one of them out, so when is it? At what point of the week am I suddenly to be abandoned?"
"It's not a date," John defended. "I asked about Moira's love life and they said they didn't know, but they were giving each other looks, so there's obviously something there. I thought if I got one of them on her own she might say more."
"How self-sacrificing," commented Sherlock. "If Facebook comes through, you might be saved this meeting with..."
"Wednesday night," John admitted, grudgingly. "And no, you can't come too. I'm sure I can manage to extract one bit of information all by myself."
"One would hope."
A tap on the open door curtailed the conversation, which was probably just as well. "I've brought your shopping up, boys," called Mrs Hudson. "I'll just pop it in the kitchen, shall I?"
She glanced at the notes as she walked in. "Oh, have you got another case, dear? How lovely." She patted Sherlock's shoulder as she passed and he flashed her his unholy grin. John wondered if everyone who came into regular contact with him developed this skewed perspective towards serious crime, or whether you actually had to live with him for the fear of 'bored Sherlock' to over-ride everything else.
"You might want to put some of these photos away if Peter comes up," she called from the kitchen. "He doesn't like the sight of blood, you know."
John threw a horrified glance at Sherlock and dashed through the doorway, gathering up the autopsy images hurriedly. "I'm so sorry, Mrs Hudson," he apologised. "We should never have left these out."
She smiled at him. "Oh, don't mind me, dear," she said. "I've a much stronger stomach."
She was looking at the laptop now. "Why do people write their names in such a funny way these days?" she asked. "I would never spell Kelly like that."
"Apparently 'i' is the new 'y', Mrs Hudson," Sherlock called through from the living room. "I have it on good authority."
"Good authority?" echoed John. "Hang on… Did you say you'd set this up six months ago?" He was thinking back. "Was that when we were looking into that theft at the sixth form college?"
Sherlock glanced round. "One should never disregard expert advice, John," he said. "There was nothing about Facebook those girls didn't know."
"I suppose the fact they all swooned over your 'Byronic good looks' didn't hurt."
Sherlock managed to look both dismissive and smug at the same time, which John couldn't really begrudge him. Considering that he was used to working in an atmosphere of almost unmitigated hostility, a bit of adulation had made a nice change once he'd got over the fear factor.
"Adrian next door was always trying to get me to join Facebook," Mrs Hudson said as she moved back into the living room. "But I told him I didn't want to poke people."
She sighed. "He always seemed such a nice young man," she said, regretfully. "Who would have believed that he was carrying on with that artist chap all the while? And to think, Sherlock, if you hadn't noticed that paint on his trousers no one might ever have known."
"It wasn't on his trousers, it was inside his collar."
Mrs Hudson allowed this correction to wash over her.
"Of course it's left Tim very lonely, poor boy." She eyed Sherlock appraisingly, to which he seemed completely oblivious. John hid a smile - Mrs Hudson was an incorrigible romantic and still held out the hope of one day having 'married ones' of her own.
He watched as Sherlock added some more notes and then rearranged them to his satisfaction, long fingers a blur as he worked, happily unaware of the plotting landlady behind him. He was almost hypnotic like this, concentration on his face, in his own world. John could watch him for hours.
After a while, John shook himself and forced his attention away, only to find that Mrs Hudson's gaze had moved to him and her eyes were most definitely twinkling. John coughed, then gave her the blandest smile he could manage and turned to tradition.
Chapter 5: A Storm in a Teacup
WARNING: This chapter contains spoilers for Agatha Christie's 'The ABC Murders', so if that's on your reading list, best cover it before going any further...
"Sorry about the mess."
Lestrade's desk was piled so high with files and boxes that the man himself was barely visible as Sherlock and John walked in on Tuesday morning.
"I hope to God you've got something for me," he said, rising to greet them. "Because more bodies are not equating to more progress, the press are baying at the door and people are starting to panic. We're no nearer to catching this guy now than we were after the first murder."
He was looking around vaguely, as if hoping that some of the paperwork mountains filling the chairs would obligingly disappear.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," replied Sherlock. "You're significantly closer than you were this time yesterday."
Lestrade regarded him for a moment, then rolled his eyes. "Because now you're working on it," he acknowledged.
John's attention had been drawn to a very feminine china teacup which was perched on top of the nearest pile. "Not quite your usual style," he commented, nodding towards it.
"What?" Lestrade looked confused, then his face cleared. "No, and I don't usually put my crockery into evidence bags either," he pointed out. "It's from yesterday's crime scene, there are still dregs in it. Donovan found it in that pouffe thing in the living room and thought the victim might have stashed it there as a clue - we were going to test it for drugs."
"I said drugs!" came an excited voice from the doorway.
Lestrade groaned. "Hopkins..."
"Sorry, Sir. Can I help? I don't think Sergeant Donovan's coming back - she nearly knocked me over on the stairs just now."
"And from that you deduced that Sherlock was in the building?" Lestrade queried, raising an eyebrow at him.
Hopkins looked embarrassed. "There may have been some... muttering," he admitted. "But I did say about the drugs, Sir, what with her having a cold."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Lestrade told him, "but there are no drugs. The blood test from the victim came back negative, so the teacup is irrelevant."
Hopkins' face fell, but Sherlock's attention sharpened. "So why was it in the pouffe?" he asked.
Three heads turned to regard Hopkins with varying expressions of disbelief. The young man gulped nervously, but continued. "A pouffe is just a big cushion, Sir. If you can store things in it, then it's an ottoman."
Sherlock regarded him steadily. "Same question," he said.
Hopkins shuffled his feet, but answered. "Well, sometimes, if my Mum comes round when I wasn't expecting her - which she does all the time since Dad went off with that... Well anyway, sometimes when that happens, if my flat is messy I might, just occasionally, push dirty plates..." he paused, ducking his head down a bit, "... under the sofa, Sir." His cheeks nearly matched the colour of his hair by this point. "But I always get them out again straight away after she goes, I mean -"
"Yes, thank you for that," interrupted Sherlock. "But fascinating as this insight into your residential hygiene is, evidence would suggest that the victim did not share your habits."
He turned away, frowning. "Indeed, I find myself in the unusual position of being inclined to agree with Sergeant Donovan."
"Don't worry, I won't tell her," Lestrade chipped in drily. "But, as I said, the victim's blood tests came back clear - there were no drugs in her system."
Sherlock nodded his head towards the cup, regardless. "Can I take that?"
Lestrade waved his arm expansively. "Have at it," he invited.
Sherlock picked the cup up carefully and peered inside, then passed it to John. "We'll go to Barts when we've finished here," he said. "Don't tip it up."
"Marvellous," said John, wondering how the hell he was supposed to manage that while they trailed round London.
Lestrade attempted to get back on track. "So, Sherlock, you've got the notes from the previous cases, what can you give me? Because we're no nearer, as far as I can tell. Not only have we still not established a link between the first three victims but we can't find anything to connect this last one to any of the others. We've been through their schools, universities, employment history, even checked things like jury duty, holiday destinations etc. There's nothing to suggest that any of these people have ever met and we can't find a single common theme between them."
"And what does that tell you?" queried Sherlock, pulling off his gloves and moving closer to John. "Stand still," he instructed, as he used the gloves to wedge the cup into John's coat pocket.
Lestrade raised his hands in a 'no idea' gesture. "Other than the fact that they were all adults, all in employment, and are all now dead, it tells me I've got nothing!"
"John?" Sherlock prompted. He indicated the notice board, which held a more elaborate version of their layout at home. "Look at the photographs of the victims, consider the facts we went over last night, and tell me what strikes you."
There was silence for a while as everyone stared at the wall. Eventually, and with some trepidation, John offered, "Differences?" He glanced round, but Sherlock just nodded at him.
"They're so different," John continued. "Age, sex, orientation, colour, creed, location - it all seems completely random."
"Not random... irrelevant," Sherlock corrected.
"Well, they all lived by themselves," pointed out Lestrade, "but that could just be convenience - this guy might simply be wandering the streets every Sunday and picking anyone who's home alone."
"Oh, come on," scoffed Sherlock. "This is no disorganised killing spree, or he'd never have got away with it for so long - even you lot aren't that inept." He tapped his index fingers against his bottom lip. "No, whatever he's looking for in a victim is not affected by any of the things you listed, which suggests that the link is behavioural, rather than physical. It's nothing to do with their history, it's about something they're doing." He paused, giving a small shrug. "Were doing. And it's something the killer doesn't like, or why would he make them apologise for it?"
Lestrade thought about that, considering the 'I'm Sorry' notes which had been found at each scene. "OK, gimme. What is it?"
"Haven't the foggiest," Sherlock replied happily. "But I've got enquiries in progress regarding the most recent case, and John is nobly sacrificing himself to the same cause tomorrow night, so let's crack on, shall we? You said the woman who was closest to the third victim was coming in this morning?"
Giving John an enquiring look but getting only a headshake in response, Lestrade turned and picked up a file from his desk. "Yes," he confirmed. "Helena Bagshaw. She was his AA sponsor. Earnest type." He regarded Sherlock seriously. "You can interview her, but I want your best behaviour. And John within ankle-kicking distance of you at all times."
"Er..." Fear that Lestrade might chuck him out if they noticed him had kept Hopkins so quiet that the others had almost forgotten he was still standing in the corner. "Er, I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you think there's any chance that some of the killings are blinds? Like in The ABC Murders, I mean?"
Sherlock turned to him. "The ABC Murders?" he challenged. "I am confident of my familiarity with every recorded incidence of serial killings, and I have heard of no such case." He raised a brow enquiringly.
"What? Oh, no - it's a book," Hopkins rushed to explain. "By Agatha Christie. 'The Queen of Crime'," he added, somewhat foolishly.
"The Queen of... Oh, for goodness sake!" Sherlock turned to stage a fittingly dramatic exit, but found John in his path.
"Iocane powder," said John, folding his arms.
Sherlock's eyes narrowed as he ignored the "Oh, I know that one! Iocane powder: it's The Princess Bride!" from behind him. He held John's gaze for a long moment, then sniffed and turned back around.
"Fine," he pointed at Hopkins. "Explain your point. Thirty seconds or less. Go!"
"It looked like a serial killer with a thing for the alphabet, who killed Alice something beginning with 'A' in Andover, then a BB person in Bexhill, then Sir C-something Clarke in a 'C' place, before messing up in Doncaster and getting a E instead of a D."
Sherlock checked his watch pointedly as Hopkins drew breath, then plunged on.
"But it was all fake: the killer was the brother of the third victim who knew he'd be an obvious suspect, noticed his alliterative name and location and killed the others to make it look like a nutter. He left an ABC Railway Guide with each body and just stabbed some random bloke in Doncaster, knowing there'd be a 'D' nearby." He sucked in a lungful of air.
Sherlock regarded his hopeful expression. "The cases are completely dissimilar," he started, before being interrupted by John's 'Be nice!' cough, which Lestrade had spent three months trying to emulate. Sherlock sighed. "But... the concept does have some merit and you only wasted twenty-eight seconds." He turned and walked out of the office.
John offered the young man an encouraging smile, then followed in Sherlock's wake, surprised to find him waiting at the lift. "Would it kill you to be a bit nicer?" he complained. "The poor lad's only trying to help."
"I was nice," Sherlock protested. "I congratulated him on his time-keeping."
"Give me strength," muttered John. "And why are we taking the lift, anyway? The stairs too full of idiots for you?"
Sherlock just gave his 'I don't need to explain myself' shrug, deliberately not looking at where John was absently rubbing his bad leg.
As they descended to the interview rooms, he sighed. "John, just spit it out. In such an enclosed space, your thoughts are deafening."
"Well, the ABC thing didn't seem all that dissimilar to me," John retorted. "Are you sure you're not just ruling out the idea because it doesn't sound like Moriarty?"
"This is you keeping me on track, is it?"
"I'm just asking."
Sherlock looked at him. It was annoying, but John's mouth was set in an unhappy line and it was clear that his concern was genuine. He resigned himself to explanation. "Fine. The basic premise of using serial killings as a blind for the 'real' murder relies on the connections being obvious - as in that fictional case, where the point was even emphasised by ABC guides being left with the bodies."
"I think there were letters sent to Poirot, too," said John. "I did read that book, years ago."
"Who is Poirot?"
"Never mind." John flapped his hand. "He's not as good as you."
"Obviously," Sherlock replied, but he looked pleased. "So if there's someone you want to kill, you establish one or more distinguishing characteristics and first kill other people who match the same profile."
"Like ex-army doctors, for example?"
"I mean, yes - that's the sort of thing. An immediate and obvious link between the victims, unlike in this case. So if you wanted to kill a beauty queen, you'd start by killing other beauty queens."
"Assuming you were completely amoral, of course."
Sherlock didn't bother to respond to that one.
Helena Bagshaw looked... floaty, John decided, as he peered through the glass panel in the interview room door. She was a tall, slim woman, liberally festooned with scarves, and drifting to and fro as she waited. The notes Lestrade had given them said she was forty but there was a certain ageless quality about her; he would have found it difficult to guess. She turned as they entered, her large, slightly protuberant pale green eyes wandering over each of them in turn.
"Good morning, Mrs Bagshaw, very kind of you to come in." Sherlock was turning on the charm as he stepped forward and gestured towards the chairs. "I'm Sherlock Holmes, and this is my colleague, John Watson."
She stared at him for a moment before lowering herself into a seat, brushing back some of the wispy blonde hair that was escaping its bun. "I would prefer not to go over it again," she said, her voice a surprisingly pleasant contralto. "I have nothing to add to my previous statement."
"We don't need to discuss the events of last week," Sherlock reassured her, shoving aside the box of tissues already on the desk and setting down his papers. "It's Mr Benson's day to day life which interests us." He favoured her with a wide smile, the one which always rather gave John the heebie-jeebies. It seemed to have a similar effect on Helena, as her eyes widened slightly and she turned her focus to John.
"What exactly do you want to know?" she asked.
John threw a quick glance at Sherlock, who looked a little put out but nodded for him to proceed. "Oh, just his routine, what would constitute a normal week for him, that kind of thing," he replied.
Helena closed her eyes briefly, then placed both hands flat on the table and looked down at them. "He worked Monday to Friday, travelled by Tube, ate lunch in the canteen if he remembered to eat, and kept to himself. In the evenings, he heated a ready meal from the pile in his freezer, but often threw most of it away. If there was an AA Meeting, he went to that; otherwise he passed the time looking through letters and photographs, always finishing with his wedding album."
She looked up. "Every week or two he checked into a hotel then called me from the bar. When I got there he would have a drink in front of him, but he never touched it. I would take him back up to his room, then sit with him all night while he talked about Sarah."
Her gaze moved between the two of them. "You asked about his life - well, he didn't have one. He just survived, the way that empty people do. It's eighteen months since Sarah died, and he spent the first four in an alcoholic stupor, trying to forget her death. Then he woke up unable to remember her face and checked himself into rehab. He hasn't..." She stopped. "...hadn't touched a drop since."
John's mouth twisted in sympathy but Sherlock had questions. "Mr Benson lived in one of the cheaper parts of town, and held a low-income job. Who paid for the hotel rooms?" he asked.
"That would be the company Sarah had her life insurance policy with," Helena explained. "Neil had money, but no interest in spending it - the job was simply to keep him occupied; my husband helped him to get it, he works in the same building."
Sherlock dropped his gaze to the file in front of him. "I understand that Neil discovered religion as part of the AA process," he said. "Did he become involved in any groups or activities as a result?"
Helena shook her head. "No, his faith was fairly amorphous in nature and he was quite conflicted about it." She eyed him speculatively. "I'm afraid that Christianity can be something of a mixed blessing to the bereaved, Mr Holmes," she said. "On the one hand, it offers hope of ultimately being reunited with your loved one. On the other, if suicide is a mortal sin, then the fear of eternal separation means that you cannot risk it."
She leaned forwards. "I am deeply saddened by Neil's death," she said. "And still extremely distressed over the dreadful circumstances and the memory of actually finding him like that." Her composure wavered and John pushed the box of tissues a little closer to her hand. She took one, giving him an unsteady smile, then looked back at Sherlock.
"I hope you catch this killer, Mr Holmes, I truly do. But I don't think that Neil would have fought terribly hard."
It was quiet in the taxi on the way to Barts, the atmosphere subdued in the wake of Helena's words. After a while, John became aware that he was under scrutiny and turned his head. "What?" he asked.
"That's what you meant, isn't it?" Sherlock was looking at him oddly. "Yesterday, when I was going through the cases and you said 'poor sod' - you didn't mean because he'd been murdered."
"No, I didn't."
Sherlock frowned. "It's ridiculous to make one person so much the focus of your world that their loss would leave you 'empty'," he complained. "What does that even mean, anyway?"
John's eyes held compassion as he looked back at him. "With a bit of luck you'll never find out," he said. Then he smiled. "I wouldn't worry about it. You are married to your work after all, and that's not going anywhere."
The lab at Barts was free and Sherlock wasted no time in retrieving the teacup from John's pocket and starting his analysis. "What did you work out from the autopsy reports yesterday?" he asked, as he gathered the necessary equipment.
John had been perched on one of the high lab stools, his legs swinging in a way that always made Sherlock want to smile, although of course he never did. He slid off the stool now and pulled out his notebook, subconsciously adopting a more 'official' stance in order to report his findings. Sherlock found that the smile was becoming more determined, and suppressed it with an effort.
"Right, well the wounds seem consistent, so he's either re-using the same weapon or got a job lot of whatever it is," John said. "In shape it looks like a symmetrical dagger, around eleven centimetres long, but it's not actually all that sharp judging from the bruising." He glanced up. "This ties in with your 'tall male' theory, because there's quite a bit of strength behind these blows. In fact, the first two bodies each have an additional stab wound which cracked a rib, before the killing blow was struck."
"I could have a look at those while we're here," Sherlock decided, whipping out his phone and firing off a quick text. A minute later, he was frowning at the response. "An appointment on Thursday?" he queried in disgust. "That's two days away; has the woman gone mad?"
John's lips twitched. "I guess your charm is less effective via text," he observed.
Sherlock scowled at him. "I'd like to see you do better," he retorted, then stopped. "Actually, that's not a bad idea," he said. "Why don't you go and soften her up a bit, while I do this? Give her your spiel about actual human lives, that should work on Molly."
"You know what I mean." Sherlock waved him away.
"I'm rather afraid I do," said John, but he went.
Ten minutes later, he was back. "Right, Molly says you can pop down now, but she's only got fifteen minutes, otherwise it's Thursday," he reported. "And she's not kidding, it's choc-a-bloc down there," he added, as Sherlock looked undecided.
"Fine," he said snappily, laying down his pipette and checking everything was all right to be left for a while. "Lead on."
Molly's mouth was set in a grim line as Sherlock walked into the morgue, her clipboard clutched tightly to her chest and an absolute determination not to be charmed in any way showing in every line of her body.
Giving her a completely professional smile, he moved past her into the room and Molly exhaled, closing her eyes in relief at having maintained her cool facade through the difficult 'first sighting' hurdle which traditionally reduced her to a gibbering fool.
"You're looking well, Molly." The low voice spoke right into her ear as Sherlock stepped up behind her, sending goose bumps racing down her neck as her eyes flew open in shock.
Moments later, he was gone, striding smoothly away to the first of the bodies she had already laid out for him.
"Bugger," she muttered, waiting for her racing pulse to calm. When John walked in a minute later, she was still standing there.
"Er... I brought you a coffee," he said, holding it out. "It's only from the machine, but you looked so busy before, I didn't know if you'd get the chance..."
She smiled at him. "That's really kind of you John, thank you," she said, taking the cup then nearly dropping it again as Sherlock's deep voice called her from across the room. "Sorry," she apologised, handing the cup back. "Could you just... I won't be a minute." She turned and advanced towards Sherlock, the familiar chant of don't look at his hands, don't look at his hands, running through her head as she drew nearer.
"Molly, could you have a look at this?" He was standing over the second victim, magnifier in hand. "I'm sure you've already noticed, but there's a metallic sheen here where the rib's been struck. Did you find anything in the wound?"
He pointed to indicate the location. Shit, you looked at his hands. Look away. Look away now. Do not think about his hands. Or his fingers. Shit, you thought about his fingers!
"Right, yes, the metal." She focused on the rib in question at last. "Oh, I see what you mean." She peered closer. "I didn't do this one, let me check the notes..." She raised her clipboard. "Right, yes, there was a sliver of metal which was sent off to the lab..." She skimmed down the page. "Almost two weeks ago." She checked again. "Huh, honestly they're useless - I'll chase them up."
"Any chance of giving them a quick ring now?" Sherlock asked.
She looked up. My God, just look at that mouth, that mouth is just... Shit. Bollocks. Buggery. Get a bloody grip, woman. Look away!
"I would really appreciate it," he added, as her gaze drifted higher and locked with his own.
His eyes were hypnotic. She got that sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as if she were falling, and falling... Would he catch me? Oh, God, this is hopeless... Retreat. Retreat! "All right then."
John held out the coffee as she scurried past and she grabbed it before disappearing into the office.
Sherlock was looking insufferably smug. "My God, you're frightening," John told him as he strolled over. "It's like watching one of those snake-charmers, there's an almost sick fascination in seeing you do that to people."
Sherlock tipped his head to one side. "I could do it to you," he said, a little intrigued by the idea.
"No thanks." John shuddered. "I'll take the genuine Sherlock Holmes, every time."
Sherlock blinked at him.
"So, what are we looking at?" John asked, dropping his gaze to the body of Philippa Saunders. "Never mind - I see it." He leaned forward, inspecting the wound more closely. "So you think the metal's from the murder weapon?" he asked. "Because his first strike must have hit that rib with a lot of force."
"Exactly," Sherlock confirmed. "Analysis might not get us much further forward, but it's all data." He looked over John's shoulder. "She's coming back. Go and chat to her so I can get finished."
"They're going to send the results through in the morning," Molly called out, but Sherlock just nodded and moved on to the next body.
John sighed and stepped up to the task at hand. "So, Molly... how have you been?" he asked. "How is..." He paused, his mind blanking for a moment. "...Toby?" That was the cat's name; he was almost sure.
It seemed that Toby was doing well. John smiled and nodded and kept Molly with him at the side of the room as Sherlock carried on poking around, ignoring the pair of them.
"Not seen you and Sherlock at the Quiz Nights lately," she mentioned, once Toby's adventures had been exhausted. "Not since that time in the summer, actually."
John grimaced at the reminder of yet another of his failed attempts at a social outing. "Sherlock hates quizzes," he told her. "We weren't there together, so much as I was there and he was trying to get me to leave."
"Oh, right." She looked disappointed. "I wondered where you'd both got to. I remember it because I'd bought a new dress."
"The pink one," John recalled, trying not to cringe at the memory.
Molly looked delighted. "Oh, you noticed?" She lowered her voice. "Do you think Sherlock liked it?"
John racked his brain for a suitable reply. "He said you looked sweet," he managed eventually, which left Molly beaming and promising to text the results straight through in the morning, as Sherlock finished and swept out of the room.
"John, that was a blatant lie," he pointed out sanctimoniously as they walked along the corridor. "You know perfectly well I said she looked like a pudding."
"Close enough," said John.
Forty minutes and several texts later, he returned to the lab with a half-eaten sandwich in his hand. "There's no need to bombard me with messages," he complained. "I was only in the canteen, you knew I'd be back soon." He was still reading through the most recent summons. "I don't know how you type so fast anyway."
"You should try using your thumbs," Sherlock retorted, printing out his results. "Much more effective than one finger and a pained expression."
"Well, I'm here," John huffed at him. "So if you, and I quote, 'need me now', what can I do for you?"
Sherlock pulled the page from the printer and beckoned him over. "Have a look at that."
John read down the page, his eyebrows rising. "But I thought Lestrade said the tox screen on the victim's blood was clear?" he queried.
"He did." Sherlock was smiling.
"But this… this sedative should show up in tests for at least twenty-four hours. This is from the teacup?"
"But she'd only been dead for twelve to eighteen hours when we found her, so that means…" he broke off, trying to make sense of the results. "Does that mean she didn't drink it? She poured it away?"
Sherlock sighed. "Look at the cup, John." He pointed to the desk, where the teacup was now back in its bag. John picked it up.
"Do you see?" Sherlock grabbed his wrist and tilted it until the faint lipstick marks were clearly visible. "That's Clinique Long Last Lipstick in Pink Spice," he said. "Not freshly applied, probably from that morning. She had one on her dressing table."
John had long since stopped being surprised by Sherlock's expertise in women's beauty products. "So she did drink it." He thought about that and his face paled as he remembered the bruises on the tiny girl's wrists.
Sherlock nodded. "Yes, she was drugged at least six to twelve hours before she was killed."
John found his hands had closed into fists. "And if the dosage was low enough to have gone from her system, she would have been awake for most of that time." He looked up.
"Dear God, Sherlock. What was he doing?"
Chapter 6: A State of Affairs
John took a startled step backwards, almost stumbling off the front door step. In fairness, he had not expected to come home from work on a Wednesday teatime and walk straight into a six-foot bookcase.
He rubbed the quickly rising bump where his forehead had collided with the oddly placed furniture and fumbled for the light switch, although illumination did nothing to explain the situation. The bookcase was almost the full width of the hallway, and completely blocked the entrance.
He heard a sneeze and peered round the edge, seeing a figure emerge from the basement. "Peter," he called. "Peter, can we shift this please? I can't get in."
There were quick footsteps, then the apologetic face of their next-door neighbour appeared in the gap. "Sorry, John, it's just me," he said, pulling off the baseball cap that had hidden his artfully tousled blond hair, which promptly flopped over one eye as usual. "Mrs H. couldn't decide where she wanted it."
"Well, I'm pretty sure this isn't going to be her final choice, Tim," John pointed out. "Do you think we can turn it round at least?"
"No worries," Tim replied, gripping hold of the edge. "Ready?"
Between them, they got the thing pushed back against the wall.
"So, you're helping with the 'do up 221C' project?" John asked, thinking longingly of his armchair but wanting to be polite.
"Looks like it," Tim said. "I finished work a bit early and Mrs T. sent me straight over." He shrugged good-naturedly. "Landladies united - nothing to be done."
"Right," John nodded.
"I don't know where Peter is though, he was supposed to be helping," Tim continued. "For someone who only works weekends, he never seems to be around."
John indicated the bookcase. "Perhaps he's not so daft."
John's phone buzzed in his pocket and he pulled it out. "Sorry," he muttered. "Just a text."
Why are you still downstairs? SH
Well, that answered the question of whether or not Sherlock was home.
Has Mrs Hudson's feng shui blocked off the hall again? SH
John rubbed the bump on his head and watched his hope of producing a less embarrassing explanation of it drift away.
I require assistance. SH
John sighed. "I've got to go," he told Tim. "Sorry to leave you to it."
"Oh, that's OK." Tim shook his head. "Glad to get out of the house, actually," he admitted. "Adrian's round visiting Mrs T."
John smiled sympathetically. "Awkward," he agreed, as he headed for the stairs.
Before he reached them, Mrs Hudson's door opened. "Is that you, Peter?" she called, moving out into the hallway. "Oh, Doctor Watson." She looked disappointed.
"Sorry, Mrs Hudson, it's just me."
Are you lodged under something heavy? SH
"Where is that boy? We need to get the carpet up." She frowned, then her gaze sharpened on John. "I don't suppose you could lend a hand, Doctor?" she asked hopefully. "It shouldn't take long with all of us."
Do I have to fetch you? SH
It was the 'fetch' that did it. With a stubborn cast to his expression, John tapped out his reply.
Up in an hour
"I'm all yours, Mrs Hudson."
They hadn't even made it to the door of the basement flat when there was a bang from above, then Sherlock seemed to materialise behind them. He pointed at John.
"You have been out all day!" His eyes moved to the bump and he frowned.
"I haven't been out, I've been working," John defended. "Someone's got to keep you in cab fares. Refusing to consider cases which can't be linked to a criminal mastermind hasn't exactly led to a lucrative few months."
Sherlock waved this excuse away. "You are not responsible for me, John."
"That's what I keep telling myself," John retorted smartly. "And yet..." he held up his phone, the list of demanding texts still showing on the screen.
Mrs Hudson and Tim looked like Wimbledon spectators as they followed the conversation. Now their heads both turned back to Sherlock, who looked fed up.
John sighed. "Come and talk to me downstairs for a bit," he suggested. Case or no case, he could not imagine Sherlock helping with carpet rolling. Not unless there was a body in it, at least. "You only need me as an audience, anyway. I can listen while I work."
Sherlock's eyebrows rose, but he followed when John went down the stairs and was soon striding up and down the living room of 221C, pontificating and getting in the way.
"Grief is an obvious theme from the third case, but the others?" he muttered. "Still need more data about the fourth, but the first one lost his parents two years ago... I suppose that could be it, but they did leave him a house, you'd think that would take the edge off..."
"Take the edge off?" murmured Tim to John quietly as they worked their way round the sides of the room, easing the carpet up off the gripper rods.
"Just ignore him," John advised. "He doesn't always mean it how it sounds."
"Nothing like that for the second case, though," continued Sherlock, still pacing. "Unless you count divorce, but people do that all the time..."
"Oh, I don't know, Sherlock," Mrs Hudson chipped in. "Some people take that awfully hard. You missed a bit, dear." She directed the last towards Tim, indicating the corner by the fireplace.
"Peter's brother tried to kill himself when his wife left him," she said. "Terribly selfish, of course. His poor mother was heartbroken."
"I'm sorry, Mrs Hudson," John spoke up. "That must have been dreadful."
"Oh, well, it was a long time ago now," she said. "Peter was only in his teens, there's quite a big gap between them. Right, do you want to get a corner each, boys, I'll go in the middle."
They moved into position and started rolling, John and Tim on their hands and knees at each end, with Mrs Hudson pushing the middle along with her foot. Sherlock stepped neatly over the roll as they reached him and John slapped his leg, pointing significantly towards Mrs Hudson. He sniffed but joined her, kicking at the carpet distractedly.
"But he was all right?" asked Tim. "Peter's brother, I mean?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes, dear," replied Mrs Hudson. "Peter found him. Saved his life actually, but that's why he's so funny about blood now - David tried to slit his throat." She shook her head. "He was always very dramatic."
They reached the end of the room and John and Tim looked at each other. Tim pulled a face. "Now I feel bad about calling him 'Mr Grumpy'," he said. "Even if it was just in my head."
Sherlock had resumed his pacing, muttering cryptically about suicidal urges, when his phone chimed and he whipped it out with a flourish. "Yes!" he exclaimed, and bolted for the door, sticking his head back around it a moment later. "Coming, John?" he asked. "Kelli's made a new friend." He winked, and was gone.
When John got up to 221B a few minutes later, Sherlock was already sitting in his armchair, laptop on his knee, presumably engrossed in the world of his Facebook alter-ego.
John sat down opposite, but after five minutes of being completely ignored he got up again and ambled into the kitchen, sorting out some beans on toast for himself - experience told him that there was no point trying to get Sherlock to eat right now. By the time he'd finished and cleaned up the dishes, Sherlock was leaning back in his chair, hands pressed together, eyes closed, looking like a sleeping monk who'd missed his last eight months' haircuts.
"Moira Pickering was having an affair with her employer," he announced as John approached. "Had been for over a year."
"Really?" John was surprised. "Mr... what was his name?" He walked over to peer at the notes on the wall. "Robert Thompson." He thought back to their conversation on Monday. "I never would have guessed; he didn't seem bothered about finding her killer."
"Probably more concerned about his wife finding out," Sherlock replied, and John recalled the family photo which had been on the man's desk.
"No wonder the girls in the office were a bit shifty when I asked about her love life," he said.
Sherlock opened one eye. "Vanessa will be crushed."
John looked at him in bemusement, then the penny dropped. "I'm still going," he said firmly. "I haven't been out for ages - and don't say I've been out all day because we've already been over that."
"You said it wasn't a date."
"And you said I wasn't responsible for you, so there's no reason for me not to go."
Sherlock's other eye opened and he looked at John curiously. "Do you really feel like that, John? As though you have to 'keep me in cab fares'?"
John flushed. "No," he denied. "Well, not exactly." He sat down and pushed a hand through his hair. "But someone has to be the responsible one or the bills won't get paid. I mean –" He hesitated, not wanting to embarrass Sherlock. "It's great that we get free food all over London – really, it's brilliant, but you haven't taken a paying case in ages and…" He shrugged. "I'm just trying to make sure the rent gets settled on time. I know today wasn't the best time for me to leave you but this locum day was booked ages ago and with the job market the way it is, if I let them down they won't use me again. I'm sorry, Sherlock, I can't afford to risk that."
"You should pack it in, then you'd be able to work with me whenever I need you," Sherlock decided. He saw John's disbelieving expression and rolled his eyes. "I have money, John. I've always had money – I didn't get this suit at Camden Market, even you should be able to spot that."
"Well then, why did you need to flat share?" John asked in confusion. "You definitely said something about being able to afford it between the two of us, I know you did."
"Ah, well," Sherlock looked a little discomfited. "Having money is not always the same as having access to money."
John still looked bemused.
Sherlock huffed. "I got cut off, all right?" he explained. "There were… doubts as to my spending habits." He looked very disgruntled.
"Mycroft?" queried John, tentatively.
Sherlock snorted. "Mycroft wishes he had that level of power over me," he said.
John's mind was cycling through what he felt must be a very short list of people who out-ranked Mycroft. He'd got as far as the Prime Minister when the answer dawned on him. "You mean…"
"Mummy," nodded Sherlock. His eyes narrowed. "I'm only telling you this so you don't waste time worrying about non-existent problems," he warned. "This is not a general conversational topic." John seemed suitably impressed by his seriousness, so he continued. "Anyway, my access to funds has since been reinstated, as I apparently now have a 'stabilising influence' in my life." He quirked a brow sardonically. "So really, it's only fair that you benefit."
John's brain had got sidetracked part way through these revelations. "So you don't actually need a flat-mate anymore," he realised. "You could live here perfectly well without me."
Sherlock stared at him. "How hard did you bang your head?" he demanded. "Have you not heard a word I've just said to you?" He felt an urge to knock on John's skull, as Mycroft used to do to him when they were children. "Let me go over the salient points." He sat forward in his chair.
"You," he pointed at John, "go out to work because you worry about money. I," he indicated himself, "have money and often require your assistance. Therefore," he raised both hands in a 'surely this is obvious' gesture, "you should stop disappearing when I need you and I will pay the bills." He sat back, adopting his 'am I not brilliant?' expression.
There was a long silence. With a feeling of dismay, Sherlock realised that John was counting, and was already way past ten. His expectant attitude started to slip.
Eventually, John drew a breath. "I'm not going to get angry with you, because clearly it is not your intention to make me feel like a hooker," he said, which Sherlock felt was a ridiculous statement, both in its content and because John obviously was angry and wasn't doing a very good job of hiding it. He decided against sharing this insight.
"I'll just point out that I am, in fact, a doctor, and that you don't get to pick the bits of me you find useful - like my willingness to shoot people for you or the fact that I think you're bloody amazing ninety per cent of the time - and discard the rest; because you can take it from me that people don't work like that."
"And my offer…"
"Would fall into the ten per cent, yes."
It didn't seem to be the time to point out that John's being a doctor was, in fact, one of the things Sherlock found useful about him.
"The second victim, Philippa Saunders, was also having an affair with the man she worked for," he announced.
John latched onto the subject change eagerly. "That's a bit of a coincidence, isn't it?" he asked. "Oh - is that it? Is that the link?"
Sherlock frowned. "Not enough data," he complained. He got up and started pacing. "Two and Four were involved with their employers, but Three almost certainly wasn't."
"Oh, right. No, of course not," John agreed, remembering the interview with Helena. "It didn't sound as if he was interested in anyone but his late wife."
"Exactly," Sherlock agreed. "Number Three definitely contemplated suicide, which might be something the killer disapproves of, and One and Two had both experienced traumatic events which could possibly have affected them similarly, but there's no trace of anything like that with Four - I've been back several years on her Facebook page. Also, she was only twenty-three; how much trauma can she have had?"
John decided to let that one go.
"So how did you find out about Philippa Saunders?" he asked.
Sherlock looked at him. "Well, I haven't been sitting here twiddling my thumbs all day while you've been gallivanting around..." he glanced at the traces of mud on John's shoes, "...Hampstead," he finished. "I went to the ridiculously named legal firm she worked for and made some enquiries."
John rolled his eyes. "You'd better not let Lestrade catch you," he warned. "He really stuck his neck out to get you on this case and his superiors were very clear about you going off on your own."
There was silence. John looked at Sherlock, but Sherlock did not look back. John sat up straighter in his chair.
"Oh, he didn't!"
Sherlock huffed. "It was pure bad luck that he happened to be there as well," he said. "Fortunately, I was on my way out, so had already obtained the information I needed."
"What did he say?"
"He said that if I did it again I was off the case and for once he actually meant it, which is why I still haven't got enough background on the first victim - Lestrade wouldn't let me go to his workplace on my own and by the time he was free they would have closed." He sounded disgusted. "I even offered to take Hopkins!"
John felt a stab of something that he didn't immediately recognise. Sherlock had no such problems. "You're jealous," he declared.
"What? I am not!"
"Yes, you are. But there's no need. Even Lestrade said he would be useless - although he meant in terms of controlling me, rather than of being any practical help."
John felt slightly mollified. "Poor Hopkins," he said. "You'd get him killed or fired in a week."
"Probably." Sherlock shrugged.
"I wonder at Lestrade having him on his team, if he thinks he's so hopeless," John mused. "He always seems exasperated when the lad appears." A thought struck him. "His dad's not the Commissioner or something, is he?"
"I take it you didn't notice the new trophy on Lestrade's filing cabinet?"
John looked at him blankly. Sherlock sighed. "From that Quiz League thing you dragged me to a few months back."
"I didn't drag you to it - you just followed me!"
Sherlock's expression clearly said 'Whatever'. "Lestrade's team hasn't won for nearly two years and now suddenly they've got the trophy? That boy has trivia on tap; the link is clear."
"Huh," John acknowledged. "So Lestrade's probably in an even worse mood now than he was after what you called him last night," he said.
Sherlock sniffed. "Well he was being a blind idiot," he defended. "The victim being drugged hours before her death is important. Just because we don't yet know why doesn't mean we should ignore it."
"Oh, I agree," said John quickly. "But, in fairness, I don't suppose it really helps him much with finding the killer." Sherlock was glowering, so he changed the subject again. "Did you hear from Molly?" he asked.
"Yes, but it's no great breakthrough," Sherlock told him. "The metal is high speed steel, used in drill bits, saws and so forth, but also in chisels, expensive kitchen knives - anything requiring a durable keen edge." He shrugged. "It will be useful to confirm the murder weapon when we find it, but it doesn't really help with what to look for."
His mobile chimed again, and after a quick glance he dived back into Facebook. John took himself off for a shower. It was half an hour later when he came downstairs, all changed and ready for his date, and trying to remember the last time he'd actually managed one.
"Would it be Vanessa Simons who is the lucky recipient of your attentions this evening?" Sherlock asked as he walked into the living room.
John froze near the doorway. "Why?"
"You mean you don't know her surname," Sherlock deduced. "Well, does she have ginger hair, a muddy complexion and a slight squint?"
"What?" John demanded. "What are you looking at?" He walked across the room and moved behind Sherlock's chair, looking down at the open laptop on his knee. "She does not have a squint!"
"I see you're not attempting to defend her complexion."
Vanessa's rather long face was perhaps not shown to best advantage on her Facebook page. "How have you got on here?"
"Ah, well... 'Friends of Moira's must band together at this tragic time'," Sherlock quoted.
John felt his heart sink. "She friended you?"
"Indeed. And looking at some of these photographs, I believe that only a moderate application of alcohol will be required - Miss Simons appears to be what I understand is termed a 'sure thing'."
"I am not about to take dating advice from a man who hasn't got his leg over in living memory," John retorted, moving to stand in front of the mirror and trying to smooth down his hair, which had an annoying tuft sticking up at the back.
"She has an impressively varied selection of... enthusiasms," Sherlock continued. "In the interests of your continued good health, it may be advisable to... I think the colloquialism is 'double bag it'."
"Will you stop?" John regarded him with horror. "Just stop." He blinked a few times, then turned back to the mirror. "For someone who's not interested, you seem oddly determined to poke your nose into my love life."
Sherlock smirked. "Well, judging from her previous postings, I'll no doubt be able to read a review of your performance by this time tomorrow - complete with marks out of ten across a range of areas." He set his laptop down and got up, vanishing in the direction of the bathroom.
"I don't believe a word you're saying," John shouted after him. "I am going out for the evening and you are not going to spoil it, and if any marks are issued they will all be eleven." He gave up on his hair and pulled his jacket on, turning towards the door. "At least!" he yelled, then jumped as Sherlock appeared in front of him.
"No need to shout," he said, then made a spinning motion with his finger. "Turn around."
Mystified but compliant, which was a depressingly familiar combination of feelings when he was around Sherlock, John obeyed, watching their reflections as Sherlock rubbed the tips of his fingers together then smoothed them over the stubborn tuft of hair until it lay flat.
"I suppose you think she'll assume I'm gay, now that I've got product in my hair," he groused.
Sherlock smiled at him via the mirror. "You're welcome," he said. "Have a nice time."
John's eyes narrowed.
Unfortunately, he was only half an hour into his date with Vanessa when it became clear that Sherlock had not, in fact, been joking. The smile which had seemed charming on Monday afternoon became positively predatory after dark and it seemed that a doctor, even an unemployed one, was fairly high on Vanessa's Christmas wish list. She also clearly had no compunction about unwrapping her presents early.
As a result, when a familiar hand gripped his shoulder there was a moment in which John sagged back into it with relief. He recovered himself almost immediately, but still Sherlock was smirking when he looked up.
A few minutes later they were in a taxi, leaving a spluttering red-head behind them.
"So, where are we going?" asked John, not bothering to fake an objection to being pulled out of yet another date.
Sherlock's lips twitched. "I didn't get to interview the first victim's colleagues today," he reminded, his tone emphasising that this was entirely John's fault, "so we can try his social circle - we're going to his favourite nightspot."
"Oh, right." John thought back to what he recalled of the first victim... Richard Simpson, twenty-eight years old, white, gay, single, lived in Putney... His brain suddenly hit the brakes and backtracked sharply. "Oh, no way," he said, his hand flying to the product in his hair. He reached out and flipped open Sherlock's coat, revealing tight black jeans. "No way in hell," he repeated, sitting back and folding his arms.
"If you think I'm going to a gay bar with you, you've got another bloody think coming," declared John.
Sherlock quirked a brow at him. "Really John, I had no idea you were so prejudiced," he said. "Whatever happened to 'It's all fine'?"
"I'm not prejudiced - I've been to plenty of gay bars with Harry, as well as with other friends and had a bloody good time, but I am not going to one with you!"
"What's wrong with me?" Sherlock actually sounded a little hurt.
"How long have we got?" John snapped back, then he sighed, even though he knew full well that Sherlock was faking the hurt. "It's only the constant stream of invective coming out of your mouth that puts people off," he said. "With music loud enough that people can't tell what you're saying, looking the way you do..." he waved his hand up and down in Sherlock's direction, "...it will be like feeding time at the zoo," he finished.
Sherlock took a moment to appreciate the unusual sensation of being genuinely surprised. Then he went back to winding John up, which had become an unexpected source of entertainment over the last few months.
"So, you're saying you think I'm attractive?" he asked.
"Oh, shut up," John retorted grumpily. "You play on it every day. I may be straight but I'm not blind!" He slumped in his seat, resignedly. "At least let me get my gun."
When the taxi pulled up, John was slow to emerge and he did so with a feeling of disbelief.
"This is a bowling alley," he announced, turning on Sherlock before he had time for a snarky rejoinder. "You did that on purpose!" he accused, pointing at him. "You deliberately said 'nightspot' to mislead me."
Sherlock gave him an innocent smile. "You're the one who assumed that gay men aren't interested in anything but other gay men," he retorted. "Don't blame me."
John growled at him, then sighed and shook his head. "Fair point," he admitted. "Are we quits now for me leaving you today?"
Sherlock hesitated, then broke into John's favourite grin and clapped him on the back. "Come on," he said, leading the way.
"Richard Simpson was a keen bowler and met up with a regular group on Wednesday nights," he advised as they walked up the steps. "In fact it was they who raised the alarm when he missed the session three weeks ago, leading to his body being discovered." He held open the door as John walked through. "How's your bowling?"
"Bloody brilliant," John replied.
He wasn't wrong. Sherlock charmed their way into the group, but it was John they wanted to keep - when they started hinting that their team was a man down, Sherlock moved smoothly onto topic and John left him to it, maintaining a distraction by bowling strike after strike.
Eventually, there were demands that Sherlock should also 'show them what he was made of' and his protestations that he didn't bowl fell on deaf ears. He spent fifteen seconds watching John in action, then got up and copied him.
"Split!" was announced from behind and Sherlock looked to John in query.
"You've got a seven-ten split," John told him quietly. "The two back corner pins remaining. Have you done this before?"
"Why would I?"
"Right. Well, that was bloody good for a first try," he said, correctly diagnosing Sherlock's chagrin at not being completely successful. "You won't get them both with your second ball, so just pick one to aim for."
"Could you?" Sherlock eyed him curiously.
John shrugged. "Possibly, but you'd need a freak bounce or a rebound." Sherlock was weighing the ball in his hand, his expression oddly intent, and it suddenly struck John as sad that he'd never been bowling before. "Do you want to come back here some time?" he asked. "After the case, I mean?"
Sherlock's head swivelled to face him. "For what purpose?"
"Hone your skills?" John offered. "You never know when the ability to roll a ball at a distant target might come in handy." He smiled reassuringly, letting Sherlock know that the offer was genuine and not an attempt to ridicule him in some way. "Just a thought," he added. "Are you going to take your shot?" He waved his arm towards the pins.
"All right," Sherlock agreed, although John wasn't sure which question he was answering.
The next time Sherlock's turn came up, John looked round to catch his attention but instead found himself being bundled into his jacket. He hurriedly made their excuses as Sherlock swept him towards the exit.
"Where are we going?" he asked, breaking into a trot to keep up.
"Neil Benson's apartment."
"Are you going to explain?" John asked, once they were in one of the taxis which always seemed to materialise as soon as Sherlock appeared on a pavement.
"Richard Simpson was involved with someone who worked in the office next door," Sherlock told him. "But he kept it quiet because the other man was married."
John digested this. "So, that's three of them. That can't be a coincidence?"
Sherlock seemed disinclined to regard this as a question.
"So why are we going to Neil's flat?" John continued. "Do you think he was having an affair, that Helena was mistaken about him?"
"He's the odd one out," Sherlock replied. "It's obvious why, but it makes him worthy of further investigation."
John opened his mouth to point out that it wasn't obvious to him, but changed his mind. Sherlock smirked anyway. "I want to have a look around," he said. "See how he lived, check his fridge door, that kind of thing."
"You're obsessed with fridge doors," John told him, remembering all the deductions he'd drawn from Moira's. "We don't have anything on our fridge door."
"People put their whole lives on there," Sherlock said. "Quickest way to check their routine. And what am I going to put on ours? 'Don't drink the milk; the drugs are in the skull.' - that would be a nice help for Lestrade, wouldn't it?" He caught John's sideways look and rolled his eyes. "No, there are no drugs in the skull, that was just an example." There was silence for a minute. "You're going to check the skull, aren't you?"
John maintained a dignified silence.
They got into the flat with ease but there wasn't much to investigate. Neil had moved in after rehab and the place was very bare, just a minimum of furniture, a shelf full of photograph albums in the living room and some more on a chest of drawers in the bedroom, together with a pile of AA sobriety chips.
"Here, John," Sherlock called out from the kitchen, and John walked through to join him, noting the handwritten list of AA meeting times stuck to the fridge door. Typical.
Sherlock's eyes were alight as he grabbed a piece of paper from a nearby pad and scrawled out 'I'm Sorry' on it. "I don't have it with me, but that's a reasonable facsimile of the note which was found at this scene," he said, and John saw that the handwriting was not his own. "Now look at the writing on the fridge."
"It's completely different," John spotted immediately.
Sherlock nodded and his smile was gleeful. "Neil Benson did not write his own apology," he confirmed.
John looked back at him.
"So, who did?"
Chapter 7: A Study in Why
Lestrade took the mug John handed to him with a muttered, "Thanks," but didn't take his eyes off Sherlock, who was stretched out indolently in his armchair, still unimpressed that Lestrade hadn't turned out the night before to witness his genius.
"That's what I said," he drawled in response. "Am I being unclear?"
Lestrade threw a glance at John, who took pity on him. "Richard Simpson, Philippa Saunders and Moira Pickering were all having affairs which were officially kept secret because their partners were married," he explained.
"A lover who doesn't stay over," Lestrade remembered, turning to Sherlock. "That's what you said in Miss Pickering's flat, because her bed was in the corner."
"Yes," agreed Sherlock. "Oddly enough, I do actually recall statements I made only three days ago."
John moved over to the fireplace, kicking Sherlock's foot en route and getting a reproachful look in return. He indicated their copies of the 'I'm Sorry' messages, which were now also taped to the wall. "All three of them wrote an apology before they were killed," he said.
Lestrade walked over to join him, his eyes running over the rest of the notes. "Good grief, Sherlock, your handwriting's actually getting worse," he commented, taking a sip of his drink. "And I honestly didn't think that was possible."
Sherlock sniggered, his mood significantly improved by John's indignant expression. He got to his feet. "Not only do you now fail to recognise the typically illegible scrawl of a doctor," he told Lestrade, who gave John an apologetic grimace, "but none of your team managed to spot that this note," he indicated the one found at the scene of Neil's murder, "was not written by the victim. You only checked the first one, didn't you?"
Lestrade stared at him. "So, who wrote it?"
Sherlock just gave his enigmatic smile.
"Hang on a minute," Lestrade said slowly. "I spoke to Helena Bagshaw, and to Neil Benson's colleagues - it didn't sound to me as if he was having an affair with anybody."
"Indeed," confirmed Sherlock. "But he was regularly spending the night in a hotel room with a married woman, wasn't he?"
Lestrade's expression echoed the 'light bulb' moment which John had already been through. "So the murderer..."
"Made a mistake," Sherlock finished. "Which raises some interesting questions, don't you think?"
John and Lestrade both nodded, each hoping they weren't going to be asked to come up with any.
Switching back to his original query, Lestrade pointed at the odd 'I'm Sorry' message again. "So, who did write it?"
"Surely it's obvious?"
"Oh, get on with it!" sighed John.
Sherlock huffed. "What is the message?" he demanded, immediately answering his own question: "It's an apology. In three of the cases the victims were made to apologise for being involved in an adulterous relationship. But when it came to Neil Benson, there was no affair - the man was still in mourning for his late wife, which the murderer would quite likely even approve of."
He was pacing back and forth now, both John and Lestrade following his movements. "But by the time he's proved his innocence - got out his AA chips, shown off his photograph albums - it's too late." He stopped and looked at them. "He has seen the killer and must therefore die. So - who needs to apologise?" he asked. "Who has made a mistake and might even feel remorse about it?"
Their eyes turned to the wall, as if the note itself might suddenly develop murderous intent.
"So, we've got the killer's handwriting," Lestrade surmised, thinking about it. "But that's not actually going to help us find him, is it?"
Sherlock sat back down in his chair. "Sadly, no – although it should help with a conviction," he pointed out. "But knowing his victim profile is the useful thing at this stage – the handwriting discrepancy proves that Neil Benson was indeed the odd one out, so we've definitely got the right motive. The killer is targeting people who are involved in a sexual relationship with a married partner, although they themselves are purportedly single."
John's stomach rumbled loudly at this point and he rubbed it ruefully, ignoring Sherlock's frown at the human weakness intruding on his commentary. "Have you had breakfast yet?" he asked Lestrade, who nodded.
"I'm fine with this, thanks." He raised his mug.
"Well, I'm starved," John said firmly, aiming his words in Sherlock's direction. He bustled off into the kitchen and soon the rattle of the fridge door was interspersed with cupboards banging and a variety of curses. "Damn, it will have to be toast. Can I have some honey?" he shouted through to Sherlock over the noise of the kettle.
Lestrade was extremely taken aback by the endearment, but he tried not to show it. "Is the toast rationed?" he enquired, sitting down in the other chair and adopting a blasé tone.
"You're inserting a comma where no comma exists," Sherlock told him disdainfully, after calling through an "Of course," to John. "He's asking about the honey, not the toast." He waited while Lestrade worked that out. "The honey is supposedly mine – I don't buy it, but he's trying to instil a concept of ownership and respect for other people's property." A mischievous grin appeared which Lestrade found quite disconcerting on Sherlock's face. "He's not having much luck with it."
John returned soon after, plate in hand. "Out of jam," he explained, taking a bite of his toast then moving over to the fireplace. He set the plate down on the arm of Sherlock's chair and picked up a pen, adding a couple of points to the details about Neil's flat before going back into the kitchen.
"So, there are two different types of link," said Sherlock, absently picking up a slice of toast. "The first of which – what he's looking for in a victim – we have now established." He bit into the toast as John returned and pressed a mug into his other hand.
"Right," agreed Lestrade, watching as the toast disappeared with impressive speed.
"The other link is how he finds them," Sherlock continued, taking a mouthful of his drink, then pulling a face. "John, this is tea," he complained.
"Truly, you're a wonder," agreed John.
Sherlock scowled at him. "I specifically wanted coffee."
"Well, you specifically didn't say so."
"I didn't say I wanted tea, either."
"Give it here." John swapped their mugs. "You all right?" he asked Lestrade, nodding towards his drink.
"Oh, fine," Lestrade said quickly, finishing it off before John could decide to give it to Sherlock instead. He felt rather as if he'd wandered into a well rehearsed play and was the only one who didn't know his lines.
"There must be thousands of people in London who fit the killer's criteria," Sherlock continued, getting to his feet again, "but how does he find out who they are?" He sipped his coffee, then set it down on the mantelpiece. "The three actual affairs were kept quiet and the other was non-existent, so how is he learning about them?"
Lestrade considered. "Well, we've already established that they had no common links, so it's unlikely that the killer knew them personally - especially Neil Benson, of course, or he would have known that he didn't fit the pattern."
John was looking at the notes again. "They all worked at different places, but their offices aren't actually that far apart," he pointed out. "I mean, they're not on the same street or anything, but they all worked in the city centre."
"Offices..." Sherlock muttered. "Offices... Yes!" He grabbed John's shoulders. "Brilliant!" he declared, beaming down at him. John concentrated on not spilling his tea and Lestrade got to his feet - it felt wrong to be sitting when there would clearly be whirling going on.
"No smoke without fire, they say, but they were wrong about one of them," Sherlock said, releasing John and striding a few paces away.
"Who's they?" asked Lestrade.
Sherlock turned and stared at him. "Gossips!" he replied, in his 'did you leave your brain in bed this morning?' voice. "Office gossip is what this killer has access to." He marched back to the wall and pointed at the photo of Richard Simpson. "Number One was an office manager and was involved with someone who worked next door." His finger moved on, stabbing twice more. "Numbers Two and Four both worked in large companies and were having affairs with their employers." Finally he indicated Neil's image. "What did Helena Bagshaw tell us about Number Three?" he prompted John. "About his job, I mean?"
John thought back, remembering the tragic story. "She said that he didn't need it, that it was just to keep him occupied," he replied. Sherlock made a 'keep going' gesture with his hand. "And that her husband helped him to get it... Oh - because he worked in the same building!"
"Exactly!" Sherlock confirmed. He spun on his heel and stepped over to the desk, leaning over John's laptop and tapping away. "Right," he said, scrolling down a page of company information, "Helena's husband is actually the CEO." He swivelled the laptop to display an image of a solid looking man in his fifties. "You can imagine the gossip flying around when his wife was spotted with the office junior."
"Fantastic!" said John, who now had the plate of toast in his hand again. He moved closer to peer at the screen, setting the plate down on the table. Sherlock preened slightly, having been assured by John that false modesty just looked weird on him. He straightened up, taking the last slice of toast, and headed back to their impromptu notice board where he stood and contemplated the locations of the offices in question.
Lestrade forced himself to focus on the case and not be distracted by the stealth-feeding ritual going on in front of him. "So how do we find him?" he asked.
"Legwork," Sherlock replied, picturing Mycroft's expression at the concept. A glance at John showed him sharing the same thought and they both smiled.
"Get a bloody room," muttered Lestrade.
"We live here," pointed out Sherlock, as John picked up the now empty plate and took it back into the kitchen, casting a reproachful glance at Lestrade en route.
"You've been looking for links between the victims, but what we need to find are links between the companies they worked for," Sherlock instructed. "Did they all use the same security firm? Is the same man fixing all their photocopiers? There must be something." He picked up his coffee.
"Right," agreed Lestrade. "Well, I'll go and get cracking on that, then." He patted his coat pockets, checking he'd still got everything he came with, then went and stuck his head into the kitchen. "Thanks for the drink, John," he said. "Stick with him, won't you?"
"Absolutely," said John, moving back into the living room. " Do you want me to have a look at your knee before you go?"
Lestrade was startled, not having realised that he'd been favouring that leg. John was getting as bad as Sherlock, although perhaps just for medical issues.
"It's all right, he just banged it on the bookcase in the hall," Sherlock reported. "Trace of paint on your shirtsleeve where you caught your balance," he explained, at Lestrade's confused expression.
"Damn!" Lestrade looked at his cuff angrily, ""Why does your bookcase have tins of paint instead of books on the shelves?"
"Mrs Hudson's nephew is redecorating," John replied. He indicated the bruise on his forehead. "You're not the first casualty."
"I don't know why she got him that bookcase anyway," Sherlock grumbled, suddenly feeling unaccountably irritable. "Peter never reads anything but Auto Trader."
The next twenty-four hours were spent asking questions, but getting no useful answers. By the time Sherlock and John walked into Scotland Yard on Friday morning, the only thing getting closer was the weekend.
Hopkins' voice was audible as they approached the incident room. "But the other detectives get to wear plain clothes, Sir."
Lestrade responded just as they stepped through the door. "I'm sorry, Hopkins, but I've told you before - you just look too young. No one believes you're a police officer when you aren't in uniform."
"Even then, they often assume you're just a particularly low-rent kissogram," Anderson added nastily.
Hopkins ignored him, his shoulders sagging slightly at Lestrade's refusal, until he noticed the sudden silence and turned around, a wide smile spreading over his face as he saw Sherlock. The reaction was not a common one. The whole team was there and John noticed Sally moving as far away as the room would allow, while a low murmur built up among the other officers.
Lestrade raised his voice. "Right, Press Conference," he announced, waiting for silence. "Which is in half an hour. Those of you not involved, please carry on with what you were doing yesterday - Sunday is fast approaching and we need to find this guy." The room emptied out considerably.
"Will you come and watch at the Conference?" Lestrade asked, turning to Sherlock. "According to the profilers, it's the sort of thing a serial killer might attend. Will you watch? See if you can spot anyone?"
Sherlock curled his lip at the mention of criminal profiling, which he felt was a complete waste of time, but nodded his agreement. "What information are you planning to release?" he asked.
Lestrade shrugged, looking frustrated. "What information have we got? 'If you're having an affair, don't let anyone in on Sunday'? It's not much."
"Is that wise?" Sherlock asked, his tone clearly saying 'That's stupid'. "If you give out that victim profile, you're going to get copycats."
"It's a risk, but what else can we do?" demanded Lestrade. "We have to warn these people."
Hopkins had sidled round to John, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he was still in the room. "Do you understand this?" he muttered under his breath while Sherlock and Lestrade carried on arguing.
"Think about it," John advised quietly. "People who meet this criteria may already have some very specific hatred directed towards them." He glanced sideways at Hopkins, who was clearly listening but kept his eyes on Sherlock. "Imagine if you were married and knew your partner was being unfaithful," he suggested. "Or even the older generation," he added, after a moment's thought. "If your son or daughter was having an affair, and you feared losing your grandchildren if the marriage broke down. Those sorts of strong emotions can lead people to desperate acts - if they're told on the news that a serial killer is targeting the very people they despise, not all of them may stop at just hoping for a particular victim."
"Some might think this is the one time they can get away with it." Hopkins started to nod. "A golden opportunity - like in The ABC Murders, but taking advantage of the situation rather than creating it."
"Exactly," said John. "That's what Sherlock's worried about."
Hopkins exhaled. "He's brilliant, isn't he?"
"I've always thought so."
"One thing our favourite psychopath - sorry, sociopath - has not explained," Anderson's snide voice spoke up loudly, "is how the killer knew the victims would be alone on the Sundays."
Sherlock spared him a glance. "Are you attempting to use both brain cells at the same time again, Anderson?" he enquired. "You know that never ends well."
"Well at least I know the Earth goes round the sun!" snapped Anderson with a customary lack of originality. John winced. Every time the bloody man trotted out that line it reminded Sherlock of what he still felt was a personal betrayal. John wished he'd never put it in the damned blog.
"So says the man who, when asked for a country beginning with Q, suggested Cuba," chipped in Hopkins, managing to silence the room.
"Nice," whispered John, as Lestrade's lips twitched. Even Sherlock looked a little impressed, before he dismissed them all with a wave of his hand.
"The victims were all involved with people who were married, some of them with children too," he said, answering the original question. "If you're somebody's guilty secret, then you don't get weekends." A few eyebrows rose at the edge of bitterness in his tone and Sherlock deflected the attention immediately. "Do you, Sally?" He turned to look directly at her for the first time since entering the room and she practically hissed in outrage.
Lestrade intervened at once. "For God's sake, you two, will you sort it out?" He focused on Sally. "I've cut you a lot of slack in view of what happened, but you're going to have to get past this," he said. "Now, go and check everything's set up in the conference room."
Sally picked up her papers and stalked out, still seething, with Anderson on her heels.
Lestrade sighed heavily. "Right," he said, turning back to Sherlock. "Any more thoughts on the timing? The profilers say that Sundays must have some sort of psychological significance to the killer."
"That could be true," Sherlock conceded. "But it might simply be his day off." He shook his head. "The fourth victim was killed between six and midnight, but definitely drugged before noon, while the third died in the morning. Sunday evening may be his normal kill time, but he's getting to them earlier."
"So what's he doing?" asked John, who'd been unable to get this thought off his mind since the disturbing revelations about the drugged tea. "Does he have to work up to it, or is it some kind of ritual - one that takes him all day?"
"There's no evidence of sexual assault, or of physical torture beyond the bound wrists," Lestrade reminded.
"No, but he must be doing something," said Sherlock. "That would explain why the third victim was killed in the morning: once his 'innocence' was established, the ritual was curtailed."
Lestrade rubbed a hand across his forehead. "So we can warn people who live alone, between the ages of, what? Eighteen and Forty? Fifty?" He looked around and got nods. "And who work in an office – to be vigilant on Sunday, don't admit any strangers to their home, and if possible spend the day with friends or family."
"If that will settle the press," agreed Sherlock, "but it will make no difference." The others looked at him and he shrugged. "There are the paranoid few who would be on guard anyway but the majority will just carry on, confident that murder only happens to other people." He raised his hands in a 'what can you do?' gesture. "Human nature. Just as well, or we'd never catch him."
He didn't spot anything suspicious at the Press Conference, other than a cameraman who turned out to have five grams of coke inside a roll of film. Lestrade and John were both equally relieved that Sherlock was not alone when this discovery was made and both breathed easier once the drugs had been safely confiscated and taken far, far away.
Sherlock rolled his eyes at them. "Checked the skull yet, John?" he asked sarcastically, then groaned when he saw Lestrade's head flick round. "Wonderful, now you'll both be at it."
It was late morning by the time they got away and John caught Sherlock's arm as he was about to hail one of the taxis which seemed to be vying for his attention. "Can we walk for a bit?" he asked. "I know it's cold, but it's a beautiful day and I could use some fresh air."
Sherlock pulled a face but complied, tightening his scarf and pulling his collar up. "You'll have to give me my gloves back, then," he requested. "The ones I lent you on Tuesday - my others are at home."
It took John a moment to follow that one, then he looked outraged. "You didn't lend them to me, you cheeky sod! You used them to wedge that teacup into my pocket so you didn't have to carry it yourself!"
"Do you have the gloves or not?"
Still grumbling, John produced them, watching slightly enviously as Sherlock pulled them on.
"Where are yours?"
"I'm fine," John stuffed his hands into his pockets.
Sherlock sighed. "What is the point of my repeatedly buying you gloves if you're just going to give them away?" he demanded. "Do I have to have your name sewn into them? Or put a string through your coat with one tied onto each end?"
"Did you have mittens like that as a child?" John asked, suddenly picturing a little boy with unruly curls and bright eyes, all bundled up for the snow.
Sherlock threw him an amused glance. "Whatever you're visualising, I'm sure I never looked anything like it," he said, unexpectedly assailed by an image of a small John - well, small-er, he couldn't help correcting - complete with red nose and gleeful smile, stockpiling snowballs before leading his tiny troops to victory. He blinked to clear the ridiculous vision from his mind, and lengthened his stride.
John mentally tried to add a smirk to the little Sherlock in his head, who was now using the string from his mittens to set up some kind of ambush, but it came out more mischievous than superior. The ambush must be for Mycroft, but John's imagination baulked at picturing him as a child - the best he could manage was a slightly shorter version but still in a three-piece suit, his bowler hat slipping a little too low over his eyes.
They were walking through Green Park by this time and John's mind was wandering. "Do you think we would have been friends if we'd met when we were younger?" he asked.
Sherlock frowned as he thought about it. "I would estimate..."
"That still means guess, you know," John chipped in.
Sherlock didn't miss a beat. "I would judge, based on a range of factors which would take too long to explain to you, that it would be... unlikely," he said and there was an odd note in his voice.
John looked at him curiously. "Give me some of the factors," he requested.
It was a while before Sherlock responded. "When I was in my twenties," he started, the words emerging with obvious reluctance, "there would have been little for you to admire." He fell silent, and it was clear that he did not intend to elaborate. "Also," he stole a quick glance at John, "I'm not sure that I would have recognised you."
"Recognised me?" John was confused, but Sherlock didn't say any more. "What about younger?" he asked, eventually. "School age?"
"What's brought this on?" Sherlock enquired. "You're not usually given to such philosophical musings."
John shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I guess I've been thinking a bit about fate, and so forth - you know, what if we hadn't met when we did? Or what if I hadn't gone into the army? I wouldn't have learned how to shoot; I wouldn't be as useful to you..."
"And I would be dead," Sherlock finished. "You've been watching too much Doctor Who - this is that episode about turning the other way at the junction, isn't it?" He shook his head. "Why Harry would buy you such a juvenile gift I cannot comprehend."
"She knew I used to watch the old series and thought I might like to catch up with the new ones," John defended. "And I do like them. Doctor Who is classic telly, it's very..." he struggled to find the word he wanted, "...British," he finished.
"It's a children's programme."
"Well then it should suit both of us," John retorted. "Anyway, I'm surprised you haven't been deleting them as we go along."
"I would love to," Sherlock replied. "But it's not practical while they are impacting your behaviour."
They walked on in silence for a while.
"So you managed to persuade Lestrade not to release the victim profile, that was good," John said.
"What?" Sherlock was deep in thought. "Oh, yes. Right. Wouldn't want to put the real killer off," he confirmed.
John stopped walking. "That's what you care about?" he asked. "You're not worried about copycats?"
"Hmm?" Sherlock realised that he had shed his companion and looked round. "Come along, John," he prompted. "You're the one who wanted to walk and now you're just standing about. How are your hands?" He took two steps back the way he'd come and pulled one of John's hands out of his pocket, tutting at the sight of it. "Stop giving your gloves to the homeless," he instructed.
"They look colder than I do," John replied, pulling his hand back and walking on.
Sherlock followed, glancing sideways at his set expression. "Oh, it's the 'c' word again." He sighed. "I shouldn't need to worry about that any more," he complained. "You care enough for at least a dozen ordinary people, so between us we're still ahead overall."
"You can't out-source your conscience," John told him stubbornly.
"I don't see why not," Sherlock replied. "I thought you'd be pleased. I listen to you, don't I? That's more than most people do with their consciences."
John said nothing, not sure how to respond to this new job title.
It would have taken John around an hour to walk home, going via Hyde Park and following the main roads. With Sherlock, you travelled more directly, popping out of side streets to find yourself much closer than expected and it was only forty-five minutes after setting off when they approached 221B, to find that they had a visitor.
Waiting on the front door step was Sally.
Sally, who had overcome her pride to ask for Sherlock's help in September, only to have it end in disaster, and who had been the driving force behind his ban.
Sally, who hadn't spoken a single word to him since that day, or stayed in his presence for a second longer than she could help.
Sally, who now raised her head as they approached and looked at Sherlock with distrustful eyes.
"We need to talk."
Chapter 8: A Danger of Doubt
"We really don't."
Defying her claim that they needed to talk, Sherlock brushed past Sally and disappeared inside the building, leaving her grim-faced behind him.
"Are you sure this is the best time?" John asked, regarding her cautiously. "He's in the middle of a case, as you know."
Sally shrugged. "There's not much he can do until we turn up a link," she observed. "And D.I. Lestrade said that if I can't work with him I'll be transferred." She gritted her teeth. "I'm damned if I'll accept that, but I can't just forget about what happened – I'm not going to let it go until I've said my piece at least."
"You'd best come in, then," John agreed, reluctantly. He held the door open for her. "Watch out for the… Oh! It's gone." He looked around, but the bookcase had vanished. There were footsteps on the basement stairs, then Peter's head poked round the door, presumably having heard them come in. He looked unimpressed by John, but then his face brightened and he moved out into the hallway.
"Hello," he said, offering his hand to Sally with a smile which John found quite startling. He hadn't even been sure Peter's face knew how to do that.
Sally looked at the hand, which was liberally daubed with mauve paint, and gave him a small wave instead. "Hi," she said, then turned to John. "Shall we?" She indicated the stairs.
"Sure," John agreed. "You all right, Peter? We missed you on Wednesday night." Sally sniffed impatiently, but John ignored her.
"Brother's," Peter replied succinctly, his face falling back into its usual sullen expression.
"You were visiting your brother?" John extrapolated, wondering why Peter was staying with his Aunt if he had a brother in town. Then he considered his own situation with Harry. "That's nice. Does he live in London?"
"Right. Well, we'd best get on," John said, as Sally started up the stairs without him, which was no doubt a very bad idea. "No helper today? Is Tim at work?"
"OK, then." John was drawing a blank on further conversational topics. "See you later," he finished, seeing Peter's eyes follow Sally as she made her way up the stairs and feeling a pang for the clearly lonely man. "Hope the decorating goes well."
Sally was waiting for him at the top and he drew a breath before opening the door to find Sherlock standing in front of the fireplace, apparently scrutinising some of the photographs taped up there. He didn't look round.
"Er… does anyone want a drink?" offered John. Sherlock did not respond. Sally shook her head.
"I want to talk to you," she addressed Sherlock's back.
"The feeling is not mutual," he replied, stepping across to the table and picking up a file, from which he extracted more photographs.
"You killed that family," she dove straight in. "You might as well have pulled the trigger yourself."
John wavered in the doorway to the kitchen, not sure what to do.
"They died because their case wasn't interesting enough," she said. "They died because you got bored."
Sherlock started taping some of the photos to the wall as Sally alternated her glare between the back of his head and his reflection in the mirror. It was almost like having two Sherlocks to shout at and she felt more than ready for the challenge.
"You had the information but you just went off on your pet project. We could have saved them."
"Is there a limit to how many different ways you can say the same thing, or is this diatribe to go on indefinitely?" Sherlock enquired, tucking two photos into the frame of the mirror and thus blocking Sally's view of his face.
"Don't you feel any remorse at all? Are you completely inhuman?"
"Sally…" John's voice was low, but the warning in it was clear.
Sherlock glanced over his shoulder at her, then turned back. "I sent you a text," he said flatly. "You should have read it."
"A text." Sally's voice was disgusted. "There were lives at stake, and you sent a text. That's pathetic!"
Sherlock's eyes flicked to John, seeing his uncertainty as loyalty to his friend conflicted with the underlying fact that he agreed with Sally. Sherlock's gaze flinched away. "Why are you so angry, Sally, hmm?" he asked. "I don't mean all this justification you're spouting, I mean the real reason." He turned and looked at her. "Why was it that you didn't get my message in time?"
They stared at each other, Sherlock with one eyebrow quirked, Sally leaning slightly forward, as if her anger were threatening to overbalance her.
"You know why," she said. "You know why, but that doesn't excuse you. You didn't check... You didn't call... You didn't care!"
"But it was you who left your phone in your lover's car, and four people died as a result."
Sally inhaled sharply, and Sherlock pressed his advantage.
"That's why you've directed all of this vitriol at me, pushed through this ridiculous ban - because you don't want to blame yourself."
"You're wrong," Sally told him. Sherlock opened his mouth, but she overrode him. "I do blame myself," she acknowledged. "I do feel guilty and I always will." She paused, regarding him steadily. "But you don't, do you?"
She took a step back, as if wanting to distance herself from him. "I can't believe I ever trusted you," she said. "I let my guard down, let myself think that what he saw was really there." She was pointing at John, who looked at her in dismay as she switched focus.
Sherlock took a half step forward in warning. If Sally was going to attempt to push blame onto John, then she was leaving.
"I'm sorry, John," she said. "You're a good man and I'm not saying it's your fault, because you weren't even here that weekend." She shook her head. "But I never would have come to him if not for you - you made me doubt myself and that was a mistake."
"What do you want?" Sherlock asked, drawing her attention back to himself. "What do you hope to gain from this? I never wanted to get involved in that case - I'd already turned it down. You came to me."
"Yes I did, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done," she replied. "And the one I most regret."
"In view of your romantic attachments, I find that difficult to believe," snapped Sherlock, turning back to his notes.
"Oh, you're so flippant, aren't you? Mr Perfect Bloody Holmes. It's easy to stay above it all when no one would even want you anyway!"
"That's enough, Sally," John intervened. She had a grievance, which he recognised despite his instinct to protect Sherlock, but he wasn't about to let her descend into personal abuse.
She pulled herself together. "I came to you because I was desperate," she said. "I wanted to save them and I didn't think we were going to manage it and I thought maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about you or that you had changed. Maybe you were capable of being the man he thinks you are." She waved at John again. "And I honestly thought that you would say 'No'. The case didn't interest you, you'd already turned down the D.I... I stood outside for twenty minutes before I rang the bell - did you know that?"
"Of course." Sherlock still had his back to her; he was going through another file.
"Of course," she echoed. "Of course you did." She shook her head. "Is that why you... Why did you say 'Yes'?"
Sherlock's hand stilled on the pages and he stood there for a moment, debating with himself. He found his head automatically turning towards John and stopped the motion - he didn't need to look around to know what John would want him to do. "You had never asked for my help before," he said, eventually. "You, personally, I mean," he added, still facing away, his thumb running back and forth across the cover of the file. "I was... pleased," he admitted. "To be asked."
"You mean flattered," Sally snapped. "The last thing your bloody ego needed."
Sherlock exhaled and started turning the pages again, while John held back the urge to shake Sally for missing what had probably been her one chance to get Sherlock to open up, to whatever limited extent he might have done so. He was tuning her out now, John could see him do it.
Sally sighed and her shoulders slumped. "You were amazing that afternoon," she said, huffing out a small laugh as John's mouth fell open. "He was though," she spoke to John, as Sherlock was now ignoring her. "I'd brought the file and he went through it with me and pointed out things no one else had noticed... made me look at things a different way. He was still a smart arse, but he let me follow him and I felt... I felt... I don't know how to describe it - like you must feel, I suppose. It was like... like..."
"Like standing too close to the sun," John finished for her.
"Yeah." Sally nodded. "Just like that." She sank down to perch on the arm of John's chair, her back to Sherlock now, facing John who still stood in the kitchen doorway. "And we split up to follow different leads, and arranged to meet the next morning and he didn't show, didn't answer his phone, nothing." She exhaled shakily, trying to clear her head of the images which still woke her most nights. "And then everything went to hell."
John wasn't sure whether to try to comfort her or keep his distance. He kept flicking glances at Sherlock, but he seemed engrossed in whatever he was looking at. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?" he asked Sally again. "There might be some biscuits."
"I don't eat biscuits," Sally replied absently, before collecting herself again. "Then, when I got my phone back that night," she continued, "there was a text. A text that he'd sent that morning. A text which could have saved them and he'd known - he'd known that morning where they were but he'd just gone off. Gone off to do something more interesting." She looked up at John. "And do you know what's funny?" She didn't look amused. "I was actually worried about him." She shook her head. "Can you believe that? Me - worried about him. Him! It's like I'd wandered into Bizarro World."
John's eyebrows rose at the reference and Sally shrugged. "My brother was a comic book geek," she explained. "Still is," she added, with a small smile.
"Right." John nodded. "Er... I do know all this, Sally," he told her. "Sherlock told me what happened." He raised a hand helplessly. "It was a terrible tragedy. I wish to God that I could change it, that I had been here, just as I'm sure you wish you had kept your phone with you and Sherlock wishes that he had called, but we can't -"
"Does he?" Sally interrupted. "Are you sure?" She got to her feet, her voice rising as she turned to face Sherlock again. "I do wish I'd had my phone, of course I do, but I also wish I'd never come here in the first place... because if I hadn't come to him, relied on him, we might have solved it ourselves."
"Unlikely," Sherlock said, moving to sit at the desk but not looking up. "In which case they would have died anyway, so really my involvement was irrelevant."
"How can you say that?" Sally demanded, marching across the room until she was standing over him. "Maybe we wouldn't have solved it without you, God knows we weren't close, but if we'd failed at least we would have tried... done our best. To know that we could have rescued them, but didn't - that their salvation was right there... just sitting in a text message on a mobile phone down the side of a car seat. That..." her face screwed up for a moment, "... that breaks my heart!"
"I don't see why," Sherlock told her. "Dead is dead. You're being irrational."
Sally was trembling. "You have no idea how much I want to hit you right now," she said, her voice low, both hands clenched into fists.
"I wouldn't recommend it," Sherlock advised, glancing up at last. "John tends to react poorly towards people who try to do that." He turned his head towards the kitchen, eyes widening as he took in John's expression, which definitely suggested that he might not be quite so quick to stop Sally just now. Sherlock got to his feet, feeling hemmed in.
"I ask you again, what do you want?" he demanded of her. "Because I have work to do, as you can see."
Sally stared up at him. "I want you to be that man," she said. "I want you to save the people that you can save." She raised her arms expansively. "If I could do what you can do, I would never stop. You could save people, but you don't bother. If they're not a puzzle, they're not worth your time. My desk is piled high with cases - murderers you could catch, if you wanted to. I would give anything... anything to be able to do what you can do - what you showed me you can do - and you just waste it!"
Sherlock shook his head in exasperation. "There will always be murders. And murderers. I could clear every case on your desk and a week later the pile would be back. It is pointless. I am not employed by the police. I will take the cases which interest me, which means I will catch the criminals who present some kind of a challenge. The victims are irrelevant, they are a constant, interesting only in terms of leading me to their attackers." He turned his back on her and returned to the fireplace, forcing his eyes to skim over the disappointment on John's face... there was something wrong in one of these photographs, something niggling at the edge of his consciousness, but he couldn't pin it down.
Behind him, the argument continued. John was trying to get Sally to calm, but it didn't seem to be working. Which photo had he been looking at when the damned woman had distracted him? Sherlock tried to focus.
"He's not bloody Spider-man," John was saying. "Don't start all that 'with great power comes great responsibility' stuff. If he cared like you want him to, would he even be able to do what he does? Have you thought about that?"
Sherlock brought both hands to his head, trying to block them out. It was one of the women, he was almost sure of it. Whatever was out of place, it was something feminine. He narrowed his eyes, limiting his field of vision.
"How do you stand it?" Sally's voice grew increasingly shrill as she remonstrated with John. "You care - I see your face when he says these things and yet you stay with him, even though he lets you down... even when he lets everybody down. Why do you-"
"Will you SHUT UP!" Sherlock whirled on them. "Both of you, just shut up!" John looked hurt, which ramped Sherlock's anger up another notch and he glared at Sally. "Haven't you said enough? I am trying to think!"
"What, so you can find another killer too late?" Sally demanded. "How long till you get bored with this case too? Aren't you just passing the time until you get wind of that Moriarty guy again? You can't carry on like this!"
"I can if you go away and let me concentrate." He tried to turn back to the photos, but she caught his arm.
"The victims matter! They're not just fodder, they're real people; you have to save them if you can."
"I don't have to do anything."
"But people will die!"
Sherlock yanked his arm away. "It's what people DO!"
The shocked noise from John turned both their heads and Sally fell silent as Sherlock's eyes automatically scanned the flat for whatever had caused that look of anguish, even as he registered that no one else's words could hurt John so badly.
He took a step forward and John fell back, his hand reaching out to brace himself against the side of the kitchen door frame.
"Don't." John shook his head. "Please don't say any more." He stared at Sherlock as if he'd never seen him before; as if he didn't recognise him; as if he were...
Sherlock's face grew pinched as the moment stretched out and Sally looked from one to the other of them, seeing that something was happening but not understanding what it was.
"Leave," John told her, and she went.
Sherlock stood and watched as John struggled to overcome the revulsion that his near echoing of Moriarty's words had caused. He saw the deep breath which was meant to calm but seemed to make things worse, and wondered if John too was tasting the heavy scent of chlorine at the back of his throat.
He took another step as John's fingers tightened on the door frame, detecting the signs which showed his bad leg was going to give way and moving forward instinctively, only to be halted by John's raised hand as he sagged back against the kitchen table.
Sherlock froze in place, almost wishing that his friend were not quite so easy to read: John was telling himself that it didn't matter, that it didn't mean anything. He was trying to convince himself that Sherlock was still the man that he had believed him to be… and Sherlock saw the exact moment when he failed.
He watched as John's expression closed off, as he lowered his gaze, as he remembered every hurtful, hateful word that Sherlock had uttered and as he inwardly cursed himself for a fool because he had closed his eyes to what everyone else had been telling him all along.
"John..." Sherlock was automatically analysing every detail, every nuance of posture and tension which gave away the thoughts running through that bent head, and he wanted quite desperately to turn back the clock and swallow the words which had emerged so thoughtlessly.
"No." John cleared his throat, trying to hide the emotion which thickened his voice. "Sherlock… No." He became still, his head down, looking small and defeated as he rested his weight against the table and Sherlock's mind whirred as he tried to think of a way out, but his brain seemed to have shifted into neutral and his thoughts were just spinning in place.
He stepped forward and gripped John's shoulders. "Stop it," he demanded, forcibly injecting some of his normal command into his tone. "Snap out of it. They're just words, they're not some magic spell. They can't cause our lives to disintegrate. They mean nothing."
John didn't react, didn't even look up. Sherlock's hands tightened. "John! You're being ridiculous. Come on..." His eyes darted around the kitchen. "Look, I'll make tea. Do you want tea?" His fingers flexed, instinctively trying to hold on to the one true friend he had ever made. "Don't do this!" He leaned down, pressing his forehead against the top of John's head. "John," he whispered. "Please don't do this."
John raised his hands and gripped Sherlock's wrists. "Stop it," he said, tugging, but not hard enough to have any effect. "Don't use your snake-charm tricks on me." He raised his head, forcing Sherlock to straighten, and held his gaze. "Let me go."
Sherlock's eyes scoured his face, taking in his stony expression, the anger in his eyes, every detail of the man in front of him… and he found no trace of his friend.
His hands fell away and he turned, blinking, blindly grabbing his coat as he walked through the living room, then down the stairs, along the hall and out of the front door... into a day which was suddenly much colder than it had been only an hour before, when John had been by his side.
It was late in the evening by the time Sherlock returned to 221B, trying to ignore the unfamiliar feeling of dread which mounted as he climbed the stairs.
He pushed open the door to the living room and immediately the strange knot in his belly eased a fraction - John was home. Sherlock's eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark sufficiently well to see him, but there were countless signs. He paused in the doorway, slowly pulling off his gloves.
"I wasn't sure you'd still be here." It wasn't an easy admission for him to make, but he was going to have to display some sort of emotion to stand any chance of reaching John now. This was not a time for logic, that much was clear.
"I wasn't sure I would be, either," John replied, and there was a click as he turned on the lamp. The light revealed him sitting in his armchair, holding a glass which still bore a trace of... whisky - Sherlock spotted the bottle on the floor next to him - but his hands and voice were steady, as was the gaze which raked over Sherlock then flinched away. Not more than one drink, then; not enough to affect him.
Sherlock drew a deep breath. "I need you." The words felt odd in his mouth, part of his brain checking if he'd ever used them as a declarative statement before; it didn't seem likely.
John sighed, meeting his gaze again. "Yes, you do," he agreed, slightly to Sherlock's surprise. "But I can't watch you become what everyone warned me you would be."
"You can save me."
John closed his eyes as the words tapped into his deepest hopes. "I thought I could," he admitted, marvelling now at his arrogance. "I hoped..." He broke off. "But it was stupid of me." He shook his head. "I'm just an ordinary man, I'm not enough."
"Yes, you are."
"I'm really not," John demurred. "Because I've been here for nearly ten months and still you said... what you said." He swallowed. "I can't do this, Sherlock, I'm sorry."
Sherlock crossed the room and sat down in his own chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and studying John intently. "What can I do?" he asked. "There must be something... No problem is insurmountable and a few words uttered without thought, without intent, cannot possibly do this much damage."
John tipped his head to one side, looking at him. "What happened with Sally?" he asked. "It sounded as if the two of you almost... bonded that day - she wasn't just angry when you let her down, she was hurt." He considered for a moment. "I think that's why she turned against you so much," he added.
He waited for a while, but Sherlock said nothing. Eventually, John sighed. "You can't talk to me, can you?" he observed. "You can't open up - not even now." He shook his head. "I'm going to bed."
His hands tightened on the arms of the chair as he prepared to get to his feet, and Sherlock knew that his decision would be made by morning. "Wait!"
John halted at the command.
"I will try."
They sat facing each other while Sherlock searched for the words he needed, becoming increasingly frustrated at their elusiveness.
After a few minutes, John stirred, causing a flash of panic to cross Sherlock's features, but he simply leaned to the side and picked up the bottle of whisky. He half-filled his glass, then held it out.
Sherlock regarded it with some alarm. "That will impair me."
"I'm not suggesting you get plastered," John told him. "I'm not trying to embarrass you - I just want you to talk to me and this might help." He shrugged. "It's your choice."
The thought of losing control, of possibly making a fool of himself, was completely abhorrent and Sherlock looked at the glass: he didn't want to take it. Then he looked at John, and slowly stretched out his hand. "How much do I have to drink?"
"Just enough to take the brakes off," John promised. "You can stop drinking when you start talking."
Sherlock's face was expressionless as he finished the whisky. "What now?"
"Now we wait."
It didn't take long. When a faint flush started to spread across Sherlock's cheekbones, John began, opening with something simple. "So where did you go? When you left here earlier, I mean."
"I went to see my old dealer," Sherlock answered immediately, then his eyes widened. "But I didn't get anything," he added quickly.
"Good," John told him. "That's good." He thought about it. "Why not?"
Sherlock looked uneasy. "Lots of reasons."
John frowned. That was just the sort of brush-off Sherlock gave him all the time. "Tell me five of them."
Sherlock raised his hand in the air.
"I knew you would disapprove." He folded his thumb down into his palm.
"If I waited until I'd come down before returning home you might have already gone." The index finger this time.
"If I came home still high you would be angry," he bent the first knuckle of his middle finger, "you might blame yourself," the second knuckle bent, "you might think I was emotionally blackmailing you to stay." The whole finger was down.
"I would be emotionally blackmailing you to stay." Fourth finger this time.
"It wouldn't work, but you would feel bad about leaving." There went the last finger.
Sherlock looked at the fist he had made, then back up at John. "Tell me what to do," he said, his eyes slightly unfocused now. "There must be something, John... Please."
John sighed. "Ever since I met you," he started, "people have been warning me off. Sometimes overtly..."
"Sally," growled Sherlock, then his face changed, some of the anger morphing into sadness.
"What is it?"
Sherlock turned his head away, but he answered. "She treated me like a human being that day," he said. "It was a Saturday afternoon, you were gone and I was lone... I was on my own," he finished, with a slightly shifty look. "She was so focused on the case, she forgot that she was working with 'The Freak'." He shrugged. "It was ni... novel," he substituted. "She wasn't you, but..." He trailed off.
John felt a pang, but he buried it. "Lestrade thinks you might be a good man - one day; if we're lucky," he said, "and Mycroft... the way he watches you, there always seems to be an element of fear in it - as if he's just as ready to stop you, as save you."
He shook his head. "They all act as though you could go either way - as if they're not sure whether you would catch Moriarty or join him - and you know what? I thought they were idiots. All of them. I thought that I knew best, that my gut was smarter than their brains."
He leaned forward in his chair. "Sherlock, I don't want to leave... you saved my life as surely as I saved yours; but what you said today... His words in your mouth." John's face was pale. "I finally saw what the others fear when they look at you and it..." he sucked in a breath, "...God, Sherlock, it frightened me half to death."
"But I didn't mean it!" Sherlock pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. "I didn't mean it." It was the plaintive cry of a child who hadn't accepted that their goldfish should stay in the water.
"Are you sure?" asked John. "Because isn't that exactly what you do think? 'This hospital is full of people dying'; 'Will caring about them help save them?'; 'The victims are irrelevant'; all boiling down to those few words."
Sherlock looked at him in surprise.
"You're not the only one who can quote people," John told him. "I'm not like you, but I remember some things."
"The things that upset you," Sherlock acknowledged. His hands pushed up into his hair. "I told you I wasn't a hero, John. I told you that."
John shrugged. "You were to me."
Sherlock dropped his head down to his knees.
He sat like that for a few minutes and John watched him, wondering what was going through his mind.
Eventually, Sherlock sighed and spoke again, his words slightly muffled, but perfectly audible. "You were right with what you told Sally," he said. "I can't do the work if I focus on the victims - not caring is a conscious choice. Probably easier for me than for most," he admitted, "but still a deliberate act."
He raised his head again to look at John. "But I am capable," he promised. "You should know that better than anyone."
John regarded him carefully, then nodded. "I'm going to make a cup of tea," he said. "Do you want one?"
Sherlock shook his head, then looked as if he regretted the motion. John got up and walked over to him, tipping his head up and examining him with a doctor's eye. "Have you eaten anything since that toast yesterday morning?"
"Never mind. How do you feel?"
Sherlock frowned in concentration and John shook his head. "Stay there," he instructed, heading into the kitchen. He returned with a glass of water, only to find Sherlock halfway to the sofa, demonstrating his usual allergy to being told what to do. John stood back and watched, satisfied to see that his coordination was only a little bit off - he was OK. He waited until Sherlock had flopped down, then gave him the water. "Drink this."
Sherlock's face acquired a devious look. "Will you stay if I do?"
"It's a glass of water, not a declaration of love," John huffed. "Just drink it!"
"Is that what you want? Because I -"
"Just drink it! I'm not going to tell you again."
He went back to the kitchen and put the kettle on while Sherlock's words about caring milled around in his mind, attaching themselves to memories of new gloves repeatedly left on his dresser, an afternoon spent tracking down Mrs Hudson's heirloom bracelet, a hand on his shoulder at an upsetting crime scene. He sat at the kitchen table for a while, drinking his tea and letting his thoughts settle.
Eventually, the silence from the living room began to concern him and he returned to find Sherlock still slumped on the sofa, staring down at the barely touched drink in his hands. He looked up as John approached and set the glass down on the coffee table with exaggerated care.
"I want you to stay." His words were slightly slurred.
John sighed and sat down sideways on the sofa, picking the glass back up again. "Come on, you need to drink this."
Sherlock wagged a finger at him. "You said..." the focus of his eyes switched suddenly to his own finger, which seemed to disconcert him, his eyes crossing as they tried to follow the motion. "You said you wouldn't tell me that again." He made a tutting noise.
John just held out the glass until Sherlock finally took it. He finished the water then slouched down on the seat, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. "What's the point?" he asked miserably. "What's the point of caring if you're going to leave anyway? Not much cop after all."
John took the empty glass from his hand and set it down on the table. "Why don't you lie down?" he suggested. "Do you want me to help you to bed?"
"Can't," Sherlock told him. "Tried it while you were angsting in the kitchen. Makes everything all..." He made a circling movement with his finger as he searched for the word, "... spinny."
John looked at him, then stretched out an arm, brushing his hair back off his face. "It was myself I doubted, as much as you," he said, as Sherlock opened one eye, rolling his head around to face him. "I suddenly felt stupid for believing in you all this time, and so quickly too - I just met you and it was 'Bam!', all my priorities realigned and switched to 'That's Sherlock Holmes... follow him'." He shrugged. "And I ignored everyone else and thought they were fools - even your own brother."
"He is a fool."
John ignored the auto-response. He wasn't sure how much of this Sherlock was taking in, but both eyes were open now and he was frowning intently. "So I lost faith today in my own instincts, because how could someone like me be right over everyone else? Especially when they'd known you so much longer." He fell silent for the whole three seconds it took for Sherlock's patience to run out.
John gave him a rueful smile. "But if I'm wrong about you, then I'm wrong about too many things," he said. "So... that's it. Debate over... decision made. I'll be here to kick your arse for as long as your arse needs kicking - you lead and I'll follow." He shrugged. "I'm with you."
Sherlock struggled to sit up, twisting so that they were facing each other, and regarded John incredulously. "Are you... are you pledging yourself to me?"
"I guess I am."
Sherlock stared at him for a long moment. "I feel as if I should knight you, or something," he joked, trying to cover the look of almost wonder on his face.
John chuckled. "Well I wouldn't try it now, you'd probably put my eye out."
They smiled at each other, then John suddenly reached out and pulled him into a brief hug, from which Sherlock emerged looking like a cat caught out by a lawn sprinkler.
"Right," he said awkwardly, trying to surreptitiously brush himself off as if the urge to display physical affection might be contagious.
"Friends hug sometimes," John told him, regarding these antics with amusement. "Didn't kill you, did it?"
Sherlock straightened his jacket and settled back into his seat. "I'll fuck up again," he warned.
"I have no doubt."
"But you won't leave?"
"Not as long as you need me."
Sherlock kept his face impassive by sheer force of will. "The occasional hug would perhaps be tolerable," he conceded. "Very occasional."
John relaxed back into the cushions, giving his own smile free reign. "You know, as sociopaths go, you're pretty rubbish."
Sherlock sighed and closed his eyes, tipping his head back to rest on the top of the sofa.
"Don't tell anyone."
Chapter 9: A Matter of When
"You shouldn't be calling me on a Saturday," Maggie's sleepy voice responded.
"It's OK, Henry's gone to get a newspaper." Kate turned over on to her side, the mobile phone pressed to her ear. "Did I wake you?"
She could hear the smile in Maggie's yawn. "Anytime, babe, anytime." Her voice dropped lower. "Although I prefer the way you do it in person."
Kate shivered happily. "That was one hell of a weekend. I wish I could…"
There was a short silence. "Yeah, I know."
"So, what are you doing today?" Kate changed the subject.
"Well, there's always the postman," Maggie replied. "I'm sure he'd be up for it, he seems confident that he can convert me."
Kate giggled. "I know you took out a subscription to that lesbian lifestyle magazine just to wind him up."
"Diva is an excellent publication, I'll have you know. It has an extremely wide readership."
"Quite possibly, but they don't all specifically request that it NOT be delivered under plain cover."
Maggie laughed. "I think ringing my doorbell is the highlight of the poor man's day, he never even tries to use the slot."
"He's probably got a different slot in mind."
"Eww!" Maggie made a gagging noise. "Too far, Katie-baby, too far."
"So what are you guys doing today?" Maggie asked, yawning again. Kate pictured her lying back in bed, stretching in that languorous way she had, with her long silky black hair trailing over her toffee-coloured skin...
Kate rolled over quickly as Alice appeared in the doorway, Peter Rabbit trailing behind her as usual, his crumpled left ear clutched tightly in her hand.
"Got to go…"
John stirred in his sleep with the feeling that something had disturbed him. He stretched, gradually realising that he must have nodded off on the sofa because he was now slumped in the corner, with one leg half across the seats and the other stretched out on the floor.
"In here," Sherlock's grumpy voice came from the kitchen. "Looking for something to fix what you did to my head."
John levered himself up. "Why didn't you wake me when you went to bed?" he asked, rubbing his leg, which still seemed to be asleep. He limped into the kitchen, finding Sherlock rooting through the cupboards. His suit looked like yesterday's, although it was difficult to tell from the back, and his hair was completely wild. "Did you crash out too?"
"Where do you keep your hangover cures?" Sherlock demanded. He gave up on the 'Food Only' cupboard, noting the extensive array of jam despite John's claim only two days before that they had run out. "I know I've seen you drinking some noxious brew on these sorts of occasions. Where are they?"
He turned to face John, whose eyes widened abruptly. "What?" Sherlock challenged.
"Nothing," John denied. "Why don't you just try some paracetamol? They're in the bathroom cabinet."
He looked even more rumpled than usual, and was now biting his lip. Sherlock narrowed his eyes. "I know where the paracetamol are," he pointed out, sinking down onto one of the kitchen chairs. "Why don't you fetch some as it's you who did this to me?"
"Nobody forced you, Sherlock. It was your choice," John corrected. "Although, if I'd known what a complete lightweight you were, I might have given you less," he admitted.
Sherlock scowled. "Alcohol has never been my drug of choice."
"You don't say." John chuckled. "Mrs Hudson could knock back twice that amount and still balance her cheque book."
Sherlock raised a hand to his temple, wincing dramatically. John rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said, going to retrieve the medication, then filling a mug with water. He put both on the table. "Would you like me to swallow them for you as well?"
Sherlock looked up and John's lips twitched again as he moved round the table and sat down opposite.
"Sleep well?" he asked.
"Fine," Sherlock snapped, knocking back the pills.
"Not like you to go to bed in your clothes," John observed. "You must have really been out of it."
"But you slept all right," John said again. "Had a comfortable night, in fact."
Sherlock stared at him. "What is the matter with you?"
"Why don't you go and have a shower?" John suggested. "It will do you good."
"If the alternative is to sit here and be repeated at, I may as well," retorted Sherlock, getting to his feet and stalking to the bathroom, with what sounded suspiciously like a giggle echoing behind him.
He turned on the shower, then stripped, dropping his distastefully wrinkled clothing on the floor. The initial glance he cast at the mirror was fleeting but then he froze, stepping closer and turning his head to see the fading, but still clearly visible, impression of John's jumper which was all down the side of his face. The pattern was unmistakeable. Sherlock closed his eyes and groaned.
"You all right in there?" John's voice could barely contain its mirth.
"Go away." Sherlock rubbed a hand over his face. It was extremely unusual for him to wake up with a hangover, but waking up with a hangover and a faceful of woolly jumper had been a complete first. The sole relief in the situation had been the fact that John was still asleep and Sherlock had been able to extract himself without waking him, although any sensible person would be able to tell that their lap had been used as a pillow for – he examined his face again – several hours at least.
"We will not speak of this," he said firmly, with sufficient volume for John to hear him over the chuckling from the other side of the door.
"No, we won't," John agreed, his tone calmer now. "I'm not out to embarrass you, don't worry."
There was a pause, but Sherlock had the uneasy feeling that there was more to come.
"Except to say…" The giggle was back in John's voice, which did not bode well. "You're turning into quite the cuddler."
Sherlock threw the nailbrush at the door.
True to his word, John made no further reference to their unusual sleeping arrangements and there was a coffee ready and waiting for Sherlock when he eventually reappeared, looking much more like himself. "So what's the plan for today?" John asked, handing him the mug. "Anyone you need me to shoot for you?"
Sherlock's lips twitched as he took the drink. "Not so far," he replied, then quirked a brow. "But I've not been out yet." They grinned at each other. "Right," Sherlock announced. "There's something wrong in these photographs – come and have a look." He led the way to the fireplace and indicated the ones he had been studying the previous day, before Sally had derailed everything.
After ten minutes of searching, John gave up and went to make a late breakfast, managing to get some scrambled eggs into Sherlock by telling him it was a hangover cure. He had just finished washing the dishes when there was an exclamation from the living room.
"When do you change your watch?" Sherlock called through to him. "When the clocks go back, at what point do you adjust your watch?"
John put the tea towel down and joined him. "You mean when British Summer Time ends?" he clarified. Sherlock nodded impatiently. "Well… this year, as I recall, I was being dragged through a sewer when the clocks officially changed at two a.m., so I think I did it later in the day."
"But normal people," Sherlock expanded. "When do normal people do it?"
John wasn't sure if his exclusion from this category was an insult or a compliment, but he answered the question. "Well, back in my life B.S.H.," he started, ignoring Sherlock's eye roll, "I would usually do it the night before, when I got ready for bed. Otherwise, I'd do it first thing in the morning, or as soon as I put the TV on and found it showing different programmes to the ones I expected."
"That's what I thought," Sherlock declared happily. He snatched one of the photos off the wall and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "Come on, then!" He picked up John's coat and tossed it to him. "Let's go and find you something to blog about."
"What are you doing?"
"Right now, my love? I'm teasing myself with a feather boa and thinking of you…"
"You are not!" Kate protested, giggling into her phone.
"Fine. I'm cleaning the bathroom and debating whether to paint my toenails all the same colour or whether to do them two-tone. When this exciting programme of events has been concluded, I'm going to make some lunch – then I might re-think the feather boa situation."
"I miss you, Maggie," Kate sighed. "This is so hard! Especially after the other weekend – it was wonderful, but in a way it's made things more difficult."
"You sound as if you regret it." Maggie's voice was a little wary.
"Never! No, don't think that," Kate insisted immediately. "I can't regret it. Not even when I know I should."
There was silence on the other end of the line.
"Maggie?" Kate prompted. "Maggie, I'm sorry, I don't mean to suggest…"
"That I'm a dirty little secret?" Maggie's tone was wry. "The evil seducer, trying to lure you away from your husband and child?"
Kate leaned forward on her stool, resting her elbows on the kitchen counter but keeping an eye on the window. "You didn't have to lure me," she reminded. "You were just there, that was enough." She exhaled, shaking her head. "I still don't know what happened," she admitted.
"Eyes meeting across a crowded room?" Maggie suggested, her voice lighter. "Or across a defunct vending machine, in our case." She laughed. "You did ask me for change, if you remember – no use complaining now that discovering you're bisexual wasn't exactly the change you had in mind."
Kate smiled; Maggie could never be serious for long. "Did you see the news?" she asked. "What are you going to do tomorrow?"
"Apart from my scheduled world domination, you mean?"
"You know perfectly well what I mean. You live on your own and work in an office. That puts you at risk, according to that rather dishy looking policeman on the telly."
"Dishy? Do people still say 'dishy'?" Maggie queried. "You sound like my mother!"
"Don't change the subject." Kate could be tenacious when she wanted to be. "Why don't you go round to Tony's for the day?" Maggie groaned heavily, but Kate ploughed determinedly on. "He works in an office too, and he lives alone – it would be safer for both of you."
"You won't be able to phone me if I'm with my brother," Maggie warned. "I'll never hear the end of it if he finds out about you, he'll be absolutely disgusted."
Kate's fingers had almost reached her mouth before she remembered Maggie's feelings about bitten nails. She looked at her hand for a moment, then tucked it under her leg and sat on it. "Because I'm married, you mean?" she asked quietly.
"What? Oh, no, not that," Maggie replied quickly. "Because I brought you over to the dark side, is what I mean. I can just hear him now." She lowered her voice to a low grumble. "Aren't there enough women lost to your cause already, without you going around turning the straight ones?" She resumed her normal tone. "He'll go on and on – it's not worth it."
Kate laughed, then movement outside the window caught her eye. "I'll have to go in a minute, sweetheart, they're on their way back." Henry was carrying Peter Rabbit as they made their way down the street, Alice holding on to the little finger of his other hand. She was swinging the empty bread bag, so it looked as if 'Operation Duck Feeding' had been a success. "I wish you would meet Alice, you'd love her."
"She's your daughter; of course I would love her. But do you really think we'd be convincing as 'just friends'?" Maggie asked. "Children pick up on a lot, even at only four years old, and if I meet Alice, I'll end up meeting Henry – you said he wasn't a stupid man…"
"He's not stupid at all," agreed Kate. "You're right, I know you're right, he would definitely realise something was up if he saw us together." She sighed. "He doesn't deserve this, I hate deceiving him."
Maggie was silent.
"But I'd hate losing you more," Kate added quickly. "I'm sorry, babes. I keep putting my foot in my mouth today - you know I love you."
"I know. But you love Alice and Henry too," Maggie pointed out. "And so you should."
"I guess if there was an easy answer, we would have thought of it by now," Kate agreed. "They're almost here – will you go to Tony's tomorrow?"
"I'll think about it."
"Maggie! Don't think I can't translate that, because I recognise a 'No' when I hear one. You've not heard the last of this!"
Sherlock and John were crossing the foyer at Scotland Yard when Constable Hopkins trotted up.
"I got it," the young man hissed as he drew nearer, looking ridiculously pleased with himself. "I got the watch!" His tone and demeanour would have been more suited to the phrase 'nuclear launch codes' than to the word 'watch'.
"Good man," said Sherlock, and John feared having to deal with some kind of seizure as Hopkins' excitement approached vibrato levels. "Let's have a look at it."
Hopkins produced the evidence bag, handing it over with a flourish clearly copied from his hero. Sherlock held it up to the light and smiled. "Excellent," he said, pocketing the bag. "Right, I need laptops, mobile phones, records of landline calls, and details of interviews with anyone who interacted with the victims on the day before they were killed."
"The day before?" queried Hopkins. Sherlock raised a brow. "Sorry, Sir. Yes, Sir. Er… for all of them?"
"Indeed," Sherlock replied, already making his way to the stairs. "I'll text you where to bring them."
John followed him. "You're not going to get him in trouble are you?" he asked Sherlock as they climbed. "And I assume you texted him on the way here - how do you have his number, anyway?"
"He contacted me earlier in the week offering his assistance," Sherlock replied. "Got my number off the website. I'm not getting him into trouble – he asked for it."
"Even so, what will Lestrade say when you turn up with that watch?" John persisted. "It's supposed to be in evidence."
Sherlock started taking the steps two at a time. By the time John emerged from the stairwell, the swirl of Sherlock's coat was just disappearing into Lestrade's office. He followed, seeing a look of profound relief pass over the D.I.'s face at his arrival.
Lestrade flushed, realising that his reaction had been too obvious. "Sally said there'd been a row," he explained apologetically, his gaze moving from John to Sherlock. "I wasn't sure if…" he waved a hand between the two of them.
"John and I are together," Sherlock said firmly, reaching into his pocket.
Lestrade's eyebrows rose as John raised a hand to his face and shook his head despairingly. Lestrade heard some muttered words, but could only make out 'never' and 'laid'.
"Together?" he echoed doubtfully.
Sherlock waved a hand at him impatiently. "Look at this," he demanded, proffering the photograph that he had brought with him.
Lestrade took it. "Black and female - that's presumably Philippa Saunders, or her arm at least," he said. "What am I supposed to be looking at?"
"Her watch," Sherlock prompted. "And the time stamp printed on the corner of the photograph."
Lestrade did as he was bid, while John moved round the desk to peer over his shoulder. "So, there's an hour's discrepancy," Lestrade acknowledged. "The time in the camera could be wrong."
"I think not," Sherlock disagreed, but he kept the evidence of this claim in his pocket. "Her watch is an hour ahead."
"It's still on British Summer Time," John acknowledged, relieved that Sherlock wasn't waving the proof of Hopkins' activities around the office.
"Exactly," confirmed Sherlock. "I think he's getting to the victims much earlier than we had thought," he explained. "Philippa Saunders was killed on the 31st of October, which is the day the clocks changed, but she hadn't put her watch back, which she would have been likely to do first thing in the morning or even the night before. I want to check what they were doing on the Saturdays."
"How?" asked Lestrade.
"I need access to some of the evidence. Perhaps Hopkins could bring it to... where? Incident room?"
Lestrade shrugged his agreement.
"I'll text him," Sherlock said, already tapping away on his phone.
Lestrade left the three of them building up a timeline, with John ploughing through phone records, Sherlock flitting around everything and Hopkins apparently overjoyed to do his bidding, although Lestrade was intrigued to note, on one of his frequent progress checks, that Hopkins seemed equally happy to take orders from John, almost as if he regarded him as an extension of Sherlock rather than as a rival for his attention. Lestrade stood in the doorway and watched as John held out a sheet of paper just as Sherlock reached for it, neither of them looking round. Their set-up, whatever it might be, was truly fascinating from a psychological standpoint.
By five o'clock, the whiteboard held a list of names, times and events, all printed in Hopkins' neat block capitals. There were areas with Sherlock's squiggles, but they each had clear translations underneath. Lestrade gazed across at it. "So what do we have?" he asked.
Sherlock was busy with his phone but he held up a finger, which didn't slow down his typing at all. Lestrade waited, taking in John seated at the desk on Sherlock's right and Hopkins hovering to his left.
"Right," Sherlock started, turning to the board. "The most recent victim updated her Facebook page at twenty past four on the Saturday afternoon before she was killed. No record of any interaction after that."
He looked down to the next name. "Number Three is hopeless. Didn't see anyone on the Saturday, didn't speak to anyone, no computer, nothing." He shook his head in disgust at the victim's unhelpfulness, then moved on.
"Number Two spent the afternoon on-line, but her browser history shows no activity after five forty-five."
He moved down to the last name. "Number One is the most interesting." He looked around and smiled. "At five minutes past six he made a call to a local pizzeria, a number that he dialled regularly."
"But they have no record of him placing an order that day," inserted Hopkins eagerly.
"And the call only lasted…" Sherlock looked to John, who flicked through the records in front of him.
"Eight seconds," he reported.
Sherlock raised both hands. "Do you see?"
Lestrade looked blank. Sherlock groaned. "Oh, come ON! Eight-second phone call - did he suddenly lose his appetite? What made him hang up?"
"Doorbell?" ventured Lestrade.
"Hallelujah!" exclaimed Sherlock patronisingly. "Doorbell. Thank you." He glanced at the screen of his phone then reached to take the marker pen from Hopkins, who promptly thrust it behind his back.
"Er, should I do the writing, Sir?" he suggested. John sniggered and Sherlock threw him a look.
"Fine," he answered Hopkins, turning his back on John and waving his arm imperiously. "Write these times next to each name, starting with the last victim." He looked at his phone, then recited, "Four fifteen; four twenty-six; five thirty-eight; five fifty-two." He looked up at the board. "Good."
Hopkins beamed, while Sherlock waited in vain for anyone to make a connection. Eventually he sighed. "Sunset in London on those days," he explained. "Look at the pattern." He frowned in thought as a new idea occurred to him and he started checking his phone again. "I think this killer may be crepuscular," he announced.
"Crepus-what-er?" echoed Lestrade.
"Crepuscular: pertaining to twilight," offered Hopkins. "Not vampires," he added quickly, to Sherlock's obvious confusion. "I mean active at dusk and dawn, like dogs and rabbits," he finished.
Sherlock ignored the odd reference, confident that John would explain it if he needed to know. "Consider," he said. "If it was the killer who interrupted the first victim's phone call, that was thirteen minutes after sunset, and the cessation of activities for two of the others would indicate a similar pattern." He tapped his index fingers against his bottom lip thoughtfully. "It's brilliant, actually - just getting dark enough to make identification more difficult if anyone sees him, but not yet fully night when people are more on guard about opening their door to a stranger."
Lestrade thought about it. "OK, I can see the logic for him getting in at dusk on the Saturdays, but the last victim at least wasn't killed until well after dark on the Sunday, so he must be leaving during the night."
"Must he?" Sherlock queried. "We've already made one wrong assumption about his timings, let's not rush into another, hmm?"
"Crepuscular means dawn as well," pointed out Hopkins. "And he does seem to want to spend the weekend with them. Arriving at dusk on the Saturdays, not killing them till Sunday night - with the exception of the mistake - what if he's staying until the Monday mornings?"
"It's worth considering," added John, causing Lestrade's head to turn again - it was as if Sherlock had his very own backing group. "If he's so careful when he arrives then he could be the same when he leaves. A man exiting the scene of a crime in the dead of night might be noticed and remembered, but in the early dawn there's enough activity to blend in, and the light level is still low."
Lestrade shook his head at the triple act, then his eyes moved to the clock on the wall with a feeling of trepidation. "So if he's found another victim for this weekend..." he started.
Sherlock looked out of the window at the darkening night. "Yes," he confirmed, his tone grim. "That would mean he's already with them."
"Maggie, will you pick up your damned phone?" Kate pulled her mobile away from her ear for a moment and glared at it. "Have you got your headphones turned up to eleven again?" she demanded in the most forceful whisper she could manage. "Look, I'm phoning you from the bathroom, again. Henry must think I've got the runs or something." She waited, but could hear only her own breathing as it filled up Maggie's voicemail. "I'll have to go. It's eight-thirty now; I'm going to try again in an hour or so, OK?" Kate stood for a moment longer, gazing blankly at her own reflection and seeing the worry in her green eyes. "Please pick up then, Maggie. I love you."
"This is the last message I'm leaving, Magdalena Harris! It's half-past nine - if I haven't heard from you by ten o'clock I'm coming over – I don't care what sort of excuse I have to make, I'll think of something." Kate paused, her fingers squeezing her mobile phone too tightly. "I didn't mean that I regretted being with you, before; you know that, right? I just... Look, just let me know you're OK. Text me." She thought for a moment. "Or call me. I know I say don't call me when Henry's here, but call me, all right? I... Are you angry? Did I upset you? I know you act all cool and self-possessed, but you do get upset, I know you..." Her words died away. "Half an hour, Maggie, I'm serious."
"Oh, Thank God! Maggie - you really scared me." Kate pressed the phone to her ear, relief coursing through her body.
"Sorry, babes. I'm still here."
"Are you OK? You sound weird." Kate lay back on her bed.
"I'm fine. Where are you?"
"I came upstairs, said I had some letters to write. Really, I've just been thinking up excuses for going out at this time of night if you didn't call." Kate sighed. "What have you been doing? Were you angry? I'm sorry about what I said."
"Don't worry. I just turned the ringer off when I had a bath and forgot to switch it back on again - sorry I scared you."
"Oh, my GOD!"
"I know. I'm sorry, babes. Listen, I'm going to take your advice and go to Tony's tomorrow, so don't phone me, OK?"
"I think that's for the best. I know it might not be the most exciting day you'll ever have, but at least you'll be safe, right?" There was no response. "Look, I'd best get back downstairs. What are you doing tonight?"
Maggie made an odd noise. "Oh, nothing special," she said. "I'm pretty tired, so an early night, I think. Might wash my hair." She sounded a little out of breath.
"Are you all right? You seem a bit... off."
"OK, I'll phone you on Monday, all right? And I can't believe your stunt with the ringer - I've been worried to death. Don't you ever do that again!"
There was a short silence.
Chapter 10: A Fleeting Appearance
"I saw him!"
"All right, Mrs..." Lestrade looked to Sally, who was sitting next to the sobbing blonde on the sofa.
"Kate Peterson," Sally offered, continuing to offer tissues and sympathy although Kate seemed oblivious to either, the tears streaming unchecked down her face.
Lestrade pulled over one of the dining chairs and sat down. "Kate," he said, his voice gentle. "Can you tell me what happened?"
She drew in a shuddering breath. "I was... I was worried," she replied. "Maggie was supposed to be at her brother's yesterday, so I couldn't phone her, but I rang her last night and there was no answer, and I thought maybe she'd stayed over at Tony's but then I didn't sleep well and I phoned her this morning because I knew she'd come home to change and still..." She gulped for air again and grabbed hold of Sally's arm. Sally patted her hand. "Still there was no... was no... So I told Henry I was going to drive to the Park and go for a run," she looked down vaguely at the tracksuit she was wearing, "but that I would be back in time to get Alice ready for nursery."
The words seemed to register and her eyes widened. "Alice." She started to get to her feet. "Oh, God. I've got to go home." Her eyes were darting around the room. "What time is it?"
Lestrade half rose from his chair and took her hands, urging her to sit again and making soothing noises. He caught Sally's eye. "Did you call him?"
She scowled, but nodded. "He's on his way. Said he'd pick up John en route."
Lestrade briefly wondered where John had got to that he needed picking up at eight-fifteen in the morning, but then he turned his attention back to Kate. "So, you came here..." he prompted.
Kate focused on him once more as Sally thrust a tissue more forcibly into her hands. "I came here..." she echoed. "Yes, I parked at the end, because there are never any spaces on this road, then I walked down and I saw him." She blinked up at Lestrade. "I saw him, but I didn't realise..." She shook her head. "I'd only just turned the corner and he was coming out of the gate and I thought it was Maggie's gate, but then I figured I must be mistaken, because I was still quite far away and he came towards me... I walked right past him." Her eyes were glazed and she seemed frozen.
"Go on..." Sally prompted.
"And I got to the house, but there was no answer, so I used my key, but it was quiet... it was so quiet." She stopped, fresh tears blooming which she made no attempt to wipe away. "Maggie isn't quiet," she explained. "She's never..." Kate stalled again. "But now she is." Her face crumpled.
Lestrade spoke firmly. "Can you tell me about the man?" Kate just looked at him. "The man who might have come out of Maggie's gate? Can you describe him?" He nodded to Sally, who pulled out a notepad and pen.
"He was tall," Kate replied, frowning in thought. "Taller than Henry... Oh, God - Henry..." She trailed off.
"Kate! Kate, I need you to focus," Lestrade told her, reaching out and taking her hands again. "What else about the man?"
"Um... He was dark. His hair, I mean, not his skin - that was pale."
"So, he was white? A white male, with dark hair..."
Kate nodded. "I couldn't really see..." She pulled a hand free and waved it vaguely in front of her face, her eyes losing focus again.
"Why couldn't you see his face, Kate?" Lestrade raised his voice a little and she zoned back in.
"He had his scarf pulled right up, his chin was tucked into it and he was wearing glasses. Dark glasses."
Kate closed her eyes in concentration. "No. I don't think so, that would have looked weird because it still wasn't proper daylight. I think just normal ones, but the lenses were tinted. I couldn't see his eyes."
"So what time was this?" Lestrade asked, but Kate just shrugged.
"Her call came in at seven twenty-five," Sally murmured. "What was he wearing?" She turned to Kate, her pen poised over the notepad.
"I don't know!" Kate shook her head. "Just ordinary shoes and trousers, I guess, I didn't notice anything odd about them, but his coat covered everything, it was one of those long ones, wool, kind of... " she searched for the word, "...swirly."
Sally's pen froze on the paper and she shot a look at Lestrade, who was staring back at her. He shook his head dismissively.
"What colour was the scarf?" Sally demanded. "And what was his hair like?"
Kate didn't seem to notice the sudden tension in the air. "It was blue," she replied. "And his hair was curly, it kind of flopped over..." she indicated her forehead.
Sally was scribbling furiously when Lestrade's radio crackled with the information that Sherlock had arrived, and she let out a startled gasp as Lestrade whipped the notepad out of her hands before getting to his feet and heading for the hallway.
"Stay here," he instructed over his shoulder, pulling the door closed behind him.
Sherlock and John were just walking into the house as he emerged and Sherlock stopped dead, raising an eyebrow. "That's a new one," he said, eyeing Lestrade's expression with interest.
Lestrade stood there for a long moment, his back against the living room door, still holding on to the handle... then he stepped forward and thrust the notepad into Sherlock's hands.
"We have a female vic. upstairs." His voice was low and quick. "The girlfriend found her an hour or so ago and she thinks she saw a man leaving as she approached. She's already verging on hysteria - if you walk in..."
Sherlock had already skimmed through the notes and was shrugging off his coat. He passed it to John, giving him the notepad too.
Lestrade watched uncertainly as he stepped into the cloakroom and turned on the tap, then decided he would have to ask: "I don't suppose you were... This is just a coincidence, right?"
Sherlock emerged with his hair slicked back, looking like a forties film star. "I can promise you I've never been to this street before," he told Lestrade, pulling off his scarf and looping it around John's neck. "But I doubt it's a coincidence."
John had been reading. "You mean someone is deliberately disguising himself as you?" he asked, appalled, looking up and blinking at Sherlock's dramatically altered appearance.
"Wouldn't be the first time a criminal made it personal, would it?" Sherlock pointed out, the gleam in his eye all too familiar. "It's not as if I haven't been specifically targeted before."
John and Lestrade looked at each other, both recognising that Sherlock had kicked up a gear and each feeling their heart sink as the spectre of Moriarty loomed over them once more.
"Stay with him, for God's sake," Lestrade said and John nodded, draping the coat over a chair in the hallway.
Sherlock was already waiting impatiently at the living room door and with a sigh Lestrade opened it again, leading them to where Kate was now staring blankly into space. Her gaze passed over the newcomers disinterestedly as Sherlock stepped forward, his eyes flicking over her.
"I'm Sherlock Holmes and this is my... colleague, John Watson."
John wondered if he'd imagined the momentary pause, but Sherlock finished the introduction the way he always did. There was no reaction from the woman on the sofa.
"When did you last see the deceased?" Sherlock asked.
Kate flinched and Sally patted her back, quickly getting over her shock at Sherlock's appearance and glaring at him.
"Magdalena Harris," whispered Lestrade. "Maggie."
Sherlock reined in his impatience with an effort. "When were you last in contact with Maggie?" he qualified.
Kate's gaze gradually focused on him. "Saturday night," she replied.
"Night?" Sherlock challenged immediately. "At what time?"
Kate drew in a shaky breath. "Nearly ten o'clock," she told him. "I hadn't spoken to her since lunch, and I'd been calling her all evening, but she'd left the ringer off - she phoned me back just before ten."
"Why would he... Ah," Sherlock muttered to himself. He addressed Kate again. "You'd left messages, yes? Threatened to come round here if she didn't call?"
She stared at him. "How do you know that?"
"Do you mean..." Lestrade started, but Sherlock held up a warning hand, quickly lowering all but his index finger in a clear demand for silence. He held out his other hand to John, who put the notepad in it, then Sherlock stepped forward and dropped to his haunches in front of Kate.
"I need you to write down your conversation," he told her, his voice now deep and soft. He turned to a fresh page in the pad and handed it to her, clicking his fingers at Sally for a pen, which she resentfully provided. "Can you do that for me?" he asked Kate. "It's important."
"It is?" Her voice wobbled but her gaze didn't stray from Sherlock's eyes.
"I will catch him ..."
"Kate," murmured Lestrade.
"Kate," Sherlock echoed. "If you help me." He looked to the pad and her eyes followed. "Word for word, if you can," he requested.
She glanced up one last time, then bent her head and started writing. Sherlock stood and moved towards the door, Lestrade and John quickly following him.
"Stay with her," Lestrade mouthed to Sally as they left. She did not look pleased.
Sherlock had disappeared up the stairs, following the signs of activity to the bedroom where Maggie had been found. By the time Lestrade reached the doorway, he was crouched in front of the wardrobe, poking at a square of four indentations in the carpet and completely ignoring the other officers milling around the place.
"Shall I...?" John indicated the body on the bed.
Lestrade nodded. "Go ahead. We already have an estimated time of death of around midnight, with a couple of hours' leeway either side." He followed John to the middle of the room, where they both gazed down at Maggie's still figure. "Twenty-seven years old," Lestrade advised. "White father, Spanish mother, hence the colouring. She worked in the marketing department of one of the major banks - the girlfriend is in human resources at the same place."
They could hear Sherlock opening drawers and banging cupboards behind them as John examined wrists which had clearly been bound. "So the motive holds good," he said, having noted Kate's wedding ring earlier. "This certainly doesn't strike me as a copycat." He peered at the chest wound. "Same method of killing, very little blood." He straightened up. "I'd say this was our man."
"Obviously," Sherlock's voice spoke over his shoulder and John jumped.
"You need a bloody bell," he muttered, but his eyes stayed on Maggie. He tipped his head to one side. "I don't know, does she look sort of... posed, to you?" he asked, glancing sideways at Lestrade. "She's not just been dumped on the bed, she looks... arranged. Unless she's been moved?" he added.
Lestrade shook his head. "No, the girlfriend said she didn't touch her," he replied. "And they've all looked like this." He waved his arm towards Maggie's serene face. "Peaceful, not a hair out of place - almost as if they've fallen asleep rather than been brutally murdered." He sighed. "We need to catch this guy. Sherlock - what can you give me?" He waited, but there was no response. "Sherlock?"
"Er... he went out, Sir," one of the techs reported as the two men looked round.
"Bloody hell!" John shot through the door, with Lestrade hot on his heels.
"Look into that bell thing, won't you?"
John just grunted in response, glancing round as they reached the bottom of the stairs, then heading for the living room.
They found Sherlock standing in front of the sofa with the notepad in his hands, reading through Kate's transcript as she looked up at him through big, tear-filled eyes. "Did you hear any odd noises during this conversation?" he asked. "Was her speech slurred at all, unusual in any way?" He raised his gaze to her.
"What?" Kate looked taken aback.
"It's a perfectly simple qu..."
John took two steps forward and raised his hand. To the women on the sofa he appeared to be patting Sherlock's shoulder. Only from behind was it clear that he actually gripped the back of his neck, almost like scruffing a cat, and Lestrade watched in awe as Sherlock immediately subsided.
Kate turned to Sally. "What does he mean?" she demanded. She looked back at the pad in Sherlock's hands. "Why did I have to write..." She seemed to be putting the pieces together at last.
Sally put a hand on her arm. "I'm afraid it looks as if Maggie wasn't alone when she made that call," she explained gently. "She made it under duress."
"Hardly the word," observed Sherlock, who had shaken off John's hand. "She probably begged to make it."
Kate's eyes turned to him. "Begged?" she echoed, looking appalled.
Out of the corner of his eye Sherlock saw John's arm twitch and quickly rephrased the words in his head. "She was trying to save your life," he pointed out. "She dissuaded you from calling round that night and made sure you wouldn't expect to hear from her on Sunday. The killer no doubt warned her what would happen if you came here."
"So, he was here..." Kate's breathing was speeding up. "He was here while we were talking? He was actually with her, while we were on the phone?" She was clearly running through the conversation again in her head.
John lifted the pad from Sherlock's hands and read through the page, then passed it to Lestrade.
"But why didn't she say anything?" Kate cried, her fingers shredding the tissue she held. "I could have called the police, I could have..."
"I would imagine he made a threat against you," Sherlock said. "Or your child," he added, his gaze dropping to the traces of play-doh on her tracksuit bottoms.
His words seemed to pull Kate back from the brink of collapse as her attention was diverted. "Alice," she said. "Oh, God, I've got to phone Henry, he'll think something's happened to me." She leaned to the side, stretching her leg out as she dug in her trouser pocket for her mobile, before pulling it out and staring at it. "What am I going to tell him?" she whispered.
"I assume you said that you were going jogging this morning?" queried Sherlock, eyeing her trainers.
Kate nodded, looking a little shamefaced.
"And you've used this excuse before?"
Kate nodded again.
"And is your husband an idiot?"
"What? No!" she bristled. "He's extremely intelligent!"
Sherlock raised a dubious brow. "Then he almost certainly knows about the affair," he advised. "Because the wear on your laces shows that your trainers aren't new, but the shop stickers on the sole prove you've never run in them."
Aghast, Kate twisted her foot, displaying the evidence of his statement.
"You put them on at home and take them off here," Sherlock established. "If your husband isn't stupid, then you may as well tell him the truth - I can't imagine he'll be too devastated by the..."
John cut him off again and shoved him towards the door, which Lestrade pulled wide with perfect timing and then shut behind them, ignoring the still audible bickering from the hallway. He shook his head and tried to put Sherlock out of his mind for now, hoping that he would later share whatever information he had gleaned.
On the sofa, Kate started biting her nails but quickly jerked her fingers away and sat on her hand. Then she looked down at what she had done and burst into a fresh bout of tears, until the phone in her other hand started to ring.
Sally sighed when there was no move to answer it. "Do you want me to speak to him?" she offered, seeing the name on the caller display. Kate stared at her for a long moment as the ringing continued, then slowly uncurled her fingers and held out her hand. Sally took the phone and stood up.
"Mr Peterson? This is Sergeant Donovan with the Metropolitan Police Service. Your wife is fine, she's not been hurt in any way, but she has witnessed something - are you able to come here?" She was silent for a moment, listening. "Yes, it would be best if you dropped your daughter at Nursery first," she confirmed. "Yes it's serious." Another moment. "Shoreditch. It's number..." Her eyebrows rose. "That's right," she said, looking pointedly at Lestrade. "Yes, I'm afraid that's correct. We'll see you soon." She hung up. "Looks like the Fre..." she cut herself off, remembering Kate's presence, "he was right," she said.
"That did not constitute an emergency," Sherlock snapped, snatching his coat up off the hallway chair. "You promised you wouldn't do that unless it was absolutely necessary."
"No, I didn't," John disagreed. "You demanded that I not do it - that's not the same thing at all. Anyway, I'd say that situation pretty much qualified." He wiped his hand on the leg of his jeans. "Did you have to put quite so much water on your hair? It's dripping down your neck."
"No one asked you to touch my neck!" Sherlock retorted, glaring at him. "And I wasn't aware that my life was imperilled by two police officers and a wailing woman."
"Your life, no, but your freedom?" John challenged. "Is this not sinking in? There is a serial killer out there who seems to be deliberately impersonating you. You're so focused on the case and the thrill of possible Moriarty involvement, you're completely oblivious to any danger to yourself, as per bloody usual."
"You did it in front of Lestrade!" Sherlock hissed. "In front of Sally!" He grabbed hold of his scarf, which was still tied around John's neck, and yanked it in a move which should have pulled it free if it had still been fastened in his normal style. Unfortunately, John had re-wrapped it and the force of the tug tightened it viciously around his neck and pulled him off-balance, so that he banged his hip painfully on the hall table.
Sherlock had steadied him and worked the scarf free less than a second later. "I'm sorry," he said stiffly. "I didn't mean..."
John waved his apology away. "I am on your side, Sherlock," he promised. "Always. And I will try not to slow you down, and to let you take the risks you need to take - I'm not about to start mollycoddling you." He stepped into the cloakroom and returned with a hand towel, with which he started briskly drying the back of Sherlock's head. Sherlock leaned down a little to assist, wondering if he needed to check the definition of the word 'mollycoddling'.
"But stopping you from completely alienating the police when you're already on thin ice with them, and someone - possibly a genius someone - is trying to cast suspicion on you..." John's rubbing became increasingly vigorous. "Well that definitely falls within my job description," he finished, stepping back.
"I was trying to be helpful," Sherlock complained, attempting to smooth his hair into some sort of order. "If her husband is going to be happy about the news, shouldn't that make it easier to tell him?"
John sighed, returning the towel to its hook. "How can you combine such absolute genius with such..." He trailed off as Sherlock glowered at him. "It's on a par with telling Molly her boyfriend was gay," he explained. "Which, if you recall, was not your finest hour."
The incipient pout became full blown. "You can be very annoying," Sherlock grumbled.
"Welcome to my world," John retorted. "Are we done here?" He held his ground, folding both arms across his chest as if it took physical effort to contain that much loyalty and sheer stubbornness in such a small package.
Sherlock found himself unable to maintain his frown. "Yes, John."
It wasn't long before Lestrade's radio crackled an announcement and he moved to the hallway, noting that his most indispensable headache had now left the premises. One of the uniformed officers showed Kate's husband into the house and Lestrade offered his hand. The man looked extremely shaken, but his grip was firm and his voice steady.
"Where is my wife?" he asked.
Lestrade regarded him, estimating his height at just under six feet, which put the killer at over that if Kate's report were accurate. He had dark hair and eyes and a hint of warmth to his skin tone which suggested that Kate definitely had a type, even if she was flexible when it came to the logistics.
"Mrs Peterson is unharmed," he emphasised. "But she is extremely distressed. May I ask how much you...?"
"This door?" Henry brushed past him and Lestrade followed. Much as this murder seemed almost certain to be another of the serial killings, he could not ignore someone with a motive this strong.
Kate looked completely petrified as they walked into the room, her eyes huge in her pale face. Sally rose from the sofa, tensing as Henry strode right up to it, but he simply sat down and took Kate in his arms.
"Are you all right?" he asked, pulling back after a moment and holding her by the shoulders as he looked her over. "You're not hurt?" She shook her head mutely and he hugged her again.
He turned to Sally, keeping Kate pressed against him. "All these police... it must be..." There seemed to be a hundred emotions chasing across his face. "Is it that serial killer?" he asked, at last.
"Preliminary investigations would suggest so." Sally nodded.
He drew in a shaky breath. "Is Magdalena... is she dead?" The paroxysm of sobbing from Kate answered his question and he closed his eyes, one hand coming up to cup the back of her head as he rocked her back and forth, eventually scooping his other hand under her legs and just lifting her onto his lap, stroking her hair back as she cried all over his expensive suit.
He held her for a long time, while Lestrade and Sally half went through some notes and half kept an eye on the scene playing out in front of them.
Eventually, Kate pulled back. "Henry..." She was struggling to get her breath and Sally nudged forward the box of tissues again. He took some and gently wiped her face, making her blow her nose, until at last she could talk again. "How do you... How much do you...?" She seemed to have no idea where to begin.
"I've known almost from the start," he told her, shrugging ruefully at her shocked gasp. "I recognised the glow you had, because you used to have it for me." His voice was sad, and Kate's tears welled up again. He wiped them away.
"I know her name, I know her address, I know her work extension," he admitted. "I know how often you met her for lunch... and how often you would later get a sandwich at break time." He closed his eyes for a moment, his mouth tight. "I didn't hire a detective or anything, if that's what you're wondering," he said. "But people do love to talk." He gave her a weak smile. "And you're a terrible liar, Katie. Truly awful. You've never jogged a day in your life."
She gaped at him. "But why did you put up with it? Why did you never say anything?"
Henry shrugged again, but his jaw was tense. "I thought that if it was out in the open, you would feel you had to choose." He took a deep breath, then forced himself on. "And I thought you might choose her." His voice was no longer entirely steady, although he was clearly trying hard to make it so. "I kept hoping it would blow over," he added. "That you would lose interest, decide that Alice and I were more..." he broke off, looking away and blinking furiously.
Kate raised a tentative hand, just holding it in mid-air for a long moment before eventually placing it on Henry's chest. He turned back and grabbed her tightly again, burying his face in her hair. He was shaking. "I've been so afraid," he whispered.
Sally had sat down in the other chair when she gave up her place on the sofa, and Lestrade now noticed her squirming slightly as if she were sitting on something uncomfortable.
"Sorry," she apologised, seeing his querying look. "Excuse me." She pulled out the cushion she'd been sitting on and started examining it, looking for a fastening.
Lestrade returned to his notes, still leaning back against the dining table.
There was an odd note in Sally's voice and Lestrade looked up to see her wearing forensic gloves and holding a small black wallet, of the type which held credit or - the thought occurred to him - warrant cards.
She raised her head and looked at him, a complicated expression on her face.
"I think I know how he's getting in."
Chapter 11: A Pointing of Fingers
"So where were you this morning?"
"Hmm?" Sherlock opened his eyes as John set two mugs and a plate down on the coffee table then perched on the arm of the sofa, looking down at his prone form.
"This morning. You came to pick me up to go to that crime scene - I didn't even realise you were out."
"Oh, just following up a lead." Sherlock flexed his toes against the end of the sofa and then straightened his legs, pushing himself into a half sitting position. He pulled his knees up to make room and John shifted down onto the seat, reaching for his drink.
"What sort of lead?"
Sherlock frowned. "Nothing to do with this case," he demurred. "Just ongoing enquiries." He picked up his own mug and hid behind it.
"You mean Moriarty."
"I had my phone." Sherlock scowled. "And I answered it - even though it was Sally." The audible defensiveness in his tone irritated him and he stretched his legs out a bit, squashing John against the side of the sofa.
"Ow!" John winced, rubbing his hip and Sherlock belatedly remembered knocking him into the hall table earlier.
He pulled his feet back again and put his mug down, curling onto his side. "I'm not a child!" he said, resentfully. "I am allowed out on my own."
John looked down at his petulant expression and shook his head as affection and exasperation pulled their gloves back on and settled in for another ten round bout.
"I don't think you're a child," he said. "I think you're a genius..." he waited a beat, "...who sometimes behaves childishly."
Sherlock huffed. "An important distinction."
Sherlock turned onto his back again, picking up his feet and dumping them in John's lap in what was, for him, a significant gesture of contrition.
John looked down. "You really are thinking hard if you've taken your shoes and socks off," he noted.
"My feet don't smell, if that's what you mean," Sherlock defended, closing his eyes again.
"No, I'm pretty sure I mean that I have observed," John emphasised, "that you sometimes take your shoes and socks off when you're thinking."
Sherlock's lips twitched. "If I were Anderson, it would be because I needed to count higher than ten."
"If you were Anderson, then I wouldn't be sitting here," John retorted. "Although you might have Sally instead."
Sherlock's eyes flew open. "Not the best choice of topic if you were hoping to sneak some food into me today," he pointed out, looked nauseous.
"You're the one who brought Anderson into it, don't blame me," replied John. "Anyway, I've only made one sandwich and it's mine. If you want one, you'll have to go to the shops." He picked up the plate.
"I don't have time to waste shopping!" Sherlock complained, eyeing the sandwich as John bit into it. Then his gaze fell to the other half still on the plate.
"No problem," John mumbled. "You're not hungry anyway. I'll go tomorrow."
"I know what you're doing."
"I'm eating my lunch. A trained monkey would be able to work that one out." He rested the plate on Sherlock's shins.
"I don't eat when I'm on a case."
"Who's asking you to?" John took another bite.
Sherlock watched him chew it. "Fine!" he grumbled, picking up the other half. "But only because I feel bad about bruising your hip."
John gave him a crumby smile and they munched for a while in companionable silence.
"The problem is," John started, as he washed down the last of his lunch with a swig of tea, "that someone was impersonating you while leaving the scene of a murder."
He'd picked the perfect time to make his point, as Sherlock had just taken a bite and enough of his upbringing had stuck to render him incapable of talking with his mouth full.
"If you'd walked in looking like the man that witness had just passed in the street, the whole morning would have gone very differently."
Sherlock was glaring at the last piece of sandwich in his hand, as if suspecting that John had deliberately silenced him with wholegrain bread.
"Lucky for you that it was Lestrade, and that he trusted you enough to tip you off. But if he'd asked me where you were at seven-fifteen this morning, what could I have said?"
Sherlock finally swallowed and opened his mouth to reply. Then he considered the question, gave John a small, smug smile and very deliberately ate the last of his sandwich instead.
He had barely finished when they heard Mrs Hudson at the front door and there was a commotion in the hall. John got up as Sherlock quickly put his socks back on. He was standing, a hand on John's shoulder for balance as he shoved his feet into his shoes, when Lestrade appeared in the doorway, with Sally close behind him and more figures visible on the stairs.
Sherlock arched a brow. "Two new expressions in one day," he observed. "Although this one looks less promising."
Lestrade stepped forward, reaching into his jacket. He fumbled briefly, then produced a document.
"Search warrant," Sally snapped, taking it from his hand and waving it under Sherlock's nose. He ignored her, but John took it, glancing at the details before looking back to Lestrade.
"Why?" he demanded sharply, and Lestrade found himself almost standing to attention at his tone.
"We found one of my warrant cards at this morning's crime scene," he replied. "It was tucked inside a cushion in the living room – we can only suppose that the victim managed to hide it there at some point."
John absorbed that for a moment, thinking how horrible it must have been for Lestrade to discover that it was trust in his identity which had led to all these deaths. "That doesn't explain why you're here," he pointed out, although he had a very bad feeling about where this was going.
"Yes, well it turns out to have Sherlock's fingerprints on the inside," Lestrade reported. "And as we didn't find it until after you'd gone…" He let his sentence trail off. "Add to that the witness description of the man seen leaving this morning…" He shrugged, looking torn. "I'm afraid this was unavoidable."
The three uniformed officers with him had already moved into the flat. They spilt up and started systematically taking the place apart.
Sherlock paced back and forth while John struggled to get his head around this latest development. After a couple of minutes, he planted himself in Sherlock's path. "So the killer has been here," he said quietly. "In our flat."
Sherlock's lips tightened. "Not necessarily," he murmured, for John's ears only. "I generally keep one in my coat – it's possible that someone pick pocketed me, just as I do Lestrade."
"So you don't even know if one's gone missing or not?" John's voice was incredulous.
Sherlock shrugged irritably. "Well Lestrade shouldn't make it so easy," he snapped, more audibly this time. "They're his responsibility, not mine." He ducked away from the look on John's face and resumed his pacing.
John turned his attention to Lestrade who was standing near the fireplace looking deeply uncomfortable – more so than John would have expected considering this was hardly the first time he'd had the flat searched.
"But you can't seriously suspect Sherlock of these crimes," he declared. "What possible motive would he have?"
"The ban cut off his main source of entertainment," came Sally's voice from the kitchen. "And psychopaths get bored."
"He's not a…" John gave up on the eternal argument with a grunt of frustration, and turned to more practical matters. "But this killer spends the weekend with his victims," he pointed out. "Whoever is doing it has been out of circulation from Saturday tea-time to Monday morning for the last five weeks – hundreds of people have seen Sherlock in that time. It's ridiculous!"
"John." Sherlock's voice was soft and John turned to see him shaking his head.
They maintained eye contact as Lestrade spoke again. "The theories on the killer's timings are based on Sherlock's deductions," he said. "If he is a suspect, then we have to ignore them."
John frowned as Sherlock gave him a resigned shrug. He had obviously worked this out well before Lestrade mentioned it. "But…" He was interrupted by a shout from Sherlock's room, then one of the officers appeared, carrying something at arm's length.
As she got closer to Lestrade, it became apparent that her 'find' was a wig. She stopped in the middle of the room and made a fist with one gloved hand, draping the wig over it.
John looked from it to Lestrade's hair and back, just as everyone else was doing. The style and cuts were virtually identical and Sally inhaled sharply, seeming genuinely shocked that they had actually found something to back up her accusation.
"Oh, for goodness' sake!" exclaimed Sherlock. "That's just one of a dozen wigs I have, and there's not nearly enough grey in it to match Lestrade." John looked again as Lestrade bristled indignantly. It was true - the hair of the wig was noticeably darker.
Sherlock turned on his heel and strode quickly to his bedroom, followed closely by John and Lestrade, with everyone else who could squeeze in peering over each other's shoulders. Reaching under his bed, he pulled out a large suitcase which he opened to reveal a theatrical costumier's wish list of wigs, make-up, glasses and an array of assorted items.
"I didn't know you had all this," John said, surprised.
Sherlock shrugged. "I've not used it in a while, but you never know," he replied. "It's been very effective on occasion."
"So, you're saying this wig is yours?" Lestrade asked, indicating the one held by Constable Douglas.
"Just one of many," Sherlock confirmed, waving his hand towards the suitcase.
"Er... it wasn't with the others, Sir." The constable spoke up. "I found it in the wardrobe."
Sherlock looked around the room pointedly, drawing everyone's gaze to the spectacular level of mess surrounding them. "I'm not the tidiest of people," he admitted. "You'll probably find several more in unlikely places if you keep looking."
Lestrade regarded him for a few moments, then turned and headed back to the living room. Everyone trooped after him, John chewing his lip thoughtfully. He was the last through the door and moved to join Sherlock in the middle of the room. "But, about the timing..." he started.
Lestrade shook his head, standing four-square in front of the fireplace again. "I'm sorry, John, but it won't fly - as long as Sherlock is under suspicion then any evidence he's connected to is tainted. Drugs in teacups found by him, browser history on laptops he's had access to, theories about phone calls which he's put forward, all that sort of thing is excluded. The only thing we can definitely go on at this stage is the actual time of death, which in most cases is vague to the point of 'any time on the Sunday'. Unless he was physically out of the country on one of those weekends, it's going to be hard to prove that he couldn't have committed the crime at some point of the day or night."
Sally interrupted this time, from her position near the kitchen doorway. "You can't ignore the wig," she insisted to Lestrade. "It ties in perfectly with his gaining access using your warrant card. So what if he has a suitcase of them? This wasn't with the rest and the style is too close to yours to be a coincidence, especially with the tinted glasses from the witness description, which would hide his distinctive eyes. And it's not just the evidence from today," she rushed on. "He refuses to suit up at crime scenes, which gives him an out if we find any trace from him; and you said yourself he knew the fourth victim was female before he could possibly have known any such thing."
Lestrade rocked on his heels, looking more uneasy than John had ever seen him.
"You know what the Super said," Sally pressed again. "One thing... if we found one thing to link him - well, it's right there." She nodded across the room to Constable Douglas, who was still holding the wig and Lestrade followed her gaze, then closed his eyes briefly. There was regret on his face when he turned towards Sherlock, and he started to reach inside his jacket.
"May I please be allowed to finish a bloody sentence?" demanded John loudly.
Lestrade halted his movement, making Sally huff out her breath in exasperation.
"Thank you," said John, sarcastically. "So, if it's proved that Sherlock couldn't have done one of these crimes, then he's off the hook for all of them and we can concentrate on looking for the actual murderer, right?"
"It's a serial case," agreed Lestrade. "All or none."
"There we are then," said John, with a shrug. "During the time period you gave for last night's murder, Sherlock was with me." He folded his arms decisively. "This victim was found sooner than the others, it's a smaller window of opportunity - only four hours according to what you said this morning?" He waited for Lestrade's nod. "Then I can absolutely guarantee you that Sherlock could not have committed that crime."
"So, you're giving him an alibi?"
"No," John replied, immediately. "No, I'm not giving him anything. He has an alibi. All I'm doing is reporting it to you."
"From ten o'clock last night until two a.m. this morning?" Lestrade clarified. "You were actually with him... not just that you didn't hear him go out - you were physically in the same room with him, for all of that time?"
John shrugged again. "Well, one or both of us probably went to the bathroom at some point," he replied, "if you want one hundred per cent accuracy. But I can promise that neither of us left the flat."
Sally's gaze kept flicking to Lestrade and she pounced at the first sign of wavering. "Sir, this is bullshit!" she proclaimed. "There's no way these two are..." She waved her arm, a disbelieving look on her face.
"Oh, come on," Constable Douglas murmured. "I mean... we've all wondered." There were nods all round.
"Are they offering Advanced Conclusion Jumping as part of police training these days?" John asked, in an impressive imitation of Sherlock's manner. "We fell asleep on the sofa, if you must know." He mentally swapped Friday night's events with Sunday's. "The important point is that Sherlock was here, in this flat, with me - and not off in Shoreditch murdering some poor woman."
Lestrade looked at him. "I'm sorry, John, but if you fell asleep, how can you be sure that he didn't go out?"
John squirmed a little but made sure his answer left no room for doubt. "Because he was lying across me," he said, for once glad of the colour he could feel rising in his cheeks, since it gave credence to his story. "When he did get up it woke me and my leg was completely dead, so he must have been there for hours. Also, he... er..." He broke off, his hand waving vaguely over his cheek but afraid Sherlock would never forgive him if he finished that sentence.
"He... what?" Lestrade challenged.
"I had an imprint of John's jumper down the side of my face," snapped Sherlock, irritably. "Which had clearly formed over some time. And I got up at four this morning, if that rounds out your picture of events." He glared at Lestrade, as if daring him to laugh.
"I don't believe it," Sally protested. "Snuggling on the sofa - him?" She nodded her head at Sherlock. "There's no way."
Lestrade gave her a look. "A jumper pattern on his face, Sergeant - really? Can you honestly imagine Sherlock making that up?"
She turned on John. "Are you saying the two of you are involved?" she demanded. "That you're a couple?"
"I'm not saying anything of the kind," John denied, realising that a little bit of vagueness on this issue would provide a perfect distraction. "I'm discussing Sherlock's location during a four-hour period of time, not satisfying your prurient curiosity."
There was a tap on the open door, then Mrs Hudson appeared. "Is everything all right, dears?" Her anxious gaze swung between Sherlock and John, then became disapproving as it moved over the police officers. "Not another of those nasty drugs busts? I don't know why you bother - you never find them."
"Anything," Mrs Hudson corrected quickly. "You never find anything." She looked flustered.
Sally jumped in. "Perhaps you can settle a question for us?" she asked. "Do you know if either of your tenants went out last night? Or early this morning?"
"Oh, yes, dear," replied Mrs Hudson. "I had a bad night last night - my hip, you know," she rubbed it, wincing, "and I did hear Sherlock go out very early this morning. Can't mistake him on the stairs," she added. "His legs are so much longer. Sorry, dear," she gave John an apologetic smile.
"What time, would you say?" asked Lestrade, looking tense.
Mrs Hudson tipped her head to one side, as everyone in the room seemed to lean slightly towards her, "Oh, it must have been... let me think... around six?" she offered. "Perhaps six-thirty. Something like that."
Lestrade exhaled as Sally pursed her lips. "What about last night?" she asked. "Between ten and two, specifically."
Mrs Hudson thought back. "Well, Doctor Watson was watching one of those loud action films," she said, "and Sherlock kept complaining about it."
Sally looked extremely doubtful. "Surely you can't hear that much detail from downstairs?" she demanded. "This is an old building and it's pretty solid."
"You're quite right, dear," nodded Mrs Hudson approvingly. "I only hear voices when they're raised. Like yours on Friday," she added. "You can be shrill, can't you?" Sally waved this away.
"But Sherlock complained with his violin," Mrs Hudson explained. "Which was quite... squawky."
Despite the situation, John couldn't help a smile as Sherlock huffed.
"So, what time was this?" Lestrade asked again.
"Oh, up until around half-past eleven," Mrs Hudson said. "I made my Horlicks and by the time I went to bed they'd settled down, although I think the telly was still on."
Sally tried again. "And are they involved with each other?" she asked. "I mean, have you seen any evidence of physical affection between them?"
Mrs Hudson regarded her as if she were a bit simple. "If you can't see that they're involved, then you need glasses more than I do," she retorted. "No matter what my optician says." Her face softened. "And they're very affectionate - although usually only when no one's looking. Why only the other day I..." she lowered her voice, rather pointlessly as there was breathless silence in the flat, "I accidentally walked in on them together," she murmured, with an apologetic glance in their direction.
John found it surprisingly easy to keep his expression bland, as his face seemed to have frozen over.
"They didn't see me," Mrs Hudson confided. "Completely wrapped up in each other they were." She smiled happily, and Sally watched as any remaining doubts held by the rest of the team vanished faster than unguarded doughnuts.
"Enough of this rigmarole," declared Sherlock, turning to Lestrade. "I trust that you now have sufficient grounds to discard the arrest warrant you clearly have tucked in your pocket."
He moved to stand behind John and put both hands on his shoulders as his gaze moved around the room, carefully making eye contact with every officer present. "I would ask that any information from this enquiry be treated confidentially in order to avoid John becoming more of a target." His voice dropped, acquiring a gravelly edge which made the hairs on several necks stand up. "If any harm comes to John through gossip from someone in this room... you will regret it." There was no doubting his seriousness, and muttered agreements and nods emerged from various directions.
Lestrade attempted to reassert the control which Sherlock had assumed so effortlessly. "So you are asking me to ignore the evidence which is piled up against you and to work on the assumption that you are being framed, based on the testimony of one man with whom you are clearly in a very close relationship?"
"I would think the word of a decorated war hero would carry sufficient weight with your Superintendent, don't you?" drawled a honeyed voice from the doorway.
Sherlock closed his eyes. "My day is complete," he announced.
"Hello, Mycroft," said John, uncomfortably aware of Sherlock's hands but not daring to shrug them off.
"John," Mycroft nodded back to him. "Well, Detective Inspector?" he continued. "Are we finished with this..." the pause was long enough for everyone to insert their own variation on 'foolishness', "... investigation?"
John held his breath. Lestrade clearly didn't want to arrest Sherlock - was looking for an excuse not to, in fact - but he wouldn't respond well to strong-arm tactics. The two older men locked eyes for a long moment, until Mycroft seemed to come to the same conclusion and adjusted his posture in a manner too subtle for John to identify, but which somehow switched him from 'threat' to 'enquiry'.
Lestrade made his decision. "Right, everybody out," he announced. "And no discussion of anything mentioned here today, understood?" He turned to Sherlock. "I'd be glad of your thoughts re the attempt to frame you," he said as the others filed past him, with Sally looking both sullen and bewildered.
Sherlock nodded. "I'll text you later," he agreed.
"Er, Sir?" Constable Douglas' voice rang out and Sherlock's hands tightened on John's shoulders. "What should I do with this, Sir?" She was still holding the wig.
"John!" whispered Sherlock urgently, but very definitely for his ears only.
Lestrade's gaze skittered away from the apparent nuzzling going on in front of him and he turned towards the constable, aware of a strong desire for a cup of tea and a jammy dodger. Maybe two. He glanced back - yes, this was definitely a two biscuit situation.
John cleared his throat and stepped forward, finally understanding that Sherlock had been holding on to him specifically anticipating this moment. "If you're not charging Sherlock with anything, then presumably he gets to keep his belongings?" he demanded, injecting some belligerence into his tone.
Lestrade sighed. "Yes, fine," he said quickly, waving his arm at the constable. "Leave it," he instructed. "Let's go." He risked a glance back at the pair of them, relieved to see them now standing at a more normal distance. "I'll talk to you later, then?" he said, and scuttled through the door.
The second he was gone, Sherlock swooped on the wig, picking it up on the end of a pencil and carrying it through to the kitchen, while Mycroft settled into an armchair and Mrs Hudson started fluttering around, plumping up random cushions. John didn't really know who to challenge first, but followed Sherlock by default.
"So... why did you want me to stop them taking the wig?" he asked, as Sherlock snapped on some latex gloves. "I thought it was yours, anyway?"
Sherlock shot him a pitying glance. "Of course it's not mine!" he said. "Why on earth would I have a wig which was an exact match to Lestrade's hair two years ago?"
"God knows," sighed John, rubbing his forehead. "But I wouldn't put it past you."
Sherlock's lips twitched. "Fair point," he acknowledged, "but no, it's not mine."
John felt tired and his head was starting to ache. "So why did you say it was?" he asked, aware that he was probably going to be ridiculed for not working it out yet.
Sherlock stared at him for a moment, then strode around the table and pushed him down into a chair, switching on the kettle in the same movement. "Mrs Hudson!" he called. "John needs tea," he advised as she appeared in the doorway. "Probably biscuits too, if we have any."
She didn't argue, and he went back to work. "If I'd admitted that the wig wasn't mine," he said, picking it up and examining the inside, "the police would either have believed me - and taken it away for examination," he produced his magnifier and peered closer, "or not believed me - and taken it away for examination." He glanced up at John. "And no doubt taken me away too," he added. "And it might have seemed suspicious if I had made a fuss myself when it had supposedly just been lying around - you did an excellent job of seeming concerned about the principle rather than the item."
John felt warmed by the unexpected praise, and took a mouthful of the tea Mrs Hudson passed him, giving her a smile of thanks as she put Sherlock's drink on the table and handed a cup to Mycroft, who was now leaning against the doorway. Then he focused on her a bit more pointedly.
"What was that about?" he asked. "'Accidentally walked in on us' indeed - where did that come from?"
Mrs Hudson set her own teacup down and sat beside him, folding her hands together primly. "Well, dear, I thought your alibi could do with a bit of back-up," she told him. "I heard you when I was coming up the stairs." She shook her head. "I know a thing or two about dealing with the police, let me tell you. And they always want corroborating evidence." She sipped her drink.
John goggled at her.
"I didn't lie, if that's what you're worried about," she promised him blithely. "It's always better to stick to the truth as far as possible, isn't that right, Sherlock?"
"Well, it worked for us in Florida," he smirked, then paused and looked at her, turning his attention away from the wig for a moment. "You have something, don't you?" he asked, watching carefully as her hand twitched almost imperceptibly. "Something in your pocket... Oh!" He frowned. "Do NOT show that to Mycroft!" he insisted. "In fact, you should delete it immediately." He watched her face, then sighed. "Fine - but keep it to yourself." He turned back to his microscope. "I suppose you can show John."
John wondered if he'd somehow nodded off for a large portion of the conversation and not noticed. He turned to Mrs Hudson and raised an eyebrow in what he hoped was an enquiring manner, but probably just looked bemused.
She pulled her mobile out of her pocket and poked a few keys then handed it to him. John squinted at it, then turned it sideways, taking a moment to register what he was seeing... It was a photo of their sofa, with John fast asleep in the corner, one leg stretched out across the floor and the other up on the cushions - at least, it was presumably on the cushions... it couldn't actually be seen at all as Sherlock was draped over it, with one hand tucked under him and the other holding a handful of John's jumper. Only the back of his head was visible and John's arm was draped loosely around him.
"'Completely wrapped up in each other'," John echoed softly. He looked up, reluctant admiration in his eyes. "You sneaky..."
"Careful, dear," Mrs Hudson warned, with a smile. "I'd only popped up to make sure everything was all right after that big row on Friday, but the two of you seemed to have made up - even if there was no kissing." She winked at him.
John turned and waved the phone towards Sherlock. "Have you seen this?"
He shook his head without looking up.
"Do you want to?"
"Emphatically not," he replied. "And put it away before Mycroft gets hold of it." He raked a glance over his brother. "Best hide the biscuits too."
John swivelled in his seat to see Mycroft standing up straighter. He caught John's eye.
"My turn?" he asked, stepping forward and pulling out the end chair. He settled onto it and smiled benevolently. "I was notified when the arrest warrant was issued for Sherlock," he explained. "That's what brought me here - an arrest would be very bad for his business."
Sherlock sniffed. "You mean Mummy would have a conniption," he said. "And she'd blame you for not preventing it." He was still poised over his microscope, examining the wig in careful detail.
Mycroft sighed and John jumped in before the squabbling could start. "So now we know that the killer has definitely been in our flat," he reasoned. "The warrant card might have been managed, but stashing that wig is another matter."
"Agreed," said Sherlock. "Although I doubt it was Moriarty. Probably a minion."
John shook his head. "Moriarty again?" he asked. "Why are you so sure?"
"Think about it, John!" Sherlock demanded, throwing a quick glance at him. " I accept that an ordinary serial killer might be unrelated... but who else would have this level of interest in me; have the resources to break in here undetected; go to such trouble to have me arrested and get me out of the way? It's got to be him - or someone connected to him."
John decided not to get into the definition of an 'ordinary' serial killer. He rubbed his aching head again and looked at Mycroft. "Well, don't you have some kind of surveillance?" he asked. "I mean, you're probably not supposed to have, but surely you do? You might have him on film or something."
Mycroft shook his head regretfully.
"You asked the same thing when Carl Powers' trainers appeared in the basement back in March," reminded Sherlock. "He's not allowed to keep me under surveillance - I told you that."
"Oh, yes," recalled John. "You never said why, though."
"Didn't he?" Mycroft interjected. "You surprise me, John - the two of you being so close." His smirk had 'revenge for the biscuit jibe' written all over it.
Sherlock growled at him. "Fine," he snapped, glancing up at John again. "Mummy made him stop. She decided that some of my more destructive behaviours were put on for his benefit."
"You mean drugs?" asked John.
"Among other things..." muttered Mycroft darkly.
"That's enough!" Sherlock straightened up and glared at him. "Clearly the killer, whoever he is," he flashed a sardonic glance at John, "is interested in me and is capable both of murder and of getting in here." He turned his gaze to Mrs Hudson and his face grew serious. "You need to leave."
She looked startled and began to shake her head. Sherlock moved round the table and crouched down next to her chair, taking both her hands in his. "Martha," he said, his voice gentle but firm. "I don't care about many people and John can look after himself. But I care about you."
Even having seen him make almost the exact same move with Kate this morning, John could not doubt his sincerity now.
"Just for a few days," he promised. "A little break..."
"In the country," Mycroft finished. "You don't need to do a thing, a car will pick you up in... an hour?" he suggested. "Would that suit?"
"Oh, Sherlock..." She sounded distressed and John put a hand on her shoulder.
"Please," said Sherlock, holding her gaze. "I'll work better if I'm not worrying about you."
She looked back at him for a long moment, then up at Mycroft and around to John, all three of them regarding her with concern and affection, then she nodded and Mycroft rose to his feet, pulling out his phone.
"What about my nephew?" she asked. "He got home a few hours ago."
"Your nephew too, if you wish," Mycroft offered. "He can accompany you." He hit a few buttons, then moved into the living room, talking quietly.
Sherlock rose to his feet and Mrs Hudson did the same, pinning on a brave smile before leaving to pack her case.
When Mycroft walked back into the kitchen, Sherlock offered his hand. Mycroft's eyebrows rose half a millimetre in an expression of extreme surprise but he took it, a genuine smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.
"Thank you," Sherlock said.
"You are quite welcome."
"Group hug?" suggested John. His laughter at their equally horrified expressions broke the tension and they all sat down around the table.
"So... Would you like to bring me up to date?" Mycroft enquired. "Assume that I know anything which has appeared in a police report," he added, to a fair amount of eye rolling.
"The killer himself seems autonomous," Sherlock began. "His victim selection is consistent, as is his method - I think he's more or less acting alone." He glanced at John and shrugged. "But I also think he's linked to Moriarty in some way, just as that cab driver was. He is perhaps getting some sort of funding or assistance from the deal, and Moriarty is using him to throw suspicion at me - to break my ties with the police even if he can't get me out of the way completely."
Mycroft nodded slowly. "And his method?"
"He's been getting in using one of Lestrade's old warrant cards and disguising himself accordingly. Presumably it's one I lifted, as it has my prints on it, and I would estimate around two years old, judging from the level of grey if the wig is designed to match it. He's been assisted so far by the press and police describing these as Sunday attacks, meaning that people haven't been on guard when he strikes at dusk on the Saturdays.
"What he does for the whole weekend, I still don't know, although I have several ideas. He seems to kill them at some point on the Sunday evening, but it's possible he's staying until early dawn on the Mondays, then putting on a different wig which matches my hair, before leaving. As carrying a complete change of clothes would look suspicious, he must have a coat which is sufficiently like mine to fit a verbal description, but which wouldn't look out of place on a plain-clothes policeman. It's also got big enough pockets to hold a wig, together with tinted glasses, his murder weapon and whatever else he needs for his ritual."
"You have a problem," Mycroft pointed out.
John thought that was a bit of an obvious call, but Sherlock was nodding.
"I know," he said, then turned to John. "He's either stopped or he's going to change his method," he explained. "Lestrade assumed that the victim hid the warrant card, but as they found the wig here, the killer almost certainly planted the card as well. So he's lost his entry method, unless he has duplicates - but the public might be warned about it, and there will certainly be publicity regarding the Saturday entry..." He spread his hands wide. "The rules are changing."
"And motive?" Mycroft enquired. "Presumably something to do with infidelity, judging from the victims selected."
"Indeed, but that hardly narrows the field," Sherlock complained. "How many people do you know who aren't affected? Even leaving out the three of us, one need not look far - Mrs Hudson's nephew tried to commit suicide over his wife's betrayal, our next door neighbours split up after an affair, and the police force is completely riddled with it - even the ubiquitous Hopkins mentioned that his father had 'gone off with' someone. It's sickening."
John was distracted. "I wonder why Hopkins wasn't here today," he said. "I would have thought he'd jump at the chance to poke around your stuff - probably go off with all sorts of souvenirs."
Sherlock wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I imagine that Lestrade didn't trust him," he said. "If he'd found something doubtful, he would probably have asked me about it first."
"Good point," acknowledged John. He thought a little more. "Sally was weird," he said. "I mean, I know she's very anti-you, especially lately, but I'm still surprised she genuinely thinks you capable of this."
"I'm not sure she does," Sherlock said thoughtfully. "Not really... She looked astonished when that wig turned up." He shook his head. "No, I think she was just doing her usual 'he's a freak' act up to that point, but then she was thrown, and reacted aggressively." He shot a look at John with an odd expression on his face.
"I'm afraid it was the alibi which really deepened her suspicions," he said. "Well, the rather... personal aspect, at least." He watched the colour rise in John's cheeks. "Her instinct told her that was a lie, which is interesting as everyone else seemed happy to accept it." He gave a half smile. "Perhaps Sally is not quite such an idiot as the rest."
"Well, I must take my leave," said Mycroft, getting to his feet. He picked up his umbrella and hung it over his arm. "I realise that there is no sense asking you to be careful," his gaze was steady on Sherlock, then moved to John as they both stood up, "but do stay together, won't you?" He nodded in farewell and departed, leaving an awkward silence behind him.
John bit his lip. "I'm sorry if I've embarrassed you," he started. "It's just the thought of all the evidence you've worked on being dismissed and there being no one capable of catching this murdering bast..."
"Shut up," Sherlock told him fiercely. "What you did..." He broke off, shaking his head. "I would never have asked it of you, but it was..." He stopped again. "Thank you," he finished.
John relaxed, the tension seeping from his frame as a smile spread over his face. "You're welcome," he replied, clapping Sherlock on the shoulder before heading into the living room, where he sank down into his armchair and tried not to imagine how he would be feeling now if things had gone differently; if he had been left on his own.
"You still manage to surprise me sometimes," Sherlock said, moving to his own chair.
"Well I've already killed for you," John pointed out. "To balk at a lie after that seems a little ridiculous." He sat forward and adjusted his cushions, which Mrs Hudson had plumped beyond all reason.
"Anyway, it wasn't much of one," he added. "I couldn't get to sleep last night and heard you puttering around down here for well over an hour after I went to bed - and then there was the violin playing, which I eventually nodded off to, so I do know you didn't go out."
He looked up just too late to see Sherlock's reminiscent smile - Bach always did send John to sleep.
"But that didn't seem much use as an alibi, so I swapped it with Friday night."
Sherlock quirked a brow. "That was actually very... intelligent of you," he said. "A genuine memory is far more convincing than a false one." John's face brightened at the compliment and Sherlock regarded him in some bemusement. "It's perhaps strange in the circumstances, but I would not have expected..." He tipped his head to one side. "Is there anything you wouldn't do for me?"
John settled back and closed his eyes, folding his arms across his stomach and getting comfortable. "Well, I'm not getting you another bloody cup of tea, if that's what you mean."
Sherlock's lips twitched, but then he swallowed. "Actually," he said, before stopping to clear his throat. "Another cup of tea would be lovely."
John threw a cushion at him.
Chapter 12: A Changing of Rules
"Why don't you go to bed?"
Sherlock's voice jolted John from the light doze he had fallen into and he shifted awkwardly. His armchair seemed to be progressing from 'comfortable' to 'crippling' as time went by.
"I'm fine. You carry on."
"Carry on what? I'm lying on the sofa, trying to think through the distraction of your spine creaking."
"Sorry." John sat forward and rolled his shoulders, yawning widely.
Sherlock sighed and swung his legs around to sit up. "Look, I appreciate what you're doing but you're going to be a wreck tomorrow at this rate. It's very unlikely that the killer will strike again so soon."
John's mouth tightened stubbornly. "You said the rules were changing."
"It really bothers you, doesn't it?" Sherlock regarded him curiously. "Even such a small lie, it's sitting on your conscience like a lead weight."
"I don't regret it," John promised. "But yes, I'd prefer to be able to answer truthfully next time. God forbid there is a next time," he added.
Sherlock stared at him for a minute. "Fine." He got to his feet and headed for his bedroom, from where various banging and clattering noises soon emerged. After a few minutes he called out, "Come on, then."
"What?" John's head was still rather fuzzy but he recognised a summons when he heard one and ambled towards Sherlock's room, stopping in the open doorway to find him pulling off his shirt. "What?" he repeated, running an automatic eye over Sherlock's slim figure and relieved to find him not quite as gaunt as he had feared - it seemed all the sneak feeding efforts were paying off after all.
Sherlock grabbed a T-shirt from the wardrobe and pulled it on before changing into pyjama trousers. He waved a hand towards the bed, which was now miraculously free of clutter. "I can think just as well in here," he said. "Make yourself comfortable."
John briefly considered propriety but the concept seemed alien to Sherlock and, after the army, just sharing a room was a trivial matter. He flopped down on the right hand side of the bed and Sherlock wrapped up in his dressing gown then stretched out beside him. After a moment, John reached out a hand. "This is pointless if you can leave without disturbing me," he observed. "May I?" He closed his fingers around Sherlock's wrist.
He heard the movement as Sherlock turned his head. "I was debating offering handcuffs," he said. "Your fingers will relax when you fall asleep."
John smiled into the semi-darkness, remembering long nights spent armed and ready for trouble. "No, they won't."
It was several hours later when he woke to find himself lying on his side, pressed up against Sherlock and with one leg thrown out pinning him down. Sherlock was trying to tug his wrist away and John let go immediately, rolling onto his back. "Sorry."
"Let's just pretend that was your gun, shall we?" Sherlock's voice sounded constrained.
"What?" John was confused, then realisation dawned and he snorted. "That's my phone, you idiot." He pulled it out of his jeans pocket and waved it under Sherlock's nose.
"Oh, thank God."
John dissolved into giggles and, after a moment, Sherlock's deep chuckle joined in.
Eventually they calmed and Sherlock stared up at the ceiling, his eyes still slightly crinkled in amusement. "You know, I think you're the only person who can make me laugh at myself," he said.
John turned his head. "It's because you know I'm laughing at the joke and not at you," he explained, something about the situation allowing thoughts to escape which he would normally internalise. "You're aware that a lot of popular references go over your head, and it's not as if you care, but it can make you defensive. Sometimes you rebuff people because you're afraid they're taking the piss, when they might not be at all."
He watched as Sherlock's face smoothed out. "Laugh lines," John said. "They can be my gift to you - what you get out of this relationship." He gave a rueful smile. "While I get bags under my eyes and a perennially worried expression."
They lay in silence for a while, then Sherlock spoke again. "Relationship?"
John closed his eyes, feeling sleep creeping back to claim him. "Well, whatever you want to call it."
"The alibi you gave me was rather ambiguous," Sherlock commented. "Especially once Mrs Hudson chipped in."
"And you can't take it back, even once the case is solved. I tried to limit the gossip, but people will talk."
John gave a half shrug. "Who cares what people think? They can think what they like. They do anyway." He yawned and stretched his hand out across the bed. "Best give me your wrist back before I nod off. Just shove me if I start crowding you again."
Sherlock hesitated. "So it's not something you... I mean, I did accept the alibi, so one could argue that I have a duty... no, that's not the word - I mean, I should perhaps offer..." He trailed off.
John rolled onto his side and peered through the gloom. "What on earth are you going on about?"
There was an audible swallow from his left, then Sherlock took his hand, but this time lacing their fingers together.
John froze, abruptly wide awake as understanding dawned. He tightened his grip for a moment to remove any sting of rejection, then gently pulled his hand free.
"But you don't want that," he said. "And neither do I."
He could see Sherlock's relief in the angle of his neck as he exhaled.
"You can read every expression that crosses my face - why would you even think...?" John frowned in confusion.
"I didn't," Sherlock said, still looking up at the ceiling. "At least, not since our first conversation at Angelo's all those months ago," he added. "But I... You seem to... care. And I am not accustomed to analysing affection when it is directed towards myself. It occurred to me that I may have misinterpreted..." He shifted awkwardly. "As I said - not really my area."
John wasn't sure what to make of this strange offer, but the pomposity of Sherlock's speech suggested a high level of uncertainty. It seemed like a good time for some clarity and plain talking.
"Sherlock - pay attention, all right, because I'm only going to say this once." He waited until Sherlock rolled over to face him. "I... well..." He gritted his teeth, for once regretting being so damnably English. "I love you, OK?" he got out at last. "In a completely platonic and non-sexual way. You're my best friend."
Sherlock opened his mouth, then closed it again.
"What?" John asked.
"You corrected me when I said that. You told Seb 'colleague'."
John gaped at him. "Bloody hell, that was ages ago! I thought you deleted trivia so as not to clutter up your hard drive?"
Sherlock huffed. "You can hardly be classed as 'trivia'," he pointed out. "I live with you."
"So... what? You remember every little thing I've ever said? That's ridiculous."
Sherlock didn't reply and John sighed. "Look, I didn't mean anything by it. The thing with Seb - who was a complete tool, by the way - I just wanted to make it clear that I was there to help... to work, not just to..."
"Look pretty?" suggested Sherlock, who was smirking at the 'tool' comment.
"Shut up." John remembered how careful Sherlock had been with his introductions ever since and wondered if that one casual correction had actually bothered him all this time. "Has that bothered you all this time?"
The pause while Sherlock debated his response was short but still long enough to make any other answer an obvious lie. "Yes."
"Well bloody well ask in future, OK?" John demanded. "God! We're friends, all right? I won't think any less of you if you occasionally ask about the one per cent of information that you can't deduce for yourself."
Sherlock rolled onto his back again, but the smile was clear in his voice. "So, we're fine."
"Good. That's good."
There was silence for a while, then Sherlock sighed. "You can ask," he said. "You'll never get to sleep while you're thinking so loudly."
"Sorry," John apologised. "But you kind of threw me for a loop there, I didn't think you even... I mean, I've been here ten months and there's not been anybody, I figured you just weren't interested in... that kind of thing."
"I'm not," Sherlock confirmed. "Doesn't mean I'm incapable."
"It's just... messy, unnecessary - I don't need it." He glanced quickly at John, then away again. "Especially now."
"Why especially now?" John asked, never afraid of posing the obvious question.
Sherlock raised both arms and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Am I actually talking about this?"
"You don't have to," John reassured him. "I mean, I can't deny that I'm curious, but I won't push if you're uncomfortable." He watched as Sherlock lay there, looking unusually vulnerable. "But... you don't talk to anybody, do you? I mean... you can trust me. If you want to."
Sherlock barked out a laugh as he dropped his hands. "The English gift for understatement," he said. "John Watson can be trusted by Sherlock Holmes." He turned his head. "I do know this."
John had to take a deep breath to contain his pride and Sherlock smiled at him, then shook his head.
"What is this?" he asked. "We don't talk like this normally."
John smiled back. "It's the middle of the night," he pointed out. "It's dark. We're in your bedroom, in an oddly intimate situation which has arisen purely circumstantially. Things don't feel entirely real."
"Interesting," Sherlock acknowledged. He turned back onto his side, tucking a hand beneath his cheek. "The couple of occasions when I tried to be..." he scrunched his face up a little, "more normal," he disclosed the word like a shameful secret, "I... it wasn't..."
"It wasn't what you wanted?" John guessed.
"I... No," Sherlock admitted. "I put on an act, because I wanted them to accept me... to like me." His lip curled in self-disgust. "But the more easily they were fooled, the less their opinion mattered, until I didn't care enough to bother any more."
"Was one of them married?" John asked. "Just something you said about being a guilty secret," he explained, at Sherlock's look.
"Not my proudest moment," he admitted.
"And this was what you were offering me, was it?" John asked, trying to keep the hurt out of his voice. "Membership to the exclusive club of people you've shagged, then grown to despise?"
"No!" Sherlock looked startled. "You're not... No. Never. I just meant that I could do that, if it was what you wanted. I mean, I'm not some innocent or anything, it wouldn't necessarily be a big deal to me. When I was using, there were... I mean..." He shrugged, looking away. "I've deleted most of it."
John was frowning. "But, you're so prickly and... hands-offy," he said. "You nearly jumped a mile when I hugged you the other day."
Sherlock looked uncomfortable. "I wasn't ready," he said. "You hugged me, not... I wasn't prepared for it."
"Prepared..." John echoed, honing in on the key word with his usual acumen. "How do you prepare?" There was no response. "Do you mean you... switch yourself off, somehow? Distance yourself?"
Sherlock's eyelids flickered. "Distance is a good word for it," he acknowledged. "I'm there, but I'm essentially absent - I deal with pain the same way. Anything physically unpleasant."
John stared at him. "Don't you ever do that with me," he instructed fiercely. "You don't have to hug me if you don't want to, or touch me at all. You be yourself, do you hear me? Completely and absolutely yourself. I don't want half a Sherlock." He reached out instinctively, then quickly pulled his arm back. "Promise me," he insisted.
"I promise." The deep voice sounded a little dazed.
"Don't you want to categorise me?" Sherlock asked. "Asexual, celibate, gay, straight - you haven't even asked about the two people I..."
John was shaking his head. "Labels are for people you don't know," he replied. "Useful for statistics, or clinical diagnoses. Friends don't fit in boxes." He smiled. "You are Sherlock, you are unique, and you're just fine the way you are." He paused "Better than fine. Although you look tired." His eyes narrowed as 'doctor-mode' clicked on. "Why don't you sleep for a couple of hours?"
"I might," Sherlock conceded. He reached out and picked up John's hand, closing the fingers around his own wrist. "Don't worry - I'll still be here when you wake up."
John stifled a yawn, flexing his fingers. "Is this OK?" he asked.
John's eyes drifted shut, but then he popped one open again. "You are still here?" he checked. "I mean... not absent?"
"I am completely here."
"Are you going to tell them about the wig now?" John asked the next morning, as they walked into Scotland Yard.
"No point." Sherlock shook his head. "All I got off it were a couple of my own hairs snagged into the lining, as is no doubt only to be expected since the killer intended it to be found."
"He must be really pissed off that you haven't been arrested," John reasoned. "I bet he thought that was in the bag, after the ID and the wig."
"Exactly," agreed Sherlock. "Hence removing Mrs Hudson, as he seems focused on me. Let's hope his anger leads to mistakes."
John's feet faltered on the stairs. "Is that why you haven't complained about my shadowing you?" he asked abruptly. "Am I protecting you or are you watching over me?"
"Can't we do both?" asked Sherlock, over his shoulder. "Come along, John," he prompted, descending a step and grabbing John's upper arm, tugging until he started moving again. "Two birds with one stone - what's the problem?"
John stumped after him. "I don't want to be a bloody bird," he grumbled. "I'd rather be the stone."
"We're both birds," Sherlock pointed out as he swung open the stairwell door.
On the other side, Lestrade looked startled by the announcement but clearly decided not to ask.
"Right, good morning," he said. "I was just coming to meet you." He waved them towards his office, indicating the file in his hand. "We've been checking on criminals who might have a grudge against you, other than Moriarty. Come and see what you think."
"Waste of time," said Sherlock.
"What?" Lestrade glanced round, distracted by John's sudden cough.
"I said 'That's fine'."
They were half way across the room when Sherlock abruptly stopped and rounded on two women who were chatting by the water cooler. "What did you say?" he demanded of the taller one, who started in alarm.
"I... nothing! We weren't even talking about you!" she defended. "Were we, Linda?"
Linda shook her head as John and Lestrade glanced at each other.
Sherlock waved the excuse away. "Repeat your words," he insisted.
"Go on, Heidi." Lestrade nodded at her.
"We were just talking about the next Quiz night," Heidi told them. "This is the second time Sally's ducked out of organising it. It's her turn and there's no sign of her."
Sherlock was pulling out his phone. "Would she normally be in by now?" He turned to Lestrade, who checked his watch.
"Well... usually," he acknowledged. "But she might be working on something; she might be down in filing..."
Sherlock was pressing keys, then raised the phone to his ear. His expression was serious and Lestrade took an abrupt pace backwards, then turned to face the room.
"Has anyone seen Sergeant Donovan this morning?" He spoke loudly and heads turned in their direction, but no one nodded. "Sally Donovan," he repeated, once the room was quiet. "Anyone seen or heard from Sally?" Blank faces surrounded him and he turned back to Sherlock, who shook his head.
"Her phone is off," he reported. Lestrade paled.
"She might just be busy," John suggested. "Driving, or something. Or forgotten to turn her phone on this morning?"
"Sally never turns her phone off," Sherlock and Lestrade answered together. They looked at each other.
"Give me five minutes." Lestrade held up a hand, then moved into his office and reached for the landline.
"Send the nearest car round to her flat," Sherlock called after him. "Now."
John frowned. "Er... isn't it a bit premature to be panicking?" he asked. "She could be anywhere."
Sherlock looked at him. "Sally never turns her phone off," he repeated. "You must have heard Anderson complaining about it?" He started pacing up and down as Linda and Heidi hurried away, promising to check with other colleagues.
"That's why I texted her instead of ringing, back in September," he added. "She always forgets to put it on silent and she'd gone to check out a lead. I didn't want to risk calling attention to her when she might be in a compromising situation." He swirled round again, muttering to himself.
"But... hang on a minute," John was struggling to catch up. "That's the reason you didn't phone? Why the hell did you never say anything?" He stared in disbelief. "You let them ban you!"
Sherlock waved his arm dismissively. "It would have made no difference," he said. " I blame her; she blames me - the family are still dead. Anyway, it's irrelevant now." He stopped walking and stood still for a moment. "Why did I not anticipate this?" he demanded, raising a hand to his temple. "As soon as I heard those women talking it clicked. Stupid. Stupid!"
"Hey," soothed John, quite startled by his agitation. "She's probably fine. OK, so she doesn't normally switch her phone off, but things have been very hectic lately - maybe she forgot to put it on charge? Or maybe she... I don't know, dropped it in the loo, or something?"
"No, no... it all fits." Sherlock turned away again to glare through the glass wall of Lestrade's office and tapped his watch pointedly. Lestrade was still on the phone but he nodded and held up a finger in a 'just a minute' gesture.
"Who has been the most outspoken against me these last couple of months?" Sherlock questioned rhetorically. "Who could easily have been seen visiting and heard shouting last Friday? The most obvious thorn in my side - whose death would spur the police into immediate retaliation." He shook his head. "She even fits the damned victim profile thanks to that blasted incompetent she can't seem to shake off." He strode over and banged on Lestrade's window. "Come ON!"
Lestrade emerged moments later. "Right, she was here quite late last night," he advised. "Went home around eight, but took some work with her. No one's heard from her since, although I've not yet got hold of Anderson. A car should reach her flat in around ten minutes, but I think we..."
"Let's go," agreed Sherlock.
They were just crossing the main foyer when Anderson bolted out of the lift. "What's happened?" he demanded. "Someone said Sally had disappeared - is that true?"
"We don't know anything yet." Lestrade made calming gestures with his hands. "We're going to check her place now. When did you last see her?"
"Not since Friday," he replied anxiously. "I was off yesterday and away for the day, then at weekends... well, we don't generally..." He trailed off. "Have you called her?"
"Her phone is off," said Lestrade.
"I'm coming with you."
There were two uniformed officers on the doorstep of Sally's flat, but no other signs of activity. "There's no answer, Sir," they reported, as Lestrade's group approached. "And the door's pretty solid - we'll have to get a ram if you want to break it."
Lestrade looked at Sherlock. "I don't suppose you could..." He looked embarrassed as he indicated the door.
"Well, I could," replied Sherlock. "But it seems pointless when Anderson probably has a key." He stood to the side as Anderson jumped to attention and started patting his pockets, eventually coming up with a result.
"Give me five minutes before your lot trample any evidence?" Sherlock suggested, his gaze sweeping over the hallway as the door swung open, but Lestrade shook his head.
"After what happened yesterday? I'm not letting you out of my sight in this flat - and it's for your own sake too, so don't give me that look." He followed closely as Sherlock stepped through the doorway. "The rest of you wait here," he instructed over his shoulder.
They found nothing: no Sally, no indication of a struggle or disturbance - in fact nothing to indicate that anyone else had been there at all. When Lestrade gave the all clear, the others trooped in, Anderson looking around in disbelief as if he expected her to appear at any moment.
"This is your fault," he accused Sherlock suddenly. "If anything happens to Sally, it will be because she's your enemy."
Sherlock curled his lip. "Sally is not my 'enemy', you unutterable fool!" He turned to Lestrade. "Get hold of her phone records."
"Already on it." Lestrade moved to the sofa, picking up the stack of notes Sally had clearly brought home to work on. "These are current, so she definitely made it home last night," he reported. "I've requested a record of journeys made using her Oyster card, but that will take a while to come through."
John watched as Sherlock started pacing up and down, virtually fizzing with tension and... something like outrage. "So, you think the killer has taken Sally?" he prompted. "How would he do that? I mean, Sally's no pushover." He thought about it. "Still, I suppose if someone came to the door with a gun..."
"No, no," Sherlock shook his head. "Didn't you see the safety chain? She wouldn't have opened the door to a stranger. And no one's been in here - the carpet in the hallway has a deep pile, you can even see which way she vacuums it. The only footmarks showing before we came in were size six and if the killer is my height there's no way..." He turned and paced in the other direction.
"No, she came home," he looked towards the door, "put her work down on the sofa..." His eyes were tracking the route he described, as if he were picturing Sally's movements. "The files were on the middle cushion and the end seems to be her customary seat..." He glanced at Anderson, who nodded.
"So she goes and makes a drink," Sherlock continued, eyeing a coaster on the end table which bore a ring mark, "kicks off her shoes," he looked at the carpet, perhaps recalling scuff marks since trodden over, "then curls up and starts going through her work..."
He stepped back, bringing his palms together in a familiar move. "And at some point she goes out... and doesn't return." Anderson made a choked noise, but Sherlock ignored him. "There's no sign of the clothes she was wearing yesterday, either in her room or in the laundry basket, so she didn't get changed, which suggests last night rather than this morning. No indication of food preparation or takeaway boxes in the kitchen, so probably sooner rather than later."
"So, she went to him?" John asked. "Why would she do that?"
"And why would she go anywhere without back up, without even calling in?" added Lestrade from the sofa. His mobile rang and he pulled out a notepad and pen as he answered.
"Yes, go ahead." He looked up and mouthed 'phone records', then started jotting down times and numbers.
Sherlock looked over his shoulder as he wrote, and immediately jabbed a finger against the first entry.
"Hold on," Lestrade spoke into the phone, then looked up. "What is it?"
"That's a redirect number," Sherlock indicated the 070 code which headed the list. "That's the last number she dialled?"
"I'm sorry - what's a redirect number?" asked John.
"A phone number which cloaks your details," explained Lestrade. "Calls to it are automatically transferred on but the caller has no way to discover the real number. Sally called this one at nine-fifteen last night and was on the line for just under four minutes." He looked at Sherlock, who was dialling the number.
"Disconnected," he reported.
Lestrade spoke into his phone again. "Get on to the cloaking company for that 070 number," he instructed. "Find out where it was redirecting to." He hung up, then grimaced. "It won't be quick."
"Unlikely to be helpful anyway," said Sherlock. "It's just a delaying tactic - he probably used a disposable mobile."
"So you think that was the killer?" John queried. "She phoned the killer and he... what? Convinced her to go out somehow, on her own, without telling anyone - then snatched her?" He frowned. "Aside from anything else, how did she get the number?"
"Exactly," Sherlock agreed, then turned to Lestrade. "Is there a list of messages in there?" He indicated the pile of Sally's notes. "Calls to be returned?"
Lestrade checked through the pile. "No, and that's a little odd," he acknowledged. "I would have expected there to be."
"She might have..." Anderson broke off as everyone turned to him. "If it was just a sheet of paper, and she was holding it while walking up and down, talking on the phone - you know the way she does..." Everyone nodded as he swallowed. "Sometimes she puts things behind the clock," he finished.
Sherlock was at the mantelpiece in two long strides and produced a handful of documents which he quickly flicked through and then promptly replaced, shaking his head.
"Nothing," he said. "She probably took it with her."
"But as John said," Lestrade spoke up, "why on earth would she go? What the hell could he have said to her?"
Sherlock glanced at Anderson, who was now staring miserably into space. "Possibly something to do with me," he suggested, his mouth tightening. "If someone claimed to have evidence against me - proof that I'd lied, or been somewhere I shouldn't - Sally would have jumped at it. Particularly after the search yesterday."
"And she wouldn't have wanted me to find out, as I'd specifically ordered her to drop it," acknowledged Lestrade. "Not until she had something definite, anyway. But surely she would have told somebody?"
Everyone looked at Anderson, who seemed to snap back into awareness. "What?" he asked, not having followed the conversation at all.
"Are you sure Sally didn't phone you last night?" Lestrade asked him. "Or send a message of any kind?"
He shook his head. "No, I took my wife out for the day and we got back late. Sally knew not to call."
Lestrade got to his feet and looked at Sherlock. "Right, so we don't know where she went and we don't know who's taken her, but can you have a stab at..." He broke off as everyone flinched at the phrase. "I mean, why? OK, I suppose she does fit the victim profile," he didn't look at Anderson, "but everything else is wrong - it's not the weekend, they're not in her home, he didn't come here... what's going on?"
"The rules have changed," murmured John, and Lestrade's head snapped round to him.
"I'm afraid the killer may have moved on to his end game," Sherlock said.
"What are you thinking?" asked Lestrade.
Sherlock grimaced. "I'm thinking that if the idea is to murder Sally and frame me for the crime, then either she's safe for as long as I'm publicly visible, or..."
"Or she's already dead."
Artwork for this chapter:
Chapter 13: A Tightening Net
"Don't try to move."
Sally lay still, keeping her eyes closed and trying to push down the nausea which rose in her throat.
"Impressive," said the voice. "You're the first one to obey me so quickly; I have a new respect for police training."
Don't panic. Assess your situation. Sally forced herself to concentrate past the fog in her head. There was tape across her mouth. She was on her back on what felt like a bed, hands tied uncomfortably behind her. She tested the restraint: soft material but the binding was strong, there was no give in it.
"You might feel sick, but I would recommend that you fight against it," he told her. "I will not be removing the tape until you understand the rules, and I believe that choking on your own vomit is a particularly unpleasant way to die."
He obviously knew she was awake. Sally blinked open her eyes, but everything was blurry, her head ached and she felt disoriented. She tried to cast her mind back but it was difficult to think past the awareness of how horribly vulnerable she was. There were flashes... the phone conversation, the evidence that had seemed almost too good to be true - clearly was too good to be true. Coming here… his apparent nervousness, as if he regretted having got in touch at all. Having to convince him to talk to her, promising that the police would protect him if he testified, even suggesting they had 'a nice cup of tea'… Oh, how he must have laughed as he drugged her.
A hand stroked the hair back from her face and she automatically tried to jerk her head away. The fingers tightened in her hair immediately, the pain sharp enough to scatter her thoughts.
"Oh, no you don't," he reproved. "I don't have as much time to spend with you as I did the others, but still enough to teach you to play nice."
His grip eased and Sally's vision gradually cleared until she could focus on his face and see the cold eyes gazing back at her, the expression he wore looking bizarrely out of place on his almost boyish features.
The bile rose again and she pushed it down, flexing her legs and surprised to find them unbound. He was perched on the edge of the bed and she tensed her abdominal muscles - if she could sit up sharply enough to headbutt him while he was leaning forward, perhaps she had a chance…
There was a sharp scratch against the side of her neck and Sally froze.
"Not so obedient after all," he said, amusement in his voice. "I can see you're going to be fun."
She tried to reconcile his words with the nervous voice she had heard on the phone and the apparently harmless man whose trap she had so arrogantly walked into, but it was virtually impossible.
"So… the rules," he spoke again as whatever had been pressed against her neck was removed. "Soon, I will remove the tape from your mouth. When I do so, you will not make a sound. You will not scream, yell, or in any way attempt to draw attention to yourself. Not that there's anyone to hear you, but these are the rules and you will obey them."
Sounds like there IS someone to hear, thought Sally, or at least, there could be. Her natural stubbornness helped to tamp down the panic she could feel clawing at her composure.
"If you fail to obey," he abruptly raised his arm to display a hypodermic needle, "you will be unconscious within seconds." He moved his hand, dragging the tip of the needle up the side of her neck, and Sally couldn't help flinching away from it. "It's just an anaesthetic, you will wake up," he assured her, a smile twitching at the edge of his mouth. "But you will wake up without your tongue."
Sally's eyes widened and she swallowed, reminding herself that none of the victims had been mutilated in any way – he must be bluffing.
"It's funny," he continued in a conversational tone. "The first time I made this threat I was actually quite nervous about it." He chuckled softly. "All that blood, you know; the thought of going through with it was rather gruesome." He smoothed her hair back again, apparently lost in his thoughts, then refocused on her horrified expression. "Although I would cauterise it, naturally," he added, as if that should pacify her. "I have a little blowtorch," he confided.
Sally closed her eyes, breathing as deeply as she could through her nose and trying to block out the images which went with his words. She absolutely could not afford to panic in this situation.
He leaned forward again. "But by this point," he murmured, "having killed five people in a fairly bloodless way… I'm actually quite hoping someone tries it." He was speaking right into her ear now and Sally shuddered. "Perhaps this will be my lucky day, hmm?" he whispered, then pulled away.
"So, what do you think?" he asked. "Should I remove the tape?"
"You understand the rules?"
She nodded again.
"Well… we'll see how you do," he told her, and his fingernails scraped against her cheek as he picked at the edge of the tape and then pulled it clear.
Sally turned her head, trying to wipe off the sticky residue against her jacket. He apparently didn't intend to kill her straightaway, so it seemed wise to play along and hope that an opportunity would present itself.
"Water?" he offered and she nodded again. Her mouth felt horrible. His arm slipped beneath her shoulders and he pulled her up into a sitting position then raised a cup to her lips. She hesitated.
"No drugs this time," he said. "Hardly need them, do I? Not now that I've got you all helpless."
Sally grimaced and started drinking, her eyes roaming around what looked like a spare bedroom. There were no personal touches and it was very plainly furnished, with just the double bed she was on, a chest of drawers and a dressing table with an upright chair in front of it. The curtains were heavy plum-coloured velvet, the walls a slightly lighter shade and she couldn't tell whether it was daylight or not; illumination came from a bare bulb hanging overhead and her sense of time was completely shot.
"So, have you worked it all out yet?" he asked, lowering her down again. "Fitted the pieces together?" He waited, then added, "You can talk."
Sally cleared her throat. "People know where I am," she claimed, her voice raspy and hoarse. "They will come to find me."
He laughed softly. "Oh, really?" he asked. "And how is it that people know where you are… when even you don't know that?"
The implication that he might have moved her farther than just to a different room added to the helplessness which was already threatening to overwhelm her. She listened hard but couldn't hear anything beyond the occasional faint drone of traffic noise.
"Well, I told them where I was going," she said, lifting her chin. "They will find you from that, at least."
"Even if they never find you? How very public-spirited." He raised an eyebrow. "And who did you tell, exactly? Not the police, as your boss specifically ordered you to stop trying to build a case against Sherlock Holmes."
Her surprise must have shown on her face.
"You're not a quiet lot, are you?" he mocked. "If you have arguments right outside busy cafés, then people will talk."
Sally shifted uncomfortably, remembering Lestrade's stern words after the search. "So, it's been you all along." It wasn't a question. "But why try to frame Sherlock?"
"Right under his nose," he gloated. "So much for genius. It's actually quite easy to fool him. He assumes everyone is an idiot anyway. So long as you don't do anything to draw his attention he dismisses you as beneath his interest."
Sally frowned as his attitude reminded her disconcertingly of Anderson's; these were just the sort of sentiments he expressed all the time. It occurred to her to wonder how much her own perspective had been influenced by the constant drip drip drip of suspicion and negativity.
"But why target me?" she asked, looking for an angle. "Aren't I the one police officer actually on your side when it comes to him?"
He snorted. "If you're trying to convince me that you relate to my situation and that we can work together, then I'm afraid you're on a losing wicket," he said. "I accept that I may not be entirely sane by this point, but I'm certainly not that crazy." He smiled, but it wasn't a pleasant expression.
"You are perfect," he murmured, leaning forward and stroking her hair again. "A police officer... can you imagine the outrage? The pressure to name the killer after your death will be overwhelming." Sally tensed her jaw and forced herself not to react either to the hand or the threat. "Someone who fits the established criteria for the whole string of crimes, and his greatest enemy on the force - you're an absolute gift."
"I'm not his enemy," Sally denied, holding back the epithet which wanted to attach itself to the end of her sentence.
"Is that right?" he challenged. "Well, you were certainly quick enough to chase evidence against him, weren't you? Didn't take much to make you abandon any safety concerns..." His voice became high and nervy as he launched into an exaggerated version of their phone conversation. "Oh, detective, I just don't know what to do... I've seen Sherlock Holmes sneaking out at all hours of the night, but I'm so afraid... He's just so clever, and the police all seem to be on his side... You're the only one I can trust!"
Sally wanted to kick herself but he was right: she had automatically accepted him as a witness rather than a suspect simply because of where he lived. Events of the last week refocused in her mind and it struck her as ludicrous now that she had ever thought Sherlock capable of this. She had been so against him since September, constantly egged on by Anderson, and had almost been relieved when he became a suspect and her aggressive behaviour seemed justified.
"Changed your tune now, have you?" he asked scornfully. "I don't know why. It's not as if he cares about you... he doesn't care about anybody."
"You're wrong," Sally contradicted, continuing before he could interrupt. "Oh, not about me perhaps, I won't argue that one, but there is one person he cares about... one person who has his attention... one person he would move heaven and earth to find."
He rolled his eyes. "I suppose you mean John Watson," he said. "Well, you're deluding yourself - he treats him just as badly as anybody else. Worse in many ways."
Sally's instinct was to argue, or even to laugh, but the last thing she wanted was to make John a target. "I'm not talking about John," she said, smiling as he looked taken aback. "I think I'm finally getting it. It's not so much that Sherlock doesn't care about the victims; he just doesn't focus on them at all... Right at this moment, his entire concentration, the full power of that ridiculous brain, is aimed squarely at you."
He grabbed a handful of her hair again, forcing her head back. "Would you bet your life on it?" he asked nastily.
Sally gritted her teeth. There was nothing she could do - she was bound and helpless at some unknown location, at the mercy of a man who had already murdered five people and clearly intended her to be next. She would obey his demands, but she was damned if she was going to beg.
"He'll try to save me, but I'm not his main concern. My life is irrelevant to him," she acknowledged. "But yours isn't." She bared her teeth in the closest she could manage to a grin. "There is nowhere you can go, nothing you can do. He may be a bastard, but he's a sodding genius and he will find you."
The vicious slap caught her unawares and she had no time to ride the blow, which left her head ringing as he got up and stalked away from the bed. "You are a fool to provoke me," he warned. "I haven't hit one before... that's not what these weekends are about."
"It's not the weekend," Sally murmured, watching him through narrowed eyes.
"What?" he demanded, then shook his head irritably. "I know that!" He took several deep breaths and seemed to calm himself. "It's not wise to provoke me," he repeated.
After that display, Sally tended to agree. She didn't know what time it was, or if anyone would yet be looking for her, but humouring her attacker and keeping him here for as long as possible seemed like the best course of action. "So, what are the weekends about?" she asked, making her voice gentle and submissive. "Why don't you explain it to me?"
He regarded her suspiciously, then moved back towards the bed, although this time he went to the other side and Sally tensed as he climbed on and lay beside her.
"Oh, don't worry," he said scornfully. "I don't have any designs on your non-existent virtue." He coughed, then pushed himself along until he was propped up slightly, leaning back against the headboard. "I'd sooner fuck a leper."
Sally could have said the same, but kept her mouth shut.
"You people," he scoffed. "Always complaining about your lonely weekends, having to spend 'date night' without your significant others - who are actually other people's significant others - it makes me sick. Look at me when I'm talking to you!"
The last words were hissed and Sally wriggled round onto her side so that she could see him. The position relieved the pressure on her arms and reminded her that she still had a fair range of movement. She started to contemplate lurching back off the bed and making a run for the door, even though it was on his side of the room. A glance showed that it wasn't quite closed properly.
He made a tutting noise and she raised her head to see him holding up the syringe. "Don't bother," he said. "Unless you want me to get to use my blowtorch at last." He leered at her. "Not trying to escape would be another of the rules, in case you thought the pluralisation was accidental."
"And are there any more?" Sally asked. "I wouldn't want to break one accidentally."
He smiled slowly. "That's a better attitude," he approved. "I'll let you know as we go along."
"So... the weekends?" she reminded. "I take it that spending the weekend with them is important?"
He shrugged. "I give them what they say they want," he said. "A weekend of companionship. We watch TV, cook, do the dishes, whatever they like... I never leave their side." His smile was wrong in more ways than Sally could quantify. "And they never leave mine."
"You have to stay here." Lestrade's tone brooked no argument. They were back at Scotland Yard and preparing to go out in search of Sally.
"I most certainly do not," replied Sherlock, as Lestrade's 'command voice' went completely over his head. "I will see a dozen times more from any clue than the rest of you put together."
"That may be so," acknowledged Lestrade. "But, by your own admission, your being publicly visible may be the only thing keeping Sally alive." He broke off and rubbed a hand over his face, then looked back to Sherlock. "Do you think she is still alive?" he asked, his voice much quieter. "Honestly."
Sherlock frowned. He didn't want to get stuck at Scotland Yard, but couldn't bring himself to lie to Lestrade about this. He tried looking away from him, but it didn't help. "If the killer is still focused on framing me, which seems likely, then I would have to say 'Yes'," he answered reluctantly. "I haven't been apart from John for more than ten minutes since you left the flat yesterday."
Lestrade relaxed very slightly. "And is there anyone else who can confirm that?" he asked, his gaze moving to John.
"Not really," said John. "We went to Angelo's for a late dinner, which you can check, but otherwise we were just at home."
"Your landlady, perhaps?"
John shook his head. "Sherlock sent Mrs Hudson away for a few days and her nephew went with her. At least, I assume he did - he was invited."
"That's a bit suspicious, isn't it?" Anderson butted in. "Getting your landlady out of the way. Sounds like you're up to no good, if you ask me."
"No one ever asks you," snapped Sherlock.
"Sherlock was concerned, actually," John spoke up. "Moriarty wouldn't think twice about using Mrs Hudson - he's a complete psychopath."
Anderson opened his mouth, but John pre-empted him. "Don't," he warned, and his 'command voice' trumped Lestrade's by some margin. Anderson subsided, but not for long.
"Pity he couldn't spare some of that concern for Sally," he sneered. "If he's such a damned genius, then why didn't he see this coming? She's only a target in the first place because of him."
"You little shit!" John had had enough. "I'm just about sick to death of you lot treating Sherlock like crap but still expecting him to pull a rabbit out of his arse whenever you snap your fingers." He took a step towards Anderson, who hurriedly moved behind the desk. "It's not his fault Sally fits the victim profile, is it, you unfaithful bastard?"
"Er... is this a bad time?" Everyone looked round as Hopkins tapped nervously on the office door.
"Come in," invited Lestrade emphatically. He turned to Sherlock. "You are staying here, in this glass walled office. Feel free to take the occasional walk around the premises in case somebody is watching, but no farther than the foyer. I still have that arrest warrant and don't think I won't use it."
Sherlock frowned. "I'll stay with John," he offered, edging sideways to be nearer both John and the door. "As long as I'm not alone and unobserved, she should be safe."
Lestrade shook his head. "Publicly visible," he quoted, "and John is already your alibi for the fifth murder. If this is an organised attempt to frame you then Moriarty, or whoever is behind it, will want him out of the way. If the two of you go off on your own then you're just asking for him to be knocked on the head."
"Then he should stay here," responded Sherlock promptly.
"And have you drag him into another of your mad schemes? I don't think so," said Lestrade decidedly. "John can come with me."
His attention moved to Hopkins. "Sherlock is to stay at Scotland Yard," he instructed. "I'm hereby leaving you in charge of him. He can move around the building and help on the case, but he does not leave the premises, do you understand?"
Hopkins' face held a mixture of alarm and excitement and Sherlock groaned. "My very own puppy," he muttered to John.
Lestrade was levelling a stern gaze at Hopkins. "I am serious," he said. "Sergeant Donovan's life may depend on this. Do your job." He paused. "Or I will have your badge."
Hopkins swallowed, then stood up straighter and nodded. "Yes, Sir." He glanced nervously at Sherlock, who rolled his eyes.
"Right, then." Lestrade briefly clasped his hands together, then indicated the door. "Shall we?"
"I'll be right behind you," said John. "I just need a quick word..." he nodded towards Sherlock, who sighed and moved across to the window.
"Oh, do the lovebirds want a moment together?"
"Shut up, Anderson," snapped three voices in unison. Hopkins looked as if he would join in if he thought he could get away with it.
"Yes, right," agreed Lestrade. "Go on, Anderson," he pointed to the door. "Hopkins, with me." He ushered them both out, then paused in the doorway and looked back at John. "I'll just brief this lot." He nodded to a group of officers standing nearby. "Five minutes, all right?" He left them alone.
Sherlock was facing the window. "Where are you even going, anyway?" he asked, his gaze idly following the traffic on the street below.
"No idea," John admitted. "We'll probably just run around like headless chickens, but I honestly don't think Lestrade could cope with sitting around while one of his team is missing."
Sherlock grunted and John shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. "Look, I know you class catching Moriarty as your number one priority..."
"Now who's remembering every little thing the other's ever said?" Sherlock asked, turning around with an eyebrow raised.
John ploughed on. "And I know you don't want to stay here while 'the game' is on..." he trailed off again, looking incredibly uncomfortable.
Sherlock threw himself down into a chair with a huff. "I'll have my guard dog," he pointed out.
"Guard puppy," amended John, then shook his head. "Hopkins is no match for you, Sherlock... no one is." He didn't bother saying any more. Sherlock knew full well what he wanted.
"So... what? You want a promise? A promise that I'll stay here and do as I'm told?"
John sighed. "I want you not to risk Sally," he said. "There would be no coming back from that." He walked over and leaned against the desk in front of Sherlock, who had his head down sulkily. "If it came down to ending Moriarty's life at the cost of someone else's... well, I already know your choice in that situation, don't I?"
Sherlock's lips tightened at the reference to the pool, which was something of an avoided topic.
"But don't risk Sally just for a chance," John continued. "Please, Sherlock."
"Stay with Lestrade."
"You heard me. I'll stay here if you stick with Lestrade. Take it or leave it."
"I'll take it."
"Fine," John echoed. "Good." He watched as Sherlock stared moodily at his shoes. "I can look after myself, you know. You said as much yesterday."
"He took you before," Sherlock pointed out. "And Lestrade's right, damn him - Moriarty will need to break that alibi, which puts you in the firing line. Although he might just try to discredit you," he added, his expression brightening. "A fake accusation from a patient, child pornography on your laptop, something like that."
John gasped and Sherlock looked up, taking in his appalled expression with a sigh. "Death before dishonour, eh?" He shook his head, then moved his foot a little to kick against John's shoe. "Do you think I'd let anyone do that to you? I upgraded your firewall months ago."
John exhaled, then kicked him back. "Well don't bloody well say things like that, then!"
"Er... you ready?" Lestrade was in the doorway, not quite looking at them.
John straightened up. "See you later."
He took a step towards the door, then stopped. Sherlock regarded him curiously, seeing the tension in his spine.
"Sorry, just having a Star Wars moment," John said, then turned back to look at Sherlock. "Not helpful, sorry. It's an expression they often use in those movies," he explained.
"'I've got a bad feeling about this'," Lestrade volunteered. "I know what you mean."
Sherlock rose smoothly to his feet, straightening his jacket and fastening the button. "Don't hang about then," he said briskly, clapping John on the shoulder as he herded him towards the door. "Bring on the puppy."
John smiled, somehow pacified by the contact in a way which Sherlock was only dimly beginning to understand. Hopkins started hovering but Sherlock ignored him, watching John as he walked away and noting his more relaxed posture. Touch, with no ulterior motive... it was a novel concept. He shelved the thought for now.
Three hours later Sherlock had toured the building twice and shaken off Hopkins several times... although never for long. It was as if the lad were on an extendable lead and just kept springing back to heel.
After the first hour of streaming trivia, Sherlock had explained the concept of cluttering up the hard drive and Hopkins now seemed reluctant to tell him anything at all. That was a big improvement until the phone rang and he didn't immediately pass on the information, instead screwing up his face as he tried to mentally distil it down to as few words as possible. The snap of Sherlock's fingers under his nose broke the floodgates.
"Transport for London just left a message for D. I. Lestrade," he reported. "They've got the records from Sergeant Donovan's Oyster card - she exited the Underground just after ten o'clock last night..." he looked away uncomfortably, "... at the Baker Street station."
She's dead. The words echoed in Sherlock's mind as the route to that conclusion appeared like an illuminated street map in his brain. She's dead and I know where. He was aware of a fierce anger, together with something less familiar, but he pushed the emotions down ruthlessly and considered his options.
He would inevitably be arrested as soon as Sally's body was found, and quite possibly even convicted of these crimes despite the lack of a reasonable motive: there would undoubtedly be more faked evidence at the scene and if the killings now stopped, that might be enough to convince a jury. He could feel the net tightening around him.
Hopkins was regarding him oddly and Sherlock snapped back to attention. "Where can we view the CCTV footage from the Underground?" he demanded. "We need to see who swiped Sally's card."
"Er..." Hopkins looked startled, but rallied quickly. "The incident room?" he suggested. "That has all the..."
"Fine," interrupted Sherlock. "I'll set it up - go and get the footage and find the exact time her card was used."
"But..." Hopkins was wavering.
"Get a move on!" Sherlock raised his voice. "Didn't you hear Lestrade? Sergeant Donovan's life hangs in the balance, there's no time to waste!" He started heading for the stairs. "I'll meet you down there." He heard a faint 'Yes, sir' as the door swung shut behind him.
Five minutes later, he was in a taxi and headed for home. His only hope of avoiding arrest was to identify the real killer before Sally's body was officially found, which meant getting there first and deducing the scene down to the last detail. However much trouble he would be in, producing a viable suspect would resolve most of it. They knew so much about the killer by this point, from his physical appearance down to the opportunities he had, his motivations, which must be rooted in his personal history, his movements over the last few weeks... all they needed was a name and the rest should fall into place.
For a brief moment Sherlock rested his head against the window, picturing John's face when he found out about this. He sighed. Win or lose, police custody would probably be the safest place for him, because John would not be happy at being excluded again, but there were some situations Sherlock just had to handle alone. Like with the pool... John would never have allowed him to risk the missile plans back then, not when they were of 'National Importance'. (He gave the words a small mental eye-roll.) This time - he thought back over the last few days - this time, John would probably stand with him whatever the cost, but that knowledge was a mixed blessing. Breathtaking on a level he hadn't really had time to consider yet, but also inhibiting because it meant that he couldn't ask... it would be grossly unfair to drag John down with him into this situation.
He stared through his own reflection in the glass as he refocused and started analysing the facts which had brought him here. Of course, it would have been easy to lure Sally to Baker Street - where else would she be so confident of finding evidence against Sherlock Holmes? And there could be no better way to counteract his alibi. He recalled his words to Lestrade that he hadn't been apart from John for more than ten minutes. Well, ten minutes would be enough if he only had to go downstairs, wouldn't it? He could have killed Sally while John was in the shower.
Moriarty had been ahead of him each step of the way, so quick to take advantage of every opportunity, even Mrs Hudson and Peter's sudden absence. And he would no doubt dispose of the actual killer as soon as Sherlock was in custody since he wouldn't want to risk the murders carrying on. Time was running out.
The taxi pulled up and Sherlock quickly paid and then moved to his front door, opening it quietly. He stepped into the hall and listened, but there was no evidence of any other presence or activity as he walked directly to the door of 221C, pulling out his lock picks and getting to work.
The creak as he pulled it open sounded loud in the silence of the house and Sherlock froze for a moment, but everything was quiet as he descended the stairs. He glanced quickly into the other rooms but kept moving, sure that Sally would have been left in the bedroom for consistency with the other crimes.
Allowing himself no time to prepare, he gritted his jaw and pushed open the door... then felt his expression blanking as a feeling of shock pervaded his system, reminding him of the moment when Moriarty had thrown the memory stick into the pool all those months ago and crumbled his hypothesis into dust. It had happened again... all his theories based on one pivotal mistake...
Sally was alive. Alive and on the bed, lying flat on her back with her arms up over her head, wrists tied together and fastened to the headboard. There was tape over her mouth and a bruise across her face, but she looked otherwise unharmed.
Realisations sparked and span in his brain like Catherine wheels as the depth of his error became apparent. If Sally had not yet been killed, if the night before had been problematic or simply too soon for the killer's taste, whatever the reason... her life had never been so endangered as it was right now, with Sherlock here to take the blame for it.
There was no use wishing that he had spared the time to collect John's gun. Awareness of danger was prickling along his spine, but he couldn't leave Sally down here. He strode quickly over to the bed as his gaze darted around the room, his ears straining for any sound, although it was difficult to hear over the noise now coming from Sally as she struggled to talk through the gag. Her eyes were wide and alarmed and she was shaking her head in agitation as he unfastened the knot attaching her to the headboard.
As soon as her arms were free, she brought them down to his chest and tried to push him away, her feet scrabbling for purchase on the bed, but Sherlock ignored her, reaching for the tape over her mouth and yanking it off.
The stinging pain in his calf came just as Sally gasped out her warning.
"He's under the bed."
Chapter 14: An Elimination of Assumptions
"What do you mean, you've lost him?"
John looked round in concern as Lestrade barked into his phone.
"Hopkins, how can you lose a six foot drama queen in a building full of police officers? He's hardly unobtrusive, for God's sake!" Lestrade had sat forward in his agitation and now lurched sideways as the car cornered a little sharply. "Watch it!" he snapped to the driver.
John pushed him upright. "When?" he hissed, and Lestrade held up a hand as he tried to cut through the stream of excuses from the other end of the line. John pulled out his own phone and called Sherlock but it rang out and then went to voicemail. Of course, that didn't mean much - Sherlock only ever answered the phone if he felt like it.
"Nearly two hours ago," Lestrade reported, hanging up on Hopkins in disgust. "There's some story about CCTV footage - we can check it when we get back."
"No message from Sherlock, I assume?"
Lestrade pulled a face. "I suppose it's a bit hard to leave a message without giving away the fact that you're about to do a runner."
"Right." John grimaced. "Look, drop me at home, will you? It's virtually on the way. I'll meet you at the Yard in a bit."
"I thought you were supposed to stay with me?"
"Deal's off," John told him, firing off a quick text saying he'd be at Baker Street in a few minutes. Sherlock was generally more likely to respond to texts than to phone calls, but there was no answer to this one.
"Call me if you find him?" Lestrade requested.
"Absolutely," agreed John. "And ditto."
As they approached 221B, John could see someone knocking on their front door. His first thought was that Peter must have come back early and without his key, but as he got out of the car he saw that it was actually their neighbour, with his blond hair tucked under a baseball cap.
"All right, Tim?" John greeted briskly, hoping to avoid being drawn into conversation. "I think Peter's away, if that's who you're looking for." He raised a hand in farewell as Lestrade departed.
"Really?" Tim looked taken aback. "He'd asked me to give him a hand this afternoon - I've been knocking on this bloody door for five minutes." He pulled a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose. "And he's supposed to give me Mrs T.'s drill back," he complained. "Typical!"
John had his keys out by this time and he didn't want to hang about. "I'll get him to give you a call when I see him, OK?" he offered. "Might be a few days though." He got the door unlocked.
"Mrs T. is not going to be happy," Tim fretted. "You don't have a key for the basement, do you? I could just nip down and get it."
"Sorry," said John, edging into the building.
"I might leave him a note," decided Tim, still standing in the doorway. "Have you got a pen?"
John made a show of patting his pockets, but was already retreating towards the stairs. "Look, there's one on the hall table." He pointed to it. "Knock yourself out; I've just got to collect something." He ran up to the flat, but there was no sign of Sherlock, and a quick check round revealed no indication that he had been home since they left that morning.
"I'll just leave the note here," Tim's voice wafted up the stairs. "Thanks, John. See you."
"Bye!" John yelled back, hearing the front door bang.
He went up to his own room and retrieved his gun, tucking it into place at the small of his back, then headed back down to the living room where he stood for a moment in the familiar space, trying to see things through Sherlock's eyes. What on earth had made him break his word and why hadn't he phoned, or at least texted? He could hardly have been taken by force from Scotland Yard. Had someone got in touch with him, perhaps made threats? He made a mental note to ask Lestrade to check Sherlock's phone records, although that was probably already in hand.
His gaze fell on the skull, thinking of the way Sherlock rolled his eyes now every time John looked at it. He walked over and picked it up. No drugs. He shook his head at himself and set it down again, catching a glimpse of his grim face in the mirror as he turned to leave. Where are you, you mad bastard? He ran back down the stairs and went out to hunt for a taxi - they were always much more elusive when Sherlock wasn't with him.
"Wake up, wake up!"
Sherlock groaned, automatically trying to move away from whatever was nudging into his ribs so forcefully. He heard a gasp, then there was a sudden weight against the right side of his chest.
He blinked, forcing his brain back on-line and peering down at a mass of dark curls, then the weight was gone as Sally raised her head and looked at him. She had clearly been crying, there were mascara tracks all down her face, and her right eye was swollen and half closed. The tape over her mouth must have been reapplied but she had managed to mostly dislodge it. Her cheek was red where she had rubbed it against... he looked down, noting traces of adhesive on his shoulder.
"Never mind your bloody jacket, get your brain in gear," she hissed.
Sherlock quickly took stock. As far as he could tell, he was in an identical position to that which Sally had been in when he walked into the room, except he was on the side nearer the door. He was flat on his back, there was tape over his mouth and his arms were tethered over his head. He tested the restraint but it was solid. He tipped his head back and saw that Sally's wrists had also been reattached to the headboard, but she had managed to squirm round and was now kneeling on the bed next to him.
"This is the first time he's ever left me and he won't be gone long," she muttered. "He even comes with me to the bloody toilet!" Her face paled. "Oh God, he'll probably make us all go together now..."
"Mmmph!" complained Sherlock urgently and she refocused.
"Right. Sorry. He might just kill us before then, anyway." She closed her eyes for a moment. "Oh, God... Right. Deep breath. Come on, Sally." She eyed the tape over his mouth, then her gaze moved up to meet his and she shrugged. "No other way."
She started to lower her head, but then halted abruptly. "You have to be quiet," she warned, and the fear in her voice caused Sherlock's eyes to narrow. "You don't know what he's..." She broke off. "Promise me."
He nodded impatiently and she frowned but carried on; he felt her teeth grazing his cheek as she tried to pick at the edge of the tape without success. After a few attempts, she sat up again.
"It's too stuck down. He keeps re-using the same strip with me."
Sherlock rolled onto his side to give her a better angle and she tried again at the other end, exhaling in relief as she managed to get the corner raised enough to grip it firmly in her teeth and tug it back, then she sat up, pulling the tape completely off before dropping it over the side of the bed.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly, peering round at the long narrow scarves binding them to the headboard.
She nodded. "I don't know how long you've been unconscious, probably only a couple of hours but I could be miles out, it's hard to keep track. He said it should be another hour before you woke." She giggled suddenly. "Guess you put all those drugs to good use." Her giggles died away in a hiccup and she looked stricken.
"You're doing well," Sherlock told her. "Stay with me."
She gritted her jaw and nodded. "Sorry. I feel like I've been here with him for ever." She took a few deep breaths. "Will you...?" She leaned forward and he bit into the end of tape that was hanging from her face while she sat up again. "That's better."
Sherlock spat out the tape and finished examining their restraints, discerning that they would not quickly be unfastened. The headboard was old, solid wood and they were secured to a thick pole which ran along the base. He tensed his muscles and pulled, but to no avail.
"Tell me what you can." He tried to sound reassuring, though he felt a little out of his depth with a Sally who wasn't shooting venom at him.
She inhaled deeply, throwing a nervous glance towards the doorway before wriggling back down until they were lying facing each other.
"Well, he injected you with anaesthetic and you went down pretty quickly. He wasn't kidding with the 'out in seconds' thing," she said. "I got off the bed and tried to support you, but you're heavier than you look - you fell back against the wall, then just kind of slid down it. Do you remember this?"
"I remember you calling my name... then nothing."
She nodded. "By that time, he'd crawled out from the other side. He made me help get you onto the bed." Her face grew pinched.
Sherlock frowned as his gaze moved to her swollen eye. "You tried to fight him."
"I'm a police officer," Sally said by way of reply, then her shoulders sagged. "It didn't do any good. He tied you up and..."
"Skip ahead," Sherlock instructed. "Why and when did he leave?"
Sally swallowed. "He got your phone," she nodded to his coat which was draped over the chest of drawers, but Sherlock didn't look round - he'd already noted everything in the room. "He switched the ringer back on and listened to your messages, but didn't seem bothered. Then there was a text a few minutes ago and he just re-tied me, stuck the tape back on my mouth and dashed off. But he said he wouldn't be long." She looked at him hopefully. "Does D.I. Lestrade know where we are? Will they be coming?"
Sherlock pursed his lips and Sally's mouth fell open.
"You came here on your own? You're supposed to be clever!"
"I could say the same thing to you," Sherlock snapped. "Well, the first part," he added.
She glared at him.
"Hold that thought," he instructed. "We're less likely to be used as leverage against each other if we appear to be enemies." He gave her a small, slightly rueful smile. "Shouldn't be a problem for you."
She opened her mouth to protest but he carried on. "Have you had contact with anyone else? Have you seen Moriarty?"
There was a sudden stifled cough from the doorway, and a voice asked, "Who's Moriarty?"
Sally's eyes widened in alarm but Sherlock blocked her out. Mid-cough and muffled behind a hand, the voice was too hoarse to be recognisable, but the tone had held a note of genuine puzzlement which threw him completely off balance. He frowned in concentration as everything realigned and he pushed his mind past the drug-induced sluggishness, wanting to know what he'd be facing before he turned around.
He took Moriarty out of the equations in his head and viewed what remained as a new and discrete data set, removing the bias from his previous conclusions and slotting the evidence into place. The gaps in the puzzle abruptly assumed familiar shapes and Sherlock closed his eyes for a moment, his expression pained. Damn, John had been right all along: this obsession had clouded his judgement from the outset.
"Hello, Tim," he said, and rolled over.
"Better late than never, eh?" Tim replied, moving swiftly round to Sally's side of the bed. Sherlock twisted to keep him in view as he grabbed a handful of her hair and tipped her head back, then there was a flash of steel as he brought a blade to her throat. He held Sherlock's gaze. "Stay quiet," he warned and Sherlock's eyes widened in understanding.
"The text was from John. He's here." He listened hard, but no sounds from upstairs reached the basement.
"Well done. Now shut it," Tim snapped and Sally bit back a whimper as his grip tightened painfully. She couldn't see what he was holding, but she could feel it cold against her skin. Her eyes rolled as she tried to focus on Sherlock, but she could barely see him with her head at this angle. She found herself staring at the wall instead and suddenly knew where she was, her mind flashing back to the previous week and Peter emerging from the basement at 221 and offered her a paint-spattered hand to shake. The wall was the same colour.
"Don't worry, he won't risk it," Tim murmured to her. "You're both tethered, I could stab the pair of you before John even got the door open." He smiled, bending lower over Sally but keeping his eyes on Sherlock. "He knows I'm going to kill you anyway, but he won't sacrifice his life for such a small chance to stop me. He'll wait for a better opportunity."
Sherlock kept his face impassive and his mouth shut as they all dimly heard footsteps on the stairs and then the front door slam. Sally bit her lip as silence fell on the house once more and Tim released her and straightened up, moving to the foot of the bed.
"Those are hairdressing scissors," Sherlock observed, looking at the weapon in his hand. "They're expensive and specialised and can quite likely be traced to you."
Tim smirked, twirling them rapidly on his fingers as Sally tried to focus on them. "Oh, indeed," he agreed. "They are very expensive. Molybdenum steel, convex blades with razor sharp edges... over three hundred pounds these cost me. That's why I put in an insurance claim when they went missing a few weeks ago." He raised an eyebrow. "I wonder who could have taken them? Perhaps a neighbour?" Sherlock grimaced.
"Hairdressing scissors," Sally echoed, following the motion of the blades as Tim now rhythmically flicked them open and closed. "Why...?"
"He's a hairdresser," Sherlock interrupted. "Obviously." He was watching Tim closely, noting the way his mouth twitched at the rudeness to Sally. "The perfect place to gather gossip," he continued. "I'll bet that in every office where a victim worked, there'll be someone who had their hair done by Tim, or at least at the same salon. It's an invisible link," he conceded. "We could have dug into the victims' lives for years and never found it."
"But why suddenly start killing people?" Sally asked.
"Why don't you explain it, Sherlock?" Tim invited, his tone dark and angry. "You're the one who knows everything, after all."
"His husband left him," Sherlock told her. "Found another man."
"Adrian didn't find anybody!" Tim hissed. "That bastard lured him away from me." His knuckles were white where he clutched the scissors, but he gradually calmed himself.
"The fifth victim," Sally said suddenly. "In her last phone call... she said she might wash her hair - even though it was late in the evening and she'd already had a bath. I thought that was strange."
"Pity you didn't say so," snapped Sherlock.
Tim curled his lip. "I had to spend a long time with that one," he said. "She thought she was so clever."
"Why is Sally still alive?" Sherlock asked bluntly.
"You bastard!" Sally kicked his leg and Tim laughed.
Sherlock ignored the blow. "If you lured her here last night..."
"I didn't come here," Sally interrupted. "I went next door. He said he was Mr Turner and I'd heard that name mentioned..." she frowned, "... I think by your landlady. Anyway, it was familiar."
Sherlock kept his attention on Tim. "So you..."
"Oh, for God's sake, we'll be here all day," said Tim. "I drugged her tea, then brought her round here when you and John went out. I was going to chance it while your TV was on, but you made it easy." He looked for signs of chagrin on Sherlock's face and seemed annoyed not to find any. "She was still semi-conscious, I could have played the 'drunk girlfriend' card, but there was no one about, so I didn't need to."
"I don't remember that at all," said Sally blankly.
"Orally administered drug, slower to take effect, but no, you wouldn't," Sherlock told her. He looked back at Tim. "So why didn't you kill her last night?" he asked. "You've obviously been trying to frame me all along; you'd counteracted my alibi by getting her in here. You could have killed her and walked away. To keep her alive... it doesn't make sense."
Tim stared at him for a moment then rocked back on his heels and whistled. "So that's why you came charging in here so carelessly! You thought she was dead!" He started to laugh, his mirth increasing at Sherlock's frustrated expression. "Oh, this is too good." His sniggers turned to coughs, until he had to bang on his own chest to recover himself.
"I'm afraid I had to change the rules," he said eventually. "When you didn't get arrested yesterday, despite the ID, the witness and the wig..."
"The wig!" Sally exclaimed, turning her head. Sherlock shrugged and she kicked him again.
"Oh, you two are priceless," Tim observed. "It's almost a shame to kill you. I think leaving you tied up together might be a better punishment."
"Yes. Why don't you do that?" Sherlock drawled.
"Punishment for what?" demanded Sally. "I get that I fit your bonkers criteria, but if you think he's shagging some married..." she paused, "... person, then you must be completely cracked. He's probably never had it off in his life."
Tim's eyes narrowed. "And are you offering to help him with that?" he asked. "Because I'd advise you to mind your manners otherwise."
Sally's face paled. Tim smirked and walked around to Sherlock's side of the bed, carefully keeping out of range of his feet. "What do you think, Mr Holmes?" he asked. He flicked his scissors open again and trailed the edge of the blade down Sherlock's jaw, though angling the cutting edge away. "Would a blowjob from a whore be your last request?"
Sherlock could feel Sally trembling next to him as the courage she had gained from his presence abruptly deserted her.
"Tell me about Neil Benson," he said, knowing that the name of the 'odd victim out' would be a distraction.
Tim's hand fell away as his face darkened and he stepped back. "That was an accident."
Sherlock raised his eyebrows. "How do you accidentally incarcerate someone for over twelve hours and then stab them to death?" he enquired.
Tim turned away, swearing loudly, and Sherlock took the opportunity to glance quickly at Sally. "Fight me, not him," he whispered. "You're doing well." She stared at him blankly for a moment, then nodded. He turned back just as Tim wheeled around.
"They regularly spent the night together," he complained. "The whole office thought they were having an affair. It's very odd for a male member of AA to have a female sponsor. How was I to know that's what she was?" He sounded outraged.
"But you still didn't kill him until Sunday morning," Sherlock murmured. "Did you not want to believe his explanation?"
Tim barked out another laugh. "Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder what all the fuss is about," he said. "Your deductions are shit." He moved back to the foot of the bed, two pairs of eyes tracking him.
"He didn't tell me anything - I worked it out from the sobriety chips and all those photos."
Understanding dawned, but Sherlock went through it for Sally's benefit. "The victim was a Christian who was devastated when his wife died," he explained. "Only fear of going to hell and never seeing her again kept him from suicide."
Sally took a moment to grasp that, then turned a shocked face to Tim. "You mean he wanted you to kill him?"
Tim shrugged. "He was afraid I wouldn't go ahead with it if I knew the truth," he said, running a hand through his hair. "It was a while before I worked out that something was wrong, then longer before I got my head around his motivation... but of course, I had to kill him." He looked genuinely regretful.
"He could identify you," Sherlock acknowledged. "You had no choice."
"Exactly!" cried Tim, then he froze and his eyes narrowed. "Don't humour me, you emotionless bastard."
He glared at Sherlock. "I'm going to bleed you dry, but I hadn't planned on starting just yet. Don't make me change my mind."
Sally looked between the two of them nervously. "I thought your plan was to frame him," she said.
Tim gradually pulled his gaze away from Sherlock and looked at her. "Oh, it is," he replied. "But after what happened yesterday there seems no chance of getting him arrested. He probably knows too many people's dirty secrets." He curled his lip, looking at Sherlock again. "But I don't think people will worry so much when you're dead."
He straightened up, the scissors a blur as he twirled them between his fingers. Sally found it oddly hypnotic, and forced herself to look away. "But I still don't understand why you want to frame him in the first place," she queried, careful to keep her tone polite this time.
Tim huffed out a breath. "What about you?" he asked Sherlock. "Are you going to get anything right today?"
"You blame me for Adrian," Sherlock replied. "You're enraged that he left you, but you still love him. So you've focused your anger on people like the man who 'lured' him away, and on me because I was the one who told... " He broke off, watching Tim's expression carefully. "No, that's not quite right, is it?" He frowned, pushing himself up the bed until he was half sitting, his head resting back against his bound hands.
"You already knew. You knew he was having an affair but you said nothing."
"It would have blown over," Tim insisted, walking round to Sherlock's side. "It didn't mean anything, he still loved me. Adrian always loved me. He would never have left." There were tears in his eyes.
"But I brought it out into the open," said Sherlock slowly. "He felt he had to choose. And he didn't choose you."
Without a word, Tim raised his arm and the scissors flashed down towards Sherlock's throat, diverting at the last possible moment to thud into the headboard beside him.
Sally cut off the scream she hadn't been able to hold back and he switched his stare to her, tugging the blades free. "I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to." She could feel her heart racing from the shock and tried to breathe steadily, her eyes darting between Tim's murderous expression and Sherlock, who was white-faced but appeared unharmed. He turned his head towards her and managed a hidden half smile, but she could see a trickle of blood running down the side of his neck.
"It's not wise to provoke me." Tim repeated the warning he had given her hours ago.
"I don't think..." She swallowed and tried again. "I don't think he's deliberately trying to provoke you," she said, hating the tremor in her voice. "He's that rude to everybody."
There was a tense pause, then Tim laughed and turned away.
"Well done," Sherlock mouthed and Sally gave him a wobbly smile, erasing it quickly as they both looked back towards Tim, who was now pacing up and down the room. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and realised that Sherlock was trying to unpick the knots now that his wrists were out of sight. His arms stilled as Tim moved back to the foot of the bed but she had no doubt that those long fingers were still working away.
Tim's gaze ran over both of them. "Eeny, meeny, miny... moe," he said, looking from one to the other. He smiled at Sally. "You're looking a little dishevelled, Sergeant Donovan," he said. "I think it's time you had your hair done."
John supposed he should feel awkward walking into Scotland Yard with an illegal firearm tucked into the small of his back, but he really didn't. If Sherlock was in trouble, then John was damned well going to get him out of it and experience told him that the sort of trouble Sherlock got into was often the sort where possession of a deadly weapon was a deciding factor.
There had actually been a dual purpose in fetching it, the second being simply to see if it was there. If Sherlock had been knowingly going into a dangerous situation, then he would probably have taken the gun. The fact that he hadn't was either good... or very, very bad. As he hadn't been in touch, John was leaning heavily towards the latter assumption and was glad of the familiar weight against the base of his spine.
He found Lestrade in the incident room with a group of other officers, all crowded round a monitor and watching what looked like footage of an Underground ticket barrier.
"Well, that's clearly Sally," Lestrade announced, sitting back in his chair. "So, what was he on about?"
"Er, I think it was just a ruse, Sir," Hopkins volunteered from his seat in the corner. "To get me out of the way." He noticed John in the doorway and his face paled.
Lestrade turned on him. "Seen and not heard," he said emphatically, with the air of a man repeating himself.
Hopkins subsided and Lestrade spotted John. "Come in, come in," he invited. "See if you can make sense of this." He brought John up to date.
"Well there's no sign of him at the flat," said John. "And obviously Sally never reached us, if we were where she was headed."
"Jamieson! Check CCTV footage for the area around the Baker Street Underground station between ten and ten-thirty last night," Lestrade instructed one of the officers. He looked across to Hopkins. "You! Go and help. See if you can find out where she went, or at least in which direction."
"Yes, Sir." Hopkins edged towards the door but then stopped, looking completely miserable. "I'm so sorry, Doctor Watson," he said. "I feel terrible."
"Why?" asked John. "Because you were out-smarted by Sherlock Holmes? You're hardly in the minority with that one."
"But I was supposed to..."
"You can't really contain Sherlock," John told him. "Or even keep up with him - he's not like ordinary people." He shrugged. "All you can do is follow."
Hopkins looked pathetically grateful and John clapped him on the back. "So, let's find him, all right?" he said, steering the lad to the door. "Yes?"
"Yes, Sir!" Hopkins straightened his shoulders and marched out, determination in his stride.
John turned back round to see Lestrade regarding him curiously. "What?" he asked.
Lestrade shook his head. "Sorry," he said. "It's just we always see you..." he searched for the phrase, "in something of a supporting role with Sherlock."
John rolled his eyes. "You can say 'sidekick'," he said. "I know what I am."
"What I was going to say is that you're actually a damned fine leader," Lestrade retorted. He nodded towards the door through which Hopkins had disappeared. "I think that boy's just found a new hero."
"God forbid!" John brushed off the compliment, but he looked pleased. "Don't you think you're being a little hard on him?" he suggested. "I meant what I said."
Lestrade sighed. "I don't blame him for losing Sherlock," he said. "That could happen to anyone. But he panicked - it was nearly two hours before we found out and God knows how much longer he would have left it if I hadn't phoned."
"Fair enough," John nodded. "Though that crack about 'having his badge' might have been a factor."
Lestrade held his gaze for a long moment, then sighed again. "Fine... fine," he said. "Let's get on."
It was a while later when the pair of them entered the room where Hopkins and Jamieson were still going through CCTV footage.
"Anything?" Lestrade asked, only to be met with two headshakes.
"It's a wonder London isn't strewed with corpses, the state of this lot," said Jamieson, indicating a group of mini-skirted girls giggling their way across the screen in front of them. "It's November, for crying out loud - they'll catch their death of cold!"
"The common cold is a virus," corrected Hopkins automatically. "You can only catch it from someone who already has one."
The conversation moved on, but John didn't take in a word of it. A couple of minutes later he announced, "I've got to go."
"What?" Lestrade blinked at him.
"I have a date."
"Sherlock is missing, but you have a date?"
"Sherlock is missing, but you have a date?"
John frowned. "I don't have a phone number for her. I have to at least meet her to say it's a no go."
Lestrade was still gaping at him.
"I won't be long," he promised, shrugging his shoulders. "Look, it's not as if I'm being any use here, and I can't let down a lady."
Lestrade rolled his eyes. "Fine, fine," he muttered. "Off you go. Don't you bloody well vanish on me."
"Not much chance of that," John grinned at him. "I'll be back before you know it." He headed for the door.
"Fetch me back some bloody breadsticks, I'm starving," Lestrade called after him.
"Tell me how it feels to be a mistress."
Sally gritted her jaw and said nothing. This was seriously freaking her out. Tim had made her sit in the upright chair in front of the dressing table and she was staring at her own reflection as he contemplated her hair, pulling it back from her face and then letting it fall again. She could see Sherlock in the mirror and widened her eyes at him, not knowing what she should do.
"Is anyone supposed to believe that I would go through all this rigmarole?" Sherlock asked loudly, still tethered to the bed, his efforts at unfastening the knots having come to naught so far.
Tim glanced at him via the mirror. "No one will guess this part," he said. "This is just for me."
"Oh, really? So the clear 'chair' indentations in the carpet in the last victim's room were meant to go unnoticed, were they? The ones in front of the wardrobe which had a full length mirror inside the door?"
"I'm going to be so happy when you are dead," Tim told him, with a smile. "And I can't imagine I'll be the only one. Do you really think anyone gives a shit about you?"
He turned his attention back to Sally. "Tell me all the bad things," he invited. "What annoys you the most about being 'the other woman'?"
Sally tugged against her restraints again, but to no avail. Her bound wrists were on the other side of the chair back, so she was effectively attached to the seat.
"Is this what you do then?" Sherlock distracted him once more. "Try to convince them they're better off dead?"
"God, do you never shut up? It's no wonder you have no friends."
"Why do you want me to talk about this?" Sally asked. "I would have thought it would just make you cross." She was trying to moderate her language as well as her tone.
"That's it, isn't it?" Sherlock interjected. "You want her to wind you up."
"She's going to be hard pushed to wind me up more that you are," Tim snapped. "Maybe I should do you first?" He smiled unpleasantly. "Especially as you'll take so much longer." He tipped his head to one side, looking pensive as he considered his options. "No," he decided at last. "I'll stick to the plan." He raised the hand holding the scissors and pointed them at Sherlock's reflection. "But shut it," he warned. "Or I'll tape your mouth again."
"Now, my dear," he resumed, refocusing on Sally. "My, my, we've been skimping on the conditioner lately, haven't we? We'll have to do something about these split ends." He produced a newspaper from a drawer in the dressing table and spread some sheets under and around the chair. "I doubt your lover boy will be as observant as this one," he said, nodding towards Sherlock. "But better safe than sorry, eh? I suppose your hair might catch his eye, since he'll be used to picking it off his collar."
He pulled a wide toothed comb from his back pocket and got to work as Sally watched in the mirror, feeling increasingly sick. His hands stilled and she raised her gaze to meet his reflected stare.
"Talk." His voice was soft, but his expression was anything but.
Sally swallowed nervously. "To be honest, I prefer having my weekends free," she said. "I don't have time for a 'proper' boyfriend."
Tim didn't say anything, so she carried on. "He's convenient, but I'm not in love with him or anything. The last thing I want is for him to leave his wife."
She jumped as Tim threw the comb down angrily. "My God, you're the worst victim I've ever had! Are you deliberately trying to spoil this for me?"
Sally had no idea how to respond to that and so she kept her mouth shut. After a moment, he snatched the comb up again and started attacking her hair more aggressively. "Almost every day I get someone in my chair whining about how used they feel, that they can't phone their lover whenever they want, that they don't get taken out to nice places." His voice dropped. "You've no idea how many times I've smiled and chatted, and cut their hair, while fantasising about plunging my scissors into their hearts instead."
He was trimming as he spoke and Sally tried not to flinch at every click of the blades.
"It got to the point where sometimes I thought I'd actually done it. I would look in the mirror and watch their dying gasps, see the horror and shock on their faces as they looked down at the weapon sticking out of their chests." He smiled fondly in reminiscence. "But I never did, of course," he added. "Wouldn't do to kill my own clients."
"Bad for business?" Sherlock suggested, snapping Sally out of the horror-struck daze into which she had fallen. She drew a deep breath and tried to compose herself.
Tim ignored the interruption. "It wasn't difficult to find substitutes," he continued. "All I do all day is listen... and how people love to talk." He tutted as he came across a knot in Sally's hair and started teasing it out. "Do you have any idea what a strain it is to be so fucking nice all the time?" he asked. He looked up, catching Sherlock's eye. "I know you don't."
Their gazes held for a long moment, then Tim started working again, although he seemed to have abandoned Sally in terms of gearing himself up for the kill and was now focused on Sherlock.
"I'm so looking forward to the news reports," he said. "Of course, it would have been better to see you get put away. I've spent a lot of time imagining how a posh pretty boy like you would manage in prison." He leered at Sherlock via the mirror. "I bet you wouldn't be so pretty when you got out." His smile turned Sally's stomach.
Tim sighed. "Still, sometimes you just have to make the best of things, as Adrian used to say." He didn't seem to find anything ironic about this statement. "'Sherlock Holmes found dead near the body of his last victim'," he quoted an imaginary headline. "'Policewoman takes down her own killer'." He fluffed up Sally's hair a bit before stepping back to admire his handiwork. "You might even get a commendation, my dear," he added, meeting her eyes for a moment.
"How exactly do you plan for Sally to kill me?" Sherlock enquired. "Assuming you've thought that far ahead."
Tim shrugged. "Oh, let's keep it simple," he replied. "She manages to grab the scissors at some point and stabs you with them. Unfortunately, the blow is not immediately fatal and you manage to get them back and kill her, just like you did all those other people. However..." he started imitating a movie trailer, "...it turns out that our heroine managed to hit a major blood vessel, so the evil villain dies from blood loss before he can make his dastardly escape! Although sadly," he sighed, slipping the scissors into his pocket and putting his hand over his heart, "he still outlived the brave policewoman who would never know how many lives she had saved."
He dropped his hand and resumed his normal tone. "I'm thinking femoral artery," he added matter-of-factly. "So, I'll stab her over here on the chair, then wait until she's dead..." He glanced up. "Don't worry, it doesn't take long. I know you don't like being bored." He made sure all the trimmed bits from Sally's hair were on the newspaper, then started collecting up the sheets. "Where was I? Oh, yes... So then I'll stab you in the upper thigh - don't worry about that either, I googled it so I know what I'm doing." He pulled a plastic carrier bag out of another pocket and squashed the papers into it.
"And do you anticipate I'll lie here quietly while you attempt to locate a particular blood vessel?" asked Sherlock, raising an eyebrow. Sally hoped he was making use of this time to unfasten some knots, because she wasn't making any progress with hers.
"God, I hope not!" Tim replied. "I'm looking forward to you fighting me with everything you've got - which admittedly isn't much as your arms are tethered and I'm at least as heavy as you are, so I pretty much just have to sit on your legs. But still..." He smiled as he tied the handles into a knot, then threw the bag out into the hallway, moving to stand over Sherlock again and looking down at his face.
"I want to see some genuine emotion in those eyes as I kill you... that will be an image to keep me warm on long winter nights." His eyes glazed over a bit and Sherlock contemplated kicking him, but the odds of landing a blow sufficiently incapacitating to give them time to escape were negligible.
Tim blinked and refocused. "Anyway, once you've lost a fair amount of blood, which shouldn't take long according to Wikipedia, I'll cut your wrists free and you can stagger about a bit if you like - that should look nice and dramatic."
"You're mad," whispered Sally.
"He's mad if he thinks his plan will work," Sherlock agreed. He raised his eyebrows at Tim derisively. "Why on earth would I go around killing people with hairdressing scissors? Do you really think anyone will believe that?"
"Do you really think anyone will care?" Tim retorted. "The pressure on the police will be enormous - are they going to keep the case open with a prime contender right here? They already know you're a freak."
Sally winced at the word but Sherlock ignored it. "My wrists show clear signs of being bound and there is a hypodermic puncture mark on my calf," he pointed out. "Even Anderson would smell a rat."
Tim laughed. "I don't think anyone's going to be surprised to find injection marks on your body!" he said. "And half of them will think you tied yourself up for some sort of experiment, and the other half will assume you're even kinkier than they thought you were. No..." He shook his head. "The only person who might be both willing and able to work it out would be you, and guess what? You'll be unavailable. Forever."
He smirked, looking supremely self-satisfied. "There's plenty of evidence already, your alibis won't count for much once you're dead and the phone the good Sergeant called me on last night is in your coat pocket." He was ticking the items off on his fingers. "I think my work here is almost done."
"What about all the other people you'll be hurting?" Sally asked suddenly. "Like Mrs Hudson. She'll be devastated." She had seen how fond the landlady was of both 'her boys'.
"You are joking?" Tim turned to look at her. "He treats her like a skivvy. Do you know he expects her to do his laundry?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I would think it would be a relief for her to find a tenant who pays the going rate and doesn't shoot holes in her walls."
He moved into place behind Sally, the scissors in his hand again. "And without him in the way, when John manages to find a nice woman - which he will without this selfish bastard interfering with every relationship he tries to build - she'll be able to move in with him and Mrs Hudson will have a proper family living here at last."
Sherlock had fallen silent and Sally couldn't tell if this was getting to him or not. A week ago, she would have found the idea ludicrous. "What about John?" she asked. "You can't deny..."
She broke off with a gasp as Tim stepped right up behind her, bringing his free hand up to her forehead and pulling her back against his chest. His lips were parted and his eyes wide with anticipation. She could see the flash of silver out of the corner of her eye as his hand swayed to and fro.
"Don't!" The word spilled from her mouth and she squeezed her eyes closed, unable to stop the hot tears escaping. "Please, don't."
There was a creaking noise from the bed and she opened her eyes, taking a moment to grasp what the mirror was showing her. Sherlock had somehow twisted himself around and was now sitting facing the top of the bed, bent nearly double with both feet braced against the headboard on either side of his bound wrists.
"Stop that!" Tim saw what he was doing. He flicked open the scissors and brought the cutting edge to Sally's cheek. "Stop... or I'll kill her slowly. I could torture her for hours."
Sherlock didn't look round. "What do I care?" he demanded, breathing hard as he strained to break the wood, or the scarf, or simply to force his hands through the ties. "She hates me." The tendons in his neck stood out as he pulled.
For a long moment Tim just stared, then he laughed. "You are one cold blooded bastard," he acknowledged, lowering the blade. "Fine. Struggle all you want - that's a good old-fashioned headboard in solid English oak, you'll never break it." He held Sally in place as he watched Sherlock's efforts.
"So," he continued. "John Watson." Sherlock ignored him. "Oh, you think he cares about you, but he doesn't," Tim said. "Not really." He started rocking slightly onto the balls of his feet. "How could he? John's a good man. Why would he care about someone as cold and emotionless as you?" He was working himself up to strike.
Sherlock studied his wrists now that he could see the bindings more clearly. They were wrapped together, so if he got one hand free there would be enough slack to release the other.
"John's still impressed with you right now," Tim went on. "You've dazzled him, but he's not an idiot. Once you're gone, he'll remember the constant put downs and how poorly you treated him."
Sherlock spared a second to assess other options but there was no choice; he had to get a hand free.
Tim was still ranting. "He'll be able to come home from work and not immediately be sent out again on ridiculous errands for someone who's slobbed around in their dressing gown all day."
Right hand, Sherlock decided. It was perhaps unlikely that he'd still manage to hold a bow, but he would definitely never play the violin again if he smashed the left one.
Tim's hold tightened on Sally's head and she screamed, figuring there was nothing left to lose. He moved to cover her mouth instead, glaring at her in the mirror.
Sherlock gripped the pole he was tied to and pulled himself forward, then placed the palm of his right hand flat on the solid part of the headboard, tucking his left leg under him. He bent his right knee as far as possible, pulling his leg up against his chest. The position was cramped and allowed hardly any room to build momentum with his strike, but it was still the best - the only - chance he had. He took a deep breath, focusing power in his thigh... and heard a noise that he recognised. Without a second's hesitation, he slammed his foot down with as much force as he could manage... just to the right of where his hand lay.
The impact was shockingly loud and Tim wheeled round as Sherlock began repeatedly kicking at the wood of the pole. He laughed. "We've been hammering nails and moving furniture down here for a week," he pointed out. "No one will take any notice of that." He turned back around.
After a few more kicks Sherlock desisted, his chest heaving as he got his breath back and shot a glance at Sally, who was now crying openly. He tried to catch her eye but she seemed hypnotised by the movement of the scissors as Tim's rocking intensified, his hate-filled stare fixed on Sherlock's reflection.
"You don't have friends because you're incapable of being one," Tim snarled. "You play your damned violin at three in the morning, whether people are asleep or not." He drew his arm back and Sally squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to breathe with the hand over her mouth. "Why should you care if your so-called friend has broken nights, or if he needs his rest? I've heard the yelling - he has nightmares, you know!"
There was a click from the doorway. "That's why he plays, you idiot."
Tim's head flicked round with an expression of complete disbelief on his face, and for a long moment he just stared in shock, but then his brows drew together and his fingers tightened.
Sally whimpered as the muscles in his arms tensed to strike... and John's bullet took him right between the eyes.
Chapter 15: A Settling of Scores
"You all right?"
John's eyes were on Sherlock, but he was very aware of Sally hyperventilating to his right. He didn't spare a glance for Tim, knowing that his shot had left no room for doubt.
Sherlock nodded tightly. "See to Sally."
John held his gaze for a moment, then moved to obey, setting down his gun on the dressing table with some regret. With Sally at the scene he could hardly stash it away and claim a random shooting.
He crouched at her side, running a practised eye over her bruised face. "Do you have any other injuries?" he asked, his voice gentle.
Sally shook her head, her eyes wild. "Get me..." She sucked in a breath, struggling to speak. "Get me out of this chair!" She was pulling against the restraints, her movements increasingly desperate. "I can't... please!"
John was taken aback by her vehemence, but God knew what she'd been through down here. If she wanted out of the chair, then he would get her out of the damned chair. He looked at the binding holding her wrists together. She wasn't attached to the chair, but her arms were looped around it.
"Use Tim's scissors," Sherlock advised, but Sally flinched and just trembled harder.
"I'm going to lift you, all right?" John offered and she nodded frantically. He scooped an arm under her knees and pushed the other around her upper back, curving under her armpits, then he straightened, lifting her up and off the chair, grunting slightly with the effort. "Good job you don't eat biscuits," he joked weakly, not bothering to put her on her feet since she looked as if she would just fall over. He carried her across the room and set her down on the edge of the bed.
"All right?" he asked and she managed a small nod, breathing deeply. "Just let me free Sherlock, then we'll get you out of here, OK?" She nodded again, producing a shaky smile this time. "Good girl." John patted her on the shoulder then turned his attention to Sherlock.
"On the floor." Sherlock nodded to where the scissors had fallen close to Tim's outstretched hand and John stepped over the body to retrieve them, regarding them doubtfully. This was going to be hard work.
It wasn't. The scissors cut through the tough material around Sherlock's wrists like tissue paper, revealing injuries which John knew would develop into deep bruising. He reached out to examine them, but Sherlock quickly pulled his hands away.
"Sally," he said, nodding towards where she sat with her head bowed, still shaking.
Sherlock took the scissors and moved round behind her, while John sat down on the edge of the bed and put a tentative arm around her shoulders. She sagged against him with a sigh and he could feel some of her tension easing. After a moment he heard a quiet, frustrated sound and looked over his shoulder to see Sherlock struggling with the scissors. He'd managed to get his fingers through the handles, but his hands were shaking and he couldn't seem to manipulate the blades. He looked up.
"I can't..." His mouth tightened, hating to acknowledge any weakness.
"Your fingers are numb from the bindings," John realised. "I'm sorry, I should have thought." He was absently rubbing Sally's upper arm as he spoke and it was obvious the contact was soothing her. "Um... swap places?" he suggested.
Sherlock's eyes widened as he took in John's pose, but then he nodded and moved to sit on Sally's other side. She seemed to feel safe between the two of them, sitting with her eyes closed and breathing more steadily now. She didn't object when John tipped her the other way so that she was leaning against Sherlock instead.
Taking the scissors, John pushed himself back onto the bed and made short work of her restraints. Once her hands were free, he moved round in front of her and crouched down, easing her arms forward as she winced.
"Your shoulders are going to be stiff, obviously," he said, examining her wrists, which were red but not as bruised as Sherlock's, "but I think you'll be fine."
She nodded, giving him a weak smile, but then her face crumpled. "I'm sorry," she said, trying to wipe her eyes on her jacket since John still had hold of her hands. "I'm OK. It's just reaction."
Sherlock looked totally out of his depth and oddly blank, as Sally's tears kept falling.
"Hey, it's fine," John promised her, releasing her hands and resuming his seat on the bed. "Completely normal release of stress. Nothing to be embarrassed about." He put his arm back round her shoulders and Sally immediately turned into the embrace, pressing her face into his jumper. John raised his other arm as well, then sat rocking her, murmuring soothing words and stroking her back as she cried.
He looked at Sherlock over her shoulder. "Are you all right?" he asked again.
Sherlock nodded tersely. "Of course I'm all right." He got up and went over to Tim's body, although what he was finding to deduce at this stage of the game, John had no idea.
It wasn't long before Sally's tears subsided and she became self-conscious, easing herself away and offering a muttered "Thanks" in response to the packet of tissues John produced.
"No problem," John told her firmly. "Like I said, absolutely normal reaction."
Sally sniffed. "I feel like a complete wuss," she said, blowing her nose.
Sherlock snorted, without turning round. "Now you're being stupid," he said. "Might have known it wouldn't last."
"Oy!" Indignation made Sally sound much more like herself and John chuckled, nudging her shoulder with his own.
"He means that you're brave," he explained. She gave him a disbelieving look and he grinned at her. "Need to work on your Sherlock translator," he said.
She looked doubtful for a moment, then shook her head. "I was afraid."
There was another derisive noise from Sherlock's direction and Sally looked to John again.
"That would be the 'brave' part," he told her. "Without fear, you don't need courage."
"Of course, it's possible to have too much courage and not enough bloody common sense," Lestrade's voice came from the doorway. "Which applies equally well to the lot of you."
He raised a radio to his lips. "Situation secure," he reported into it, taking in the scene. His eyes fell on the gun and his mouth tightened. "Ah," he said. There was an awkward pause. "And that would belong to...?" He surveyed the room. John opened his mouth.
"Him." Everyone looked round as Sally spoke. She pointed at the body on the floor.
"Of course," nodded Lestrade. "I assume there was a struggle of some kind, during which..."
"John..." volunteered Sherlock.
"...John. Indeed," agreed Lestrade. "John managed to get the gun away from - presumably this is Tim?"
Sherlock's eyebrows rose at the identification, but he nodded.
"Right," said Lestrade. "Well, that seems straightforward enough. I imagine that there will be no way to tell where Tim got it from?"
"Wouldn't have thought so," said Sherlock. "Looks like the markings have been filed off."
"Shocking," said Lestrade, as footsteps started thundering down the stairs. He turned his attention to Sherlock. "So, is this it, then? Case closed?" he asked. "Or are we still looking for a Moriarty connection?"
All eyes were on Sherlock, but he avoided everybody's gaze. "No connection," he said, looking down at Tim. "Just a serial killer with a grudge against me. The case can be closed." His tone was flat and it made John uneasy.
Lestrade moved on to Sally. "You all right?"
She nodded. "I'd be glad to get out of here, Sir," she said, rising to her feet.
Lestrade looked around the basement room again as it filled with officers. "Come on then," he agreed. "We can talk outside."
"How did you find us?" Sally asked him as they climbed the stairs.
Lestrade reached into his pocket and produced a note scribbled on the back of a Tesco receipt. "Turns out one of you wasn't quite such an idiot as the others," he said, passing it to Sally as they emerged into the hallway.
"'For D.I. Lestrade'," she read out. "'If I don't come back, check out our neighbour, Tim'." She paused, shooting a glance at Sherlock, who looked equally disconcerted. "'PS Sorry about the breadsticks'," she finished.
"Ah," said John. "Didn't think you'd get that quite so soon." He looked embarrassed.
Lestrade rolled his eyes. "If you honestly thought I was going to fall for 'I've got a date even though Sherlock is missing' then you're mad," he said. "I sent Hopkins to follow you and he saw you put this in the letterbox as you left. Unfortunately, by the time he retrieved it, you'd disappeared, which is why we were a little way behind, since for all we knew you'd headed for his place of work or something. By the time we'd identified which neighbour was Tim and got to the right house, his landlady said she'd heard a disturbance next door."
"And how did you get in?" Sherlock asked, casting an eye over the undamaged front door as they passed through it and out into the glare of flashing lights which dominated the street. His eyes kept flicking to John and he was frowning.
Lestrade smirked. "You're not the only one who can pick a pocket, you know," he observed. "I thought a copy of your key might come in handy and I guess I was right. A quiet entrance certainly seemed wise given the circumstances."
Sherlock grunted in response, then twitched as John put a hand on his arm.
"Sorry." John backed off immediately. "Here." He held out the coat he had picked up as they left the basement.
Sherlock took it absently, his eyes steady on John with the oddest expression on his face. It was the sort of look you might give your dog if it fetched the newspaper and you found the crossword already filled in.
"Thank you," he said, shrugging into the coat. He produced an evidence bag from an inside pocket and started checking the others until he located the phone Tim had planted on him, then extracted it using the bag as a glove. "Evidence," he announced, handing it over to Lestrade. "This is the phone Sally called last night, which Tim used to lure her here."
Lestrade took it. "About that," he said. "Don't think I'm not going to get into exactly what you," he pointed at Sally, "and you," his finger moved to Sherlock, "thought you were bloody well doing, each going off into dangerous situations without any sort of back-up plan and without letting anybody know." He glowered at them both.
"But for right now," he continued, "I want to know how you," he turned to John, "came up with this?" He took the note back from Sally and waved it around a bit. "And," he added emphatically, "why you didn't see fit to share with the class, but rather went off on your own just like these two clowns before you?" He shook his head. "You're supposed to be the sensible one!"
John looked uncomfortable. "Well, it was something Hopkins said," he started. "Um, when we were watching that CCTV footage of the girls with the short skirts."
Sally snorted, throwing him off track.
"Go on," insisted Lestrade.
"Well, Jamieson said they would catch cold, and Hopkins pointed out that colds are viral."
Sherlock's eyebrows rose as he put the whole thing together. He looked at John. "Extraordinary," he said. John's ears turned pink.
Lestrade looked helplessly at Sally, who shrugged. "Tim coughed quite a lot," she told him. "I guess he was maybe getting over a cold, but I don't see..."
"Why don't you explain it?" Sherlock invited, still focused on John. "Take us through your deductions."
John started to shake his head but Sherlock forestalled him, touching a hand very briefly to his shoulder. "Go on." He smiled. "You've seen me do it hundreds of times. Your turn."
John regarded him uncertainly, but Sherlock nodded again and he cleared his throat. "Well, Tim just popped into my head because he was blowing his nose when I saw him earlier. He was the one on the doorstep when you dropped me off," he added to Lestrade.
"John texted to say he was coming home, and Tim had my phone," interjected Sherlock and Lestrade gave him a look. "Sorry," he added to John. "You carry on."
"So he left these two downstairs and pretended to be knocking on the door instead of closing it behind him?" Lestrade asked. "Bold move. But why?"
"He wanted to know if I had a key to the basement," said John. "And probably just checking what I was doing there, I guess."
"But how did you go from 'Tim has a cold', to 'Tim is an insane, murdering, psychopathic bastard'?" asked Sally.
John blinked at her. "Nicely put," he said. "Er, well, then I was thinking about Sherlock and I remembered him deducing that the victim had a cold on that first case we were called into, because he said..." he nudged Lestrade, "do you remember? He said that thing to Anderson..."
Lestrade snorted. "Oh yes! That he'd get through a box of tissues in a week if he wasn't being regularly..." His voice petered out.
Sally exhaled in a long-suffering manner.
"So, anyway," John resumed quickly, "then I thought, what if her killer caught her cold?" He glanced up at Sherlock to check how he was doing, then persevered. "Cold symptoms usually begin two to three days after infection and peak two or three days after that," he advised. "And I remembered that Tim was sneezing when I first saw him on Wednesday night, and then on Friday, Peter said he was off sick."
He looked round at the doubtful faces. "I notice symptoms," he said. "I'm not like Sherlock, I don't see everything, but I notice illness or injury, it's just automatic. Like with your knee when you'd banged it on the bookcase," he added to Lestrade. There were nods, and he pressed on.
"So, then I dismissed the idea, because... well... it was just Tim." He spread his arms in a wide shrug. "And anyway, he doesn't look anything like you," he addressed Sherlock, "with his floppy blond hair and his round face and the killer was supposed to be at least superficially similar."
He shook his head. "But... then I remembered that I've twice mistaken him for Peter when he had his hair covered, and that Peter does look like you. From the back at least," he added swiftly. "Obviously, no one could confuse your features for Peter's."
"Er, thank you," said Sherlock dubiously. John grinned at him, getting into his stride now.
"And then I thought about the wigs, and Tim is a hairdresser," he said. "And he has access to our place, he could get the I.D. card and plant evidence," he was picking up speed, "and I remembered him asking about a key to the basement this morning, then hearing the front door bang but not actually seeing him go out, and Sally getting off the Tube at Baker Street and..." He trailed off, looking embarrassed again. "So, I decided to check," he finished.
There was a short silence. Sally looked impressed. Sherlock looked proud. Lestrade just looked pissed off.
"So." Lestrade spoke first. "That's all well and good. Bloody good, in fact, I don't mind admitting. But why the bleeding blithering hell did you decide to go on your own?"
John looked down, apparently seeking inspiration from his footwear. "Um, well..." he delayed, before straightening his shoulders and answering the question. "I'm nearly always wrong," he admitted. "Sometimes I think I've got the whole thing worked out and it all seems as plain as day..." He glanced at Sherlock, then back down at his feet. "But then it turns out it's actually something completely different." He shrugged his shoulders. "I thought I'd probably just got the wrong end of the stick, as usual, and I didn't want to make a fuss if it turned out to be nothing," he said. "I figured I could check it out, then..." He trailed off.
"Well, I think you were brilliant," Sally said loudly. She stepped forward and hugged him, and Sherlock's eyes narrowed with interest, because this was a very different embrace from the one he had witnessed in the basement. There was no weakness here, no need of comfort. This was appreciation and gratitude from a strong woman who was back in charge of herself.
"You saved my life," she said, kissing his cheek, and John blushed but looked pleased.
"I'm glad you're all right," he said as she released him and stepped back. "These two were frantic when you went missing."
Sherlock quickly adopted an affronted expression, but it was wasted as Lestrade jumped in with another question.
"But how did you get into the basement if you didn't have a key?" he asked. "I mean, obviously you'd left the door open, which was why I noticed it, but it didn't look damaged and you must have been trying to keep the noise down anyway." He raised his eyebrows. "Did you lie to Tim about not having one?"
John shook his head. "Not at all," he replied. "But Mrs Hudson has a key, of course, and we have a key to Mrs Hudson's." His face grew serious as he looked at Sally. "I'd just collected it when I heard you scream. So I opened the basement door a little faster than I would have otherwise and it made a bloody awful creaking noise." He grimaced. "I thought the game was up, but then someone - well, it must have been Sherlock - started making a right old racket, so I got away with it."
"You heard the door," Sally addressed Sherlock.
"I heard the door," he agreed, looking down at his hand and flexing the fingers.
There was a shout from farther up the road and everyone looked around as Anderson dashed towards them. He grabbed hold of Sally and she winced as he squeezed her shoulders.
"You're all right!" he exclaimed. "God, I've been so worried!" He pulled her into a hug. "As soon as they said your phone was off I knew you were in trouble," he announced. "Because you never turn that bloody thing off - I've even had to hide it sometimes just to give us some time together!" He set her back from him again, gripping her upper arms now as he looked her over.
"You've had to do what?" Sally asked.
He raised a hand to her face, not quite touching her swollen eye. "God, what happened? Did he...?"
"What do you mean, you've 'had to hide my phone'?" Sally interrupted.
Anderson waved his arm dismissively. "Never mind that now," he said. "Let's get you seen by a proper doctor." He tried to steer her towards the nearby ambulance.
Sally didn't budge. "I have been seen by a proper doctor," she said pointedly, nodding towards John. "When did you hide my phone?"
He shrugged, glancing at the others uncomfortably. "Oh, just once or twice," he dissembled. "Can we talk about this later?" He tugged on her arm but she pulled it free.
"You didn't..." she said, but her words were full of suspicion. Anderson squirmed as she studied him. "You did," she decided. "I always wondered how my mobile fell down the side of your car seat that time. It never occurred to me that you might have deliberately shoved it there." She glared at him. "And you never said a word. Not one sodding word. Not while I blamed Sherlock and got him banned."
"Well, it was his fault," Anderson defended. "I mean, who just sends a text? You said yourself he should have called, then he would have known you didn't have your phone and could have tried someone else. He didn't bother!"
"Er..." John drew Sally's attention. "Sherlock didn't call in case it put you at risk," he told her quietly. "Because you were following up leads and often you don't..."
"... put my phone on mute," finished Sally, looking at him with dawning understanding. She turned to Sherlock, who was standing silent and subdued on her other side. "Why did you never tell me that?"
He shrugged. "No point." He threw a glance at John, who smiled encouragingly at him. Sherlock grimaced. "And..." There was a long pause. "And you were right," he acknowledged, his expression pained. "I should have ensured that the message got through." He gritted his jaw, but held her gaze. "I apologise," he got out at last.
Sally's mouth fell open in shock, and she wasn't the only one. John wondered if he was alone in thinking that there was more behind Sherlock's apology than met the eye.
"About time too..." started Anderson in his snidest tone, and Sally let out an unidentifiable curse, spun on her heel and punched him in the face.
John whistled. "Nice right hook," he murmured to Lestrade, who nodded.
Anderson staggered back, raising a hand to his nose. "You're not defending him?" he protested, his eyes wide with disbelief.
Sally advanced towards him. "You absolute tosser!" she exclaimed. "This is about me, not him. You knew how much I blamed myself for what happened and you never said a word! You complete and utter shit!"
"You can't just hit me!" exclaimed Anderson, his eyes watering as he lowered his hand and checked for blood. "Especially in front of witnesses."
Nearly a dozen heads suddenly swivelled away, although most kept watching out of the corner of their eyes.
John stepped forward briskly. "She's in shock," he explained, putting a soothing hand on her back.
Sherlock waved an arm at an approaching paramedic. "Get this woman a blanket," he demanded.
It was late in the evening when John finally opened the door to their flat and led the way inside. They had been at Scotland Yard for hours while statements were taken and explanations made, after which Lestrade had given Sherlock an unequivocal bollocking. John was glad to get him home.
He glanced now at the blank face next to him and sighed, then headed for the kitchen. Picking up the kettle, he was startled to find Sherlock right behind him when he turned around.
"Er, do you want a cup of tea?" he asked, sidestepping and moving over to the sink. There was no answer and John filled the kettle then plugged it back in. "Pass the mugs?" he requested, since Sherlock was now standing in front of the draining board. There was still no response, so John reached carefully around him to pick a couple up.
"I suppose it's your turn now." Sherlock's voice was low.
"What do you mean?" John reached up for the tea bags then turned to the fridge, stopping short when he found his route blocked again. "Look, why don't you go and sit down?" he suggested. "You're just getting in the way."
Sherlock moved away from the fridge and went to stand by the table. "I'd rather get the shouting over with first," he said.
John collected the milk and set it down, then turned and leaned back against the counter, studying the defensive posture of the man in front of him.
Sherlock's lips twisted. "I can see what you're thinking," he said. "I don't need a blanket."
"Well, you need something," John retorted. "And being shouted at a bit more certainly isn't it."
"I fucked up."
"Well, you did warn me that might happen again."
Sherlock shook his head dismissively. "Yes, but I meant with all the..." he waved his arm around, "... fiddly, emotional bits, not on a case!"
John tipped his head to one side. "What you do... well, it's not a 'trick' like that wanker Sebastian described it, but it does seem magical at times. You take the tiniest hints and clues and you weave them into a deduction which no one else could even dream of and you're nearly always right - but there are always going to be times when 'Harry' is a sister. That's what makes it so impressive, in a way, because otherwise it really would seem supernatural." The kettle was starting to get noisy and he reached around to switch it off.
He frowned, marshalling his thoughts as he turned back to face Sherlock. "I've been thinking about this one ever since you laid it out and even I can follow your reasoning: why bring Sally here, to Baker Street, if not to get round your alibi? And why get round your alibi and then not take advantage of that fact? Your deduction was totally logical." He shrugged. "But Tim... wasn't."
"I was playing against Moriarty."
"Yes, you were," John agreed. "In a way, you were too clever; you assumed that your opponent was smarter than he was." He thought for a moment. "But your big mistake was going off on your own. You should have told me."
Sherlock exhaled sharply. "I fully intended to investigate a crime scene without reporting it. Taking you with me would have put you in an untenable position."
"You let me worry about my position," John told him firmly. "I think you know perfectly well where I consider my position to be."
John's eyes narrowed and he watched as Sherlock tensed his jaw and ducked his head as if annoyed that those words had escaped. "I only heard the tail end of it earlier," he said slowly. "What other rubbish did Tim come out with?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Just more of the same," he said. "That I'm a cold, emotionless bastard. That I don't care about anybody and that nobody cares about me." He produced a half-smile, but it was a pretty pathetic effort. "The usual." He shifted awkwardly under John's scrutiny, leaning back against the edge of the table.
"You know that's bullshit, right?"
Sherlock shrugged again.
"Mrs Hudson positively dotes on you."
"I got rid of her abusive husband," Sherlock pointed out. "I'm sure she's grateful."
"Right," said John. Sherlock didn't have a lot of confidence in his emotional awareness, and the little he did have had clearly taken a pounding. John briefly considered bringing up family, but 'Mycroft' was rarely a calming topic. "What about me?" he asked instead. "Because I seem to recall making a rather dramatic declaration to you less than twenty-four hours ago. Have you deleted that already?"
Sherlock scoffed, but then seemed to grow fascinated by his shoes. He looked so alone, John badly wanted to rest a hand on his shoulder, or to ruffle his hair, but he couldn't allow himself to forget Sherlock's aversion to touch. He folded his arms across his chest and stayed put.
"It was suggested that you were just 'dazzled' by me." Sherlock sniffed at the word. "The implication being that once the novelty wore off you would... well..."
"Piss off?" suggested John, trying to raise a smile.
"Something like that," Sherlock said, turning his attention to the window.
"And do I strike you as a changeable sort of character?" John asked. "One who doesn't know his own mind?"
"I don't want to be normal," Sherlock muttered, apparently going off at a tangent.
"Well, I don't think there's any imminent danger," John said warily, wondering where this was heading.
Sherlock shot him a frustrated look. "You said Sally's reaction was 'absolutely normal'," he pointed out. "Well, that's not me, is it? Tim's description was much closer. No emotions. No heart. Cold. A sociopath, albeit high-functioning. That's the 'me' I've built up over all these years. That is who I am."
John was taken aback by the anger in his voice. "I've never believed that," he said quietly.
"Why would you?" Sherlock acknowledged, raising a hand and rubbing it over his face. "Better to say that's who I was." He dropped his hand and looked at John again. "Now I buy gloves," he said, in a despairing tone. "I take the lift instead of the stairs when your leg is bad. I watch dreadful television programmes which clutter up my brain and I play Bach when I want to play Tchaikovsky. I eat when I'm not starving and I sleep when I'm not exhausted and the worst thing - the absolutely terrifying thing - is that I don't want to go back."
John stared at him. He looked miserable.
"You don't have to go back," John said. "I'm your friend." He straightened up and took a step forward. "I'm your best friend and I see you clearly. I am not dazzled, or mistaken, or expecting you to be anything that you're not. And please tell me if I'm reading this wrong, because the last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable, but you mentioned Sally's reaction, and you followed me around the kitchen, and you look as if you bloody well need one, so unless you say something to stop me, I'm going to hug you now."
Sherlock's mouth fell open as the very thing he had found it so impossible to ask for was suddenly offered to him. John's approach was slow, giving him time, and all Sherlock had to do was... say nothing. He shut his mouth. And then there were arms around his shoulders, but they weren't clawing at him. There was a hand on the back of his head, but it wasn't trying to direct his movements. There was a body pressed against his own, but it wasn't squirming or rutting against him, it was just there, warm and solid. And Sherlock raised his own arms and wrapped them around his friend, and felt comforted right down to his bones.
"Is this all right?" John asked, and the rumble of his voice reverberated through both their chests.
"I'm still here," Sherlock promised, and closed his eyes.
"'The Green Blade'?" scoffed Sherlock, reading over John's shoulder a week later. "That sounds like a comic book character!"
"Well, I thought green for envy," explained John, continuing with his laborious typing. "It was all about jealousy and so forth. And he did use a blade. And that moly-wotsit steel had a bit of a green tinge to it, I thought."
"Molybdenum." Sherlock sniffed disdainfully and moved round to sit on his own side of the desk.
"If you want to type up the cases, you go right ahead," invited John. "See if anyone wants to read it when they need a dictionary every third word. This is my blog." He peered at the screen a bit more closely, then sat back. "Plus, it ties in with some of our other cases: A Study in Pink, The Blue Barnacle, it's like a theme."
"I suppose I should be on the lookout for The Purple Pitchfork." Sherlock rattled the newspaper open and started scouring it for anything interesting.
John looked up at him. "Well, what would you call it?" he demanded. "'The Crepuscular Killer'? That sounds like a giant pancake!"
A distracted expression appeared on Sherlock's face, which John saw quite rarely but always welcomed. He saved his work and shut the laptop. "That place in Soho?" he asked.
Sherlock looked startled, but then smiled ruefully. "The one near The Breakfast Club?" he checked.
"That's the one." John got to his feet. "CrepeAffaire. Your treat."
"We'd best stop at a cash point then; it's cost me a fortune to feed you this week. I don't know why shooting people gives you such an appetite."
John opened his mouth to point out that Sherlock kept eating half his meals, but was cut off by a knock on the doorframe.
"Morning," Lestrade greeted. Hopkins was hovering just behind him.
"Be nice, remember," John muttered under his breath. "You got Hopkins into a lot of trouble."
"New case?" Sherlock sat back in his chair and clasped his hands over his abdomen, regarding Lestrade quizzically as he entered the room. "Anything interesting?"
"No, no, just checking in," said Lestrade. "Social call, you might say." He produced a hearty chuckle which was so obviously fake that even Hopkins looked embarrassed for him. He sighed. "Fine. I've been thinking that perhaps I was a bit harsh last week and I wanted to make sure you weren't..." His eyes strayed betrayingly towards the skull.
"Shooting-up my sorrows?" suggested Sherlock sardonically. "Don't worry. John's keeping me on the straight and narrow. Well," he added with a wicked grin. "I say straight..."
"Why don't you go and put the kettle on?" suggested John loudly, moving around behind Sherlock. "Make some effort at being a half decent host for once. Let me get your chair for you." Sherlock sprang to his feet just as John yanked his seat away.
"Thank you, honey," he said flirtatiously, winking in Lestrade's direction before striding off to the kitchen.
"Er, I'll see if he needs a hand," Hopkins volunteered, disappearing after him.
"Close the doors," Sherlock's voice could be heard instructing. "Your boss wants to talk to John." The doors slid shut.
John shook his head. "Don't ask me, because I have no sodding idea," he said to Lestrade. "He's been like this all week. Most of the time he's fairly normal, then he just has these... episodes." He ran a hand over his face. "Keeps introducing me as his partner. I don't know what's got into him."
"Not you, then?" Lestrade asked, then immediately held up a hand. "Sorry. Sorry, ignore that," he said. "That was out of order." He looked around, his gaze settling on the sofa. "May I?"
"What? Oh, yes. Sure," John waved an arm, still a little poleaxed by the suggestive remark. He took a seat at the other end.
Lestrade hesitated. "So, you and Sherlock: you're not actually..." He trailed off. "It's just... I never really thought you were, but then it seemed that you might be - and that was fine, whatever you're both happy with - but then you made that excuse about having a date, and..."
"Not the world's best liar, obviously," said John. "Don't get a lot of practice living with Sherlock, since it's completely impossible to get anything by him."
"Well, there's that," acknowledged Lestrade. "But it was more the way you came out with it so thoughtlessly, as if having a date with a woman was a perfectly normal thing for you to be doing."
John whistled. "You know, you're not bad, are you?" he said. "It's less obvious when you're standing next to Sherlock, but you don't miss a trick."
Lestrade shrugged, looking both determined and uncomfortable. "So, you're not messing him around then?"
John stared at him. "Are you giving me the 'Break his heart and I'll break you' talk?" he asked incredulously. "Seriously?"
"Oh, God." Lestrade leaned back in the seat, staring up at the ceiling. "It's none of my business. I do realise that." He sighed. "But you didn't know him back then, John. And frankly I can't imagine what you would have made of each other - whether you would have persevered past the 'posh junkie', and whether he would have recognised what he sees now in you." He closed his eyes for a moment.
"To be honest I don't even like thinking about those days," he admitted. "And it's ridiculous to describe someone who got up to half the things he did as in any way innocent, but at the same time he is." He turned to look straight at John. "I've never known him to have any kind of real relationship before, whatever it entails, but he's clearly let you in and I am worried about what will happen if you leave him."
"I'm not going to leave him," John said. This wasn't a conversation he'd envisaged himself having, and certainly not with Lestrade, but he'd have to be blind not to see the genuine concern behind it. "Oh, I'll date," he added. "And Sherlock will know all about it, obviously - as if anyone could ever mess him around!"
"Fair point," acknowledged Lestrade, sitting up straighter.
"I might even get married one day, if I find a woman who could survive him," John quirked a brow at the improbability of this scenario, but then his face grew more serious and he looked down.
"But, when I came back to London," he said slowly, "I was a crippled, sad shadow of a man." His voice was low. "And Sherlock saved me. And he's gone on saving me every damned day since." He raised his head again, meeting Lestrade's gaze. "So we may not be 'together' in the traditional sense, but we're more 'together' than anyone else I know and I would no more leave him than I would suddenly decide to shoot myself in the other shoulder just to even things out. Does that answer your question?"
Lestrade exhaled slowly. "It does. And I am honestly sorry to intrude." He shook his head, spreading his hands wide. "I have no idea why I worry so much about someone so obnoxious."
John laughed. "I know what you mean."
"Are you done yet?" Sherlock pushed the sliding doors apart slightly and stuck his head through the gap. He was immediately hit by two warmly affectionate smiles and reared back in alarm. The doors slammed shut again and the two men on the sofa dissolved into giggles.
John got his breath back first. "It actually no longer bothers me what terms people apply to us, because nothing really covers it," he said. "It's a mystery for the ages." He started to get up.
"Can I ask one more question?" Lestrade checked his progress.
John paused and regarded him slightly warily. "Which is?"
"What's the deal with the neck thing?" Lestrade asked. "You know, when you grabbed the back of his neck that time, and he just shut up. What is with that? And do you think it would work for anybody? And by anybody, obviously I mean me."
John chuckled. "Complete fluke," he reported. "He was sitting in his armchair, wittering on about something and I got up from the desk then tripped over some crap he'd left on the floor. Threw a hand out to save myself and accidentally grabbed the back of his neck. It was only when he didn't start talking again until I released him that I realised what had happened. But he's very twitchy about it, so I wouldn't try it except in an emergency, and I wouldn't rely on it working either, because it could just be me, I've no idea."
"Probably just you," Lestrade grumbled. "When I think of all the times I carted his sorry arse home from wherever he'd passed out... there's no bloody justice."
"Come on." John got to his feet this time. "Let's see what they're up to."
He walked over to the kitchen and pushed the doors open, to reveal Hopkins bent over the microscope while Sherlock swapped one slide for another and talked about differences in mould types.
"Did you make Constable Hopkins a cup of tea?" John enquired.
Sherlock looked affronted. "I said I was going to be nice," he pointed out. "I didn't say I was going to be you."
"We need to be off anyway," said Lestrade. "See if we can dig up any interesting cases." He clapped John on the shoulder and opened his mouth, then seemed to be at a loss as to what to say.
"Cheers," said John.
Lestrade nodded at him. "Oh, before I forget. Couple of loose ends." He pulled a notebook out of his inside pocket. "We found a wig in Tim's flat." He glanced up at Sherlock. "Another wig," he added pointedly. "This one a damned close match to your hair. We also interviewed the ex." He checked his notes. "Adrian. Who said that he'd been looking for an excuse to leave Tim for years but never quite dared, and that your outing of his affair had given him the push he needed."
"I saw Adrian the other day," nodded John. "His new boyfriend looks as if a strong wind would knock him over. Very different type to Tim, and he must be nearly a foot shorter. Shut it," he warned Sherlock quickly, then waited through the resultant snort. "Anyway, he seemed very shocked, obviously, but not actually completely surprised. He said Tim had always had a lot of anger, which he bottled up. No doubt a job where he had to be nice all day was absolutely the worst thing for him."
"So what you're saying," suggested Sherlock, with a hint of glee in his voice, "is that he was quite frankly..." John joined in and they finished together:
"... a bloody awful hairdresser!"
They both seemed to find this hilarious and Lestrade and Hopkins looked at each other in bewilderment.
"Sorry, sorry," muttered John after a minute, shaking his head. "Ongoing joke, don't mind us."
"Come on Hopkins," Lestrade prompted. "I think we're superfluous." The young man tore himself away, with earnest and repeated thanks for the impromptu lesson on mould, and they made their exit. Vague exclamations of "Brilliant!" could be heard as they retreated down the stairs.
John looked back round to find himself under scrutiny. "Did you know what Lestrade was going to say?" he challenged.
"I nearly always know what people are going to say," replied Sherlock, tipping his head to one side. "Didn't manage to warn you off, then?"
"Still here, aren't I?"
A smile was playing at the edges of Sherlock's mouth, but he kept it under control. "Breakfast?" he offered.
"More like brunch by now, but yes. Definitely." John reached for his coat, then groaned as footsteps sounded on the stairs again. "What now? Does he want me to put it in writing?"
"Not unless he's changed into heels," Sherlock observed, looking to the door as Sally appeared.
"Hi," she said, a little awkwardly, holding her hands behind her back. There was a somewhat uncomfortable silence, then John waved her towards the chairs.
"Come in," he invited. "How are you? Do you want a cup of tea? Or coffee?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm not staying," she said. "Just came to say 'Goodbye'. And to give you this." She produced a blue gift bag from behind her back and took a few steps forward, handing it to John.
He took it with a surprised but pleased expression and peered inside, seeing a beautifully wrapped book-shaped package. "You shouldn't have."
Sally's lips quirked. "You're probably right about that," she acknowledged. "But it seemed the thing to do."
"You're leaving?" Sherlock queried.
She turned to him, then blinked a few times. "Sorry," she said. "It's like I'm seeing two of you. There are all the old auto-responses, and then there's this new stuff on top." She shook her head. "It's confusing."
"Well, I'll just disregard any sarcastic comments then, shall I?"
"Right, because you never used to do that at all."
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, but he looked amused.
"You're going somewhere?" John echoed Sherlock's question, and Sally turned back to face him.
"Leave of absence," she said. "Just for a few weeks. I could do with a break after... well, everything that's happened and something's come up, so..." She shrugged.
"Oh, right," John nodded. "Something nice, I hope?" he enquired politely.
"America, actually." Sally seemed unsure whether to explain, but they were both regarding her with interest so she kept going. "My little brother - well, not so little now, but you know what I mean."
"The one who likes comic books?" John remembered.
She nodded. "Yeah. Well, he's brilliant, actually. Not in an annoying way," she flicked a glance at Sherlock, who rolled his eyes, "but brilliant. Anyway, he was invited to this conference thing in the States a while back, but we couldn't afford for him to go. I mean, we tried, and we've all been applying for grants to anywhere we could think of, but it was just too expensive. But one of the applications has just been approved, so it's on. And it covers a partner, which he doesn't have, so I'm going with him. We leave at the weekend."
"That sounds great," said John. "I hope you have a fantastic time!"
Sally beamed at him, suddenly looking younger and more carefree than he'd ever seen her. "Can't wait, actually," she said. "I've been so flat out on my career for the last few years, I've hardly taken a break at all and D.I. Lestrade promised to keep my spot open, so..." She spread her arms wide. "'Goodbye, rainy England' and 'Hello, probably also rainy America'!"
"E-mail if you come across any interesting cases," Sherlock offered.
"No cases!" Sally insisted. "And don't get him killed." She nodded towards John, then turned to face him. "Same goes to you," she added, waving a hand at Sherlock.
"We'll do our best," promised John as she turned to leave.
"Are you going to get into trouble for this?" Sherlock asked, and she paused in the doorway.
"Doubt anyone will notice," she said. "There's never going to be a court case, it's just an empty box in a room full of boxes." She turned up the collar of her coat, refastening the belt more tightly. "Can't be linked to me, anyway. Just don't do anything stupid." She grimaced. "More stupid than usual."
"Thank you," Sherlock said and she nodded.
John's mouth was hanging open as her footsteps faded. "She didn't!"
Sherlock just grinned at him. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Less than a minute later, John sat in his armchair, looking down at his gun inside the unwrapped box. "I can't believe this."
"It seems the prospect of a holiday put her in a good mood," Sherlock said, taking his seat opposite. "Or at least a less officious one."
John tore his eyes away from the gun and looked at Sherlock closely. Sherlock looked back, his face smooth of expression and John studied him for a long moment. "You did something." His face didn't flicker. "What did you do?" There was still no reaction. "Did you ask Mycroft to..."
"No, I did not ask bloody Mycroft!" Sherlock exploded. "I do have some contacts of my own, you know. Not everything is Mycroft!"
John gave him a smug smile. "Gotcha."
Sherlock's stare was disbelieving, then he slumped down in his chair. "I'm broken," he complained, petulantly. "You've broken me."
"You might as well tell me now," said John. "You obviously fixed something with the grant. But how did you know about it in the first place?"
"There were applications behind the clock in her living room," Sherlock admitted begrudgingly. "Saw them when she was missing."
"Do you actually have an eidetic memory?" John asked him. "You barely glanced through those documents."
Sherlock shrugged. "Irrelevant. I remember things until I delete them." He sat up straighter, a concerned look crossing his face. "Don't tell anyone about this," he instructed. "It would ruin my reputation."
John smirked at him. "You like her."
"I do not."
"Yes, you do."
"You're being ridiculous. I will not be drawn into such a juvenile argument." Sherlock reached round to the table and grabbed his newspaper.
"You do, though."
"For God's sake! I called in a favour, that's all. One phone call." He shook open the paper and held it in front of him.
"So, why bother? A phone call is more effort than you'll make for most people and you can't have known she would end up going too, or that it would in any way lead to the return of my gun." John paused, then added sneakily, "You did it just to be nice."
"I may vomit."
John fell silent for a while. "Did you feel that you owed her?" he asked. "Because of what happened? Because you made a mistake?"
Sherlock lowered the paper. "You are the most tenacious person I have ever known."
"It wasn't a..." He broke off and sighed. "Fine. The idea crossed my mind when we were leaving the basement, are you happy now?" He started to raise the paper again, but then his lips twitched. "But that wasn't when I definitely decided to do it."
"When was that, then?"
Sherlock quirked a brow at him and John laughed as he caught on.
"When she decked Anderson!" he realised. "Brilliant." He smiled. "You're brilliant."
Sherlock looked somewhat mollified. "Lunch?" he suggested, putting the paper down.
John checked his watch. "Bloody hell, no wonder I'm starving. Let's go before anyone else turns up."
They donned coats and scarves and headed out, ignoring the flocking taxis since it was only a twenty minute walk.
"Do you think we should tell Mrs Hudson that Lestrade has a key?" John asked, setting a brisk pace.
"Well, if the Urban Dictionary is correct as to the meaning of 'silver fox', then I don't imagine she would have minded too much," replied Sherlock.
"Is that what she calls him?" John snorted. "Oh, I've got to get that into a conversation!" He chuckled for a minute as they walked on, then frowned. "Hang on... would have minded?"
Sherlock smirked, then produced a key from his coat pocket.
John rolled his eyes. "You two are going to be back and forth with that thing for months, aren't you?"
"I hardly think so," Sherlock replied. "This is a copy of your key."
"What?" John goggled at him. "He picked my pocket? That cheeky bugger!" He fumed for a while. "And to think I poured my bloody heart out to set his mind at rest. I should have told him I was just using you for sex."
"Feel free," invited Sherlock. "To tell him that, I mean," he added quickly. "Obviously." He shut up.
They walked on for a while, then Sherlock spoke again. "So, what did you tell him?"
"You mean you weren't listening?" John adopted an amazed expression.
Sherlock sniffed. "Hopkins proved a lot more interested in mould than I had anticipated," he admitted. "Kept asking questions."
"Sounds like someone has a protégé."
Sherlock ignored that, still waiting for an answer. There was a hint of tension visible in his face if you knew where to look for it. John knew where to look.
"I told him I wasn't going to leave you." He saw the smile begin, but Sherlock suppressed it.
"And was there a time frame attached to this statement?"
"There was not."
Sherlock frowned. "That's a bit vague, isn't it?"
"That's one way of looking at it."
"Ah." The effort of controlling his expression was taking its toll: Sherlock looked as if he had acquired a nervous tic.
John stopped walking. "All right?" he asked.
Sherlock came to a halt, then turned and took a step back until they were face to face. "Am I all right?" he echoed. "Honestly, I'm not completely sure." He frowned in a rare moment of introspection. "I think I feel a little high."
John tipped his head to one side. "And is that all right with you?" he asked. "I suppose I'm taking a lot for granted here, really. Are you OK with being this invested in another person? With having a friend this close?"
He took a small step forward and put his hand on Sherlock's chest. "Close enough to touch," he emphasised. "It's not exactly normal for you."
Sherlock grinned at him.
"Normal is boring."
A huge, huge vote of thanks to my tireless beta and friend ArianeDeVere, without whom this story would have made much less sense (and had a lot more commas!)