“Sir, I thought you’d want to know. Harriet Watson was just let go.”
Mycroft raised one eyebrow at his assistant. “You mean…?”
“Sacked. Yes, sir.”
He sighed. Couldn’t the woman ever keep a job? He knew she was an alcoholic, but this was the third time in two years. “The reason this time?”
Her eyes flicked up from her Blackberry. “Apparently because she missed work for having been kidnapped, sir.”
Now both eyebrows were raised. “Indeed? That’s hardly sporting of them, is it? Does Dr. Watson know yet?”
She shook her head. “Ms. Watson only just left the building with her things. She won’t have had time to call him yet.”
Mycroft tipped his head back, thinking. As a rule, he couldn’t be less interested in Harriet Watson’s life. Other than the fact that she could affect John’s mental state which in turn would affect Sherlock’s, Harriet Watson’s life choices were none of his business. He had enough things to worry about, trying to keep Sherlock and the British commonwealth in line.
However, in fairness, her current predicament was not her fault. This time, at least, losing her job was because of Andy Littleston’s actions against her, John, and Sherlock. This time, her absence from work was obviously not her fault.
This time, she was very much involved in a case that affected him.
Besides, the injustice rankled. Little though he might care for Harriet Watson on a normal day, he had to admit that, this time, she deserved a little compensation. He looked up at Anthea. “Get me her employer’s number would you? And any records you may have on them? Corporate as well as personal. Alert Tony, also, to get the paperwork ready. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“Yes, John, I heard. I entirely agree. They were out of line. I know how you hate when I interfere, but I would be happy to make a few calls….”
Mycroft glanced at the clock, then caught Anthea’s eye and nodded. “Go.”
Maggie stretched her neck at her desk as she looked at the time on her computer screen. It had been a long day and she was looking forward to going home—hopefully before 7:00 pm for a change. Still, the day had been a good one. They’d landed that new client they’d been after for months, and she had finally had a chance to get rid of some of the dead weight from her payroll, namely Harriet Watson.
She sniffed. The nerve of that woman. Maggie tried to be a generous person. She knew that alcoholism was a disease and that it was important to be sympathetic and all that, but really. It was one thing when Harry staggered in with hangovers in the mornings. She was what Maggie thought they called a functioning alcoholic. It’s not like she was drunk all the time, and she was capable enough when she was sober, even if her personality was somewhat abrasive.
But this? Claiming that she had been kidnapped when she’d obviously been on a multi-day bender? She’d come in this morning, pale and wan, shaky with red eyes and swore up and down that she’d been abducted and only just rescued two days ago.
Well, Maggie couldn’t let her get away with that, could she? That kind of outright lie would just damage the morale of every other worker in the company—the ones who did show up on time. Really, it was a small loss. Public relations people were a dime a dozen as it was. She’d be easy to replace.
Her phone rang, and she took a deep breath as she answered, making a mental note to place an ad tomorrow. “Good afternoon,” she said, “Parker Press.”
“Yes,” said the smooth voice at the other end of the line. “I’m calling for Harry Watson.”
Maggie’s nose wrinkled. A personal call? Really, Harry was obviously no loss, though she wondered how the call had ended up on her line. “I’m sorry, but Ms. Watson is no longer with the company. May I help you with something?”
“I certainly hope so.” The posh voice at the other end sounded slightly amused now. “For your own sake, at least. I’m not calling to speak with Ms. Watson. Rather, I am calling on her behalf. May I ask why she was let go this morning?”
She sat up straighter at her desk, marshaling her thoughts. Was Harry trying to sue them? “I’m afraid I can’t give out that information, Mr….?”
“I think you’ll find that you can, Ms. Parker. I presume this was connected to her absence earlier this week?”
She sighed. He certainly sounded like a lawyer. “Yes, it was. It’s company policy that all absences must be reported. We have a very generous sick day policy. All she needed to do was call to let us know she wouldn’t be in. By not communicating with us, she left us short-handed on a very busy week. It was her own fault for not picking up the phone to place a 2-minute call telling us she’d be out as per our long-standing policy.”
“I believe Ms. Watson told you she was unable to make such a call, did she not?”
“She did have some story about being held captive, but that’s just ridiculous…” Her computer screen flickered and, balancing the phone on her shoulder, she frantically tapped her keyboard, and then stared in disbelief as her monitor showed a clipping from the newspaper, headline shouting about a kidnapping.
Another flicker, and there was the article, Harry’s name highlighted as being a victim. Next, a photo of Harry Watson seated on the back of an ambulance, wrapped in a blanket.
She swallowed hard. “How are you doing this?”
The voice was cool as it answered. “One really cannot underestimate the importance of staying up on current events. Had you bothered to check the news instead of spending your time in bed with Devon Harrisport—does your husband know about your affair, by the way?—you would have known that Ms. Watson was telling the truth.”
The picture on her computer monitor now was of her, leaving Devon’s flat early this morning. From the angle, it looked like it could have been taken by a CCTV camera, but that was ridiculous, wasn’t it?
“What do you want?” She scowled at the empty tea mug on her desk, longing for something to moisten her mouth.
“I believe the question is what can you do for Ms. Watson to make up for the loss of her livelihood on top of the trauma she has already experienced this week?” There was a rustle of paper over the phone line. “Not to mention that you may well regret being short-handed, once the auditors arrive. In my experience, you can never have too much help when dealing with a full-scale audit.”
Her mouth was open. “But … that’s not … you can’t …”
“Oh, I believe you’ll find that I can, Ms. Parker. Didn’t you know that there are consequences for wrongful termination? And of course, once the press hears about the aggravated mental and emotional distress for a kidnapping victim callously fired by her employer? That can’t possibly look good, can it? Especially for a public relations firm? I don’t quite see how you could spin that to your advantage—but then, I’m in a different line of work.”
Her assistant was at the door now, looking pale. “Ms. Parker? There are some, er, gentlemen here to see you.” Behind her, Maggie could see two men in very expensive suits, carrying briefcases, and looking very, very serious.
“Look,” she said into the phone, trying to keep her voice level while her head was screaming. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve misunderstood. We didn’t let Harry go, exactly. We just sent her home for the day so she could, er, rest.”
She covered the mouthpiece with her hand and whispered frantically to her assistant. “Get Harry Watson on the phone. NOW!”
The man on the phone was amused again. “Yes, I’m sure that’s why she left with a box of all her belongings from her desk.” And there was another surveillance picture of Harry leaving the office, right there on her computer screen.
“How are you DOING this? Who are you?” Maggie couldn’t keep the quaver out of her voice, now.
“Let’s just say I’m a friend. In fact, in that vein, let me give you some friendly advice. The gentlemen waiting to speak with you? You’ll want to give them everything they need. They don’t take kindly to obstruction.” The voice positively dripped with menace. “In other words, you’ll want to treat them more kindly than you did the traumatized woman you just fired. And in the meantime, you might want to consider what you could do to make amends. Just a little friendly advice.”
He disconnected and Maggie sat there for a long moment, staring at her back-to-normal computer screen, holding the empty phone receiver to her ear until it started beeping in protest.
She looked at the men waiting outside her door and they walked in, holding up very official looking government identification. Internal Revenue? She just stared at them, ears buzzing so that she only heard a few words they said. Something about an audit of her company files for the last five years. How was that even possible?
She just nodded, blankly and took the documents they gave her, unable to focus on what they were saying until they started to leave. “Wait! How did this happen?”
The agent just smiled at her. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Ms. Parker. Do try to be prepared.”
Prepared? But how…?
“Ms. Parker?” It was Betty again. “I’ve got the call for Ms. Watson ringing now.”
Maggie grabbed the phone. This had to be a trick, right? This couldn’t possibly be happening. Some kind of sadistic prank. Harry Watson couldn’t have done this … could she?
Harry answered, her voice sounding as shaky as Maggie felt. “Harry? How are you doing? You know, I’ve been thinking that we overreacted today. It’s my own fault, of course, for being too married to the rules. You know how that is.” She tried to force a laugh. “Or, er, maybe you don’t. But anyway, my point—because I do have one—is that I’m sorry about before, and hope you’ll come back.”
She held the phone away from her ear at the wave of anger coming through the earpiece. “I just thought you were happy here, and I felt so badly…”
She winced. That didn’t sound remotely sincere, even to her, and she wasn’t particularly surprised when Harry hung up on her. She needed to get herself together. What was wrong with her today? She was supposed to be smooth-tongued and able to spin anything to be favorable. That’s what her clients paid her for. That’s what her employees counted on her for. It was just that … her brain had turned into fried mush in the last few minutes.
Still, it couldn’t get any worse, right?
She was staring at the scary, official-looking documents on her desk, and shouting to her assistant to call the accountant right away when her phone rang again. Absently, she picked it up. “Maggie Parker.”
“Oh, excellent. I was hoping to catch you before you left for the day.” The voice this time belonged to an older man, who sounded frail, somewhat short of breath. “My name is Ian Littleston, of LSE. You may have heard of me?”
Galvanized, she bolted upright in her chair. If it had been the Queen on the phone, she wouldn’t have been more surprised. “Why, of course I have, Mr. Littleston! How can I help you?”
“You handle the PR for Rolling Pebbles, correct?”
“Yes, we do. It’s one of our best accounts.” Had he heard what a good job they were doing?
“Well, I’m sorry to say that Rolling Pebbles is actually connected to LSE—did you know that?¬¬ –and I’m afraid we’ll be moving them elsewhere.”
This was … devastating. Rolling Pebbles was their biggest client, and also directly responsible for their having gotten several of their other accounts. “May I ask why, sir? I thought they were happy with the work we were doing. We just finished setting up a new marketing campaign for them and they seemed quite pleased.”
“I’m sure they were, and I promise you’ll be paid for the work you’ve done.” His voice sounded slightly stronger. “The problem is that it has come to my attention that you’re not as solicitous of your employees’ welfare as you should be. At LSE, we cherish our employees rather more than you do, and therefore…”
“This is about Harry Watson, isn’t it?” Maggie couldn’t help the interruption. How the hell had Harry done all of this? “I don’t know what she told you, but…”
“I assure you, Ms. Parker, I heard nothing about any of this from Ms. Watson. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her. This is solely about good business practices. I know many people believe that the bottom line is most important, but in my opinion, that’s short-sighted, especially in this difficult economy. Ultimately, when you take care of your people and your clients, I find the rest falls into place.”
“But, I … I do!” Maggie tried not to wail in the phone. “You don’t understand. She left us short-handed, she didn’t call … how was I supposed to know that she’d been kidnapped? I mean, who would believe that kind of story? I was trying to look out for everybody else who works for me! What kind of message would it send them if I let Harry get away with that kind of bullsh… nonsense?”
“That could be a valid argument, Ms. Parker, if you had bothered to check Ms. Watson’s statement before firing her out of hand, without any notice.” The elderly voice at the other end was cool now.
“But, you just said … you have to look out for your people. That’s what I was doing.”
“It’s an odd way of showing it, don’t you think?” There was pause, a weak cough and the sound of the man taking a drink. “I’ll tell you what. I am going to send a man over to talk to you. If you can convince him that you’re taking proper care of your remaining employees¬—and that you’ve made this right with Ms. Watson—I’ll let the Rolling Pebbles people decide if they want to stay with you.”
“Really?” She felt a tiny bit of hope. “What do you want me to do? I’ll do anything?”
“Flowers might be a nice start, don’t you think? And an apology?” The man’s voice was mild.
“Yes, of course. Right away.” She waved frantically at her assistant. “Anything else?”
“You’d be better off checking with Ms. Watson, don’t you think?” There was some amusement there. “But I find reparations are a good start. Funds for a therapist to help her deal with this traumatic experience, perhaps? I hope there was a generous severance package to help tide her over until she finds a new job?”
“Um, yes, of course.” Maggie scribbled a huge pound sign on a post-it and stuck it to her computer screen.
There was more coughing on the phone, and Maggie remembered something she’d heard, about Ian Littleston being ill? “Are you all right?”
A very quiet chuckle. “Not particularly. It’s been a bad week for me, too.”
Wait, hadn’t that article said the kidnapper was … light dawned. Horrible, frightening, blindingly terrifying light. “Your son was the kidnapper?”
“Is that why you’re doing this? As some kind of apology for what your son did? But why did you arrange the audit?”
“Audit?” He sounded surprised and rather amused. “Oh, no, Ms. Parker. That was somebody else entirely. I have nothing to do with the government; I’m just a businessman. I trust that the legal system will deal with Andrew properly. In fact, I have no doubt of it in this case. No, I just want to be sure that Ms. Watson is treated as she deserves after her ordeal.”
“I tried offering her her job back, after that other call,” she said bluntly. “She laughed at me.”
“I don’t think you can entirely blame her for that,” he said wryly. “But you should still make reparation for your wrongful termination.”
“I will. If it lets me keep Rolling Pebbles, I’ll do anything,” she said fervently.
The voice was chiding when it replied. “You should do so because it’s right, Ms. Parker.”
She could feel herself blushing. “Oh, well, of course.”
“For a woman in public relations, you should really try thinking before you act.” Her mouth was suddenly a desert, so dry her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. “Luckily, I’m not a particularly vengeful man, and remarkably very fair-minded. I think if you can prove your good intent, it will go a long way. My representative will be in touch.”
There was another string of shallow coughs and then, voice weaker, he excused himself.
Maggie sat and stared at her phone. Ian frigging Littleston had just called her. He had sounded almost sweet on the phone—nothing like his blood-thirsty reputation. The man was dying, they said, and his son had kidnapped Harry? Why on earth would Ian Littleston’s son come after Harry of all people?
She looked again at the audit papers on her desk, the big post-it reminding her of money she had more or less promised to pay for Harry to go to frigging therapy. And, she really did need Rolling Pebbles as a client if she wanted to stay in business. What had the man said? Something about taking care of people? Well, she was going to start by taking care of herself, thank you very much, and if that meant being nice to Harry Watson…
“Betty,” she called. “Get me the florist, would you? And, if someone from LSE shows up?” She thought a moment. “Be really, really nice to him.”
John was just getting in the car in Harry’s driveway when his phone rang. “Hello, Ian?”
“John, good. I’m glad I caught you. I’d like you to make a stop for me.”
“Anything, Ian,” he agreed easily. “Besides, it’s your car. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, I think you’ll enjoy this, and it will only take a few minutes.…”
Maggie had been staring at her hands for a while now, she wasn’t sure how long. She kept waiting for them to start shaking, because they felt like they should be shaking. How was it possible that a day that had started so well had descended to this level of hell?
Then her phone rang again. Afraid now, she picked it up. “Hello?”
“Maggie Parker, head of Parker Press?” The voice was clipped and fast. “I’m calling from The Sun. I understand that you are the employer of Harriet Watson, but that, despite the ordeal she’s been through this week, you fired her. Do you have a comment?”
“What? No. I mean, that wasn’t the reason…” but they had already disconnected. Maggie couldn’t believe this. The Sun? How had they gotten the story? They were going to eviscerate her! The tabloids loved nothing more than hatchet jobs. But, it’s not like they knew how difficult Harry was to work with, or how unreliable. In fact, that was going to have to be the tack she took. It’s not like she was the villain, here. She was just a hard-working woman trying to run a small business in a trying economy.
She tried not to wince when her phone lit up with several more calls. She put her head in her hands. Oh god, she was doomed.
“Excuse me, Ms. Parker?” The mild voice came from her office door. She looked up, glaring out at Betty who shrugged apologetically while she spoke frantically into the phone. He didn’t look as frightening as the last visitors, did, which was something. He looked altogether ordinary, almost familiar. In fact, he did look familiar. There was a look about his eyes that reminded her of someone.
“My name’s John Watson. I believe you know my sister?”
Oh, crap. This was the last thing she needed. Harry’s brother showing up to yell at her, too? What kind of family did that?
“Look, Mr. Watson, I don’t know what you’re here for, but I assure you that I…”
He just stood there, a slightly amused smile on his face. “I would have expected something more along the lines of an apology,” he said, looking at the lights blinking on her phone, eyes skimming over the INS paperwork on her desk. “Having a bad day, are you?”
Obviously idiocy ran in the family. How could he just stand there, oblivious when everything she had worked for was falling apart? “Yes, I am, in fact. Do you know what’s happened to me this afternoon?”
Another glance at her desk. “I don’t know. Is it worse than being tied to a chair for several days and then promptly being fired by your boss because you were unable to make a phone call?”
“How was I supposed to know that? Who would believe a story like that?”
He nodded slightly. “I agree. It’s not something that normally happens, but for all her faults, Harry’s not stupid. If she were going to make up a story, don’t you think she would have made up something more plausible? Don’t you think you should have checked out the facts first, before firing her?”
That was the worst part, Maggie thought. If she hadn’t been so glad for an excuse to get rid of her, she really would have done that. She should have done it anyway. She knew that. She was just about to say so when her assistant leaned in the doorway. “Ms. Parker? There’s a crowd of reporters outside. I thought you should know.”
Which is when Maggie lost it. She turned to Harry’s brother, a man so mild-mannered he was had probably spent his life being bullied by his sister. He just stood there with a bland look on his face like he was just being polite and she just exploded. “This is all your sister’s fault. I don’t know how she did this, but it’s all because of her. Who the bloody hell does she think she is? Who the bloody hell does she KNOW that she could do this? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?”
Harry’s brother had backed up a step, obviously intimidated and for a moment, it felt so, so good to get a little of her own back against a Watson, after her hellish afternoon.
She saw a tall man in a chauffer’s uniform standing outside her door, next to Betty’s desk. He must be here with Ian Littleston’s representative, and she needed to make a good impression. She looked back at Harry’s brother. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mister Watson, I have another appointment. If I never see another Watson in this office again, it will be too soon.”
The man’s expression didn’t change, but she saw his shoulders lift slightly, and he looked like he was trying to think of some kind of smart comeback. Before he could say anything, though, the chauffeur stepped forward, the faintest curve to his mouth as he said smoothly, “Sorry to interrupt, Dr. Watson, but Mr. Littleston said to be sure to remind you that you had that dinner appointment tonight, and that you only had ten minutes for this visit.”
Maggie actually felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her skin tingling. She had always thought that was just a figure of speech, but right now she was almost entirely speechless. “Mr. Littleston?”
John Watson nodded. “Yes, he asked me to stop by as a personal favor. I think he was hoping you’d take the opportunity to offer an apology in person, but I see he was overly optimistic.”
“That’s Doctor Watson, if you please.” His voice was sharp now, commanding. The unassuming posture had completely gone, and he was standing erect and alert, almost like a soldier prepared to attack. “I see that Ian Littleston’s phone call had little effect. I served for over a decade in Afghanistan, Ms. Parker, and I know all about the importance of looking after your team. You might make mistakes, and you might not always get along, but the people you’re fighting with are all you’ve got. I know Ian had hoped to give you a second chance—he so enjoys giving people the benefit of the doubt—but sometimes, it’s simply not worth it.”
“But, I …”
He turned to the driver. “Let’s go, Stephen. I’ve seen all I need to see here. Harry’s better off.” And with a polite nod, he marched out the door, the driver trailing behind.
Maggie’s knees gave way. How could she have known that Harry’s brother was going to be Ian Littleston’s representative? Really, how could she have possibly known that? Harry was so annoying, so ordinary. How on earth was Harriet Watson connected to Ian Littleston? And the government? How had she managed the audit?
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned her head to see a new photo on her computer screen. A graduation photo of the man who had just left her office, a young Harry Watson at his side, as he shook hands with what looked like his father. What the hell?
There was another flicker, and now the photo had a caption. “John Watson and Ian Littleston.”
No. It wasn’t possible.
Maggie pushed back away from her desk and stared out the window, watching John Watson push his way past a slew of reporters on the way to a sleek sedan.
As she watched him work his way to the car, another image presented itself behind her eyes. This same man, surrounded by the press, denying allegations that his flatmate, that detective, was a fraud. The same famous detective that had returned from the dead a year or so ago, the one who was famous for helping the police with his assistant…
Oh god. What had she done?
She stared blindly at the blinking lights on her phone, too petrified to move.
It was going to be a long night.