I'd only been in London for two days, and I'd never met anyone from Albania, never mind the man who had been loaded into an ambulance half an hour earlier. All I'd done was call 999 when I saw him fall head-first over the back of the bench across the street and not stand up again. The police investigator had just told me I was free to go when a hand settled briefly on my shoulder. Its owner rounded the table and slid into the chair across from me.
"Sherlock Holmes," he said in an ice-glazed baritone that perfectly matched his sharp cheekbones and sharper eyes. He gestured to a smaller, blunter man who was taking the neighboring chair. "And this is John Watson. We'd like to ask you a few more questions." It wasn't a request; it was a demand.
"Um…I'm sorry, I'm not sure — I already said — I mean…" I took a deep breath, reminded myself I was too old to squeak and stammer like that, and began again. "As I just told the investigator, I saw a man flop over the back of that bench. When he didn't move, I called 999. I was asked to wait until the police arrived, so here I am."
Sherlock Holmes put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers in front of his lips. "That's all you saw?" I nodded. "How long were you sitting here before it happened?"
I'd left the British Museum at about 3pm, thirsty and footsore. The tables in front of the pub on Museum Street had beckoned me with the promise of a beer in the autumn sun. It was after 5 now, the shadows lengthening. "An hour, maybe?"
"Did you notice anything else odd in all that time?"
Something about him made me feel as though this was an occasion to which I needed to rise. "I'm sure it's totally unrelated, but when I first got here, it was busy, and I let a man share my table. He sounded like he was from Brooklyn, so I asked if he knew the score from last night's playoffs — you know, baseball," I added as he tilted his head in obvious confusion. "Then his phone rang, and his voice just ... changed."
"He answered his phone with a heavy Eastern European accent. He sounded furious. He said something about not making him wait, and then he stood up and walked up Museum Street. That's all. It was another 15 or 20 minutes before — "
The detective lifted an imperious finger to cut me off. "What did he look like?"
"Like an aging rock star." I shut my eyes and let the mental image sharpen. "Bright white hair, curly and down to his shoulders. An Ed Hardy hoodie covered with tigers and flaming skulls. A big gold ring on his left hand with a square black stone on top. That's all I can remember." I opened my eyes and added one more thing to the list: "Wait. His eyes were the palest blue I'd ever seen." Until the ones I was currently looking into, anyway.
"Well done," he murmured. His voice had defrosted at the edges. "John?"
"Without a doubt."
The two men exchanged an infinitesimal nod. The detective's assistant, or whomever he was, handed me a business card that read simply "Sherlock Holmes" and "John Watson, MD" over an email address and phone number. "Would you mind calling the number on this card right now, Ms. …"
"McIntyre," I said, pulling out my iPhone and following his instructions. I heard a buzz inside his jacket which I assumed was his own phone.
"There," he said, "now we can contact you in case we have further questions. And you can call us as well, of course, if you think of anything else that might be useful. Where are you staying?"
"St. George's Drive, in Pimlico."
We all stood at once and I abruptly felt like I was at the bottom of a well. The doctor was several inches taller than me, and the detective that much taller again. I looked up and up at Sherlock Holmes as he said, "How interesting. That's right near our next stop. Perhaps we should share a cab, Ms. McIntyre."
I thanked him, explained that I was already late to meet friends in Clerkenwell, and offered my hand. He looked down at it, nonplussed. His colleague accepted my handshake as if demonstrating how to do it; his grip matched his bearing: solid, straightforward, warm.
They got the first taxi they hailed. I tried to flag one for ten minutes before giving up and heading for the Tube, texting my friends that I'd be a bit late. At least I had an entertaining excuse.
I was teaching several members of the Royal Family how to drive a cable car when a loud chime ejected me from sleep. Surely I had only dreamed the cable car's bells? But no, I really had just received a text message at 8am. On a weekday. During my vacation. In another country.
For just a moment, hope welled up before I remembered that after three months of utter silence, no apology would ever be enough — never make someone a priority after he's demonstrated that you're only an option. I fumbled for my mobile with sleep-shaky hands.
Kaffeine, 66 Great Titchfield, nearest tube Oxford Circus. Best coffee in London. 2 hrs?
My London friends were all undoubtedly on their way to work now. I'd seen most of them less than eight hours earlier, but it wasn't completely impossible that one of them had decided to use me as an excuse for a mid-morning coffee break. On the other hand, I didn't recognize the number. I poked out the obvious reply.
Who is this? Jane? Badri? Natalie?
The response came almost immediately:
John Watson. Questioned you yesterday by the museum.
I stared at the name for nearly a minute before I connected it to the sturdy blond doctor who worked with the detective with the strange name and stranger face. I wondered if I was about to spend the rest of my vacation talking to police about a stranger who'd collapsed on a busy sidewalk. My phone chimed again:
Sherlock and I will treat. :)
I couldn't imagine being called in for further questioning by text message, never mind a text including a smiley face. On the other hand, it wasn't exactly my first time in London, I'd already seen the street photography exhibit that had been top of my agenda — and wasn't I traveling to get away from my ordinary routines?
I was already tapping out an answer as I headed for the shower.
Ok. The coffee had better be sublime.
If the smell filling Kaffeine was any indication, the coffee there was, in fact, sublime. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I involuntarily shut my eyes to inhale long and slow with what I suspected was a ridiculous smile. When I opened my eyes again, John Watson was standing right in front of me.
"I do that too, every time I walk in," he said as he steered me to the coffee bar. "Isn't it brilliant?"
"Mmmm," I sighed. "It is. Thanks for suggesting it, Dr. Watson."
"Please, call me John."
We collected our drinks and carried them to the farthest corner of a long counter that stretched the entire depth of the shop. Sherlock Holmes was already perched on a stool, intent on his smartphone; he didn't even look up when John slid one of the cups directly beneath his hands.
"Sherlock, thank Shasta for being willing to come out to see us," John said as we pulled up two more stools.
"Oh, we're on a first-name basis already?" Sherlock replied.
John poked the other man's upper arm. "Oi, I haven't had my coffee yet, so don't start."
"Fine," Sherlock said silkily, never lifting his head. "Thank you, Shasta, for dragging your underslept self across London for this surpassingly excellent coffee."
I took a sip. He was right. But — "Are the circles under my eyes that obvious?"
They exchanged a glance I couldn't parse; then John said, "You didn't get back to Harewood House until well after midnight."
"Excuse me?" I set down my cup and slid off my stool. "How do you know where I was staying and what time I got in? Are you saying you think I'm a suspect?"
John was already holding both of his hands toward me, palms out. "Wait, no," he interrupted, eyes wide and sincere. "Not at all. We happened to see you, but we weren't looking for you."
"Sit back down; you're perfectly safe." Sherlock met my eyes for the first time. His face was still an impossibility; I couldn't decide if it was beautiful or simply odd, and I positively itched to pull out my camera and capture it for later reference. "We were watching the Albanian embassy," he said. "Your bed and breakfast happens to be in the neighboring building. Spotting you was merely coincidental, although I would go so far as to call it fortuitous."
I told myself that he was, after all, with the police. "Fortuitous how, exactly?" I finally said, resuming my seat. "And for whom?"
"That's what we wanted to discuss with you," John said. "Before we get into that, though, I could eat something. Sherlock, do you want anything?"
The response was a curled lip and a waved hand. "Boring. You know I rarely eat — "
" — when you're on a case, and you know I'm going to ask anyway," John said, already stepping away.
Sherlock spoke to me as his eyes tracked his friend across the room. "The man whose death you witnessed yesterday worked at the Albanian embassy."
"Death?" No one falls over the back of a bench for no reason, but it hadn't actually occurred to me that the man had died. "And it wasn't accidental? That's what being on a case means?" Sherlock nodded without looking back at me. "You're not actually police, then?"
"Not precisely. The authorities turn to me when they're over their heads."
"Which is why we asked you to meet us." John returned with a chocolate croissant, which he tore into half a dozen pieces before nudging the plate toward Sherlock to make room to lean his elbows on the counter. "We're curious about the man who spoke to you yesterday."
"I already told you all I know — "
"His name is Yannis Lupo," Sherlock interrupted. "His company helps organize music festivals all over Europe and North America, and he has an apparently well-deserved reputation for helping ethnic and 'world music' groups break into the mainstream. He also happens to be from a very large Greek and Albanian family that's prominent in organized crime throughout Europe."
"His sister is in an Italian prison for dealing in stolen art," John added. "A brother was just acquitted of trying to bribe a judge in Ireland. Several of the Lupo cousins basically control the drugs trade from Southampton to Portsmouth."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"People like Lupo stay at the Sanderson or the Metropolitan, not a bed and breakfast near Victoria Station," Sherlock replied. "So isn't it odd that he checked into Harewood House two nights ago, under the name of Jack Wolfe? And isn't it even more odd that he just happened to talk to you, a fellow guest, at a pub halfway across the city?"
He paused to nibble absently at a piece of croissant. John pretended to ignore it, but his tiny satisfied smirk made me think that perhaps he intended the pastry for the other man all along.
Sherlock licked his fingertips fastidiously and continued. "He must have followed you to Museum Street in order to strike up an acquaintance. After all, you're easy to remember — " He gestured to my hair, which the autumn dampness had turned into something resembling a copper pot scrubber. "— and I predict he'll approach you again in the near future in a 'fancy meeting you here' sort of way — "
"— and we wanted to get to you before that happened," John said. "We're hoping you'd be willing to help us, because we need a plausible way to get into Harewood House, too. How long will you be there?
"Five more days," I said without hesitation. "But why do you need me? Couldn't you just book a room there yourselves, or get whatever a search warrant is called here?"
"For heaven's sake, think," the detective groused. "You're not going to be much good to us if you can't."
I overshot cautious and went straight to eager without asking if it was safe — which, in retrospect, might not have been my smartest move. "You can't just book a room because…" I looked up at the ceiling and followed my train of thought slowly. "They must not have any vacancies. And it takes time to get a search warrant, or whatever you call it here… and you don't want to be there in an official capacity anyhow… because that might give something away. Am I right?"
"Oh, very well done," Sherlock said. As he leaned back and crossed his arms, John huffed out a quick, amused sound and said, "Here comes the final exam." I was about to ask what he meant when I realized Sherlock was scrutinizing me in a way that made me feel like a label under a bar code scanner. He nodded as if he were coming to a decision and began speaking in a rapid monotone.
"You're American, but that's obvious. Seattle? No, it has to be San Francisco. You recently broke off a long-term relationship, but only because you were forced to do. You're disappointed to be single in your late 30s, but not ashamed. You're visiting friends in London in an effort to start moving on. This is your first visit in several years, but you've spent a good bit of time here. You drank more last night than you usually do. You're an amateur photographer, a rather avid one. You own a cat. And your parents were hippies."
"You're kidding, right?" He looked back at me implacably. "That was…that was…" I felt a wondering smile spread across my face. "That was unbelievable! How...?"
"Simple observation." His lips twitched in the barest suggestion of a smile. "Was anything incorrect?"
"You nailed everything but my age. Seriously, how — "
"Hold up," John interrupted. "How old are you?" I rummaged in my bag for my passport and handed it over. He looked between the document and my face several times, blinking rapidly. "No. You are not. You just aren't. Sherlock, does she look older than me?"
Sherlock plucked the passport out of John's hand and glanced at it. "There's always something," he muttered before returning it to me.
"Clean living and a pure heart," I said, flattered, as I tucked the blue booklet away. "Well, okay, good genes and a lot of moisturiser."
"I'll be damned," John said thoughtfully. "I guess I need to start using moisturiser."
"You certainly can't rely on your pure heart," Sherlock said, and popped the last bite of croissant into his mouth.
"Brat. We can't all look like we're barely out of uni."
I couldn't stop myself; I snickered. Longtime co-workers, obviously, and how often do people work together that well? "My god, you're both 12. Or have you just known each other since you were 12? Because you're a hell of a comedy duo."
John grinned and dropped into a passable American accent, as if he were doing a movie voice-over. "He's a mad genius, I'm a former army doctor, together we fight crime."
Sherlock pulled a face that made him look startlingly like the 12-year-old I'd just suggested he was. "You're not my sidekick, you're my friend. And my flatmate. And my colleague."
"Don't forget chef, bodyguard, and occasional conscience," the other man said with indulgent fondness. I revised my opinion from "longtime co-workers" to "best of friends."
"Now tell her how you did it," John urged. Sherlock said something about the importance of observing instead of merely seeing, then rattled off a list of clues to my life: my ability to describe their suspect, my choice of hotel, my clothing, my bag, the visible contents of my bag, the fact that I'd equipped my iPhone with a UK SIM, the fact that I knew to call 999 in an emergency, and on and on. When he was done, it was perfectly obvious (though still damn impressive) how he'd arrived at his conclusions. All but one.
"How did you know my parents were hippies?"
"Oh, that was easy," he said dismissively. "No one else would name their child after a mountain in California. You must have been born near Mount Shasta."
I couldn't resist the straight line, especially since it was true. "Conceived there, actually."
John spluttered into his flat white. "Bloody hell."
Sherlock lifted a wry eyebrow and said, "Really, John, must you be so unprofessional?"
At that point, nothing could have induced me not to do whatever these two men had in mind. When John asked, "So, will you help us?" I gave my enthusiastic assent. A matched set of approving nods were my reward.