"People like Lupo stay at the Sanderson or the Metropolitan, not a bed and breakfast near Victoria Station," Sherlock said. "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?"
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.
There is in fact a hotel next to the Albanian embassy in London, but Harewood House is entirely fictional.
Kaffeine is very real and the coffee there is very good.
Sherlock headed straight for my window, shoved it open, and tried to squeeze himself through it. John set down the bags of Chinese food and crossed the floor in two steps to grab a fistful of jacket and yank Sherlock back. "Absolutely not," he barked.
"But John — "
"You are not just waltzing out on that roof without a plan and oh, by the way, do we have one of those yet? No, we do not. So sit down and eat your damn noodles and let's come up with one."
My only instructions at that point were to go about my day, assume I'd hear from them later in the afternoon, and behave as normally as possible if ("When," Sherlock said drily) I encountered Yannis Lupo. I spent a satisfying few hours wandering the City taking pictures, then ducked into Café in the Crypt under St. Martin-in-the-Fields to sort through the results and have a cup of tea. Out of almost 100 shots, I thought at least a dozen were promising, although of course I'd have to look at them on a larger screen to be sure…
Of course I have a DSLR, and the iPhone's camera has come in handy more than a few times, but for inconspicuous street photography, give me a compact point-and-shoot any day. A camera the size of a deck of cards is easy to use without being obvious, especially if you can turn it on by touch and shoot without looking. Which is exactly what I did when I spotted a man with long white curls lining up at the coffee urns. I lowered the camera to my lap, held down the shutter button, and clicked off shot after shot until Lupo turned toward me.
Even though half the empty tables in the café were empty, he headed straight for the one next to mine. Just as he was about to sit down, he did a subtle double-take and widened his eyes with recognition. "Hey, I know you," he said in an accent that would have been right at home on the New York subway. If I hadn't been warned, I truly would have believed it was just a coincidental encounter between tourists hitting all the spots in the guidebook. "Didn't we share a table at a pub the other day? Yeah, I'd recognize that hair anywhere. How you doin'?"
I tucked the camera up one sleeve of my jacket, bit down on my anxiety, and tried to compose my face into mildly confused friendliness: just a fellow American, far from home. "Who, me? Oh — hello! I think I asked you about the playoffs."
"It's gonna be the Yankees, I'm tellin' you." He set his coffee down on my table, dropped into the chair across from me, and only then said, "Do you mind?"
I didn't see how I could avoid it, so I said, "Go right ahead," then added, "You can tell me the latest scores while I finish my tea."
I made polite conversation about the American League pennant race until I was down to the last sip. Just as I was about to excuse myself, he leaned forward and said, "What hotel are you at? Because I'm seriously not happy with mine and I'm not staying there one more night if I can help it."
And there it was, the approach I'd been told to expect. He knew where I was staying, but he didn't know I knew it, and he didn't know I knew he already had a room there. Apparently, I needed to be damn careful it stayed that way, so I followed Sherlock's instructions to the letter: act normal.
"Oh, you have to try Harewood House, then," I enthused. "It's this great little B&B in an old Georgian townhouse over by Victoria Station. It's a great safe location on a quiet street, but it's an easy walk to the Tube, and it's super affordable – full English breakfast included, and when I say full, I mean you won't have to eat again until dinner."
"I'll look it up right now," Lupo replied. He pulled out his smartphone, waved it around, and grumbled about not getting a good signal. "Damn, what's the name again? I'll call them later. Unless you want to take me there. Don't think I'm trying anything funny here." He stretched the last word into two syllables as if he'd stepped out of a movie about the Brooklyn mob.
"Sorry, I'm not going back there until late. But it's Harewood House, h-a-r-e."
"Great, maybe I'll run into you." He shoved his hand at me. "Jack Wolfe."
Sherlock and John hadn't prepared me for this possibility, but I knew he hadn't given me his real name, so I returned the favor and hoped my college roommate would forgive me. "Rebecca Frazier." Just as I shook his hand, my phone chimed. "Excuse me, this is probably the friend I'm meeting later," I said, honestly enough, and pulled it out of my bag.
Will shellfish kill you? SH
Talking to YL right now. Help.
Excuse yourself to make a call. SH
I looked up, smiled politely, and said, "I'm sorry, Jack, it's been nice chatting with you but I really need to call her. Hope the hotel thing works out." Without a backwards glance, I walked up the stairs and out, lifting the phone to my ear to mime making a call. As I crossed the street, I held my iPhone up as though I was taking a picture of Trafalgar Square, but flipped its camera around and shot over my shoulder. The image clearly showed a white-haired man in a flashy red hoodie standing just outside the café entrance, watching me.
I texted the image and added, Now what?
Your hotel, 1 hour. Charing Cross Tube has 9 entrances. SH
Feeling like I was in a bad spy novel, I descended by the Trafalgar Square entrance, paid my fare, made my way to the Villiers Street entrance, and emerged above ground just long enough to trot to the Embankment station. From there I took a roundabout route, changing trains four times before finally surfacing at Sloane Square instead of Victoria. When I turned the corner onto St. George's Drive, Sherlock and John were already waiting for me.
John held up two plastic sacks as I approached. "A reward for your labors," he said with a smile. "I hope you like salt and pepper shrimp." I suddenly realized I was ravenous.
"Oh my god," I blurted as I buzzed the front desk to let us in. "I love you both so much right now."
"Americans," Sherlock said sardonically. "Always so excessively effusive."
As we climbed the four flights of stairs to my room, though, it was Sherlock who was effusive — a little more with each floor we passed. By the time I unlocked my door, he was practically quivering. "John!" he yelped, shoving past me, "It's perfect!"
Harewood House was at the center of a row of the more or less identical Georgian townhouses typical of the neighborhood. My room was one of the old servants' quarters, cozy and slant-ceilinged with a dormer window matching all the dormer windows on all the top floors of all the adjacent buildings. Sherlock headed straight for my window, shoved it open, and tried to squeeze himself through it. John set down the bags of Chinese food and crossed the floor in two steps to grab a fistful of jacket and yank Sherlock back. "Absolutely not," he barked.
"But John — "
"You are not just waltzing out on that roof without a plan and oh, by the way, do we have one of those yet? No, we do not. So sit down and eat your damn noodles and let's come up with one." He turned to see me gaping, tossed a quick apologetic look my way, and rounded back on the detective with his entire face telegraphing his displeasure. "A roof, Sherlock, for fuck's sake," he snapped. "Could you just — for me. Slow down. Okay?"
Sherlock had looked as if he was about to say something else, but his mouth snapped shut and he looked like someone had kicked his puppy. After a long moment, he took a deep breath and said contritely, "You're absolutely right, John. I'm sorry."
It turned out that as a small and not terribly influential corner of Europe, Albania didn't rate an entire embassy building, just a suite of rented offices on the top two floors of the adjacent building. They wanted to climb out my window and across the roof of Harewood House in order to break into those offices.
"I am a little concerned about what might happen to me if the police find out I helped you," I said, carefully not pointing out that I wasn't letting my concern stop me. "Aren't I a witness?"
Sherlock waved a dismissive hand. "The death of the unfortunate Mr. Bushati isn't definitively a murder yet, and you were one of two dozen people sitting in front of that pub, all of whom told the police they saw the same thing you did. The information you gave us about Lupo, you didn't tell the police."
"But I would have told them — "
"If you'd known it was important, which you didn't, because they didn't ask the right questions. At this point, we haven't told them we have a potential suspect. So."
John held up the last pot sticker, skewered on the end of one chopstick. Sherlock leaned over and bit off half of it before John popped the rest in his own mouth. I must have signalled my amusement somehow, because John caught my eye and said, "What? They only come in odd numbers."
"Never mind that," Sherlock said. "Shasta, how do you feel about heights?"
Before I could answer, John was thin-lipped and narrow-eyed again. "No. No, no, no."
"John, look at her. She's perfect."
"It's one thing to ask her for help, but —"
"But she's even smaller than you."
"You utter berk — "
"She can get through the — "
I raised my hand. "Hello, I'm right here, feel free to clue me in at any time so I can make my own decision about whatever you're talking about."
"As I was saying." Sherlock stood up and approached the window again. "This isn't a very large window, and you're not a very large woman. If you accompany John, you can squeeze into the embassy while he waits on the roof and tells you what to look for."
"Where will you be?" I asked.
"I'll be directing from the street below, since my colleague here doesn't trust me on rooftops."
John glared at him and squared his jaw. "Can you blame me?" he bit out. "I'm sorry, Shasta, it's completely irresponsible to get you any further involved. You've done enough, just forget we said anything."
"Oh no," I said, eyeing the window. "In for a penny, in for a pound, isn't that how the saying goes?"
"See?" No one could call Sherlock's smile anything but smug.
"Fine, I've registered my opposition," John said, resigned. "What's the plan?"
Café in the Crypt beneath St. Martin's is not just real, it's wonderful.
If only my ex could see me now, inching along five stories above the street on a rooftop encrusted with pigeon droppings. I'd show him how to have a midlife crisis.
I was sidling along the narrow parapet where the roof ended in a decorative balustrade. I knew Sherlock was watching from the street; I could hear his breath in my phone earbuds. He'd insisted on starting the three-way call as soon as we left my room. The question had to be asked, so I asked it of John's back, a few feet in front of me: "What the hell am I doing?"
"Too late for complaints," John said. His voice was louder on the phone than in the open air, giving it a bizarre stereo effect. "You volunteered."
"Says the man who's obviously in his element," I replied. John looked over his shoulder and smiled, probably at my stupid grin. My two new — acquaintances? colleagues? accomplices? — were clearly a little cracked, and I was pretty sure it was contagious, because heaven help me, I was enjoying this. If only my ex could see me now, inching along five stories above the street on a rooftop encrusted with pigeon droppings, I thought fiercely. I'd show him how to have a midlife crisis.
We reached the first dormer of the adjacent building. John bent down with his hands cupped around his eyes and peered in, then waved his hand to signal that we should keep moving. "Something's in front of this one," he muttered. "I don't see any window sensors or motion detectors. I don't get it. What kind of embassy doesn't have an alarm system?"
"One that doesn't expect anyone to break in by way of the roof?" Sherlock's voice was tight. "Hurry."
The next window gave onto a small office. John pried up the lower sash and eased it open. As soon as the window was wide enough, I swung my legs over the sill and slid through. The office was smaller than my hotel room, which barely held a double bed and a bureau. This room somehow contained a desk, four bookshelves, and a file cabinet.
"Check the desk first," Sherlock said in my ear. "Then the file cabinet."
John came up behind me and said quietly, "Focus on what he tells you and let me worry about everything else." I nodded and pulled open the first drawer.
"Office crap — paper clips, extension cord, sticky notes, snack bars." I slid that drawer shut and opened the one below. "File folders. Can't read the forms inside but they have small photos attached, like passport photos."
John's hand reached past me to lift one of the folders. "Got one."
The file cabinet seemed to be used as storage; the drawers were filled with unopened reams of paper, boxes of printer ink, and other office supplies. I took a photo, then followed Sherlock's instructions to step into the hallway. "The layout is like my hotel," I whispered. "Three more small rooms, all on the street side, and a door opposite leading to the stairs."
John joined me and indicated with a gesture that he wanted me to look at the room to our right while he checked the two to our left. I moved as silently as I could — not silently enough, I fretted — until I could see the wedge of room visible through the half-open door. I nudged the door with the tip of my shoe; when it swung back against the wall, I saw that this was the room with the blocked window, and I saw why.
"I think you had better come see this," I breathed. An impatient sound in my ear reminded me that the brains of this project couldn't see what I didn't show him. I used my phone to snap a panorama of the room, half a dozen photos from left to right, then texted them to Sherlock.
"Huh," John said at my left shoulder.
The room looked like a student hostel, with two bunk beds along each side. One of the beds was unmade, a towel and t-shirt tossed carelessly across it; the other seven were pristine. Four tall cupboards lined the wall opposite the door and blocked the window, though not too much to prevent the streetlight just outside from illuminating the room.
"Oh!" said Sherlock's voice, distorted by both my earbuds and his excitement. He must just have received the photos. "Oh, John, this is the connection we needed." I turned to look at John and opened my mouth to ask for an explanation, but we both froze when we heard Sherlock suck in a quick breath and hiss, "Lupo."
John was already shepherding me down the hall and back through the office with the open window. "Tell me," he said sharply.
"He just showed up in a cab. He's heading for your building — no, wait, he's ringing the buzzer for Harewood House. Can he get into the embassy from there? I think — John, you had better get out."
"On our way," John said. "I'll meet you on the street."
"Shasta, he's at the front desk now," Sherlock said. "I don't think it's safe for you to stay there. Change your appearance somehow and bring all your things downstairs at my signal. If you don't hear from me in 15 minutes, call the number I just sent you and tell the man who answers that I need him at the Albanian embassy right away."
He disconnected. A moment later, my phone vibrated. I glanced down and saw the name "Lestrade" and a number. "Who — " I began, then swallowed the question. I could find out who it was later, if I needed to; I hoped I wouldn't. John nodded his approval. "Now come on," he ordered, and helped me back out onto the ledge over St. George's Drive.
It took us five minutes to cross the roof and wriggle back into my room. John immediately vanished into the hallway. I slashed on my brightest lipstick and more eyeliner than I'd used since the '80s, swapped my jacket for a bulky sweater, and crammed the rest of my belongings higgledy-piggledy into my suitcase. Then, remembering what Lupo had said in the café about recognizing my hair anywhere, I twisted it up into a knot and hid it under a bright crocheted cap. My phone buzzed just as I stepped into the hallway and pulled the door shut.
I'm your boyfriend. You're thrilled to see me. SH
I descended the stairs as quickly as I could. Sherlock was at the bottom, pacing just outside the door to the reception room. He was in shirtsleeves, hem untucked, scarf hanging loosely around his shoulders, trousers cuffed high enough to show a sliver of sock. As soon as he spotted me, he shot me a vulpine grin and cried "There you are!" in a thick Scottish accent.
He bounded up to wrap both arms around me and swoop in for a fierce open-mouthed kiss. When he pulled away, I murmured, "Oh, you're good," then raised my voice and chirped, "Baby, I missed you so much," in my best imitation of a Texas twang. That won me a quirked eyebrow and a silent exhale that might have been a laugh.
He'd used the kiss as an excuse to lift me off my feet and spin us so his body blocked anyone near the front desk from seeing my face. Now he wrapped one arm around my shoulder and steered me out the front door. A taxi was idling there, John already waiting in the back. Sherlock deposited my bag in the boot and climbed in after me.
"That wasn't bad, for an amateur," he said.
"Thank you!" I didn't try to hide my delight at the compliment. "Er, you have —" I gestured at his mouth.
John gawked as Sherlock thumbed away a smudge of lipstick from his upper lip. "You didn't."
Sherlock spread his hands and shrugged. "Needs must, John," he said.
John pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "Christ, just when I thought you couldn't surprise me any more," he sighed in a tone that teetered between laughter and incredulity.
"You still have a two-continent advantage," Sherlock said. John cuffed him gently on the side of the head and snorted. I gave them my best "explain to the stupid American" look, but no details were forthcoming, just adolescent giggles.
"House rule number one," John said. "The kitchen is less a kitchen than Sherlock's laboratory, so don't touch anything that isn't recognizably edible. Come to think of it, don't touch anything, full stop."
"We obviously weren't expecting guests," John said as he unlocked the door at the top of the stairs and set down my suitcase just inside. The room I followed him into overwhelmed me with intriguing details: an obviously working fireplace, ornate flocked wallpaper, odd knickknacks and offbeat art, papers and books stacked on every available surface.
"You have a cow skull. Wearing headphones," I said with delight. "It's fantastic."
"If you like that, you'll love the human skull on the mantelpiece," he said, nodding toward the fireplace. I walked over to the skull and touched one fingertip to it, looking back at him questioningly. "Sherlock talks to it sometimes."
"Alas, it doesn't talk back," said the man in question, entering the flat with an armful of blankets and pillows, which he dumped at one end of the couch. John was already in the kitchen, motioning to me to join him. There was a microscope on the table, a battalion of graduated beakers on the counter, and a colander in the sink, over which John tossed a towel before I could get a closer look at what had looked disturbingly like a human foot.
"House rule number one," John said. "The kitchen is less a kitchen than Sherlock's laboratory, so don't touch anything that isn't recognizably edible. Come to think of it, don't touch anything, full stop."
He opened the refrigerator, inhaled sharply, and closed it again. "Christ, Sherlock," he grumbled. "Couldn't you store that in something opaque and, I don't know, label it?"
"But John," Sherlock said reasonably, "If I can't see what it is, I might forget it's there."
"Right. House rule number two: don't open the refrigerator unless you have a strong stomach. If you want milk for your tea or something, best to just ask one of us."
If there was a foot in the sink, I could only imagine what the refrigerator might contain. I silently vowed not to open it at all.
"Loo is through there," he continued, pointing things out as he named them. "Towels and such in the linen closet right there. Trash bin is under here." I followed him back to the sitting room. "Remote for the telly is…hell if I know, actually."
I sat on one end of the couch and Sherlock the other; John perched on the edge of the coffee table. "Is there a Rule Three?" I asked.
John looked at Sherlock with raised eyebrows. Sherlock mirrored him in kind. John reached behind him, under the hem of his sweater. I gasped as he carefully set a gun next to his leg.
"You don't have to stare at it, it won't fire on its own," I heard John say, though it sounded like the bells of all London's churches were ringing between us. For some reason, they found my reaction funny.
"I thought all Americans loved guns," Sherlock said.
"Sorry to disappoint," I replied. "They make me a bit nervous."
"That makes this twice as important," he said. "Listen carefully. Rule Three is that John doesn't have a gun. Do you understand?"
I nodded, forcing myself to look away from it. "What gun?"
"And if anyone gets shot?"
"Is someone likely to get shot?" My voice quavered.
John tilted his head. Ex-military, I vaguely remembered him saying, and at that moment I could see it. "I hope not," he said, "but if it happens?"
"I don't know anything about it?"
"That's right." He tucked the gun back into his waistband at the small of his back. "Now, what were we just discussing?"
I closed my eyes, exhaled slowly, opened my eyes again, and said in the calmest tone I could muster, "I'm sorry, I wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention."
"Good girl," he said approvingly.
I stared at him for a long moment. Then the tension in the room dispersed as I yelped with shocked laughter. "Seriously? 'Good girl,' seriously?! I thought I was older than you."
"By two whole years. But we could call you 'ma'am' if you prefer."
"And ask for proof of age before we offer you a drink," Sherlock added with a smirk.
John stood and made his way to the kitchen, emerging with three glasses and a bottle. "Do you like — oh, you do," he said, seeing how my eyes had widened at the sight of the label. He poured a healthy slug of extremely good Scotch into each glass. When we each had one in hand, Sherlock raised his and proclaimed, "To seeing what other eyes miss."
John smiled and tapped his glass against Sherlock's, then mine. "I'll drink to that."
Another Scotch later, I was sitting sideways on the couch with my chin on my drawn-up knees, enraptured, as the detective and the doctor told me how they'd come to live and work together. It wasn't just a good story; it was how they told it. They talked over each other, finished each other's sentences, sent each other off on tangents that seemed irrelevant at first but eventually wound back to the narrative — but instead of sounding like a familiar, rehearsed tale, it was as if they were telling it to each other as well as to me.
"So this lunatic could have just turned around and walked out of the room, but instead he nearly took the pill out of sheer curiosity," John said, leaning forward in the armchair next to the couch. "And you know why?" He reached out to tug at Sherlock's hair with rough affection. "Because even though there's an enormous brain under all this, he's still a fucking idiot."
Sherlock let the hand pull his head back, lips curling up into a half-smile. "And what do you call the idiot who followed me?"
"The idiot who's been following you ever since," John answered, giving the dark curls one last firm shake. "At least when you've let me."
"Then you shot him and that was the end of it," Sherlock said matter-of-factly.
"Or the beginning of it," I said, smiling into my knees. "Once upon a time…"
Sherlock winced. "No fairy tale references, please — "
" — yeah, unpleasant reminder," John said at the same time.
"Sorry, I didn't know. Should I have?"
They exchanged a perplexed glance. "You're sitting here in our home, trusting us, and you haven't looked either of us up online?" Sherlock asked.
"What with being questioned about a suspicious death and being followed and climbing on rooftops and so on, I've been a little too busy to Google people I already know work for the police. Which reminds me, do you mind if I use your wifi? I should let someone know where I am, and I don't want to know what this mobile plan charges for calls outside the UK."
Sherlock held out his hand. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and handed it over so he could tap in the password to his network. When he returned it, I checked the time: mid-afternoon in California. I launched Skype and sent a request for a video chat.
"Hey, Chicken!" I said as soon as David's face popped up on my phone.
"Chicken! Where are you? I thought you were in London!"
"I am — just wanted to let someone know I've had a little change of plans. Nothing huge, just left my hotel to stay with some new friends." I turned the phone to show the couch and my hosts at the far end of it. "This is David," I said. "He's sort of my brother. Wave to Sherlock and John." I flipped the phone back around in time to catch the tail end of my best friend's bemused wave.
"New friends, hmm? Helping you get over Michael?" He wiggled his eyebrows salaciously. I stuck out my tongue.
"Not like that. I'll tell you all about it when I get home."
"You want us to pick you up when you get in?"
My throat tightened a little. "Oh, would you?"
"Email me your flight info. You know the girls would love to see their Auntie Shaz."
"You're the best, Chicken. I'll let you get back to work now."
"Yep yep. See you at the airport." The video cut off and I was left smiling fondly at the darkened screen.
"He's not really your brother," Sherlock began, and I grinned. It didn't take a genius detective to notice, even from a brief glance, that David was as large and dark as I was small and freckly.
"No, but he's more my family than my actual family is. We met in college — at university, I guess you would say — and we just clicked right away. You know what I mean?"
"Maybe a little." Sherlock looked away and smiled at nothing in particular. I remembered something John had said earlier: "I ran halfway across London with him and didn't realize until later that I'd left my cane at the restaurant." Maybe they did know what I meant.
The couch was amazingly comfortable, or maybe it was the combination of Scotch and a long day. I woke up around dawn to the soft percussion of fingers on a keyboard. The kitchen light was on, throwing just enough ambient light into the sitting room for me to stand up and edge past the coffee table without stumbling. Sherlock was sitting at the kitchen table in a t-shirt and drawstring bottoms, looking tousled and shockingly young. I slouched against the doorframe in my own pyjamas and rubbed my eyes. After a minute or two, he looked up and frowned. "Is there something you need?"
"A cure for jet lag would be nice," I said. "Do you ever sleep?"
He shrugged. His laptop was an island in a sea of printouts and photographs. He seemed to be recording something in a spreadsheet, but I couldn't make sense of the rows and columns.
"So what does all this mean?" When he wrinkled his nose in apparent annoyance, I added, "Come on, I did a bit of breaking and entering for you a few hours ago." I yawned. "If you don't feel like explaining, at least let me stand here quietly and watch."
"Suit yourself, but there's not much to watch at this point."
"Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
"Not interested," he scoffed, returning his attention to his laptop.
I chuckled under my breath. "Not offering."
He drew his chin in for a moment — it made his features morph from ridiculously beautiful to merely ridiculous — then considered me from under a lifted eyebrow. I was starting to recognize that eyebrow.
"For one thing, you're a bit young for me," I said. "But more importantly, I'm not interested in rejection, and you're not interested in me. Which I'd already figured out."
The other eyebrow joined the first. "Really." He drew the word out like taffy, sounding both annoyed and amused. "So now you're deducing me? Tell me how you arrived at this conclusion."
"You had no physical reaction to kissing me at all. I noticed it right away. Your breathing didn't change. Your pulse didn't speed up. Nothing." I shrugged and smiled. "That's something a girl can't help noticing when someone's tongue is in her mouth."
He was silent for so long that I began to feel embarrassed that I was being overly familiar — we had, after all, only known each other for 36 hours, and he'd already shared his opinion of excitable Americans. I was prepared to apologize and slink back to the couch for another attempt at sleep when he said, "Your hair. Is that its natural color?"
I blinked. "Huh? Yes. Why?"
"I'm doing an experiment on how quickly various brands of ginger hair dye fade, and I don't have a control sample." He waved a small pair of scissors. "Would you be willing…"
"Oh, why not. For science." I stepped up to the table and turned my back to him. "Take it from underneath," I told him, pulling my hair up with both hands. "Just not a big obvious chunk."
"You should color it," he said, long fingers plucking at the hair at the nape of my neck. "It would be safer, make you harder to recognize while you're still in London. If what I suspect about Lupo is true — "
"Which is what?"
"I think he's using connections in the Albanian embassy to counterfeit documents to smuggle people into Britain. Maybe musicians, but probably something a lot worse." His eyes flicked over the papers spread across the table. "Almost all of this paperwork involves women. Young women."
I shuddered. Even I could deduce what that might mean.
"Lupo's not a nice man. So. Don't be an idiot." He snipped once and displayed his harvest, a single tightly curled lock a few inches long and half the thickness of my smallest finger. I nodded my consent. "Thank you," he said awkwardly. "You've been…helpful. All day."
I turned to find him looking me over as if I was an oddity he had yet to catalogue. Being the focus of his attention would have been far more intimidating had he not been wearing an inside-out t-shirt with the neck stretched out where he was absently tugging at it. "You aren't used to that, are you."
"Mmm. John suggests that I can be a bit difficult."
"Difficult? He called you impossible."
"He's extreme in his diagnosis." He added carefully, "I believe working with him has alleviated the symptoms, although neither of us can be an unbiased judge."
"Well, I have no legacy data to draw on," I said just as carefully, "but if that would make me a more impartial observer, I would be happy to serve in that capacity for the next few days, since you seem to be stuck with me anyhow."
"What, as they say, is in it for you?"
"Other than the pleasure of being useful?" I thought about the cliché of marking a fresh start with a new look. I thought about his suggestion that I dye my hair for safety. I thought about how I barely recognized the life I'd been leading for the last day and a half. I picked up the small pair of scissors by the blades, twirled them between my fingers, and said, "Show me how to turn this frizzy mop into lovely curls like yours."
"Your vanity is deplorable," Sherlock sniffed, but I distinctly saw the corner of his mouth twitch. "Try my shampoo."
A navy towel, a small tube of Vaseline, and a box of "medium chestnut" semipermanent hair dye were sitting on the side of the bathtub. I knew a hint when I saw one.
The next time I woke up, it was to the smell of coffee. I hoped that someone had made enough for me to have a cup. The desperation must have been rolling off me in waves, because no sooner had I sat up than a deep voice rumbled from the next room, "There's coffee, if you want it."
"Yes, please," I said fervently. "Milk, no sugar."
I dug clothing and toiletries out of my suitcase and shambled into the kitchen. Sherlock was sitting at the table exactly as he had been the night before, except that now, he was impeccably turned out in a pale grey shirt and black trousers. He slid a mug toward the edge of the table; I clutched it with my free hand and said, "You're gorgeous and you make coffee. Marry me."
"John made it," Sherlock said without looking up.
"Great, he's adorable, he can marry me, too."
"I'll ask the British government to make legalizing group marriage a priority." He smirked, amused at himself for some reason, and waved a hand toward the bathroom. "Go shower. John's out until this afternoon and I'm going to need an assistant."
A navy towel, a small tube of Vaseline, and a box of "medium chestnut" semipermanent hair dye were sitting on the side of the bathtub. I knew a hint when I saw one.
Twenty minutes later, I stood under the shower considering my shampoo choices. The drugstore brand had to be John's. I reached for the other bottle, sniffed it, and sighed with pleasure. Lavender, orange, rosemary, and was that mint? Whatever it was, it was delicious and frothy and I used it twice, then topped it with a lavish dollop of matching conditioner.
Once dried and dressed, I finger-combed my damp hair and swiped the towel across the mirror so I could examine the results. I wasn't sure what I thought. My hair had turned milk chocolate brown with just a hint of its natural copper color glinting where the light hit it directly. My skin was disturbingly pale by contrast, and I could tell I'd have to rethink some of my wardrobe. At least the dye would fade out after a few dozen washings.
When I emerged, Sherlock looked me over and declared, "It'll do."
"It's not bad, but I barely recognize myself."
"That's rather the point," he said with an exasperated eyeroll. "Now, please tell me you know how to use a spreadsheet."
I nodded and settled into the chair next to him. He slid his laptop toward me and began to flip through a sheaf of papers, rattling off information and showing me where it fit in the columns and rows. Before long, he stood up as he read off data and began to pace a loop from kitchen to sitting room and back. I gradually realized we were cross-referencing information from the papers we'd taken from the embassy the previous day against information from what I presumed were police reports.
Some time later, he hurled himself into the chrome and leather armchair in front of the fireplace. "Come in here and bring the laptop," he ordered, pointing at the chair across from him and holding out his hand for the computer. "What we need to do is map these individuals by location and frequency. There should be a way to…" His voice faded as his fingers flew over the keyboard. After a long silence, he pumped his fist victoriously. "Yes! God, I love the Internet. John — "
He started, looked up, and shook his head. "Of course. Shasta, look at this and tell me the first thing that comes to mind." He handed the laptop back to me; it showed a map of the city with multicolored clusters of markers, most of them falling in central London with a few scattered outliers farther afield.
"Is each marker a different person?"
"Each color is a different person."
"So when I see several markers in the same color — "
" — one person, multiple locations."
"All right, each marker appears in at least two spots around London, but a small number of them show up in more locations than that. So you have a group of people moving around in clusters, but it looks like some of them move around more than others."
"Good. What else?"
I chewed on the inside of my lip and added, "I don't know what you're looking for, but is it possible to correlate how their movements relate to each other?"
Sherlock gave me a long, speculative gaze before reclaiming the laptop from my knees. "If we add any available time stamps, then animate the map…" His voice trailed off again as he typed. Eventually, I excused myself to see if any coffee was left. I was just about to put the dregs in the microwave when Sherlock exclaimed, "Oh!" so suddenly that I dropped the mug in the sink.
"John! We have to — "
I stepped back into the sitting room and leaned on the back of the empty chair. "Nope, still just me," I said when he looked up. He looked so disappointed that I began to smile, then stopped as his eyes narrowed and his lower lip stuck out in a hint of a pout. "Are you all right?"
You're not a complete idiot," he said, sounding vaguely surprised.
"Thanks, I think?"
"Don't look at me like that, you have no idea how unusual that makes you. But you're still not John." His apologetic expression looked like he was trying it on and finding it unflattering. "I'm sorry. No offense."
"None taken," I said. "If you really need him, should we wait until he gets back?"
"He's filling in for someone at the clinic," he said, stressing the last word petulantly. That's right, I recalled — John was a doctor. "I asked him to come home but he can't leave yet."
"Well, how about taking a lunch break? I haven't eaten anything yet today. I can run downstairs to the sandwich shop if you want."
"Not hungry. You go ahead."
I came back with a large coronation chicken sandwich plus two bags of cheese and onion crisps. Remembering yesterday's chocolate croissant, I left half the sandwich and one bag on the kitchen table while I took the rest over to the couch. I shoved my pillow and blankets to one end and was pulling out my phone to check email when I received a text:
How are you and Himself getting on?
"Sherlock," I called to the silent figure across the room, "John wants to know how we're getting on."
"Why is he asking you?"
Apparently I'm not completely hopeless, but I'm not you.
John's reply was a screenshot of what I assumed was John's phone. It showed half a dozen texts signed "SH," all variations on "come home now." These all arrived in the last 15 minutes, said the accompanying message.
I grinned, imagining Sherlock texting frantically while I was waiting in line for my lunch, and said loud enough for him to hear, "Have you given him any reason to think we're not?"
Sherlock unfolded himself from his chair with an annoyed huff and stalked into the kitchen. After a few moments of silence, I heard a telltale crinkle.
He's eating my crisps. That's good, right?
You'll live another day. I'll be home in 2 hours.
Stop talking about me. SH
"Why are you texting me when I'm right here, you ridiculous man?" I said as I walked to the kitchen. When I rounded the corner, he was standing, swaying from foot to foot, with his phone in one hand and the other half of the chicken sandwich in the other. "Ah. Never mind then."
"Ridiculous?" he said around a mouthful of sandwich.
"In a good way. Bring that out here and explain things some more while we eat."
He joined me on the couch, wiped a bit of chicken off his lip, and said, "I hate repeating myself; let's save it until John gets back. Tell me about Michael."
I tried to ignore the quick pulse of adrenaline that shot through me at the name. "My ex? Why?"
I stared into space, gathering my thoughts. Facts, I told myself. Just the facts. "Fine. Michael. We were together for two years. We lived together. I was coming back from a business trip and managed to get bumped to an earlier flight. When I got home, I walked in on him with someone else in our bed."
He leaned toward me, face alight with interest. "What did you do?"
"I moved out, what else?"
"No, I mean, what did you do right then?"
I supposed I should have been irritated, but the idea that my experience might help him solve a crime someday made his question surprisingly bearable. "I threw up," I said, letting myself smile a bit.
"That seems fairly unambiguous."
"I threw up on him," I clarified, smiling a bit wider. It was pretty funny, come to think of it.
"Definitive." His eyes crinkled up at the corners as he bit into his sandwich.
"It's been three months and this is the first time I've been able to mention it without feeling sick all over again."
"Would you forgive him, if he asked?"
I shook my head emphatically. "I can forgive a lot, but hurting me because you want what you want when you want it and to hell with me? That's not forgivable."
Sherlock chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and said, "As opposed to hurting you incidentally, or to prevent something worse?"
"Exactly." I licked mayonnaise from my fingers. "Anyway, that's Michael. If you'd been there you'd probably be able to point out all the clues that should have warned me it was coming."
"Maybe now that I know you, I'll have you vet all future dates. Not that I'm going to be dating much any time soon. Not until I stop the bleeding from this one."
"If you need emergency assistance, I know a good doctor who seems to specialize in treating women." He winked broadly, a gesture that screamed "don't take me seriously."
"Shut up. John was right. You are impossible." I grinned at him. "Which reminds me, he said he'd be home in two hours, if you want me to do anything else before he arrives."
"I need the couch." I shrugged and stood up. He swung his legs up, lay back, and pressed his palms together beneath his chin. "Don't talk," he demanded, and closed his eyes. I stared down at him, shrugged again, and curled up with my phone in the chrome and leather armchair. I had email to catch up on anyhow.
It turned out there was one rooftop in all of London where Sherlock could go without John lodging a protest: their own.
Sherlock was still lying on the couch, looking for all the world like a modern version of a crusader's tomb carving, when the door to the street open and shut. By the time the door at the top of the stairs swung open, though, he was standing at the threshold with his hand outstretched.
"Give me your phone, John," he said. "I need to send a text."
I looked up from where I was bent over my own phone, thumbing out a note to David with my flight details. "You could have used mine," I offered.
John stepped around Sherlock, handing over his phone on the way. "Yeah, what's so special about — Jesus!" He stopped mid-stride and gawked at me. "What the bloody fuck?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "It's a disguise, John."
"She looks like your midget cousin!"
"Midget?" I protested. "I know I'm short, but come on!"
"Look," John said. He walked over to me, plucked my phone from my grasp, and took a picture of me. Then he turned it toward Sherlock and took a picture of him. Sherlock looked over his shoulder as he scrolled back and forth between the two images. "The pale skin, the dark curly hair, the nose — you could absolutely pass her off as a relative."
"She looks no more like me than Mycroft does."
"Who's Mycroft?" I asked as I flipped between the photos. I couldn't see the resemblance John insisted was there. As far as I could tell, making me look even remotely Holmesian would take a brilliant plastic surgeon, colored contact lenses, and a pair of stilts.
"My brother," Sherlock said in a tone that strictly discouraged follow-up questions. "We look nothing alike."
"And a good thing, too," John said. "Imagine a female version of Mycroft."
Sherlock shuddered theatrically. "I'd far rather you didn't," he replied.
It turned out there was one rooftop in all of London where Sherlock could go without John lodging a protest: their own. Sherlock had rigged up a makeshift dumbwaiter outside the kitchen window which, he bragged, could support up to 10 kilos as long as the contents didn't shift too much. We filled it with a teapot, milk, sugar, and three mugs before climbing out the window and up the fire escape. When we reached the small deck someone had built at some point over the peak of the roof, they hauled up the payload without spilling a drop.
I sat down on the edge of the deck and admired the view while John poured. "Cheers," he said, settling himself to my left with his own mug. When Sherlock began to kneel down on my right, John said teasingly, "I never thought I'd see the day."
John made a gesture that encompassed the three of us. "When you'd let a woman come between us again."
Sherlock made a soft noise in the back of his throat as he stood back up and reseated himself on John's free side. "There," he said. "Happy?"
"Oh, I'm bloody chuffed," John said. "Especially since I know she won't drug you or kidnap me," he added with a smirk. "Or try to seduce you into committing treason."
My own eyebrow tried to imitate Sherlock's. "Who are we talking about here?" I asked. They answered simultaneously.
I continued to look unenlightened. Sherlock sighed and made an "after you" gesture. "God, how do I describe that woman?" John began. "A dominatrix. A blackmailer. A con artist. A goddamn force of nature with absolutely magnificent…" His glance dropped briefly to my chest before he caught himself with a quick, embarrassed laugh. "Anyway. She got the best of Sherlock, though he'll deny it — "
"I saved her life," Sherlock protested. "So she helped save mine."
"You mean she taught you how to play dead," John said, suddenly terse.
"I'm glad she made it up to you, but forgive me for being less than grateful for her style of apology."
Eyes narrowed at each other, they seemed to have forgotten my presence for a moment to pursue what was clearly an ongoing disagreement. I sipped at my tea and stared self-consciously at Regent's Park while I pretended I couldn't hear them bickering. I felt like I was witnessing something I shouldn't, with no way to retreat without calling attention to my presence.
Eventually, John touched my arm. "I'm sorry," he said, "you didn't need to hear that."
"No, no," I told him, covering his hand with my own and patting it in what I hoped was a reassuring way. "I'm a total stranger, I'm all up in your business all of a sudden — I'm the one who should apologize. I should go back to Harewood House so you can have your privacy back."
They turned a matched set of glares my way. "Not a bloody chance," John said firmly, while Sherlock snapped, "What part of Yannis Lupo being a dangerous man who's following you around did you not understand?"
"I could find another hotel," I suggested. "London has lots, and Lupo doesn't know my name."
"Lupo has at least half a dozen women on his payroll whom he can simply send out to look for you at the most likely hotels — and your budget limits your options, especially since you're still technically a guest at Harewood House. You'd have to pay for your full reservation there even if you went over there right now to check out."
I hadn't thought of that. If I found another hotel, I would be so far over my vacation budget that I'd have at least one uncomfortably miserly week before getting paid again. "I thought coloring my hair was supposed to solve all that." I sighed. "But you're right, I can't afford to pay for two hotels at once. I'll just have to inconvenience you for three more nights."
"It's no inconvenience," John insisted. "You're helping us. And you're doing Sherlock a favor by forcing him to sleep in an actual bed." Sherlock said something under his breath; John rolled his eyes; they elbowed each other in a way that made me think yet again of two 12-year-old boys.
"Still, I feel like I'm taking advantage," I said. "I don't know, maybe I could cook dinner? You can't eat takeaway all the time." I squelched all thoughts about the putative foot in the colander and focused instead on the pro-quality chef's knife I'd spotted. If one of them made the kitchen fit for cooking while the other helped me shop, I might actually be able to pull together a dinner worthy of being a good house guest. To my surprise, they actually agreed.
Sherlock, of course, argued that he wasn't hungry — but once John had sent him off with me to the nearest supermarket, he was more than happy to rattle off deductions about our fellow shoppers while slipping random items into my basket. I planned to make my favorite Mediterranean chicken stew, and I didn't dare ask what he thought sweet and sour sauce, sliced beef liver, or a whole coconut would add to the menu. When he hesitated over a chocolate banoffee pie, though, I nodded and made enthusiastic noises. What 12-year-old boy says no to dessert, after all?
We returned, grocery-laden, to a kitchen that was far less of a biohazard than it had been when we left. I shooed my hosts out of the kitchen, slipped in my earbuds, and fired up a playlist of classic Motown.
I was bobbing my head and mincing parsley to the beat when I realized John and Sherlock had stationed themselves in the doorway to the kitchen to watch with barely restrained amusement. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, disconnected the earbuds, and joined Smokey Robinson in belting out "Shop Around" at the top of my lungs.
John chimed in at "Good looking girls come a dime a dozen," adding an ironic hip swivel that made me hiccup with laughter. We shimmied around, clearing the table to Stevie Wonder, pouring wine to Tina Turner, and bringing out dishes and food to the Supremes before I switched off the music and sat down. "I'll get you to dance yet," John said, grinning at Sherlock and bumping his hip against the taller man's before sliding into a chair. His earlier anger seemed to have evaporated.
"If you can call that dancing," Sherlock said, but he was grinning right back.
Dinner conversation revolved around the information Sherlock had spent the day analyzing. Although I wasn't entirely sure I understood, he seemed to have concluded that Lupo was in fact bringing young women into the UK illegally, housing them temporarily in that bed-filled room in the Albanian embassy, and then scattering them among various locations in London. Some of those locations were probably bordellos where women lived and worked; some were hotels that made convenient, frequent meeting places.
"Legwork tonight," Sherlock said as he licked a dollop of whipped cream off his fork. John licked his own lips in an unconscious echo and nodded. This, they told me, was something I couldn't help them do — if these women were, in fact, being trafficked, the police needed proof, and that meant looking for them, or at least people who could find them. When they left, I was to stay in, keep the door locked, and if anyone rang the bell, let the landlady who lived on the ground floor answer it.
"Text one of us if you see or hear anything suspicious, anything at all," John ordered me. "We'll send the police over and come back as quickly as we can."
It didn't sound like a very exciting night for me, but they promised that if all went well tonight, I'd be able to spend tomorrow out and about with impunity. I decided to spend the evening in the bathtub with one of the many books stacked up around the flat and consider it vacation relaxation. When faced with the inevitable, make the best of it, right?
When they returned from their legwork, I woke just enough to mumble a greeting, then threw the blankets over my head and plummeted back into sleep. Some indeterminate time later, I was lurching up on one arm, jolted awake by a loud thump directly over my head. I held my breath, trying to decide whether to scream or hide, and scanned the room in the dim light filtering in from the street. Could anything within reach serve as a weapon in a pinch — the poker by the fireplace, or maybe an especially heavy book?
John's muffled voice cried out, "Sherlock! Jesus, no!" I envisioned intruders and decided to go for the poker. Before I could sit up, though, Sherlock paced catlike through the room. He climbed halfway up the stairs and stood there for a full minute before descending and rummaging in a corner of the sitting room.
"What — "
He shook his head and lifted a finger to his lips.
He returned to the stairs with something solid hanging from his left hand, then lifted it to his shoulder. A thread of sound began to unwind, simple and soothing, almost plaintive. He leaned into the music with his eyes closed, swaying as he coaxed each note up the stairs.
I couldn't say I was surprised that he was a skilled violinist. I probably wouldn't have been shocked to find out he was an Olympic kickboxing champion with a Nobel Prize in astrophysics and a novel short-listed for the Booker Prize. Even a good bit of his prickly persona was BAFTA-caliber acting — because no one who saw the look on his face as he played could have believed he was cold or unfeeling. When he finally let the tune subside, he slouched against the wall and sighed. I closed my eyes and burrowed back under my blankets.
"Beautiful," I said quietly, meaning more than just the music.
I was already falling back to sleep when I felt something prod my shoulder gently. I opened my eyes to find Sherlock kneeling next to the couch. "Go sleep in my room," he said in a voice that was barely more than a breath. "If John has another nightmare, it's going to wake you again. I'll stay out here."
"Oh, you just want the couch," I whispered back. I sensed it was every bit as true as his desire to let me sleep uninterrupted — accurate for a certain fraction of the truth, but not the whole of it. I let him coax me to my feet and usher me down the hall to his bedroom. The duvet was rumpled, its humps and hollows showing where he'd been sitting propped up against the headboard; his laptop was open at the foot of the bed where he'd set it aside. He pulled back the duvet to reveal sheets that were barely wrinkled.
I curled into the bed and smiled against a pillow that smelled like a combination of dryer sheets, lavender and oranges, and an almost subliminal hint of clean male sweat. "It's easier to take care of him when he doesn't know it, isn't it," I murmured, drowsy and charmed. "God, you're good."
Sherlock shushed me. He picked up his laptop, switched off the light, and shut the door behind him.
Okay, I couldn't resist giving Shasta the chance to make this fantastic stew. If you try it yourself, double the artichokes. Trust me.
"Shaz, this is Sherlock fucking Holmes."
I was boggled. "You know him too?"
John was pouring three mugs of coffee when I shuffled out of Sherlock's bedroom and mumbled a greeting. He looked up and his hand twitched, splattering coffee onto the countertop.
"Shasta!" he said in surprise. "I thought you were taking a shower! Why were you — " He looked toward the bathroom, where I could hear water running, then back toward Sherlock's room. His eyes went wide and he threw up a hand as if ordering me to halt. "No, wait, that's none of my business."
"Huh?" Mornings have never been my strong suit; I didn't realize what he was inferring until I was standing next to him, adding milk to a mug of coffee so strong it was almost viscous. I took a fortifying gulp and hoped I wasn't blushing. "Oh my god. No. He told me to sleep in his room because he needed the couch."
"Good." John's reply came a bit too quickly. I managed not to comment on that, but I couldn't stop the blush this time. "I mean, I'm sorry he didn't offer sooner," he added. "I'm sure you slept better."
I looked at the tense line of his shoulders and smiled, remembering exactly why I'd ended up in a proper bed. "I did, thanks. It was really thoughtful of him."
"Sherlock Holmes, thoughtful? Are we talking about the same person? Posh, lanky prat?"
The bathroom door opened and Sherlock appeared in a billow of steam and a blue silk robe, vigorously toweling his hair. The silk clung to his back, spotted with damp, as he vanished into his room. I couldn't help staring after him in something like awe. It was like watching a classical sculpture, perfect and untouchable, come to aesthetically thrilling life. "Damn," I said under my breath.
"I hope he left you some hot water," John said under his, visibly discomfited. I took that as my cue to take my turn in the shower.
I returned to the sitting room just as Sherlock was showing out a dreadlocked boy with a lip ring. As soon as the door to the street thudded shut, he spun around, his coat swirling around his calves. "John!" he called upstairs. "Camden awaits!"
John came down adjusting the back of his cardigan to conceal what I knew must have been his handgun. "Camden? What happened to Chelsea?"
"Um," I said, "what about me? You said last night that if all went well I could play tourist today, so I made tentative lunch plans. Or am I coming with you?"
Sherlock was pacing in a tight circle, texting. "John?" he said, waving his hand in a way that suggested he had more important things to do.
"Right then," John said, and began to explain. They'd spent several hours last night distributing copies of the photos we'd taken from the Albanian embassy to what Sherlock called his "homeless network." The dreadlocked boy who'd just left had been delivering the news that two of the women pictured had been spotted in Camden the previous night, and that a third was in Chelsea as recently as an hour ago.
"You mean you pay people on the streets to work for you? Isn't that dangerous for them?"
"Living rough is already dangerous," Sherlock said absently, intent on his phone. "They need money, I need information." Put that way, it made a certain sense.
Trying to find and question potential sex slaves definitely wasn't something I could do, nor did I want to, but I didn't want to waste my precious vacation time lying around their apartment, either. After two days away from Harewood House, I told them, Lupo had probably found another guest to lure into his plans, whatever they were. "Even if he wants to find me, he has no idea where I am now," I argued. "He'd have to run into me by accident, and how likely is that in this weather?" I nodded toward the window, where light rain was turning the view of Baker Street into a kaleidoscope of greys and greens.
We agreed on a compromise: I could conceal myself with my newly dark hair, my most nondescript clothes, and a plain black umbrella, as long as I texted them at specific agreed-on times. "You'd think I was some naïve teenager and not a grown woman who's lived in cities her entire adult life," I grumbled, but I acknowledged that I appreciated their concern.
"If we don't hear from you, we'll assume you need help and track you down," John said.
"How will you do that?"
Sherlock snorted impatiently. "You've heard of 'Find My iPhone,' haven't you?"
"Yes, but that's 'Find My iPhone,' not 'Find Someone Else's iPhone'." He stopped pacing and gave me an exasperated glare. "Oh. Unless you're Sherlock Holmes."
"Now you're catching on." John winked at me. I barely resisted the urge to stick out my tongue at him as we all clattered down the stairs together. They were turning me into a 12-year-old boy.
My original plan for the day was to wander the length of Victoria Embankment from Big Ben to the Inns of Court, but when I came up from the Underground, the rain had turned steady and soaking. I popped up my umbrella and sloshed across the street to Westminster Abbey.
I admired the newly restored Cosmati pavement before the high altar and paid my respects to half a dozen medieval monarchs before making my way to my favorite spot in the Abbey: the Lady Chapel. When my phone alerted me that it was check-in time, I poked out the words Guess where? and added a quick snapshot. Then I put my phone away and cupped my camera in my palm, thumb on the shutter. A Japanese girl was craning her neck up at Henry VII's glorious filigreed ceiling so intently that she was about to fall over backwards onto her friends, and I didn't want to miss it.
"Shazzer!" Jess hurled herself into the pub as if it was a lifeboat on a stormy sea and clutched at me like I was a life preserver. "Look at you! Look at your hair!"
"Look at yours! It's actually a color found in nature — did you have a tragic L'Oreal disaster?"
"The definition of business casual is a little less casual on this side of the Atlantic," said my oldest friend, leading me to two empty stools at the far end of the bar. "What's your excuse, coppertop? And how's your trip? And I need a beer, do you promise not to tell my boss I drank at lunch?"
"I think he'll be able to tell as soon as you get back to the office and kiss him hello," I laughed. "And how is business, anyhow?"
Jess had moved to London for a consulting client who became her business partner and, in short order, her boyfriend. My last trip to London had been for their wedding. It took us a beer each and a double order of fish and chips to catch up on the three years since then. I had just wrapped up the Michael saga by telling her that I thought I was starting to get over it when my phone pinged again.
"Hold on, I need to text someone," I said apologetically as I thumbed out and sent Pub off Fleet Street w old friend.
"You have a new boy to check in with? Atta girl, Shasta."
"Just pinging the folks I'm staying with. But if you want to be literal, I am checking in with them, and they are boys."
"I didn't notice." I gave her a prim smile for an instant, then let it blossom into a grin. "Okay, I noticed. And yes. One of them has the kind of smile that makes women go weak, and the other, Jessie, my god, he's got to be from another planet, because human beings don't look like this."
The screen on my camera was too small to show off my new friends to their full advantage, so I scrolled through my phone to see what I had. I landed on the shot John had snapped of Sherlock when he was arguing we looked alike. "Here, this is the man from another planet," I said, handing it to Jess.
She stared at the photo, stared at me, stared back at the photo. "Holy crap."
"I know, and you should hear his voice."
"I have! I mean — Shaz, this is Sherlock fucking Holmes."
I was boggled. "You know him too?"
"I know of him. There was that whole thing with the Crown Jewels and the suicide and all, a couple of years ago — " She stopped abruptly as I stared at her uncomprehendingly. "Right, that was after the last time you were here, wasn't it. He must be an English thing. Like Amanda Holden, you know?" I shook my head. "Actress," she explained. "Household name in the UK, but totally unknown everywhere else."
"So I'm crashing on the couch of a celebrity?" I had a hard time believing that. Where were the paparazzi, the autograph hounds, the gasps of recognition and curious crowds?
"Wait, you're not kidding. You really are staying with Detective Hotness." Jess looked as excited as she had in junior high when she found out I'd kissed Billy Hsu after history class. "How did you meet him?"
"Long story, but the short version is that I had to leave my hotel to avoid a creeper who was following me around, which explains the hair, by the way."
"It looks good on you, whatever the reason. Reminds me of the year we were goths."
"Thanks! Anyway, Sherlock was looking into Stalky Stalkerton and that's pretty much the extent of it."
"So what's he like? Other than a gorgeous space alien."
"He's an asshole," I said unhesitatingly, but I grinned. "He's terrifyingly brilliant, but that means he's always three steps ahead of everyone else, so he doesn't want to waste time being nice, which makes him condescending and demanding and...well, dickish. But then he'll turn around and do something thoughtful, or say something that comes across as an insult but is really a compliment, and it's like he's someone else entirely. Believe it or not, I actually like him, although I don't want to know what he'd be like if John wasn't around to balance him out."
"John Watson? You know him, too?"
"Well, they work together, they live together, it would be hard to miss him."
"So are they — " She made a suggestive hand motion.
I laughed and waved her off. "Actually, this morning John thought Sherlock and I had spent the night together."
Her eyes widened with glee. "Did you?"
"Sadly, no," I sighed melodramatically. "Not that I'd turn him down, but it's definitely not going to happen."
"What about John?"
"I haven't spent the night with him, either."
Jess swatted at me. "No, I meant, what's he like?"
"John is — " I couldn't come up with a word for John as quickly as I had for Sherlock. "John is funny and charming and at the same time he's very, very serious. I've only known him for a few days and I'd already trust him with my life. And he and Sherlock together — I've never seen anything like it. I don't know what to compare it to. 'Friends' doesn't even begin to cover it. I can't imagine one without the other, honestly. They're practically symbiotic."
"When I was taking a class at London Business School, I used to go running in Regent's Park after, and I spotted John Watson there a few times," Jess said pensively. "This was when everyone still thought Sherlock was dead. He looked terrible."
"What do you mean, when everyone thought Sherlock was dead?"
"It was a couple of years ago now. There was a string of high-profile crimes and he was accused of hiring someone to commit them just so he could come in and save the day, and then it looked like he had killed himself — "
"Oh my god." A few verbal exchanges between my hosts were starting to make a bit more sense.
"It was a huge deal at the time, the talk of London. Then about a year later he popped up alive and well, and there were a few news stories about how he was innocent and the whole thing had been a front so he could go undercover and catch the actual criminals, or something like that. He's not as famous now, just sort of well-known." Well, that explained the lack of paparazzi, I guessed.
Jess glanced at her watch and flinched. "Shit, I have a conference call in 15 minutes. Come back to the office with me. You can use my laptop to look up the whole thing yourself, if you want."
Hell, yes, I wanted.
Visual aid: the breathtaking fan-vaulted ceiling of the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Letting the rain collect in my hair and drip down my face gave me a plausible excuse for the smudged, smeared mess I had become while watching video clips and newspaper stories from two years earlier.
By late afternoon, the rain had subsided enough to let me keep my umbrella furled in my bag as I walked to the Tube. I stopped beneath a convenient overhang to text Sherlock and John that I was on my way back to Baker Street, then continued on in the light drizzle. Letting it collect in my hair and drip down my face gave me a plausible excuse for the smudged, smeared mess I had become while watching video clips and newspaper stories from two years earlier.
I'd started to cry while reading about how Sherlock had been accused of hiring an actor to fake a series of outrageous crimes so he could appear to solve them. I'd sobbed outright on learning that less than 24 hours later, Sherlock had jumped off a rooftop to his apparent death. The tabloids shrieked about his disgrace and shame while accusing John of being either an accomplice or a dupe. It was excruciating, like watching a slaughter in slow motion.
The coverage of Sherlock's resurrection a year later was less lurid and more sparse — mostly anonymous quotes from unnamed government officials who used phrases like "witness protection" and "international crime ring" to suggest a lot but explain nothing. Sherlock himself had said only that he was happy to be home at last.
Meanwhile, John had somehow carried off a flawless performance of grief the entire time. In the few photos I'd found, he wore a numb grey mask that made my stomach ache. No wonder the memory of that time still upset him.
I walked slowly, giving myself time to figure out how to handle all this new and not entirely welcome knowledge. Yes, I was growing fond of my new friends — and yes, I was starting to think of them as friends — but I suspected my reaction had been a bit over the top. I wasn't going to be able to hide it entirely; even if I wanted to, Sherlock would be able to deduce it at a glance. Still, I reminded myself firmly that I wasn't going to ask any questions, not even the glaring ones like "why did you have to fake your death?" and "what made it safe enough for you to come home again?" Anything not already public knowledge was none of my business.
Oh, who was I kidding?
I knew I hadn't imagined John's relief when I'd reassured him that no, Sherlock and I hadn't shared a bed. A comment I'd spotted on his blog had given me some flattering notions about the reason for his reaction. Curiosity and ego are a dangerous combination. I composed a second text, this one to John alone:
Read your blog. Which three continents?
I hit send and headed into the Tube station without waiting for a response.
I knew as soon as I reached their building that they were already home. They'd left the door to the street ajar so I could let myself in, and I could hear their muffled voices as I climbed the stairs. I walked heavily so they'd hear me coming; if anything repulsive had migrated to the kitchen table while I was out, I hoped they'd take the chance to put it away.
When I walked in, Sherlock was giving John a look that suggested he'd just said something so obvious that even a child of average intelligence could understand. John was sitting on the couch, staring up at him with a puzzled smile, clearly not understanding. "Are you sure?" he was saying.
Sherlock's eyes slid toward me just long enough to acknowledge my arrival. "Are you going to make me repeat myself?"
"No," John replied, raising a hand to me in greeting. "Just — you know it's not necessary."
I was about to ask what they were discussing and why Sherlock was standing on the coffee table when he suddenly pulled out his phone. "Pituitary glands!" he exulted.
"What about them?" John asked. I looked at Sherlock in horror, afraid he was about to produce one from his coat pocket.
He bounced off the coffee table like Tigger. "Molly says I can have two if I come right now!"
"Ew," I said before I could stop myself.
"You don't want to join me?"
John tossed one of the throw pillows at his flatmate. "Pretty sure that's not vacation fun by anyone's standards but yours. But we're eating when you get back, and that includes you, you big skinny git."
Sherlock sighed and rolled his eyes in a long-suffering way before sweeping out the door. "Two hours," he called up the stairs. "I'll meet you at Angelo's."
I waited until the street door slammed behind him before saying, "Pituitary glands?" John simply shrugged. All in a day's work at 221B, I supposed. I hung my coat on the rack, ran my fingers through my damp hair, and dropped onto the couch.
"So," I said, pulling one leg up so I could turn to face him.
"So." He mirrored my posture and stretched an arm along the back of the couch. "The answer to your question is Europe, Africa, and Asia."
"Hmm, I would have thought North America."
"Not yet, but I have time." He smirked. "What else did you read?"
"Your entire blog, terrible puns and all." I swallowed and made my decision. "And a bunch of other stuff from a couple of years ago."
"Ah." His smirk shaded away to something more melancholy. "And?"
"I was showing some of my photos to a friend at lunch and she recognized Sherlock. She said some things that made me curious, and I couldn't help spending a little quality time with Google."
"And now you have questions." He looked away and back. "Most people want to know how he did it and where he was the whole time, and that's up to him to discuss."
"I don't want to know anything you don't want to tell me."
"Really?" He cocked his head with a look of deep skepticism. I imagined he used it on Sherlock all the time. I said nothing. He could draw his own conclusions. "Go ahead and ask," he finally said. "Just understand that some of it isn't mine to tell."
I didn't want to be offensive or inappropriate, so I took my time choosing my words. "All I can think is how absolutely terrified you must have been that you'd mess up and let something slip. How did you do it?"
For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of the phrase "thousand-yard stare." He was still, so still, looking at something that wasn't in the room. "Wait, you thought — " He refocused on me, scrubbed a hand through his hair, and sighed. "I didn't have any secrets to keep."
"What do you mean?"
"Shasta, I saw him jump." His voice was low and rough. "I saw what I thought was his body. He wanted me to think he was dead, and I honestly believed he was until the moment I found out he wasn't."
I had called Sherlock an asshole, but that was cruelty beyond anything I could imagine. "What? Why? How could he do that to you?"
"Blackmail. His life for three others. He had to play dead until he could — how can I put this? Neutralize the threat."
My hands flew up to my mouth. "But if you had known, you could have helped."
"That's what I told him, right after I gave him a black eye." He smiled ruefully. "He said the odds of keeping me alive had been better if I didn't know. Hard to stay angry under those circumstances, you know?"
"Oh my god." My eyes prickled with tears again as I revised all my assumptions. Sherlock had given up his life, in every sense but the literal one, in exchange for John's. Entire religions have been founded on less than that. My new faith was instant, unshakeable, and absolute; all I could think to do was lean forward and touch my lips reverently to John's cheek. "I'm sorry," I said when I sat back again. "That must have been horrible. I'm so sorry."
"Hey," John said, rubbing a hand up and down my arm. "Hey. It's all right. We're all right. It's been almost a year, and you can see it's all fine now." He stood up. "Come on, I'll make us some tea. We can just sit around and watch the telly until dinner if you like."
He went into the kitchen and started the kettle; I flipped through the channels, looking for something engagingly mindless to take our minds off death and loneliness. I finally landed on Top Gear, where Jeremy Clarkson was putting the latest Jaguar through its paces. John made an approving sound as he set a cup in front of me. "You know about Top Gear?"
"They tried to do an American version and it just wasn't the same. On behalf of my entire country, I apologize."
We drank our tea side by side, making admiring comments about the Jaguar. I slipped off my shoes and curled my legs beneath me. John slouched deeper into the couch, propped his feet on the coffee table, and yawned.
"Hey, you want to hear something funny?" he said lazily. I hummed in agreement. "Last night, while we were out and about, Sherlock brought up kissing you the other day. I think it was bothering him. He said you hadn't enjoyed it and, um, suggested I should make it up to you. That's what we were talking about when you got here."
I gave a startled laugh. "What?"
"He said he'd give us two hours. I swear I'm not… pulling your leg? Whatever you Yanks say when you mean 'taking the piss'."
"This Yank says you're yanking my chain. I can't see Sherlock as a wingman."
"Neither can I, which is what makes it so funny. He's usually just the opposite."
"What do you mean?"
"You've heard of a cockblock? He's a Sherlock-block."
"Stop it!" I was giggling now.
"Well, to be fair, most women have a hard time with internal organs and armed criminals anyhow. But he helps it along by showing up now and then to wave a freezer bag full of toenails in my date's face."
"Ugh!" I didn't think I'd ever be able to see a freezer bag in the same way again.
"Once he showed up at a restaurant with a container of brain tissue he wanted me to examine. You can imagine how charmed my date was."
"Dumped you on the spot, didn't she." We nodded knowingly at each other.
"Fucking hell," he suddenly said. On Top Gear, James May was testing a golf cart retrofitted with a Porsche engine. We watched, fascinated, until the golf cart rolled over into a ditch. "I am never letting Sherlock watch this episode. Never." John tipped his head back and yawned again. "Anyway. I'm too tired to get a leg over, I'm just saying I want to encourage his generosity in the future, so if he ever asks, please tell him I shagged you into a stupor and sent you home to California cured of your broken heart."
That was the sweetest thing anyone had said to me in ages. I reached over to give his hair a fond ruffle. "Aww, that's lovely," I said. "If I wasn't leaving in two days, I'd let you."
"If you weren't leaving in two days, Sherlock would be here with the toenails instead of down at the morgue." He leaned into my hand and yawned a third time, prodigiously. "Christ, I'm knackered."
It occurred to me that after spending half the night in search of Yannis Lupo's smuggled women, he'd had nightmares in the wee hours, then woke up early for more running around London. No wonder he was tired. "Take a nap," I suggested. "I'll wake you up when it's time to go for dinner."
"I have an idea. Stand up." I stood up. He stretched out with his back against the back of the couch, curled one arm beneath his head, and patted the cushions in front of him with a heavy-eyed smile. "Here, let's skip the shag and go straight to the stupor."
Okay, that was the sweetest thing anyone had said to me in ages.
I set the alarm on my phone to go off in an hour and joined John, little spoon to his big spoon. "S'nice," he said, speech already going sloppy. He slid his free arm over my hip and tipped his forehead against the back of my head. "You smell good."
I lay there watching the end of Top Gear, vaguely aware of John's breath going slow and quiet against my neck as he drifted off. When the show ended, I had to lean up on my elbow to reach the remote. When I settled back down, John tightened his arm around my waist and burrowed his nose gracelessly into my hair again.
"Mmm," he mumbled. "Sherlock."
My throat constricted with the desire to giggle, or maybe weep. I bit my lip and stared down at my arm draped over his until I let my eyes slide shut.
How many times could the inside of my head rearrange itself in a single day before I developed a migraine?
Three months of singlehood hadn't been nearly long enough to erase my automatic response to being on the inside of a cuddle. My body instantly relaxed against the solid warmth of John's chest. My brain, on the other hand, continued to click and spin with things I wasn't sure I understood.
I was fairly certain that Sherlock was going to laugh at me later when John told him how upset I'd been about his faked death. I could almost hear that butterscotch voice pointing out how useless it was to cry over something that had happened two years ago, especially when it had ended well. He would be right, of course. (I gave myself the momentary satisfaction of imagining cuffing the side of his head, and his undoubtedly indignant reaction.) I was predicting that because I'd deduced it, dammit, as soon as John had quipped about curing my broken heart with an enthusiastic shag. He'd been working at the clinic when I told Sherlock about Michael. I could only assume Sherlock had repeated my words to him later. Therefore, I also had to assume telling something to either was the same as telling it to both. Which made perfect sense, actually, considering I was technically part of their current case.
The other things John had just told me made far less sense. Why would Sherlock care whether or not I'd enjoyed kissing him? I'd never met anyone who gave less of a damn about what anyone thought of him. Anyone other than John, that is, but John wouldn't have an opinion about his kissing prowess, would he? And why would Sherlock want John to make up for his failings in that area, anyway? Not that I was offended; I just didn't think I'd said or done anything to make him think I wanted that, as if he'd even care what I wanted. I remembered saying just the opposite, that I was off romance for the immediate future. A typical man would see that as an opportunity to suggest a rebound fling, but Sherlock was hardly a typical man, was he?
Neither was John, for that matter, I mused. He might have a reputation as a playboy, but he'd been nothing but a gentleman to me. He hadn't even put me in a position of having to reject him; by telling me about Sherlock's suggestion as if it were a joke, he'd put the initiative squarely in my hands if I cared to take it. I wished I had, to be honest, but I knew I was in the kind of emotional state that made me more likely to get attached. The last thing I needed was to pine for someone halfway around the world.
Still, I thought, if John Watson existed in London, surely there were other sturdy, solid, indisputably decent men closer to home, and I could find them. And considering how recently I'd believed I'd missed my last chance, that was a satisfying thought. I reached over my shoulder to brush my fingertips against John's hair in gratitude and a certain amount of regret.
Which brought me back to the question of why, exactly, we were spooning on the couch with our ankles tangled. Maybe it wasn't about what I might want, but what John might want. Was it a gift from Sherlock to his best friend, whose dates hadn't been working out lately? That would almost make sense. Almost, except for the giant hole in the logic: the fact that Sherlock seemed to be the reason John's sex life was in such a sad state in the first place.
And speaking of things that didn't make any sense to me, that was a big one. Why would Sherlock bother wasting even an hour trying to drive John's dates away? It wasn't as though John was eager to give up prowling the criminal-ridden streets of London in favor of playing family man in the suburbs. After just a few days, even I could tell that he liked being, as I'd read in one tabloid, a "committed bachelor." Maybe that phrase was supposed to hint that he didn't like women, but I thought maybe it was more that he liked them so much he didn't plan to settle on just one. At least not unless he met one who was willing to play perpetual second fiddle to Sherlock. I wasn't sure any woman alive would agree to a romance on those terms.
When I rubbed a thumb distractedly across John's knuckles, he curled his fingers into the hem of my shirt, but he didn't wake up. He just mashed his face against the nape of my neck and made a soft, contented sound. I made a long arm for my phone to check the time: three more minutes until the alarm. I switched it off and decided to make a quick email check before waking the man napping at my back. As I ticked off a dozen messages to delete (didn't my co-workers remember I was on vacation?), I heard a soft creak outside the flat. I looked up just as Sherlock stepped into the sitting room and froze.
His expression flickered through surprise, confusion, and — was that disappointment? — before settling into what I could only call resignation as he turned toward the kitchen. I eased myself out from beneath John's arm, trying not to wake him as I slid off the couch. "I assumed you were already on your way to Angelo's," Sherlock said in an undertone as I came up behind him. "I just wanted to run in and store this properly before I joined you."
He held up a plastic container. It sloshed. I grimaced at his back in disgust as he stashed it in the refrigerator. When he turned around, his face and voice offered nothing and gave nothing away as he said, "I'm sorry I interrupted."
"He's been asleep for the last hour," I said. "You didn't interrupt anything." Which you probably could have deduced as soon as you walked in, I didn't add as I pulled a face towel out of the linen closet and shut the bathroom door behind me.
Angelo's was old-school Italian, with Angelo himself serving dinner specials straight from his Nonna's kitchen and bustling around the table telling us that anything we wanted was on the house. The lamb ragu over papardelle made me whimper with happiness, but Sherlock's behavior just made me want to whimper. He kept carping at John for no apparent reason: His shirt was atrocious. He'd ordered the wrong wine. He should have joined Sherlock at the morgue. By the time Angelo came around to offer us coffee, I was squirming. John's patience seemed infinite, but it finally ran out when Sherlock sniped at him about "lying around while we still have a case to solve — really, the least you could have done was call Lestrade about the women in Clapham."
John swallowed his last bite of risotto and let his fork clatter onto the table as he stood up, clenching his left hand. "All right, you sodding wanker, that's enough," he said, voice calm but tight, "I don't know why you're pitching a wobbly, but I'm going to walk home to give you plenty of time to get over it. Shasta, you're welcome to join me, unless you'd rather stay here and babysit."
"I'm sure she'll have more fun with you," Sherlock grumbled.
A startled squeak escaped my throat. How many times could the inside of my head rearrange itself in a single day before I developed a migraine? John raised his eyebrows questioningly at me; I shook my head. If I was guessing wrong about what was bothering Sherlock, he might take me apart verbally over my coffee just because I was there to serve as a target. It wouldn't be pleasant, but I'd endure it — because if my guess was right, leaving with John would make matters worse.
"Right." John licked his lips. "I'll just leave you to it, then."
Sherlock kept his gaze fixed on his espresso as John marched out of the restaurant. He ignored me as Angelo gave me a sympathetic smile and a miniature sfogliatella. He watched but said nothing as I nibbled the pastry and licked the last of the ricotta filling off my fork. Finally, I slid my plate away, leaned my chin on my fist, and said mildly, "So, what was that all about?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes so hard I half expected to hear them rumble in their sockets. I continued to talk to him in the same tone of voice I used on my cat when I had to give her a pill. "You're sulking. I think you're sulking because you walked in on me snuggling on the couch with your best friend. But I don't get why you're having a strop over it."
"There's something profoundly disturbing about an American who uses phrases like 'having a strop'."
"When in Rome. Now stop changing the subject. I can't help if you insist on doing that."
"I don't need help," he growled.
"Maybe I'm the one who needs help. I'm certainly having a hard time keeping up." I put a hand on his arm, trying to radiate a sisterly sort of earnestness. This would all go pear-shaped in a blink if he believed I was mocking him. "Remember how I promised I'd tell you whether I thought you were being impossible or just difficult? I've decided. You're not impossible."
He continued to stare at his espresso cup. "But I am difficult."
"You're difficult like — a pomegranate." That got him to glance up at me through his lashes. I continued. "Or one of Shakespeare's tragedies. Or — or a sensitive piece of lab equipment. You require a lot of effort, but it's worthwhile."
"And you're willing to make the effort?" He sounded scornful, but he was still sitting there, and he hadn't shaken my hand off his arm.
"Pfft." I waved my other hand dismissively. "I'm irrelevant; I'm leaving the day after tomorrow. John is willing to make the effort, although I wouldn't blame him for stopping if you kept being such a dick about it." That got him to look at me with the full, terrifying force of his attention. I thought about John's breath stirring my hair and the name he'd mumbled into the nape of my neck. For a moment, I let myself relish the delicious improbability of knowing something Sherlock Holmes didn't.
"I'm being a dick?"
"You're angry at him for no reason! According to John, you gave him explicit instructions to do a lot more than just snuggle me."
"Why do you care?"
"Because you died for the guy, and for some bizarre reason, I find that sort of impressive. Why do you care?"
A flicker of surprise broke through his pout. "Oh, I don't know, I thought maybe you would tell me what I'm thinking."
His eyebrow shot up. "I don't usually bother with anything as imprecise as armchair psychology."
"I won't charge you for it, then."
A few stars were starting to glimmer through the lifting clouds as we left the restaurant. Sherlock raised his arm to hail a cab, but I grabbed his sleeve. "Don't," I said. "John said he was walking. Let him beat us back to Baker Street." To my surprise, he dropped his arm without an argument, then continued to surprise me by modulating his long stride so my much shorter legs could keep pace.
It wasn't until we were past Piccadilly Circus that I spoke again. "Well, let's rule out the obvious. You're not resenting a missed chance to cuddle up on the couch with me yourself, since we've already established that I'm not your type, more's the pity."
"No, you're not." Sherlock's voice was dry but amused.
"So is it that John didn't do everything you suggested?" I wasn't sure how to articulate what I was really thinking, not without making him more angry. I danced around my hunch as delicately as I could, figuring I had even odds of waking up in the morning to a bag of toenails. "Or is it that he did too much?"
He gave a noncommittal grunt and walked on silently. I thought I'd given him enough hints to go on with. "So," I said cheerily, "how did you become a detective in the first place?"
By the time we were within sight of 221B Baker Street, we were chatting companionably about the connections between what we'd wanted to be as children and what we'd ended up doing as adults. As he dug out his keys, Sherlock turned to me and asked, "Why do you and your friend David call each other 'Chicken'?"
"Oh god, I think it started in the dining hall at our dorm, but I don't actually remember. It's just one of those stupid things friends do."
"The way John calls me an idiot."
"No, honey, he calls you an idiot because you're an idiot." I grinned as we walked up the stairs, pitching my voice just loud enough to carry into the sitting room. "But he says it with love."
Sherlock snorted, but he didn't argue. Point to me, I thought.
"I'll give you this," John said as he finished making the tea. "You're no coward."
The dreadlocked boy from the previous day looked up from the couch, startled, as Sherlock pushed past me into the flat. John was at his desk, clearly taking notes on his laptop, but just as clearly struggling to keep up with his informant. Sherlock swept the laptop out from under John's hands and started typing as soon as he settled onto the opposite end of the couch.
"Say that last bit again," he ordered. As the boy cleared his throat and then went on in a hoarse Yorkshire accent, I caught John's eye and gestured in question. He stood up, mouthed the word "tea," and followed me into the kitchen.
"Perfect timing," John said as he slid the kitchen door shut behind us. "I was only managing to get every third word. Is he over his tantrum?" I made an affirmative noise. "Good," he continued, "because I think we have another long night ahead, and if he kept that up, I might not have been responsible for my actions."
I lined up four mugs on the counter as he handed them to me, dropped tea bags into each one, stuck a spoon into the sugar bowl. "Milk?" I asked.
"Top shelf," he replied, nodding toward the refrigerator.
I told myself not to be a baby. Sherlock's pituitary glands were safely sealed away, and if I saw anything more repulsive, well, it's not as if I hadn't been warned. I opened the door apprehensively and kept my eyes fixed on the top shelf. Milk. Yes. There it was. I took out the carton, filled the creamer pot, and returned the carton to the shelf by touch.
John watched me the whole time, smirking. "I'll give you this," he said as he finished making the tea. "You're no coward."
"I hope that means there's something I can do to help," I said, remembering what he'd said about another late night.
John slid open the kitchen door and prepared to carry out the tea. "There might be."
The dreadlocked boy introduced himself to me as "Mickey, like the bloke on Doctor Who. And who are you, then?"
Sherlock answered before I could open my mouth. "My cousin," he said. "Here on holidays."
Mickey looked me over with interest. "Wouldn't have guessed he'd have short rellies, but you do look like him, some. You as smart, too?" Assuming Sherlock had his reasons for wanting to keep both my name and my American accent a secret, I just shook my head with a "yeah, right" roll of my eyes.
"Enough small talk," Sherlock said, pulling out his billfold. He counted out £50 in small bills and folded the stack into Mickey's palm. "Keep watching until midnight. If you see anyone else, especially the man with the white hair, get a message to me immediately."
"Text if I can, right?" Mickey tucked the bills into his pocket, zipped his jacket over his hoodie, and pulled the hood up around his face.
"That would be best."
Sherlock walked Mickey all the way to the street door. When he came back upstairs, he plucked my bag off the coat rack. "Hey," I protested. "What are you doing?"
He ignored me as he dug out first two pens, then a bottle of eye drops, and then a small tin of mints. He lined them up atop his desk and glared at them as if they'd personally offended him. "Why do you women insist on carrying so much with you at all times?" he groused. "It's not as if you couldn't just nip into a store."
"You may have noticed that I'm a bit far from home." I reached for the bag, but he held it away from me. "What the hell are you looking for?"
"Key. Where's your hotel key? You must still have it."
"Outside pocket," I said. "And you could have just asked."
"I did just ask. Oh, here we go." He waved the red leather card case that held my Oyster card, a few small bills, and the key card to my room at Harewood House. "We're going back to your room tonight," he said as he slipped the key card out of my card case and into his coat pocket. "John and I need to spend some time in the Albanian embassy."
"What, right now?"
"No, at midnight." He pulled out his phone and handed it to John. "John, text Lestrade. Tell him to check his email and meet us at the embassy promptly at 1am. Give him the street address to be sure."
"But you haven't emailed him yet," John said.
"By the time he reads the text, I will have done. He's at the gym this time of night, and he'll have locked up his phone until he's done." He tapped at John's laptop for a moment, then handed it to me. "Shasta, that's the site for the National Archives. See if you can find any information about Harewood House's history."
"I don't need to search for that," I said. "It's on their website." I pulled up the site in question and clicked on a prominent link labeled "Our Heritage." I read the first paragraph of that page aloud: "Harewood House was built in 1853 by financier Henry Powers as a wedding gift to his daughter Charlotte. It was identical to the neighboring house built the previous year for Charlotte's twin sister, Emma. The two homes remained in private hands until — " I glanced up to find Sherlock giving John a meaningful look. "What?"
"Repeat that," Sherlock demanded.
"Harewood House was built — " I began, but he cut me off impatiently.
"No, the next bit."
"It was identical to the neighboring house built the previous year for Charlotte's twin sister, Emma…?"
Sherlock snatched up his own laptop and dropped into his armchair. "All we have to do is determine whether the embassy building is the identical one," he said. He typed, paused, typed some more as John leaned over the back of the armchair to watch.
"How do we do that?" I asked.
"Obvious," Sherlock said impatiently. "We find out whether it was built in 1852."
John suddenly reached forward over Sherlock's shoulder and jabbed a finger at the screen. "There. Is that — "
"Yes!" Sherlock shoved the laptop into John's hands and sprang to his feet. "The building containing the embassy is Emma Powers' house. It was identical to the house built for her sister Charlotte, her twin sister. If they were quite close, as twins often are, they would have insisted on connecting the houses somehow so they could visit easily." The words were tumbling out of his mouth so quickly, I wasn't sure how he could take a breath. "I've had Mickey and some of his friends watching the Albanian embassy since last night. He came over to report that they'd seen several of the women whose photos we distributed — but coming and going from Harewood House, not the embassy building. That must be how Lupo moves the women. No one thinks twice about women with suitcases entering and leaving a bed and breakfast. There must be some kind of hallway or corridor between the buildings, but I doubt any architectural plans still exist. We're going to have to search for it."
"My mind," I said, shaking my head slowly. "You've just blown it."
Sherlock began pounding out what I assumed was the email he'd promised. John looked over at me, grinning. "Looks like you can help after all," he said.
Two hours later, Sherlock headed up to the top floor of Harewood House as John followed me to the front desk. "I'm so sorry," I told the cheerful young woman who'd buzzed us in. "I seem to have lost my room card."
"No worries," she said. "Happens all the time. If you'll just show me your ID, I'll get you another."
She checked my passport against her computer and knelt to do something under the desk. When she stood up again, she slid my passport and a new key card over the counter. "There you go, Ms. McIntyre. Sorry for the inconvenience."
As I turned away, John stepped close to me and whispered "foyer." I had no idea what he meant. I lingered near the doorway, rummaging through my bag as if looking for something while I listened to him asking the receptionist whether any nearby restaurants were still open at nearly midnight. Then I walked toward the stairs with John a few steps behind me.
Someone tapped my shoulder and a voice straight out of Brooklyn said, "Rebecca Frazier, wasn't it? From the other day?"
I turned my head and saw a hand wearing a gold ring with a square black stone, then blue eyes not quite as pale as Sherlock's. My stomach lurched — this must have been what John had tried to tell me. I silently prayed to the gods of the cosmetics aisle that dark hair and no makeup was adequate camouflage. "Sorry, you must have me confused with someone else," I stammered, then cursed myself for not disguising my voice, too.
"And who could blame him," John said, coming up behind me and placing a hand at the small of my back. I leaned into it in relief. Never had I understood the phrase "got your back" quite so well.
"My apologies," Yannis Lupo said smoothly. "She seemed familiar but she's right, we haven't met. You're a lucky man."
John pressed his palm against me reassuringly. "Don't I know it," he said with a cheeky wink as he steered me toward the stairs. "Come on, love, I'm afraid we're out of luck for a midnight snack."
I didn't dare glance down as we rounded the corner onto the first landing. I barely allowed myself to breathe until we were three flights up and John patted my back gently. "It's okay," he said, "he's not following us."
The most innocent daddy long-legs can make me dizzy with anxiety; I was reacting to Lupo as if he were the biggest, hairiest tarantula ever to crawl. "He recognized me," I gasped. "Shit, shit, fucking shit." John slid his arm around my shoulders and squeezed for a moment before we continued climbing. It didn't really help.
The door to my room was ajar, a light on inside and a chilly draft slipping out. John looked back down the stairs before opening the door and waving me through. "Lupo was downstairs," he immediately said to Sherlock, who was standing next to the open window. "He spoke to us and may have recognized Shasta. Does this change anything?"
"Unlikely. As long as he doesn't see her poking around the hallways here while we're in the embassy, he has no reason to be suspicious. You were just two more hotel guests."
"He knew who I was," I blurted. "I know he did. He might not know why I look different, but I pretended I didn't recognize him, and he's not that stupid."
Sherlock contemplated me, palms pressed together and fingertips brushing his lower lip. "No, he's not. All right, then, small change in plans. You're coming with us."
"Wait downstairs in view of the receptionist until you see the panda cars arrive. If no one is at the front desk, go out to the street and make sure you're in the line of sight of a CCTV camera. Then find Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade and tell him John and I are in the embassy."
While we were still safely at Baker Street, watching Sherlock somehow rig my "lost" key card to work as a master key, the whole plan had seemed like fun. Creeping around the hallways of Harewood House in the middle of the night? Sure! Trying any doorway I could find on the wall it shared with the Albanian embassy while Sherlock and John did the same from the other side of the wall? Absolutely! I was dressed in dark colors, carrying a torch, feeling like a cat burglar out of a '60s caper film — I'd even tucked my camera into the pocket of my jacket as if I were going sightseeing.
Stupid, I scolded myself as we squeezed through my window onto the roof. Now that I'd seen Lupo, or rather, now that he'd seen me, it felt deadly serious. If my companions hadn't insisted on taking me with them, I would have begged them not to leave me behind. As it was, I asked Sherlock three times how we would get out of the embassy. His increasingly impatient answer — through the connecting door if we could find it, back across the roof into my room if not, and out the front door of the embassy building in a pinch — failed to reassure me. At least his urge to snark at John had vanished in the excitement of the chase.
"What if he's waiting here when we get back?" I muttered. The question had started nagging at me on our way upstairs. "He heard me give my real name. He could figure out what room I'm in."
John held my gaze and touched his hand to the small of his back. That didn't reassure me, either.
"Even if he figured out who you are, there's no reason for him to imagine you have anything to do with any of this," Sherlock said. He sounded almost patient, at least for him. "He may not know who we are, and he certainly doesn't know we're here investigating him."
"What if he realizes we're looking for the connecting door?" I couldn't stop. "Won't he be waiting on the other side when we find it and open it?"
"Not if he doesn't know we're looking for it," Sherlock said. "He knew the late Mr. Bushati had found it."
"And that's why he died?" I asked.
"Albania is not a wealthy country, to say the very least, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if an underpaid embassy employee discovered the side business his wealthy countryman was running from the premises and decided to demand hush money. Lupo could have afforded to pay a little blackmail, but he decided to economize by refusing."
He would never stop amazing me, I thought. "You can prove that?"
"Not yet, but I will."
When we reached the window blocked by wardrobes, he tried to look in, then pressed an ear to the glass. "No light or sound," he murmured. "That could mean anyone inside is asleep, but at midnight on a Friday, it's more likely all the women are out working."
As I waited for them to open the window through which we'd broken in once before, I slid one hand into the pocket of my jacket and twisted the wrist strap of my camera between my fingers like a string of worry beads. Stupid, stupid, stupid, my brain chattered at me.
"John," I whispered urgently, "don't let me die." My conscience gave me a swift kick. What did I think I mattered compared to the genius currently wriggling his ridiculous shoulders through a dormer window? I hastily added, "But if it's a choice between me and Sherlock — "
John huffed a silent laugh. "Nobody's going to die tonight," he said. "I absolutely forbid it." Weirdly, that did make me feel better.
The tiny office looked unchanged from our previous visit. Earlier, we had discussed removing a few more files from the desk, but Lupo's presence at Harewood House had altered that plan as well. Now we had only one purpose: to find the connection between the adjacent buildings for the police, whom I now knew would arrive at 1am sharp.
I pulled out my camera and pushed the combination of buttons that made it display the time. It was 20 minutes past midnight. How long could it take us to search a single side of a single floor? Sherlock had insisted the connecting door had to be on the embassy premises, and more specifically, on the floor below the one we were now on. "The top floor was servants' quarters and the basement was the kitchen area," he'd explained. "The Powers sisters wouldn't have wanted to make it so easy for their servants to fraternize. The lower two floors would have been public spaces, intended more for receiving guests. No, this door would have been on the floor where the women's personal sitting rooms and bedrooms were, so they could visit each other whenever they liked."
And so Sherlock was leading us down the central staircase to the embassy's main offices and tugging me by the sleeve toward one end of the dimly lit hallway as John headed to the opposite end. We ended up in a room with no visible doors along the far wall. "Nothing here," I murmured, but Sherlock hissed, "It won't be labeled." He began running his fingertips and the beam of his torch along the edges of the raised wall panels. "Look for hinges."
Five minutes later, we'd inspected everything that looked like it might hide a hinge and a few things that didn't, to no avail. We emerged into the hallway at the same time as John did, all shaking our heads in negation. Sherlock had just poked one finger into my arm to steer me onward when a soft chime sounded somewhere beneath us. John cocked his head, eyes narrowed, then reached behind his back. Sherlock took one step toward him, but John mouthed the word "go" and jerked his head toward the stairs as he ducked into another room.
Harewood House had been restored with loving attention to authenticity. Someone had been less loving with its twin, shoehorning a lift roughly the dimensions of a coffin into what must once have been the shaft for a dumbwaiter. I could hear it whining inside the wall as Sherlock herded me back up the stairs.
"One person," he said low and quick. "Almost certainly Lupo. Get back to your room and then wait downstairs in view of the receptionist until you see the panda cars arrive. If no one is at the front desk, go out to the street and make sure you're in the line of sight of a CCTV camera. Then find Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade and tell him John and I are in the embassy. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now — "
The tiny lift slid open and a stocky figure with long white curls stepped out. He was mere feet from the doorway to the office, blocking our path to the open window, but if we tried to retreat down the narrow hallway to the stairs, he would catch up to us before we got there.
"We really must stop meeting like this," Lupo said. In any other circumstance, it would have made me laugh — a comic-book villain delivering clichés in that New York accent. In this circumstance, it made me cringe. Then his voice shifted into the thick Eastern European accent I'd heard him use on Museum Street, and he said, "I suppose I should make sure of it." That made me want to scream. So did the rather large knife I suddenly noticed in Lupo's hand, glinting in the dim hallway. My brain started babbling about how that was a cliché, too.
I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms, and hoped for one good opportunity to knee him in the balls before he — before he what? My brain didn't want to complete that thought. It expected Sherlock to do something: shove me behind him, tell me to run, anything except what he did, which was to grab my hand and yank me against his side, shoving our joined hands into the pocket of my jacket. My stomach blocked my scream by trying to leap out of my throat. I made a tiny whimpering squeak instead.
"Shut up," Lupo said carelessly. He stepped forward to grab the lapel of Sherlock's coat. They locked eyes, lips curled in matching sneers.
I was too scared to speak, too scared to move, too scared to do much more than squeeze Sherlock's long fingers. My eyes stayed on the knife as Lupo lifted it to touch the (sharp, serrated, oh my god) point to the underside of Sherlock's chin. Without looking away from Lupo, Sherlock twisted his hand in mine to break my panicked grip. I felt rather than heard the whir of my camera switching on beneath his fingers. In an instant of terrified clarity, I realized what he was about to do and slammed my eyes shut.
Sherlock pulled the camera out, held it right in front of Lupo's face, and tripped the shutter.
Lupo grunted in surprise as the flash blinded him. I opened my eyes again to see him drop like a sandbag as Sherlock's fist made an elegant arc ending at his nose. Then Sherlock's hand was shoving me in the small of my back, steering me toward the door and down the stairs, shouting for John all the way. When John stepped into the hallway, I flinched at the gun in his hand, my stomach repeating its escape attempt. "Here," John ordered, waving us through a door into a conference room that must once have been elegant living space.
"John?" Sherlock's voice sounded as tight as my chest felt.
"Yeah." John obviously didn't believe in wasting breath on unnecessary words. He pointed at an ornately mirrored door with a glass knob. "There."
Sherlock grabbed my wrist and practically flung me toward the door. I yanked it open: closet, random clothing hanging above, boxes stacked below. I keened with panic as I shoved the contents aside and scrabbled at the back wall. There was a deadbolt and a latch. I shot the bolt open, twisted the latch, and the back of the closet gave way onto the rear stairwell of Harewood House.
Sherlock shoved me through and followed, John bringing up the rear with gun still drawn. There was no way to prevent someone determined from following us through the door, but with any luck, Lupo was still incapacitated. Still, we dragged a settee from the hallway to block the door before racing all the way down the stairs.
There was no basement-level exit from the back side of the building. We fled in the direction of the street, weaving through the boiler room, through the storage room, and finally -- finally – into a room with a service door where two men were wrestling giant bags of laundry into the basement. Sherlock barreled past them and up to the street, John dragging me a few steps behind. A London taxi pulled up, like magic, just as we reached the sidewalk. They hurled me bodily across the back seat and threw themselves in after me.
"Sherlock." John grabbed at Sherlock's face and pressed two fingers just under the point of his chin. They came away dappled with blood. "What the sodding hell," John growled. "Are you all right?"
"Just a nick," Sherlock replied. He was already pulling out his phone.
"Show me what happened, you daft bastard, he could have slit your throat."
"But he didn't." He batted John's hand away as a single red drop slid down his neck. "Let me text Lestrade and then you can fuss over me to your heart's content." John puffed air through his pursed lips in exasperation and tugged off Sherlock's scarf before the droplet of blood could stain it.
I sucked in a sharp breath that drew John's attention past Sherlock's shoulder to ask, "Fuck, Shasta, are you hurt?" I tried to reply, but my teeth were chattering too hard for me to speak, so I simply shook my head.
"He never touched her," Sherlock said.
"Good, you've just had a bit of a shock," John assured me. "You'll be fine." I trusted that as a doctor, he was right. That didn't stop me from begging the cabbie to pull over somewhere along the eastern edge of Hyde Park. I knelt against the iron fence, trembling and retching, until I thought I could make it the rest of the way to the flat without further incident.
When we reached Baker Street, John half-hauled me up the stairs, depositing me on the couch and draping a violently orange blanket over my shoulders. He ordered Sherlock to take the other end of the couch, then headed directly for the bathroom, pausing just long enough to start the kettle. In a few minutes, he was setting a first aid kit and a damp tea towel on the coffee table. The doctor was most emphatically in.
After handing the towel to Sherlock with instructions to hold it to the nick on the underside of his chin, John made a second trip to the kitchen. This time, he brought back three full mugs.
"Tea," Sherlock said drily. "Britain's most popular over-the-counter medication."
"Shut it, you tosser," John said.
I huddled under the blanket, trying to ignore the odd sense that I was sitting an inch or two outside my own body. Sherlock sat with head tipped back to reveal his wound; John, perched on the edge of the coffee table, leaned in to dab dried trickles of blood off Sherlock's throat and collarbone. The impatient patient balled his hands into fists and said through gritted teeth, "Please, John, I've done worse whilst shaving."
"Would you stop being a whiny cunt and let me do my job?" John's words were sharp, but his voice was gentle and maybe even amused. He set down the blood-stained towel and rummaged in his first aid kit.
I could smell the sharp tang of the antiseptic wipe as he ripped open its foil packet. When he touched it to the cut beneath Sherlock's chin, Sherlock took a sharp breath through his nose and jerked back. John inhaled through his teeth at the same time as though he felt the sting himself. His hands moved, adept and gentle, on Sherlock's neck: cleaning, dabbing with ointment, applying a small plaster.
"There, finished," he finally pronounced, sliding his hands down to Sherlock's shoulders and letting them rest there. They exchanged goofy grins as if they'd just gotten away with something unspeakably foolish. I could barely stand to look at it, and yet I couldn't bring myself to look away. I would have braved a hundred Lupos for someone to smile at me like that.
Something in my chest reached maximum tension and gave way. John and Sherlock turned simultaneously to stare at me as I began giggling, then crying, then both at once.
John instantly pivoted off the coffee table to sit next to me. "Breathe," he said. "Come on, in and out, you can do it." He patted my back as the part of my brain that was neither hysterical nor embarrassed noticed with interest that Sherlock was waiting patiently and saying nothing. A few minutes passed while I concentrated on following my breath back to calmness.
"Do you want to tell me what just happened there?" John finally asked in what was clearly his bedside manner.
I shook my head and wiped my eyes on the hideous orange blanket. "I'm fine," I said. "It's just been a long, long day." It suddenly seemed like a very good idea to escape to the bathroom to blow my nose, wash my face, and put on my pyjamas.
When I emerged, Sherlock was standing outside his bedroom. "You're sleeping in here again," he informed me, pointing through the doorway. Everything about him, from posture to tone of voice, made it clear it wasn't open to discussion, but I was hardly inclined to argue. By the clock on his bedside table, it was nearly two in the morning.
I felt as if someone had opened a spigot and drained away what little energy was left in me; I actually stumbled on my way to the turned-down bed. "Sherlock," I said blurrily. He leaned on the doorjamb and raised an eyebrow. "You're both idiots. And I say that with love."
I was too tired to be certain, but as he turned away, he looked as if he was trying with all his might not to smile.
"What was it like?"
"What, the insomnia?"
"No, the pretending to be dead."
A bobbing rectangular light crossed Sherlock's bedroom, a phone levitating in an invisible hand. I heard a drawer slide open and shut followed by the rustle of clothing. What a waste, I thought wryly. One of the most attractive men I'd ever seen was undressing just a few feet away, and I was too exhausted to care.
I pushed myself up on my elbows but couldn't see anything but the faint outline of a head, backlit by the phone resting atop the chest of drawers. Even that vanished as the phone's display powered down.
"You're awake." Sherlock's voice was rougher and slower than usual, as if he was powering down, too.
"Yeah." I glanced at the bedside clock, realized I'd been chasing sleep unsuccessfully for more than an hour, and flopped back down with a groan. I knew I was perfectly safe, but I seemed to be stuck in fight-or-flight mode, twitchy and half-sick with fatigue and leftover adrenaline.
The bed shifted under the weight of a body sitting on the far edge of the mattress. "Did I wake you?"
"No," I said, "I can't sleep. If that's going to bother you, I can go read on the couch or something."
"No need, there's room." He flipped back the duvet and climbed under it. As if reading my next thought, he added, "Don't worry, I don't snore or thrash about. And if you do, I probably won't notice."
Something buzzed not far from my ear. Sherlock's phone appeared in his hands, dim light outlining his fingers. He thumbed out a quick response before slipping the phone beneath his pillow and announcing, "You'll be happy to know that half a dozen young women are being given the opportunity to stay in the UK in exchange for testimony against our friend Lupo."
"That's fantastic." It was, it really was. I'd expected the high point of this trip might be an evening of live theatre. Instead, I'd played a tiny part in saving several women from forced prostitution. I'd never bought into the notion that everything happens for a reason, but thinking about the random string of events that led me here was mind-boggling. It almost — almost, but not quite — made up for the fact that every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was Lupo's damned knife. I wriggled a little deeper into the covers and groaned in frustration.
"Are you all right?" Sherlock asked.
"Let's just say I'm envying John his nightmares. At least he gets a little sleep before they wake him up."
"I seem to owe you an apology. I didn't expect Lupo to follow us. It put you in needless danger, and now — oh, wait!" He pulled out his phone and tapped at it. I heard a faint bark of laughter overhead, followed shortly by the buzz of an incoming text. I laughed myself, realizing that he and John were texting each other from their beds.
Sherlock bounced out of the bed and left the room. When he returned, he set something on the nightstand, then fumbled for my hand to place two small, oblong somethings in my palm. "Benadryl from John's first aid kit. Glass of water next to you."
"Oh, brilliant." I gulped them down. Bless him, antihistamines would knock me out within 15 minutes.
We lay side by side in silence for a few minutes. I had just decided to try synchronizing my breathing to Sherlock's to see if that would speed up the process when he cleared his throat and said softly, "I barely slept most nights when I was… away."
"When you were dead," I said, lifting my hands to make air quotes around the last word even though I knew he couldn't see them. He shifted beneath the blankets but said nothing. Taking that as tacit permission to continue, I asked, "What was it like?"
"What, the insomnia?"
"No, the pretending to be dead."
He was quiet long enough that I thought he was ignoring me. Then he said a single terse word: "Lonely."
The tone of his voice — confessional, maybe even ashamed — hit me like a kick to the sternum. I exhaled hard, then inhaled again sharply and held it, trying not to cry. Inappropriate, excessive, overly familiar, I told myself, but I reached out anyhow to try to shove him onto his side.
"I'm not trying to molest you, I swear," I said. "I'm just going to give you a hug."
He snorted as if that was the most preposterous thing he'd ever heard, but rolled over to let me tuck myself against his back. The difference in our heights made me feel like a demitasse spoon trying to fit against a serving utensil, but I persisted. "I'm not sure I can explain this right, but I'll try," I told him as I slid my hand under his arm and unfurled it against his chest. "This is what John did earlier. Just this. And then he fell asleep."
"Why are you telling me?" he asked.
I closed my eyes, swallowed hard, and said it: "Because he called me by your name."
If I were taller, he would have clocked me firmly on the forehead when he pulled his head back. As it was, I simply felt his shoulder go rigid. I closed my eyes and waited for him to get up and stalk away. Instead, he slid his hand up my arm to my elbow and back down, then squeezed my wrist and breathed a low, pleased "oh," as if he'd just solved an especially satisfying puzzle. I mouthed the word "idiot" against his spine as I slid into sleep.
I'd awakened before to a note on an empty pillow, but a note reading POLICE ARE HERE was definitely a first. I assumed I should shower and dress for the occasion.
When I finally stepped into the kitchen, the coffee pot was warm but empty. "Which of you sadistic bastards drank the last of the coffee?" I said loudly as I slid open the doors to the sitting room. "Oh, hello," I added at the sight of a grey-haired man holding up a mug with an apologetic grin.
"Sorry, my fault," he said. "Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade, Metropolitan Police." He stood up and offered me his hand; I shook it and replied, "Shasta from San Francisco."
"Oh, Sherlock's American cousin, yeah? I guess they've been a bit too busy to show you around."
"And they're depriving me of coffee, which I think is grounds for justifiable homicide. Isn't that right, officer?"
He turned to look at John and said, "You're sure she's related to him? She sounds more like you, really."
John glared with fake indignation and followed me back into the kitchen. "Don't bother making more coffee," he said. "As soon as Lestrade leaves, we're taking you out for a proper breakfast." He squeezed my shoulder and dropped his voice so it couldn't be heard in the next room. "We're also making sure your name isn't anywhere in the police reports of Bushati's death. We owe you that, at the very least."
Wrapping up a case seemed to whet Sherlock's appetite. He stole John's toast while John pretended not to notice, then ate half my bacon while distracting me with a story about a case that had revolved around the Queen's corgis. Fortunately, we were in a tiny café that served up the largest full English breakfast I'd ever seen, and there was plenty of bacon to spare. Afterwards, they asked whether there was anything I specifically wanted to do on my last day in London.
"I'll follow you anywhere, as long as it's not a rooftop or a morgue," I said. And that's how I ended up on a day-long tour of London landmarks, Sherlock-style. We started at the National Gallery, where his conversation with a conservator turned into a hands-on presentation about art forgery, complete with examples. Next up was the Tower of London, where Sherlock vanished while I was admiring the Crown Jewels and didn't reappear until John sent him a series of increasingly irritated texts. After a quick stop at the Royal Courts of Justice, we went on to the London Transport Museum, where Sherlock wanted to research the precise measurements of a particular long-abandoned Tube station. I lost myself in the poster archives for an hour before John talked me into taking a stroll to the nearest pub.
"Cheers," I said as he brought over a pint of cider for me and a pint of lager for himself. "Is he always this energetic after a case?"
John slid into the booth across from me. "This is nothing," he said. "Sometimes he's downright manic. And when it wears off, he grinds to a halt and shouts "boring" a lot until the next case comes along."
"Has he always been like that? You know… before?"
He laughed. "No, he was worse. He used to shoot the sodding wall." I must have looked skeptical, because he insisted, "I'll show you the holes when we get back to the flat."
"Shooting the wall because he's bored. Damn," I marveled. "That's just — I don't even know what it is. Spectacularly nuts. I love it."
"Weirdly enough, so do I."
"Obviously," I said. "It. Him. Same thing."
He tilted his head. "What are you implying?"
"I'm not implying anything. I'm saying you obviously love him to pieces. Which is probably the only thing keeping you from smothering him in his sleep sometimes."
"Oh, don't think it hasn't crossed my mind," he said. "I told you, he used to be worse. He can still be a prat, but at least he's learned to make an effort to consider the mere mortals around him." He paused and narrowed his eyes at me. "He hasn't made you cry yet, has he?"
I remembered my reaction to Sherlock's admission that he'd spent the better part of a year lonely and sleepless, but I shook my head and smiled over the rim of my pint. "He still has the rest of the day, though."
We were idly discussing getting another round when John's phone buzzed. He pulled it out, smirked, and showed me Sherlock's text: Takeaway tonight? "I'll bet you ten quid he wants Chinese again," John said. "He was talking about egg rolls this morning before Lestrade showed up."
"I'm not betting against someone with inside information," I teased.
"Fine," John said. "Ten quid if you can talk him into something other than Chinese."
"Indian? I hate to come to London and not have it even once."
He held out his hand to shake on it. "Deal."
"Kill me now," I moaned. John laughed as I tipped over on the couch. "I'm serious. That was an obscene amount of curry. I'm going to explode if I eat another bite."
"It's waaaaaafer-thin," John taunted. He waved the last bit of onion naan in front of my face.
"Oh god, not Monty Python." I swatted his hand away. "Sherlock, make him stop."
Sherlock flashed a mischievous half-smile and said, "I've never had any luck getting John to stop doing anything he really wanted to do."
"The hell you say," John said. "You've stopped me from entire relationships."
"Obviously, you didn't really want them, then."
John rolled his eyes with what was clearly affectionate exasperation. "Why do I even bother?" he asked a spot on the ceiling.
How was it possible that I'd known these lunatics for less than a week? I was going to miss them something fierce. I didn't want the evening to end, but as much as I loved watching them bounce off each other, I had a long day of travel ahead. I sighed and said, "Guys, I hate to say it, but you're going to have to get off the couch soon so I can sleep on it."
"I honestly don't mind sleeping with you again," Sherlock said. John hid a grin behind one hand as I chuckled.
"I have to be at Paddington at 7:30 for my train to Heathrow," I said. "If I'm out here, I won't wake you up when my alarm goes off. I can just shower and dress and let myself out."
"Bugger that," John said. "We're not taking any chances with you, troublemaker. We're putting you on the train ourselves."
The package that arrived three months after my trip was a complete surprise.
"Well." I set my luggage at my feet and looked from John to Sherlock and back. "This has been a vacation for the ages, that's for sure."
John held out his arms and beamed. "Let's do it again some time."
I stepped into his enthusiastic hug. "Just say the word," I told him. "Knowing you, it'll be a dirty one."
"And you." I turned to Sherlock and grabbed the lapels of his coat so I could pull him down for a peck on the cheek. "Take care of each other," I whispered. When I stepped back again, he held out his hand as if to shake mine and instead pressed something cylindrical into my palm. Despite the embarrassing tightness in my throat, I started to giggle: it was a travel-sized bottle of his expensive shampoo.
My train's departure was imminent. I hefted my luggage strap onto my shoulder and said, "I want to know how things turn out, so you'd better put it on your blog." Of course, said John's nod. "And I'll let you know the next time I'm in London. If that's all right." Obviously, said Sherlock's eyeroll.
By the time I was settled in my seat, they were leaving the platform in step, shoulders brushing. I fumbled for my camera to take one last snapshot through the train's window, but it wasn't in my pocket. It wasn't in my bag, either. With a pang of dismay, I realized I'd last seen it when Sherlock popped the flash in Lupo's face. If he hadn't dropped it in our retreat down the stairs, it was probably somewhere in Harewood House or in the back of a London cab. "Oh, sodding hell," I said under my breath, allowing myself a moment of regret for all the images I'd never see. Then I laughed despite myself. I may have lost a week's worth of photos, but I wasn't going home without a souvenir. I'd apparently picked up some choice bits of John's vocabulary.
What kind of gift do you send to say "Thank you for the most absurd vacation of my life"? How do you convey gratitude to people who have saved your life — twice? I had no idea, but when I wandered into a shop that sold taxidermied mice dressed and posed like little people, they seemed to have the right touch of morbid whimsy. I bought two. One wore a jaunty red cardigan; the other sported a tuxedo jacket, to which I added a long strip of blue felt knotted as a scarf.
I swathed John-mouse and Sherlock-mouse in multiple layers of bubble wrap and sent them off with a thank-you note that included an invitation to visit at any time. At the end, I scrawled a hopeful postscript asking them to let me know if my camera turned up.
Time passed, and I slipped back into my ordinary rounds: work, friends, errands, appointments. I heard nothing from Sherlock or John, not that I had really expected them to stay in touch after knowing me for only a few days. John didn't even seem to update his blog for weeks at a time. So the package that arrived three months after my trip was a complete surprise.
My camera was on top, taped into so much bubble wrap that I couldn't tell at first what was inside. Beneath that were clippings from several London newspapers about the trial and sentencing of a certain concert producer for human trafficking. One had "blog post soon" jotted in the margin in what I assumed was John's writing. At the bottom was a note in different handwriting on a page torn from a pocket notebook: Hope to be in the US in the next year. Meanwhile, we have room for guests now. Visit any time. Crime optional. It was signed with a firm, swooping S.
Oh, it was good to hear from them. I was beaming as I connected the camera to my laptop and started transferring its contents. Faces, street scenes, two old men petting a dog in Hyde Park, my friends at our dinner in Clerkenwell, the Japanese girl falling backwards in Westminster Abbey — some weren't bad at all.
I'd also managed a handful of pictures of Sherlock and John. Not many, not nearly enough. There was John with head cocked and arms folded, staring intently at something just out of frame. Sherlock blurred in mid-turn, coat flaring out. John's hand wrapped around a mug bearing some sort of military insignia. A close-up of Sherlock's right eye, the one with the amber spot. John in his armchair with Sherlock bent down to read his laptop over his shoulder, their profiles limned in the light of the screen — the best of the lot, and the best shot I'd taken all week, I decided. I'd have to send it to them.
The first picture I didn't recognize was one of myself at the Tower of London, laughing with my head thrown back. Sherlock must have dropped the camera into his pocket as we fled Harewood House, taken this photo the following day, then left it forgotten again in his pocket until I asked after it. The absent-minded genius, I thought warmly. Then I tapped the keyboard to bring up the next photo and said a soft "oh!" of delight. What an idiot I was! Sherlock hadn't forgotten my camera at all; he and John had deliberately kept it until they were ready to send it back. As I punched the arrow key to take me to the next picture, I wondered what they'd been waiting for.
Click. There were Sherlock-mouse and John-mouse on the mantelpiece, flanking the skull like an honor guard. They looked right at home.
Click. John at his desk, poking away at his laptop with the tip of his tongue poking out.
Click. Sherlock kneeling to examine something on the bank of the Thames, one arm up as if waving someone over to join him.
Click. John with kettle and teapot, wet hair sticking out in every direction.
Click. Sherlock draped across the couch, head tipped back to expose the long line of his throat, a bruise visible just below one ear.
Click. Sherlock and John standing in front of a Christmas tree, handcuffed together. Sherlock was holding up their joined wrists with an exaggerated frown while John pantomimed strangling him with a swag of silver tinsel. I giggled aloud as I imagined them scrambling to set up the camera's timer and get into position, then giggled harder when I realized the tree was garlanded with crime scene tape and the skull was balanced on top.
Click. Sherlock-mouse and John-mouse on the mantel again. This time they were side by side, paws carefully positioned to touch.
I looked. I wondered. I clicked to the last image.
It had been shot from arm's length, presumably by Sherlock, since he had longer arms. He was in profile, forehead to John's temple, eyes closed. John looked straight into the camera — straight at me — with a smile of utter contentment.
"Oh," I said again. "Oh."
I looked at Sherlock's note again and spotted something scribbled on the back in pencil. It was John's writing, a single sentence: Whatever you said to him, thank you. xxJ
I fumbled for my phone to snap a self-portrait of myself looking at the screen, astonished and maybe a little teary. Then I texted it to both their numbers with a note:
2nd bedroom for guests now?
Even though it was the middle of the night in London, I got an answer right away:
Definitely not a complete idiot. SH
OMG, an actual novella. I never thought I could do it, and here I am at the end. My heartfelt gratitude to everyone who came along for the ride.
Incidentally, if you're looking for taxidermied mice dressed like people (and who isn't, really?), you can find them in San Francisco at a place called Paxton Gate.