“Love, thieves, and fear make ghosts.” — German Proverb
John’s heart stops in surgery. He considers this a bit of trivia, at first; something to tell his grandkids when he’s shrunken into old age and knitwear. After all, he remembers getting shot — even if his memory has pulled its vanishing act on the pain, he can still see the ruin of his shoulder under his fingers, and feel his blood gluing his uniform to his skin — but the entire time between the anesthesia and the recovery bed is lost to him, no scarier than what put him under the knife in the first place. Later, he’ll wonder.
In hospital, all he wonders about is when he’ll be getting back to the field. He can’t lose it all to this shoulder thing, he thinks. When he shaves each morning, he can’t help notice the lines bent into his forehead, the patch of gray hair that’s sneaked up on him; if ever there was a time to get out of the army, this would be it, before it’s too late to start again. He’s not a career man. He’s a fighter.
But he can’t imagine it. He can’t imagine the war going on without him. The thought of going home, of being whoever John Watson is back in London, is so impossible he literally can’t conceive it.
Of course, he doesn’t have to.
Harry rings him up and convinces him he needs new clothes for civilian life. He abandoned a box of jeans and oddments in her basement sometime close to the millennium, but those are, she says, sufficiently out of date to be considered retro, and anyway, he can hardly start a new life smelling of mothballs and cardboard. She wants to take him shopping. Unfortunately, she still has enough currency with him to guilt him into accepting the favor. He insists she show up sober, however, on pain of losing his cooperation.
She leaves him to finger through the racks while she shops elsewhere. It’s a big department store, brightly lit and buzzing with sharply dressed sales attendants. John leans heavily on his cane. He wills the people around him not to notice his shaking hand; to leave him alone.
He pulls a jacket out to get a better look. When he puts it back, there’s a man looming over him — twenty stone at least, covered in tattoos, with a knife handle sticking out of the belt of his trousers.
Oh, god, John thinks, or prays. Let him try something. He puts a bit less weight on the cane his new therapist tells him he doesn’t need.
“You’re one of them that can see us?” the man asks.
“Excuse me?” John says. His hand stills. He doesn’t notice.
The man looks much happier than John wants him to. “I heard one of you lot were in town. Oh, hey, I’m Rhys.” He holds out a hand, then looks down at it and pulls it back with a flustered gesture.
“Okay. Um. I’m sorry. Do you need something, or . . .?”
Rhys straightens up. He resembles a skyscraper looming between the earth and sun. “Oh, yeah. Right. D’you think you could talk to my girlfriend? Ex-girlfriend, I s’pose. Till death do us part, and all.”
“You want me to talk to your dead girlfriend?”
Rhys gives him a vaguely condescending look. “If she was dead, I wouldn’t need you, would I?” Then he rattles off a name and address, and says, “I need you to tell her I didn’t do it.”
John doubts that, somehow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says, and then there’s a hand on his shoulder. He whirls around. It’s only Harry.
“John?” she says quietly. “Who are you talking to?”
John glances over his shoulder, and his eyes stick there. Rhys is gone. Fuck, John thinks. “Myself,” he finds himself saying. What good did Afghanistan do him, if he can’t think on his feet? “I was just — thinking out loud.”
“Like hell,” says Harry. She gives him a look he’s more comfortable giving her. The one that means “you need serious professional help.”
John feels his hand trembling again, and he shoves it into his jacket pocket. “It’s an Afghanistan thing. All right?”
“You can talk to me about it.”
“I’d rather not.” He glances back again, looking for any trace of Rhys. “Look. I know what I want. Can we just — leave?”
“You don’t get to rant at me about my problems if you don’t let me care about yours.”
“Care all you want,” John says. He grinds in a breath when he hears the harsh note that slipped into his voice. “Please.” He pulls a jacket off the rack and holds up a pair of shirts. “Just buy this. Or don’t. Just let’s go.”
Harry’s jaw clenches, but after a moment, she nods. Maybe she’s thinking they’ve reached an impasse — for once, he’s as fucked up as her, and if she lets this go now he’ll return the favor later. Awkwardness hangs in the air like humidity.
When John gets home, Rhys is waiting.
He’s leaning placidly against the wall, resting a hand the width of a football on the frame of John’s bed. A rush of adrenaline pulls through John’s body as he drops his shopping bag. He shuts the door quietly behind himself — which, if he were paying attention, would tell him his thoughts are not traveling narrowly along the lines of self-defense. The knife is still visible at Rhys’s waist, although Rhys shows no inclination to reach for it. He’s not even particularly tense. “Who are you?” John asks.
“It’s Rhys,” Rhys says. “We talked at the shop?”
“How did you get in here?” John edges towards the drawer where he keeps his service weapon. He’ll have to explain why he has it, when Rhys is dead, but no one will fault him for firing it.
“I’m dead. Easier that they used to be, break-ins.”
John freezes. “What?”
“I’m dead,” Rhys repeats, then, when it’s clear John doesn’t understand, opens and closes his mouth mutely for a few seconds. He lifts his hand from the bed frame. John stiffens. It’s a long, tense second before Rhys says, “You don’t know who I am?”
“Obviously,” John manages to say, and the gun is just a few steps away; he could reach it before Rhys could get anywhere near him with that knife, but what if, what if —
Rhys runs a hand over close-cropped hair. “Oh.” He swallows. “I should prob’ly — go, then.” And he disappears.
He bloody disappears.
Leaving John with his heart pounding, teetering on the edge of — nothing good. He pulls his gun from his desk and tucks it into his jacket, next to Harry’s old mobile (Harry Watson from Clara xxx, another reason he shouldn’t have let her buy him those clothes). He pulls the door open gently, and scans the hallway in both directions before edging out, ignoring the cane in his hand.
He searches every cranny of the building he can get access to, but Rhys is gone. Possibly he was never there at all.
John decides not to tell his therapist about this.
The next evening, he takes what’s meant to be a calming walk. When he gets home, he finds a frail old woman in a wheelchair waiting for him in what he half-sarcastically calls his kitchen. Compared to Rhys, she shouldn’t be an imposing figure, but he’s seen less intimidating people than her blow up people more dangerous than him. This time he doesn’t close the door. “Ma’am,” he tries, hoping for the best. “Are you lost?”
“Are you the medium?” the woman asks.
“Um.” He glances back out into the corridor to make sure there’s no one to witness this, whatever this is. “No.”
The woman gives him a weary look. “Oh, dear. I heard you were new. And just back from the war, too. I can see how Rhys gave you a bit of a fright, love, but I’m trying to handle this correctly.” She crosses her tiny, blue-veined hands across the lap of her hospital gown. “My name is Beulah Hughes. I’ve been dead for fifty years. You’re a medium. I need you to talk to my great-great-grandchildren for me.”
“You’re a ghost.”
“There’s no such thing.”
Beulah holds out her hand. It shakes unsupported. “Take my hand if you don’t believe me.”
John eyes her. “Why?”
She sighs. “I haven’t got all day.”
For a moment, he hesitates. Then, slowly, watching her every movement — she doesn’t make any — he reaches out, and brushes the pads of his fingers against her knuckles. Or tries to. All he meets is air. He grabs at her more vigorously. His hands find nothing to close around. “Oh, god,” he says, and falls back a step.
“Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Beulah says, oblivious to his horror. “If I could tell you about —”
John is already halfway out the door, moving faster than a real limp would allow. He looks back at Beulah, her arms crossed, looking put out. His eyes find front, and there she is. “You have a duty,” she says. “You need to hold yourself to a certain standard.” Then she disappears.
John takes the single step necessary, then sinks to the floor where she just sat. He pulls his good leg up to his chest, and stretches the bad one out into the hall.
He rests his forehead on one knee, and closes his eyes, exhausted despite the rush of blood in his ears. He knows the symptoms of PTSD. He learned them in medical school, and his therapist has listed them often enough. This, whatever it is, was not on the list when last he checked.
Anyone he tells about this will want to medicate him into oblivion. John leans into the wall and watches one of the lights embedded in the ceiling flicker. Maybe that’s what he needs. He considers that for a while before deciding that regardless of that, it’s not what he wants.
Then he goes to bed.
The next month is a misery. Every other person who speaks to him turns out to be dead. Is the pretty girl in the waiting room at therapy making small talk, or does she want him to tell her grieving wife it’s time to move on? Is the man lurking in the alley near John’s flat a threat? Is he homeless? Or is he deceased?
Beulah comes back, and Rhys, and a legion of others he does his best not to learn by name. They wait for him at home, harass him during his sessions with Ella, and make it impossible for him to have a normal conversation without looking completely barking. Harry at least is good enough to stay quiet about it on the increasingly rare occasions they see each other, now that she knows he’ll just bring up the divorce or the drinking if she tries to talk.
His nightmares get worse. He snaps at chippy cashiers who don’t deserve it. And there’s his damn leg.
And on top of all this, he discovers that ghosts can e-mail. And text — so frequently he has to turn off his ringer. It’s irritating, but when he gets Harry to read aloud the mangled victim of a smartphone’s autocorrect feature (hush nude wife chiseling hustle. Need 2 shove him), he finally, after days of nagging doubt, knows he’s not gone mad.
With that knowledge, John supposes he can get on with his life. If he can learn to fit into the civilian world, he can learn to fit into the otherworld.
He keeps going to therapy, even though Ella is starting to talk anti-psychotics. It’s something to do. And he needs it, he knows he does; half the time he wants either to kill someone or kill himself. Mostly it’s enough that time is passing, but. He keeps going to therapy.
The cold settles into the city. John’s shoulder aches most of his waking day. It tells him something that his leg hurts no more than it usually does, but no matter how he tries, he can’t force the pain away. He keeps walking daily, trying to remember how to survive an English winter instead of an Afghan summer.
The ghosts begin to leave him alone when they realize he won’t help them. Maybe he feels guilty, ignoring them like that, but what can he do? He’s not exactly got credibility on his side, traumatized veteran that he is, even if he were to try to help.
Then one day, on his walk home, something happens.
“John Watson,” a man’s voice calls behind him, from the vicinity of a park bench. When he turns, just to be sure it’s not a living person he’s ignoring, it’s a stranger. The bad kind of stranger — tall, wearing designer clothing no one in John’s social circle could afford a stitch of, and John knows a fighter when he sees one.
“Yes?” he says. He shifts his grip on his cane subtly, shifts until it’s a weapon in his hand instead of a crutch. The world steadies out. “Who are you?”
“I have a job offer.”
John takes another look at the clothes and the two hundred pound haircut. The number of jobs someone like that could offer someone like him are limited. His only two qualifications are his talent for violence and his skill at sewing people back up afterwards, and both his war medals and his medical license are heaped together under his bed. “No, thank you,” he says, and begins walking in the opposite direction.
“I know what you are,” the man says.
John stops without turning round. “What’s that?”
“Well, now. That depends on who’s telling the story. The dead do love to gossip.” When he has John’s eyes again, the stranger smiles and goes on. “You’re like me.”
John’s lips narrow. “You see them too.”
The man is on his feet so suddenly he seems to have skipped the intervening movements. “Yes,” he says with a great deal of fervor. “They’re incredible idiots, but on occasion their killers aren’t. Which is where you come in.”
John would cross his arms if it weren’t for the cane. He settles for lifting his chin and looking down at the stranger as much as a short man might a tall one. “Your job offer,” he says. “Look. If it involves — them — I’m not interested. I have better things to do than listen to dead blokes whinging all day.”
“Oh, like what?” The man looks down at John infinitely more efficiently. “Visit your therapist? Work on your blog? I’m asking you to solve murders.”
John feels he should be concerned about how much this man knows about him, but compared with knowing he sees ghosts, it’s trivial. “Why can’t you solve them yourself?”
“I will be solving them. I need you to provide the front.”
John is glad the park is mostly empty this time of day, because this is a conversation he doesn’t want overheard. “I see,” he says. “And why me, then? If you have information, you can give it anonymously. And if you need a face, why does it have to be someone who can see ghosts? It looks from my end like anyone would do.”
The man scoffs. “Hardly. Someone else might question my methods.”
“Ah.” It occurs to John that this man — whoever he is, however he knows about John’s particular circumstances — might be looking to cover up crimes rather than solve them. Unfortunately the thought makes a good deal more sense than the story currently on the table. He turns to go. “Right. Well. I hope you find someone else.”
“I’ll pay you a substantial sum of money,” the man says. John doesn’t break stride. “It’ll be dangerous.”
And damn him, John stops. He doesn’t think about stopping. He doesn’t even realize he’s done it until he starts talking. “What do you mean?” He only knows he’s turned back around when the stranger’s smile pierces his vision. It’s not a nice smile, but the feeling John meets it with is the best he’s felt in a while.
“London’s criminal underbelly doesn’t take kindly to people interfering with its operations,” the man says. “And I’m sure I’ll need you to make the occasional . . . excursion.”
And just like that, he’s got John, as long as the promise of danger holds. He’s taken his fair share of ridiculous offers — “Hey, d’you like bullet wounds and sand? Feel like invading Afghanistan?” being the primary example — but none based on quite so little information. “At least tell me your name,” he says after a long pause.
The stranger smirks. He holds out a hand. “Give me your mobile.”
“Excuse me?” John says, but he’s already fishing in his pocket. He hands it over, and the man fiddles with it for a few minutes before giving it back.
“Michael,” he says. “Michael Smith.”
“You needed Google to tell you your name?”
“I needed to update your contact information. I can generate an alias by myself.” The man John is reasonably certain is not named Michael adjusts his cuff. “The cash I send you every month will under no circumstances be deposited in any bank. You are not to tell anyone you’ve met me, or mention me to anyone. Ever. Are we clear?”
John drops his phone back into his pocket. “I guess so.”
“Excellent. I’ll text you when I need you.” This time it’s Michael who turns on his heel and leaves.
John realizes he should want to sit down after standing this long, and he folds onto the bench. With one hand, he massages his thigh. The other he lets rest on the slats of the bench, useless as the leg. The part of him that will show up for therapy tomorrow thinks that, whatever he just did, he probably shouldn’t have. A smaller piece thinks he’s missing something. The bulk of him doesn’t care.
That evening, he finds a large manila envelope sitting on his laptop keyboard. When he fingers it open and peeks inside, it’s stuffed full of cash. He falls heavily into the desk chair, ignoring the protest from his leg and shoulder, and for a long time, he just stares. It’s more money than he’s ever seen at once.
After a few minutes, he pours it out and starts counting. Ten thousand pounds, it comes out to, all in fifties.
Michael said he’ll be paid monthly, which means, when the math is done, John’s not walking away from this rich, but. Richer.
That’s assuming the envelopes keep coming, of course, which is by no means a sure thing. John runs his thumb over the queen’s face. He feels queasy.
It seems illicit, accepting this. He doesn’t know who “Michael Smith” is, or where his money comes from. Here, in this tiny flat John can — could — barely afford, the envelope and its spilled contents take up far too much room.
He shoves it all under his mattress. He’ll play it by ear, he thinks. He’s not done anything illegal yet. He pauses over that thought, and strikes it. He’s not done anything unethical yet. Illegal doesn’t bother him.
The first text comes a week later. Come to the park, same place, at earliest possible convenience. MS. John only checks it when he remembers who he’s been waiting for. He stares at the phone in ambivalence for several seconds and contemplates his recent fantasies about knifing annoying shopkeepers. If he doesn’t scratch that itch at the back of his brain before too long, he’s worried he’ll act on them. So he grabs his coat and his gun.
Michael is waiting on the same bench. He’s wearing another expensive black suit — although there’s no appreciable difference to the last one — and the same long black coat and woolen scarf. Without being invited, John takes the seat next to him. “You rang?”
“How long did you wait before coming? Five minutes? Three?” Michael picks lint off his trousers.
Less than that, John thinks, but says nothing. “You have a case?”
Michael looks up at him. “Yes. Ethan Allard, killed a year ago via a gunshot to the back. The police have declared the case cold.”
“And we’re going to solve it.”
Michael smiles. “Oh, yes.”
“He doesn’t know who killed him?” That would be the obvious place to start, John thinks.
“Don’t be stupid.” Michael tilts his head away from John. “Ethan!” he calls. Obligingly, a forty-something fat man in a cheap business suit appears out of thin air. John tries to be startled. He fails.
“Did you figure it out?” Ethan asks. “Have you got him?”
“Not yet,” Michael says. “This is John Watson. I trust you’ve heard of him.”
Ethan’s eyes narrow. “He’s the unhelpful one.”
“Hullo,” John says.
“What’s he doing here?”
Michael stands up, and, haltingly, John follows. “Helping. Now, Ethan, if you could show us yourself . . .?”
“Again?” Ethan says. A shade of petulance creeps into the word. Michael peers at him. “Yes, yes, all right.”
Ethan’s shirt unbuttons to his navel, and his trousers fall to his ankles. A gaping hole opens on one side of his chest, and blood soaks through his undershirt like fear through a man’s gut. John stares.
“Thoughts, Dr. Watson?” Michael asks.
“You were shot,” John says. The doctor in him marvels that Ethan is still standing, apparently untroubled by the massive hole in his chest. Proper procedure for a case like this queues up in John’s muscles and in his mind. The soldier in him marvels at the caliber of bullet necessary to create a wound like that, and begins searching the area for the shooter. The medium in him thinks, well, another fucking thing.
“Perfectly sound analysis, but I was hoping you’d go deeper.” Michael’s voice is dry enough to be bottled and sold as chardonnay. John reminds himself that whoever the killer is, he’s far away and is no immediate threat. Still, he brushes his hand against the bulge in his jacket where his pistol is.
“Right.” John swallows, pries his mind loose. “He was shot with a large caliber bullet —”
“Clearly,” Ethan says. Michael shuts him up with a look.
“— at relatively close range, so he didn’t hear the shooter sneaking up behind him.” He forces his eyes to Ethan’s face. “Where were you when you were — um, killed?”
“At home. In the bathroom. I turned to flush when it happened.” Ethan crosses his arms, like he’s challenging John to laugh. When he pulls them away, his sleeves are shiny with blood. “I had my music on.”
“Obviously.” Michael circles around to Ethan’s back. “And what do you make of this, Doctor? Lift up your shirt, Ethan.”
John follows. Beneath the entry wound, cut neatly into the flesh just above Ethan’s pants, are the words PISS OFF.
“This would’ve been done immediately postmortem, in order for it to show up on his ghost,” says Michael.
“If this one hadn’t told me about it, I’d never have known,” Ethan says, jerking his head in Michael’s direction. Michael makes some vague gesture Ethan seems to interpret as an okay to fix himself up. The wound and its associated gore vanishes, his trousers belt around his waist, and his shirt buttons itself up. One moment, he’s a murder victim; the next, a slightly disheveled office manager. Despite himself, John is more unnerved by this change than the first one. He’s seen injuries appear out of nowhere before. The opposite, not so much.
“I don’t see what we have to go on. If the police couldn’t figure it out —”
“Oh, honestly,” Michael says. “We have plenty of data; we simply need to follow it to its logical conclusion.”
“Mr. Allard here is guilty of sexually harassing an employee —”
“Excuse me?” Ethan cuts in. “I’ll have you know I would never —”
“— I’m guessing a man with a history in combat or organized crime.”
“I’m not a pervert, for god’s sake —”
“Based on the population he could’ve conceivably harassed, I suspect the former,” Michael says, ignoring Ethan completely.
John spares a glance for the ghost. His entire face is red, as if he still had blood pressure and it could still spike. “How on earth could you possibly know that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” At John’s skeptical look, Michael shakes his head disparagingly. “Dear lord. Fine. The placement of the writing is sexually suggestive, but the writing itself is precisely the opposite: a command to back off. So, sexual harassment — could be assault but I’d expect more violence in the retaliation. The nature of the crime — well-planned, without any indications of violence outside of what was necessary to kill him, save of course the mutilation — suggests someone who knew what he was doing, but again, the writing tells us he had a personal motive.”
“How do you know it was a man?” John asks.
“I’m not taking this,” Ethan says, shaking from head to toe, and vanishes.
“He frequently patronized male prostitutes.”
“Which you know because . . .?” Michael raises an eyebrow. John holds up his free hand. “Right.” He pauses. “That was brilliant.”
Michael looks up. “Really?”
“Well, yeah.” John stares at the spot Ethan just vacated, and wishes he could reevaluate the evidence for himself.
“That’s not what people usually say.”
John finds that difficult to believe. “What do they usually say?”
Michael pauses, then smiles slightly. “‘Piss off.’”
John’s lips twitch at the corners. He runs his free hand through his hair. “So what do you need me for, anyway? Not forensics, clearly.”
“If we’re going to find the killer, I needed you to be familiar with the case as it stands.” Michael begins walking in the direction of the nearest park exit, and John follows. “I have a suspect, and I need you to talk to him.”
John glances at Michael, but doesn’t stop. It’s difficult enough to keep up with him, all long legs and unhindered stride. “Why me? There’s no way I’d get as much out of an interview as you would, if you’re anywhere near as good as I think you are.”
“I’ve explained this, John. You’re my face. When you go to the police, it can’t get out that someone else was investigating the case. They might find me. I’m sure you can provide an adequate account.” Skepticism shades the last sentence, but John doesn’t comment.
“What would be so wrong about that?”
“I don’t like the spotlight.”
“You?” John almost laughs. Save his reluctance to give his actual name, there is nothing about Michael Smith to incriminate him as a recluse.
Michael stops. John mimics him. “Are you really questioning the man who’s paying you ten thousand quid monthly to take credit for his work?”
John runs his tongue over his teeth. “I guess not.”
“Good. Now. I have reason to believe our killer is a man named Layton Capp. You’ll like him. He’s violent.”
Capp is an infantryman turned cubicle worker, invalided out of Iraq three years ago. His left leg is stiff and he holds his upper body oddly, as though shying away from some pain.
“Medical officer?” Capp asks.
“Infantry. Happen to have a medical license.” He doesn’t ask how Capp knows. John has a similar sense for these things.
Capp smiles unpleasantly. “How can I help you . . .?”
John frees his cane hand and holds it out. “John. Watson.”
“How can I help you, John?” Capp’s handshake is just hard enough to hurt, a gesture John returns in kind.
“Did you know a man named Ethan Allard?”
Capp freezes. He regains himself in an instant, but not before John sees. “He was my boss. Killed, last year. Why?”
Michael told him not to lie, insofar as possible. “I’m investigating his death.”
“I thought the police gave up on him.”
“I’m not with the police.”
John watches carefully as Capp’s bearing changes. He stiffens and his features crease into hostility. “Then I don’t think I can help you.”
John looks him in the eye. “I think you killed him.” And oh, he thinks. Michael was right. It’s obvious, with a face in front of him and a dose of basic human intuition. Capp wouldn’t have been a bad sort, back in Iraq, but at home it was too much. “He was harassing you, wasn’t he?”
Three minutes later, Capp is splayed out on the floor. The knife he pulled is resting quite comfortably in John’s cane hand, and John has his knee to his throat. “You’re going to turn yourself in,” John says.
Capp struggles, bucking back suddenly, but John forces him down. He doesn’t notice that most of his weight is on his bad leg.
“All right,” Capp grunts. “I’ll — go down to the police station. Just let me up.”
“No. You’re going to use my phone. Right now.” John extracts his mobile from his pocket. It occurs to him that he doesn’t have a number — but, oh, there it is. Michael must’ve put it in. He selects it, then presses the phone to Capp’s ear.
Ten minutes later, the police arrive. It’s awkward, explaining precisely how he came to be holding a murderer at knife-point, and more than one officer offers him their suspicions. John is very conscious that he’s doing a paid job on behalf of a man he doesn’t really know.
It’s not till he gets home that he realizes he forgot his cane at Capp’s.
He thinks, well, this might work out after all.
Michael’s text begin coming weekly, then biweekly. The number of gruesome murders the Met have left unsolved is higher than John might have thought, even taking into consideration the fact that he and Michael are dealing with a backlog of decades. Carol, a bank teller decapitated and left to rot in an untouched vault of gold bullion forty years ago, wants to find her killer as badly as she did then. John finds he’s truly happy to help. His hand hasn’t so much as twitched since Layton Capp, and he no longer thinks about the cane leaning under his window. He’s stopped going to therapy. He has room in his body to care about people again.
The effect on Michael is practically chemical — Carol’s particular case, which turns out to be a maze of dark alleyways and strange details (all five suspects are named Barbara Clarke), takes them four days to solve and three days to prove, and Michael spends the week wild-eyed and prickling at the edges.
The only downside is dealing with the police.
John is waiting to talk to Sergeant Donovan about one particular Ms. Clarke when Lestrade walks past, carrying an empty paper espresso cup in one hand and a chocolate biscuit in the other. Lestrade stops in front of him and sighs. The whole line of his shoulders sags under the movement. “You again?” John shrugs. “Solved another cold case, have you? Why don’t you come into my office?”
A lucky turn of events. Lestrade seems to be more open to outside help than any of the other officers John’s had to convince. “Thanks,” John says.
Lestrade throws away his espresso and leads him into a tiny, hyper-modern glass-and-steel office not very far from Donovan’s desk. He offers John a seat before sliding into his own. “Who is it this time?”
“Carol Purcell,” John says. “She was decapitated thirty-eight years ago.”
Lestrade massages his temple, and swallows a bite of his biscuit. “And I suppose you know who did it.”
“Yes. Um.” John pushes a file folder over Lestrade’s desk. “Barbara Clarke. Well, one of them.” He opens the folder and flips through it until he finds the one with the unfortunate middle name. “This one, specifically. All the proof’s in there.”
“Of course it is.” Lestrade closes the file and lays it atop a mound of others. “Look, Dr. Watson, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you need to stop.”
“Stop helping you?” John says mildly.
“Stop risking your life. There’s a reason civilians aren’t supposed to do what you’re doing. It won’t end well. Trust me.”
It bothers John, slightly, to be called a civilian, but that’s what he is now, for a given value of the word. “Have I ever been wrong?”
“You’ve been — look — you’ve been helpful. I’m not denying that, it would be ridiculous. But that’s not the point.”
“Have I done anything illegal?”
Lestrade opens his mouth, then closes it. “Not technically, no.”
Lestrade does not know about the concealed firearm John carries more often than not — though certainly not into a police station — and Lestrade does not know about the breaking and entering involved in solving this very case and half a dozen others. John is fine with that.
“Then I guess I’ll keep on,” John says, politely as he can. “Thank you, Inspector.” He stands to leave. Before he’s out of earshot, he hears Lestrade requesting the case file on Carol Purcell.
John’s glad. Carol deserves her justice.
He takes a route through the park to get home, as he always does. He could hire all the taxis he likes, now, with Michael’s money, but cold or hot, he’s started enjoying the rhythm of it, especially now that he has two good legs. It’s a nice park, well-kept, never very crowded.
Plus, sometimes Michael is waiting for him. As he is today.
“You couldn’t have another case already,” John says, half-dreading, half-anticipating.
“No. Well, yes, but nothing I need your help with yet.”
Rather than stopping, John lets Michael fall into stride with him. “Want to get something to eat?” he asks on sudden impulse.
Michael glances at him. “I don’t eat when I’m working.”
“I’ve never actually seen you eat.”
“I try to keep busy.”
John smiles. It explains the man’s gaunt appearance, at least. They walk a few meters before John realizes Michael has no particular topic of conversation in mind. John clears his throat. “So. How did you know I’m like you? Out of curiosity.”
He catches Michael’s eye-roll in the periphery of his vision. “The ghosts told me. How else? Another medium in London? It’s the sort of news that travels.”
“They never mentioned you, before.”
“Of course not. They know I only take interesting cases. Grieving people aren’t interesting.”
“Pretty interesting to them, I’d think,” John says.
“You didn’t help them.”
He has John there. John inhales, exhales. Changes the subject. “Lestrade doesn’t want me doing this anymore. I don’t blame him. It’s a step away from vigilantism.”
Michael laughs, short and sharp. It’s a different laugh than the one he uses when they’re working, which is just as abbreviated but half-crazed with energy. “Who cares about Lestrade? He can’t stop you, and so long as you continue to be —”
“He can stop listening. He can tell the others to stop listening. Not much for it, after that.”
Above them, the sun is setting. A man and a woman walk past them, arms linked, her head on his shoulder. Michael eyes them as they pass. “He won’t.”
“You can’t —”
Michael sighs. “John.” He flavors the word with a deep, abiding condescension. “There’s a war on in London. And it’s not the law that’s winning. Lestrade isn’t entirely stupid; he won’t turn down an advantage.”
It’s a grave pronouncement, and not one John is entirely certain he understands. But the next time he leaves a file on Lestrade’s desk, Lestrade takes it without complaint.
The envelopes keep coming. Once a month, John will come home and find ten thousand quid sitting somewhere conspicuous in his flat. He assumes Michael gets ghosts to deliver them; he seems to have a net of them cast out over the city, ready to haul in any datum of information he might need. Given how desperate they were for John’s help, he supposes he could have the same thing, if he’d just comfort some grieving loved ones every now and then. But that seems much sleazier than just not doing anything.
It occurs to him that with his newfound mental and financial stability, he could probably start trying to live a normal life in some capacity. There’s a girl at the launderette, Sarah, he’s talked with a few times, who is exactly John’s type. But he can’t bring himself to ask her out.
Michael starts turning up more after cases, and then between them. At first, he makes his appearances only in the park, falling into step with John before John can notice he’s there. But today, there’s a knock at the door, and when John leans into the peephole, it’s Michael standing outside. He pulls open the door. “Michael?”
“May I come in?”
John stands aside, and Michael walks past. John shuts the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m bored,” Michael says, and flops down onto John’s bed. The springs creak in protest.
“So why are you here?” John says, stressing the last word. Perhaps ironically, John does not consider himself a particularly interesting person. When the action stops, so does he.
“What else am I going to do?”
“I don’t know. How do you usually spend your time?”
“Before I met you?”
“Yes.” John crosses his arms and looks down over Michael, enjoying the temporary height advantage.
“I was bored.” Michael twists over on the bed so that he’s facing John. “People are so dull, John. Ghosts aren’t that much better. I don’t know why you are.”
“Thank you,” John says. Michael narrows his eyes at him, as though he’s trying to determine whether John is being sarcastic (he is), then sits up.
“No, I meant you’re better.”
“Better than ghosts,” John says. “Like I said, thank you.”
Michael heaves a sigh. “I’m attempting to compliment you.”
John sighs, a bit less dramatically, and pulls his desk chair over so that he can sit down too. “Oh, all right. Thank you. Really,” he says. “What do you want?”
Michael gives him a sober look. The atmosphere in the room shifts. “I need the missing piece of the puzzle,” he says, more quietly than John knew he could speak. “It’s why I keep going.”
“Casus belli,” Michael says. He rubs his hands down his face, heels pressing in from his hairline to his jaw. He sighs again and rolls over to face the wall.
John waits for a full minute before shaking his head and standing up.
“Make yourself at home,” he says at last, uselessly, and pushes the chair back under the desk. “Want a cuppa?”
Michael makes some noise John interprets as a negative, then stills so absolutely he may as well have left the flat. John glances back to reassure himself, then gets out the kettle.
He doesn’t mind the company, not really.
The next knock comes when John is eating breakfast the next day. He looks down at the leftover Italian he doesn’t really want to eat, pushes the plate away, and gets up to answer. The man behind the door is not one he recognizes.
“Ah, Dr. Watson. So glad I caught you at home.” The man smiles without teeth. “Would you mind terribly if I came inside?”
“Who are you?” John asks. He can see some answers to that question for himself: the expensive suit, the absolute assurance in the man’s posture, and the umbrella he’s leaning on despite it having been dry for days all scream he’s from Michael’s world.
“That’s not important,” he says. “May I please come in?”
“I don’t make a habit of inviting strangers into my flat,” John says.
“A prudent habit, but still, I must insist. I hate doing anything so prosaic as making threats.”
Ah, John thinks. He considers turning the stranger away, just to see what would happen, but decides to let this play out. He invites the man inside.
Mental stability, indeed.
Once the door is closed behind him, the man gives the room a single disdainful sweep with his eyes, then fixes them firmly on John. It’s clearly a look meant to inspire discomfort. It doesn’t. “Want some tea?” John asks, and heads over to where he keeps the kettle and teabags.
“No, thank you,” the man says.
“Suit yourself.” John checks the kettle, finds it still has water in it, and turns it on. He looks up at the man, who is watching him with careful interest. “So do you want something?”
“You’ve done a lot of work for the police recently,” the man says.
John wonders if this is Michael’s shadiness finally brought to life. He sort of hopes so. “Not doing it for the police,” he says.
The man’s eyebrow lifts. “Then for whom? If I may be so bold.”
“If you say so.” John pulls a mug from a lonely corner of the counter, and sets it in easy reach. “Why do you care, exactly?”
The stranger twirls his umbrella over the tips of his fingers. “You’ve been paying your rent in cash for the past several months, have you not?”
The kettle boils. John ignores it. “How do you know that?”
The man smiles just so, and the umbrella stills against his leg. “Tell me, John. Have you met anyone unusual recently?”
“Just you,” John says, and sets about making his tea. The whistle stops, leaving a hollow feeling in his ears. “Can’t see how it’s any of your business.”
“If you’ve become involved with the man I believe you have, it most certainly is my business.”
“I’m not ‘involved’ with anyone.” John wraps his left hand around the mug, and takes a comforting mouthful. He takes a seat in his desk chair.
“Your phone records show you’ve received an alarming number of texts from someone signing himself ‘MS.’”
“How do you know that?” John repeats, agitation creeping into his voice for the first time. “How the bloody hell could you possibly know that?”
The man gives him an arch look. “I know he’s paying you to . . . keep him out of the spotlight, shall we say, but I’d be willing to pay you substantially more if you’d just provide me with information.”
“No.” John sets down his tea, and gets to his feet. The man doesn’t react, except to follow him calmly with his eyes.
“All I want is the name he’s operating under.”
“No,” John repeats. He pushes a hand into the stranger’s shoulder, and pulls open the door. “Get out.”
The man’s face sets. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Get out,” John says, more forcefully.
“Given that there is a sniper across the street with his sights locked on the back of your head,” the man says, and sidesteps away when John freezes, “I rather think I won’t. Now shut the door.”
John has no proof that what he’s being told is true, but it seems healthiest to take the threat at face value. He shuts the door.
“Give me the name he’s operating under, and you can continue on with your life.” The man holds his umbrella out in front of his legs like a cane.
John breathes in deeply, and resists the urge to duck for cover. He locks eyes with the stranger. “Michael Smith,” he says.
“How generic,” the man says. He smiles again, and John wants to carve his lips from his face. “You’ve been a great help. Hopefully I won’t have to come calling again. Good night, Doctor.”
He opens the door, and is gone. John ducks into the bathroom. He wishes his gun weren’t locked in his desk.
He has no way of contacting Michael. No way of warning him, or seeking his help, or doing whatever it is that needs to be done.
No wait, he thinks. Of course he does.
“Someone,” he calls out into the empty air. “I need you to deliver a message.”
No one appears. He calls again, and again, and just as he decides it won’t work, a blonde girl in skintight red leggings condenses in the bathtub. “Yeah?” she says. “You need help?”
“Yes, please, I need you to —”
“Will you tell my dad Mum’s cheating on him?” the girl asks. She stretches out her legs, and looks at him skeptically from underneath heavy eyelashes. “And that it’s not his fault I OD’d, so he doesn’t have to put up with it?”
John hesitates. “Yeah. Fine. I just need you to get a message to Michael Smith.”
“And that I didn’t do it on purpose?” The girl pulls her denim jacket close around her body. She looks very young. Some of John’s haste wears away.
“I can try. He might not believe me.”
“But you’ll try?” At John’s weary nod, the girl pulls her lower lip between her teeth, and when John blinks, she’s sitting on the loo. “Okay. What do you want?”
“A message. To Michael Smith. Although that’s not his real name —”
“D’you mean the guy who solves murders?” John gives an affirmative. The girl frowns. “He’s hard to find.”
“Can you do it? Tell him I need to see him.”
“If you’re going to help me — yeah, ’course I can.” She grins, and disappears.
John shakes his head to clear the image of her. He takes a deep breath, and moves over to the bathroom door. The next room is small enough that even if he hit the floor, he won’t have sufficient cover to make it to the corridor. Slowly, he pushes the door open, and sticks his head out. When it isn’t immediately blown off, he takes it as a sign that he’s safe for the moment.
On the desk, next to his rapidly cooling cup of tea, his phone vibrates. He nearly trips over the chair grabbing it. Five minutes. MS.
Four minutes later, there’s a knock at the door. John opens it, and steps aside to let Michael in before shutting it. In a moment of paranoia, he moves over to the window and pulls down the blinds. “That didn’t take long,” he says.
“Your messenger travels at the speed of death,” Michael says. “And I happened to be nearby. What’s going on?”
“A man showed up at the flat. He wanted to know about you.”
Michael stills. “What did he look like?”
“Tall. Forties. Carried an umbrella.” John crosses his arms. “Do you know him?”
“What did you tell him?”
John rubs the back of his neck. “Your name. He was going to kill me.”
“Oh, that’s so like him,” Michael says, his lip curling, and starts to pace. “Well, no matter, he’s not getting anywhere with just the name. Dammit, John.”
“So you know who he is.”
“An old enemy. Listen to me: You cannot let him find out what you can do.”
“Who is he?”
“The most dangerous man you’ll ever meet.” Michael crosses the entire length of the flat several times in several seconds. He looks like a clock pendulum, swinging and swinging, until it hurts John’s eyes.
John crosses his arms. “Yes, but who is he? If he’s going to be pointing guns at my head, I’d like to know his name.”
Michael stops. He gives John a hard, measuring look. “Mycroft Holmes,” he says at last. “He’s the government.”
“He’s from the government? What’s he want with you?”
“I didn’t say he’s from the government. I said he is the government.” Michael’s eyes are cold and colorless.
“What does that mean? Michael —”
“It means that if he finds out what you are, you will never see the light of day again.” Michael fixes his gaze on the middle distance. He breathes in. He doesn’t seem to breathe out. “We’ll need to be careful from now on, John.”
John studies Michael carefully. “Is that what happened to you?”
Michael refocuses on him. “What do you mean?”
“Did he do something to you?”
“No,” Michael says.
John pulls a hand over his face. Contrary to his expectations, he feels something inside him unclench. “There’s a lot you need to tell me.”
“I don’t think so.”
John tries, but he can’t think of anything to say to that. Nothing he thinks would actually work.
When it becomes clear the conversation is over, Michael pulls his coat on tighter. “I need data,” he says. “If Mycroft is looking for me, I need to be certain he won’t be successful.”
John moves to get the door, but stops when his fingers reach the metal. “At least tell me your name.”
“If you know it, you can tell him.”
“He already knows it. I’m not stupid. I know this isn’t all for my benefit.”
Michael’s lips thin, and he draws himself up to greater height, or seems to. “In comparison with me and in comparison with him, not only are you stupid, you’re an idiot. You prove that every time I see you.”
“It’s not an insult. It’s a statement of fact. Tell me, John. What do you know about me? What have you deduced in all the months we’ve known each other?”
John’s jaw locks shut. Eventually he manages to say, “You have money.”
“Oh, and what gave that away? The ten thousand quid I pay you each month? My clothes? My accent? And it’s still wrong.” Michael’s face is hard and still. John watches him warily. “Here’s what I know about you: Your family has a long military tradition, a tradition your father ignored but which you took up with gusto after being attacked in — oh, your early twenties. You went into hospital with all your grandfather’s war stories buzzing around in your brain and came out wanting to a doctor. You decided you could have both. And after you got out of the army — between the day you left and the day you met — not a day went by that you didn’t fantasize about killing someone. You felt guilty, but not guilty enough to turn me down.”
John’s mouth shapes silent nonsense. “How . . .?”
“The fact that you don’t know proves my point. Now, may I go, or will you ask more questions I won’t answer?”
Silence holds the room for an uncomfortable pulse of seconds. John opens the door. Michael sweeps out, coat flapping behind him, leaving John alone.
He notices absently that his hand is shaking. He shoves it into his pocket.