It is the military turn which breaks him. He knows it should be the words, but it isn’t; it is the turn.
He goes directly to Heathrow from the cemetery. He should have been gone long since of course, and has already received several texts to this effect.
The first thing he does after clearing security is buy a phone; he buys a run of the mill, anonymous and inelegant chunk of plastic which he intends to elevate to what amounts to a lifeline. He pays cash. He has numerous cards which bear names other than his own but it feels wrong to continue his deception even this one step farther. As the coins comprising his change drop into the palm of his hand, the phone in his pocket, to which he now attaches the phrase The Other Phone - chimes.
* Not allowed. *
* Not negotiable. *
He switches The Other Phone off.
His new phone - The John Phone - is operational, ready to be used by the time he boards. After the fuss of settling into his seat he regards the phone gravely. He vows upon this insignificant piece of plastic (as if he is a man of religion and the phone is that which he holds as holy) that he will never again tell John a lie. He puts the phone into his pocket, a reassuring weight; he won’t use it for the first time until he has accomplished something, until there is news to share.
It is nearly four months before he has news to share. He knows that not all of Moriarty’s minions will be this difficult to track down and eliminate. He knows that the beginning was bound to be the most difficult part of this venture. He knows that he had targeted this first man not because he would be easy to take down but because, having done so, he now has in his possession information which will lead him to many others with whom he must duel. Knowing these things has not made the waiting any easier, because he also knows now how very much he misses his partner.
He fiddles with the key to his hotel room – it tends to be fussy. Gaining access to the suite, he casts aside his coat and pours himself a generous measure of whisky from the heavy crystal decanter. He sinks boneless into an armchair from which he can contemplate the last touches of red and gold caressing the towers of Prague Castle. He has imbibed a generous amount of the alcoholic balm and the sunlight has faded away to star shine before he lets out a long breath and allows himself to switch the phone on.
*Don’t worry, I’m still alive.*
John must not yet be getting quite as many of these fake messages as he had anticipated, because his response is fairly tolerant; it is certainly much more so than he had expected.
*Who would you be then?*
*Sherlock, of course. I’m sorry to have worried you.*
There must be absolutely no suspicion that the texts from this number are actually from the real Sherlock Holmes; if there is reason to suspect this then there is reason to kill John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson. There must be no suspicion whatsoever.
* PISS OFF *
Well, that was certainly more like what he had been expecting. He is almost certainly getting a lot of this sort of thing; possibly there had been an incident which had led him to be tolerant of at least the first round. Perhaps someone had got a new number and been told off prematurely.
*It’s OK if you can’t believe me yet.*
*PISS OFF WANKER*
*I understand, John. I’ll keep you updated.*
*Sherlock Holmes is dead.*
*I’m sorry, John.*
*Apologizing doesn’t help your story, you arse.*
*No, I suppose it wouldn’t.*
*You’re sick. Get help.*
*It’s all right, John. I’ll be in touch.*
John, it seems, is done responding for the moment. Now that he is in no danger of being believed, he sends his real message.
Wearily, Sherlock drains his glass.
John has tried pretty much everything he can think of to stop people texting him that they’re Sherlock Holmes back from the grave and none of it has worked. He has changed his number eight times in the six months since Sherlock died. He has spent two months of that time without any phone at all; that was worse, he had to abandon his email account entirely. So now he just runs them off, it has proven to be the most effective method by far.
He keeps track of the numbers because he reports all of this to the police; that’s the only real threat he has, that he’ll report them for stalking and they’ll be arrested. Not that they actually will be, of course. But he keeps track anyway and sends off messages telling random nutters to piss off in no uncertain terms. He tells people he will never lay eyes on that they are deranged, and he learns that it takes an average of thirty-eight of these sorts of messages to get his point across.
The only thing that worries him about the fact that people are finally starting to believe in great numbers that Sherlock was no fake is the fact that he is bound to gain in fake Sherlocks because of it. He wonders if irony is the correct term to describe this situation, but he is no longer a writer so does not bother to look it up.
*Another one down.*
*You really are a nutter.*
Sherlock is a little surprised. He has taken down two small fish since his initial success, but neither of those notifications had successfully baited a response. He had calculated that it would take at least one more repetition of his apparently nonsensical message before he received a reply. But then, John has always been surprising.
*So you have said in the past.*
*You do realize I have no idea what you’re talking about, right?”
*I do, yes.*
*Sherlock Holmes is dead.*
*Definitely a standby.*
*Look, nothing you say will make me believe you’re Sherlock.”
*That does not bother me.*
Sherlock hesitates, because he doesn’t really want to answer – man. Coming across as a murderous nutter isn’t his aim.
*Ah, curiosity wins out.*
He waits twenty minutes, but there is no further response.
The heat of the deep desert presses heavily against his skin as he watches the local authorities execute the man he has just turned over to them. He is doing his best to bring his quarries to justice rather than simply eliminating them. However, in some cases that has not been practical; in others, such as this, others have judged that justice merits elimination. When he finds he is disturbed by this he naturally thinks of John.
*An evil man died today because of my actions.*
*You are a sick wanker and you don’t deserve to live.*
*Do your other Sherlocks really mind that you call them wankers?*
*It seems to be effective.*
*Did Sherlock mind?*
*How do you think I know none of you is Sherlock?*
*I miss you, John.*
*Piss off, you complete and utter bastard.*
He stalks the streets of Lisbon with a slight limp; he landed on that last roof just slightly wrong and twisted his ankle rather badly. This has led him to take two days to rest and look more closely at the data he is steadily accumulating on the syndicate which he is taking apart piece by piece.
Now, as he processes where it would be best to go after he has finished up here he misses John, who never fails to say the right thing at the right time, most intensely. He caresses the phone in his pocket and finally gives in.
*What do you see that I don’t?*
*Back so soon?*
This a reference to his usual message just two days earlier. Sherlock does not normally have news or a comment this soon after such a communication.
*I am in need of a consult.*
*Well, what I’m seeing at the moment is my phone. I bloody well hope you can’t see that as well.*
*Don’t be a twat.*
*I shouldn’t be a twat when you’re clearly a nutter?*
*I am Sherlock, remember? I am therefore unreasonably demanding by nature.*
*Humour me John, please.*
He can practically hear the sigh that he knows his friend aims at his phone.
*You’re asking me to help a fake Sherlock solve a crime that I know nothing about in the form of a text message. Am I perfectly clear on this?*
*Right, then. The butler did it.*
Sherlock throws back his head and laughs.
*Oh, John, how I wish you were here with me. This is absolutely no fun without you. Thank you.*
On one occasion Sherlock texts him and it becomes clear that he is out for a pint - or two.
*Another one down.*
John has reconnected with Sarah recently, just casually as friends, and is out for a pint - or two - with her and one of her girlfriends who has tagged along when they run into Lestrade. They are all stuffed into a booth and having a pretty jolly time when the text comes in.
“Sod it, it’s my nutter.”
Greg snorts into his pint. “What does he have to say for himself this fine evening?”
Sarah’s friend, Karen, looks confused. “Sorry, what’s going on?”
“John’s on the speed dial of some nutter that’s trying to convince him he’s Sherlock.”
“Yeah, been doing it for a while now. The rest tend to trail off, but this one’s hung in.”
Karen wrinkles her nose. “So, what, he texts you brilliant theories about crimes that have been committed?”
It is John’s turn to snort. “Hardly. Most of the time he sends the same message.” He hands her his phone.
“Another one down? Another what? Down where?”
John shrugs. “Dunno.” The alcohol in his system makes him a little reckless and he admits his basic theory. “Seems like a bad sign when you ask your nutter to explain his nuttiness, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t get it. How is this supposed to convince you he’s Sherlock?”
John sighs. “I’ve honestly stopped analysing any of it. Do you know how many of these I’ve been sent over the past year? Last time I updated the count I’d got nearly four thousand texts from one hundred three people, or at least individual numbers. I’ve texted the phrase ‘piss off’ more than one thousand times. Think of the time I’ve wasted typing that out. They don’t offer it as predictive text, you know.”
Karen is now typing into his phone.
“Hang on, what are you doing?”
“Asking him another what.”
John groans while Sarah and Greg laugh.
Sherlock hesitates. John frequently texts using poor grammar, but typos are rare.
*Curiosity again. Interesting. Do you really want an answer this time?*
Yup? John never texts ‘yup’, and he wouldn’t even after a pint or two.
Karen laughs. “Maybe it really is Sherlock.”
John frowns. “What? What’s he said?”
She offers him the phone. “He knew it wasn’t you.”
He frowns down at his phone, staring at the message.
*You are not John.*
He is very aware that it is essential he come across as a complete nutter. Unfortunately, because of the vow he has taken to tell John no lies, he occasionally has to do things that are a little, well, nutty.
He is in Amsterdam so it is the most natural thing in the world to walk into a shop that sells paraphernalia of a sexual nature. He picks up some packages at random and sets them on the counter.
“I would also like one of those magazines please.” He gestures toward the colourful display on the wall.
The clerk asks helpfully, “Would you be a little more specific, sir? If you would like a recommendation I could do better with more information about what you enjoy.”
“No, anything is fine, really.”
After leaving the shop, he neatly deposits the bag full of merchandise into the first bin he encounters.
*Today I purchased sex toys and pornography.*
Sherlock is relieved when John shows no inclination to discuss either sex toys or pornography with a nutter.
John finally has to accept the fact that he has somehow ended up with one of the most persistent nutters in the world as a text pal. Nothing he says discourages the person on the other end of this number. Everyone else tails off eventually, but this bloke has been going strong for eighteen months now. The messages don’t come at intervals like every Tuesday or something which could be construed as regular, and a lot of the time they don’t make any sense, but they’re consistent as hell as far as coming in like clockwork at least once every couple of weeks.
Most of the time the text is the same – Another one down. The rest of the messages fall into a few different categories.
Sometimes the messages are comprehensible but reassuringly nutty. Falling under this categorization would be: Have just ridden Ferris Wheel., Cream of Wheat is disgusting., Human beings should not ingest bleach., and Pumpkins are surprisingly difficult to breach. - among others.
Most of these messages aren’t actually nutty on their own, but they’re really not things that someone who isn’t a nutter goes around texting to a stranger who regularly responds by declaring the sender a sick wanker.
Another category John has no choice but to term affectionate. These are always wordy and somehow come across as eager, though he really thinks that shouldn’t be possible in a text message.
*John, you won’t believe this, but using alligators’ backs as stepping stones actually does work. I’m sorry that I spent so much time complaining about that scene.*
*Today I tracked three men through the catacombs beneath Jerusalem. It was thrilling and I wish you had been with me. You would have fit through that rough bit much more easily than I.*
*I was served the most amazing tasting menu at La Rosetta this evening. The sea bass melted in my mouth and the Langoustines must have been taken from the sea scant hours before appearing on my plate.*
Of the many things which John could say about his nutter, accusing him of a lack of imagination is not one of them.
Then there are the solemn or philosophical ones, which seem to most often take the form of a question. These make John feel as if he’s on some cosmic edition of QI: Once you have seen true evil, what do you do next?, What makes a man truly great?, How does one get home again? – to name a few.
If he hadn’t already known it before the first of these came in, he would have been completely assured by the messages falling into this category that this was not in fact Sherlock texting him.
He is filthy; a necessary aspect of his costume as he has been posing as a homeless person on the streets of New York City for the past three weeks. The image of John towelling his hair dry in the living room of the flat flashes before his mind’s eye.
*I am in need of a shower.*
*I am in need of a new phone number again.*
*We Sherlocks are clever. You cannot escape that easily.*
*What sorts of messages do your other Sherlocks send?*
*Your shower comment is not new to me.*
*Pedestrian sorts of things then? That’s not terribly Sherlockian of them.*
*Well it would be difficult for you to be that brilliant as none of you is actually Sherlock. I’ve had to learn to be tolerant.*
*Shall I say something brilliant? Would you prefer that?*
*Go on then, let’s have it. Amaze me.*
*The Earth revolves around the Sun.*
*Glad to see you’ve done your research.*
*Isn’t your blog the bible for your fake Sherlocks?*
“Some of them put in less effort than others.*
*Shame on them. Shamming Sherlock is the role of a lifetime. They really shouldn’t be lazy about it.*
The tang of chemicals burns through his nose and down into his chest; his body demanding deep breaths as he runs as fast as he can from the fireball which had seconds ago been an abandoned building. He is grinning madly and he takes out The John Phone to share this latest triumph.
*Five at one blow!*
He justifies the exclamation mark in the heat (both figurative and literal) of the moment. For once, the stars all align because John seems to be in a similarly jubilant mood.
*Well done, you.*
The warehouse is dark and damp, and the concrete floor on which Sherlock lies, leaking his life’s blood, is cold. He grunts with the effort of propping himself on his elbow and the sound echoes harshly, as does his cough which brings up blood; punctured lung then as well, wonderful.
He considers skipping the obligatory text on The Other Phone all together. It’s a useless emergency code meaning that he doesn’t expect to live long enough for even Mycroft’s help to arrive. What the point of designating such a code was he will never know, but it is so terribly Mycroftian that he could almost laugh even now. Some lingering shred of self-preservation (or perhaps it is something else) leads him to expend the effort.
This done he turns his attention to The John Phone. He finds there isn’t much to say here either.
*could really use you now*
He has just enough time to send it before his vision blacks out and his body slumps back onto the unforgiving concrete. The pool of blood he lies in continues to grow, to spread.
When the message comes in, John is ridiculously busy at the surgery. He probably wouldn’t have responded to it anyway (despite the fact that it very suspiciously doesn’t fall neatly into any of the categories he has already established) but on top of the fact that he is being rushed off his feet, a second text comes in right on its heels from one of his newer, supremely annoying fakes proclaiming that he has solved the mystery behind Moriarty’s disappearance. This enrages John and he responds to this second message with a truly epic stream of the most ragingly inappropriate invectives he can muster. He ignores his nutter’s message altogether.
John is a little perplexed. He hasn’t heard from his nutter in almost a month, and the last message had been; well, one he could not categorize. He’s not really sure what to do about this, so he does nothing for another two weeks.
Now, almost six weeks since that last, odd text, *could really use you now* he has logged two new fake Sherlocks and the drop off of three others; still nothing new from his nutter.
He is contemplating the truly mad idea of texting his nutter – unprompted - for the first time in the course of their two year relationship. He decides the sane version of this idea is to instead finally serve the number up to Mycroft and see if he can offer any insight into the matter. Accordingly, he texts him the number along with a short explanation.
Mycroft kidnaps him for the first time since Sherlock’s death twenty minutes afterwards.
“Seriously? Sherlock is dead. He can’t throw a tantrum anymore if we exchange a few words on the street.”
“Get in the car please, Dr Watson.”
“Or by phone,” he goes on. “Remember? The phone I texted you with?”
“I am disturbed by the fact that you are being stalked. I will arrange for it to stop.”
This isn’t really what John had expected. “Well, no, I mean – look, I get a lot of this sort of thing. There’s no need to single anyone out. I just haven’t heard from him in a while and it’s odd, is all. I just thought you could see if you can tell who pays the bill on the number or something.” John’s brain adds silently, ‘Make sure he’s all right, that he hasn’t needed a doctor recently’.
His companion’s expression gives nothing away, but John still feels like he’s picked up on this mental dialogue somehow.
“You seem very concerned about him.”
No secrets from either of the Holmes brothers, ever, he reminds himself.
“Look, never mind. Forget I asked.” He moves to open the door though the car is still moving, but finds his hand rapped sharply with the end of the ever-present umbrella.
“Not so hasty if you please, Doctor. I was merely making an observation. You would like a name to put to this number? Is that what you are asking of me?”
John finds he isn’t really sure what he’s asking for. He sort of wants to say, ‘Actually, I’d like my nutter back please if you can manage it,’ but that would be so completely absurd that he couldn’t ever follow through on it, certainly not while sober and very likely not in the presence of Mycroft even while under the influence.
This is when a couple of things hit him. One, he’s gone crazy. Two, the sane plan had actually been to text his nutter; Mycroft had been the insane option.
“Yes, a name,” he settles on since the other man doesn’t seem to think this is an insane request.
“I will look into the matter.”
“Thanks.” And now John really does jump out of the car even though it is still moving.
*I told you it was a bad idea.*
*He misses his nutter.*
Sherlock, still much too pale and rather weak, but almost ready to go back to work, smiles sadly. He knows the feeling, because he misses his blogger. He knows he cannot send a message right away, he cannot connect Mycroft’s intervention with a message sent now. He takes out The John Phone anyway and sets it where he can see it; he finds it reassuring.
When Mycroft deigns to text him later that day, John texts back a quick message of thanks without actually looking at whatever name he sent. But he also sends a message of his own.
*All right then?*
The violent swish of air tells him exactly how close he just came to a serious head injury. With one powerful kick to the right kneecap, however, his quarry goes crashing to the ground and he takes the opportunity to topple a suitably heavy carton onto his chest to hold him in place.
That evening, as he strolls the timeless byways of Rome, he takes The John Phone from his pocket.
*It won’t be long now.*