squib (skwib) noun
1. a non-magical person born to at least one magical parent
2. Muggle usage a. a small firework that burns with a hissing sound before exploding; b. a short piece of satirical writing
3. Informal derogatory a valueless or unwanted person
—Oxford English Dictionary Wizarding Edition
When Mike leads John Watson into the teaching lab at St. Bart's to see a man about a flatshare, a tall, dark-haired stranger looks up from his microscope and gives John a rapid once over before opening his mouth and saying, "A squib." His tone is matter of fact, as if he were announcing the weather, but John rocks back on his heels and contemplates the many, many ways in which he could end Mike Stamford's life.
It's a fleeting thought; John darts an accusing glance at his friend, who just grins, and John decides that Mike wouldn't do that to him. He's known Mike since they were boys, their dads went to Hogwarts together, they were best friends at Bart's. Mike can be shockingly obtuse- he'd gone as infuriatingly pitying as everyone else when he saw John's cane- but he's also as guileless as a puppy. He would not go sharing intimate and humiliating information about John with perfect strangers.
So how the hell does the man know that John is a squib? He's chilled by the familiar, irrational fear that somehow it is writ large on his face: a source of shame that he always tries to keep under wraps as long as he can manage.
"Interesting thought, Mike," the stranger says, his tone now musing. His eyes narrow. "Ye-es. I believe that would suit."
"What do you mean, suit?" John says cautiously.
The man's eyes snap back to him. "Flatmates," he says briskly. "You need one, I need one. Clearly that is why Mike brought you here, as I only mentioned it to him this morning. I've found a nice place in Central London, convenient for my work. Yours too, I suppose, if you end up taking a position at Bart's as Mike has offered to find you."
Mike did offer to find John a position, on the cab ride to the hospital, despite John's rubbish leg and his intermittent hand tremor. He "knows a guy" in staffing, just as he had known a guy who was looking for a flatmate. Mike knows everybody and likes everybody; it's how he gets away with being so wildly unconventional as to live and work in Muggle London instead of raising his family properly in a wizarding enclave. Mike's wide circle of half-outcast wizard buddies is the only reason John had any close friends at all when he was at Bart's. But again, how the hell does this guy know?
"I'm very busy just now," the man continues. "We can meet there tomorrow at about four. Let me give you my number; do you have your phone with you?"
John feels almost dazed as he fumbles out his mobile. The phone is new to him and has too many menus.
The stranger huffs impatiently. "Here, let me," he says, and deftly plucks it out of John's hands. John barely has time to become annoyed at the cheek of it before the man's thumbs have finished dancing over the keyboard and he's handing the phone back. John flips the screen right-side-up and sees that the man has entered himself into John's contacts under the name Sherlock Holmes. Weird name. Weird man, though, so maybe it suits him.
John looks up to see Holmes studying him with a thoughtful expression. "You're a doctor," he says.
"Yes," John agrees cautiously.
"Fifty-five year old female, found dead in her home. She has no history of major or chronic illness aside from a childhood bout of appendicitis. The cause of death is sudden, massive organ failure. Her organs were, according to one observer, quote liquified endquote," Holmes rattles off, almost with relish. "Method of death?"
John rocks back on his heels. Half of him wants to snap that he is not a performing dog, nor is he a medical student. But the other half of him is stirring with interest. "External injuries?" he asks.
Holmes' mouth quirks a bit, as if the dog has just done a droll trick. "Minimal. Bruising, but no lacerations and no projectile wounds."
"How much bruising?" John asks. "Because taken off-hand, I'd say blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Would take a hell of a lot of force to do that much damage."
Holmes spins back to his microscope and rifles through a pile of paper sitting next to it, then slides a handful of sheets across the lab table toward John. "Do these support your theory, doctor? Holmes asks." John steps forward to examine them: they are color copies of photographs, two per page, showing the torso of a young woman with extensive, ugly bruising that covers her entire abdomen. Except-
"This isn't proper bruising," John says, sliding one sheet aside to look at the next. "It's blood pooling under the skin, obviously, but it's too diffuse. It can't have been caused by punches or blows with an object. Unless it was one enormous object and it hit with enough force to do all the damage in one go. Was she found in a factory or something?"
"In her sitting room," Holmes says.
"I'm afraid I'm stumped then," John says, setting the sheets he's holding back on the table. "Sorry, pathology isn't really my field."
Holmes frowns. "But you're an army doctor, surely you've seen plenty of traumatic injuries," he says.
John frowns right back. "It doesn't take an expert to diagnose a gunshot wound," he snaps, then does a double take. "And how the hell do you know I was an army doctor?"
"The same way that I know you're a squib from a family of wizards that doesn't approve of your career, that you were recently discharged after being wounded in combat, and that you have a therapist that you ought to fire outright." Holmes picks up a ridiculously posh coat and scarf from a nearby stool and quickly slips them on, gathering up his papers as he does so. "I'm going to be late. I'll see you tomorrow, yes?" Holmes raises a hand in acknowledgment to Mike, and sweeps out without waiting for John's answer.
John stares at the door for a second, bemused, before he realizes that not only did he never get a chance to give Holmes his own name, he has no idea where this flat is that he's supposed to visit. As if in response to the thought, his mobile chimes with an incoming text.
221b Baker Street. SH
* * *
The rest of the day is the usual barrage of trivia his life has become. To the shop for Pot Noodle and tea bags. To the post office to mail a letter to his mum, who has become even more traditionalist in the past year and now refuses to use telephones. To the Pension Committee office for another thrilling round of paperwork. It's all incredibly boring, yet John manages to find excuses to stay out until his leg is aching and he's hungry and exhausted and he has to go back to his grotty little MOD-sponsored flat.
After eating, he spends about ten minutes staring at the blog his therapist insisted that he start. A blog, that's a joke. As if he can write down half of what he's thinking or feeling, or even half of what happens to him, when it's so tied up in the wizarding world. He can't even talk to the therapist about it. John pecks out "This is a complete waste of my time, and my time is almost worthless," then deletes it and doesn't post anything at all.
To his surprise- most wizards aren't internet savvy at all in his experience- when he googles Sherlock Holmes the top result is a webpage titled "The Science of Deduction," apparently written by the man himself. The page claims Holmes is "the world's only consulting detective." Believable, since this is the first time John's heard the phrase. He goes back to the search results and checks out a few of the other links. A couple of newspaper articles about criminal investigations briefly mention Holmes, though they don't make clear what his role in the cases was. There are more than a hundred results from various forums and MySpace pages; John visits a dozen or so and finds Holmes mentioned a number of times, usually alongside the words "tosser" and "fucking arsehole."
John has most of the next day to work himself up to the idea of going out and meeting Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street, and he still almost doesn't do it. Even from what little John's seen, he can tell that the man really is kind of a tosser, dismissive and arrogant. John isn't sure he wants to live with a wizard again anyway; it's easier to live with Muggles, even if he has to hide a lot about his family and his upbringing, because he knows they're not constantly pitying his sad, magic-less state. But Holmes did seem interesting, and John wants to know how he knew all that stuff about him. And John is a soldier for God's sake. He'll be damned if he's going to hide in this crummy flat like an invalid shut-in.
He leaves at three, to make sure he'll be on time, and makes it to the flat with fifteen minutes to spare. He waits outside for a few minutes and then, on impulse, he rings the bell. A kindly, crinkle-faced older woman opens the door for him. "Erm, hello," he says awkwardly. "I'm supposed to be meeting a bloke here at four, I just thought-"
"Oh, Sherlock said you'd be along!" she says brightly. "I'm Mrs. Hudson, the landlady. It's nice to meet you, dear. You come right with me." She ushers him inside a foyer with a frankly alarming wallpaper pattern and chivvies him up the stairs. "I hope this won't be too much for your poor leg," she says, and John grits his teeth to hold back a scathing reply.
When he reaches the top, he's standing at a junction with two doors. One in front opens into a sitting room, and to his left is a smallish kitchen that looks like it might be contemplating a second run in life as an apothecary, or perhaps a chemistry lab. There are two cauldrons going on the stove, a jumble of laboratory glassware piled in the sink, and a debris of books and random jars and heaps of dry potions ingredients spread across the small kitchen table. The only things missing are the quill pens and rolls of parchment that wizards typically use for taking notes.
"I'll leave you boys to it," Mrs. Hudson says delicately. "You just let me know what you think, dear, and we'll have another set of keys made if you like the look of the place."
"Thank you," John says, wondering what exactly it is that they're being left to.
The man in question glances up from one of the books he has been studying intently. "Ah, good, you're here," he says.
"Erm. Hello," John tries. Holmes digs amongst a squadron of empty Skele-Gro bottles on the table and locates a box of nicotine patches, then rolls up his right sleeve and carefully adheres a patch alongside the one that already adorns his arm. John notes that he doesn't take the old one off. "Trying to quit smoking, then, Mr. Holmes?" he says.
"Never started," Holmes says. "The nicotine helps me think. Of the other legal stimulants, caffeine is also effective but at high dosage levels, tolerance adaptation is far too rapid. And call me Sherlock."
John wonders at the emphasis placed on legal stimulants. "Okay. I'm John. John Watson." Sherlock makes a noncommittal noise. Perhaps it's time to change the subject. "This is a nice neighborhood," he says. "I would think that with a spot like this, the flat must be fairly pricey."
"No, Mrs. Hudson's giving me a special deal," Sherlock says. "She owes me a favor, as I helped dispose of her husband." John's face must reflect his alarm at this point because Sherlock hastens to assure him, "Oh, no, no. He was wanted for murder in Florida based on a series of rather nasty broomstick hexes. I was able to provide the necessary evidence."
"Oh," John says. Sherlock looks back at his book, apparently disinclined to give John any kind of tour, so he takes a few steps into the sitting room and has a look around. "This could be very nice," he says, because it's a lovely place even if there's crap everywhere, on every surface, in heaps on the floor. "It's, er-" a complete tip. "It's a bit- cluttered."
"I haven't finished unpacking yet," Sherlock says. "Had to move in rather a hurry, I'm afraid. There was an incident at my old flat."
Incident? John asks, raising an eyebrow.
"An experiment," Sherlock says dismissively. "Some overreacting fool called in the Oblivators in the aftermath. As if any Muggle was capable of deducing the true cause of the disturbance, even with his idiot brain fully intact."
John's spine stiffens and he pauses for a moment. "You know," he says as neutrally as he can manage. "My dad's Muggle-born." Most of his Muggle extended family is dead or estranged, but that's hardly the point. John has been living and working shoulder to shoulder with Muggles most of his life; hell, he's practically one himself.
Sherlock looks up at John and blinks rapidly, looking blank for just a moment. "Oh!" he says. "I see. No, you misunderstand. The vast majority of people are idiots; the ability or inability to do magic doesn't enter into it."
"Ah," John says. Just a general disdain for humanity, not bigotry. Why does that feel like such a relief? "And you don't count yourself among the idiot masses, I take it."
Sherlock's mouth quirks up at the corners, the barest ghost of a smile. "I'm a genius," he says matter-of-factly.
"Bedrooms?" John asks Sherlock, because okay, it's a very nice flat, and he can put up with cynicism and narcissism if he has to.
"Hmm? Oh, yes," Sherlock says. "Mine's back through the kitchen next to the bathroom. You'd be upstairs. Have a look, if you like."
John shrugs, sets down his cup, and does. It's just a room- bed and desk and wardrobe, with a window looking out the back. It's slightly bigger than the MOD room he's living in now, if even more barren. He finds himself mentally unpacking his few belongings and deciding where to put them, and gives himself a sharp mental slap. Is he really going to move in with a total stranger just like that? A man he knows nothing about?
John stumps back downstairs, to find that Sherlock has abandoned the kitchen and is sitting on the sofa in the sitting room, tapping on the keyboard of a trim little netbook. Still not a quill or a scrap of parchment in sight, much less a wand, which is startling given how much reliance your average wizard places on his wand. "I usually keep it in the inner pocket of my suit jacket, but it's not there just now," Sherlock says without looking up.
Sherlock shuts his laptop and looks John in the eye. "My wand. You keep looking for it." John flushes and opens his mouth to protest, because he isn't even doing it consciously, but Sherlock goes on, "Quite right to do so; it's always best to know where the weapons are." He starts rooting in the sofa cushions. "Ah, here." He draws out a long, stiff-looking wand with some black scorch marks at the tip and rather a lot of smudges over the length of the light colored wood. "Betula pendula, silver birch, fifteen inches, unicorn hair. Would you like to see?"
He makes as if to toss the wand over, and John's eyes widen in shock as he crams his hands into his pockets. "No, that's all right," he says hastily. Harry and his parents always went berserk if he messed with their wands, and every wizard or witch he's ever met has treated theirs like a personal treasure or a dangerous tool. Who the hell leaves his wand in the sofa cushions and then tries to toss it to a near-stranger like a piece of fruit? Sherlock shrugs and sets the wand on the coffee table. "You know-" John begins, and then stops. "Of course you know, you told me." John rubs the back of his ear nervously and meets Sherlock's calm gaze again. "How did you know?"
"That you're a squib?" John is ready this time and he thinks his instinctive flinch is invisible. "Solider and doctor are both unusual careers for a wizard, and I already knew none of Stamford's circle of wizard friends had need of a flatmate. Yet when I approached, you were scanning me as if for weapons, looking only at the sleeves and chest, the most likely hiding spots for a wand. Together it means you're living as a Muggle despite being raised in a wizarding household. Add in the lack of a wand callus on the forefinger of your dominant hand, and there we have it. Simple."
"Amazing," John says. He's not sure why he's so impressed by someone ferreting out one of his most embarrassing traits so easily; perhaps it's because no one has ever done it that quickly without any input from John. Or perhaps it's because Sherlock has yet to give him that look of pity that witches and wizards- even his parents, even Mike- always give him when they talk about squibs.
Sherlock stares at him. "What?"
"How did you know that I'm an Army doctor? And- the other things?"
Sherlock presses his palms together and rests the tips of his fingers under his chin. "Your obvious familiarity with the laboratory environment, along with your attitude toward Stamford, say trained at Bart's. Therefore a doctor. Your hair and posture are undeniably military, so Army doctor. You're tanned but not below the collar or above the wrists; you immediately check the room for exits and the people for weapons upon entering; you limp badly but you don't lean on your cane when you're standing still. Conclusion, recently in combat, resulting in traumatic injury, plus a limp that's at least partially psychosomatic."
"My family," John reminds him.
"Oh, yes. Well obviously they disapprove of your career; that's just the balance of probabilities." Sherlock smiles faintly. "And you should fire your therapist because you'll never be able to tell her any of this and any advice she provides will be based on insufficient data and therefore useless."
"Incredible," John says. "Just…brilliant. And you got all that from looking at me for, what- ten seconds?"
Sherlock flushes and looks mildly pleased. "People don't usually like hearing my observations," he admits. "They tend to think I'm…odd."
"Yes, well, they think that about me as well," John says. He gets it from both sides- wizards because he can't do magic, and Muggles because he knows too many things that they don't- which seems especially unfair.
There's a battering at the front door, and Sherlock jumps up and goes to look out the window, tucking his wand into his jacket and buttoning it up. "Oh," he says with evident pleasure. "The police are here."
John has no chance to ask him why that would be good news, as there's a pounding of footsteps on the stairs and a gray-haired man clad in an overcoat appears in the doorway. "Well?" Sherlock says imperiously.
"There's a third one," the man says. Just like the others, no immediately obvious method of death and pretty much identical circumstances.
"I'd like your opinion on the scene," the man says. "There's probably not much you can tell from the body itself without being a doctor. Have to wait for pathology on that."
Sherlock's face lights up, and he looks directly at John. "What do you say, Dr. Watson? Want to come take a look at a crime scene?"
The stranger seems to notice John for the first time. "Hey, no," he protests. "This is not a bloody excursion. You don't get to ask friends along. I could probably get sacked just for bringing you."
"No you couldn't, your superiors know my track record as well as you do," Sherlock says. John would be prepared to describe his tone as "gleeful." "And he's not exactly a friend. This is Dr. John Watson, lately of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Doctor, Detective Inspector Gilles Lestrade."
John finds himself automatically stepping forward to shake the DI's hand. Lestrade glances at John's cane and then meets his eyes. "No offense, Dr. Watson," Lestrade says. "But whatever he's told you, Sherlock does not run New Scotland Yard."
"Clearly," Sherlock sniffs. The implication that he would be doing a much better job of it is as clear as day. "However, if you want my opinion, you must allow me the…tools…I need to make it an informed one."
"Absolutely not," Lestrade snaps.
"All right then," Sherlock says, sitting down on the sofa and reopening his laptop. "Of you go. Enjoy the inevitable press conference. I have plenty to occupy me here." He locks eyes with the DI, and John gets the sense of some enormous battle of wills occurring between them.
"Fine," Lestrade says. His glare is hot enough that John is surprised Sherlock doesn't spontaneously combust. "But I'm not a car service. Follow me in a cab. 86 Sudbourne Road." Lestrade pounds back down the stairs without awaiting an answer.
Sherlock waits until the front door closes before he leaps up and practically runs to the hook for his coat, chuckling with delight. "Oh, brilliant!" he says. "The third linked death this week, has to be murder, and this time they've actually called me in early enough to see the body in situ." He whips the coat on and pauses at the door to look at John, who hasn't moved. "Well? Are you coming?"
"Coming where?" John asks.
"Crime scene! Obviously." Sherlock is practically vibrating with impatience. "Come on, have a look at a corpse with me. Or you can stay and watch my mallowsweet reduce. Completely up to you."
Or he could go home, but John finds he really doesn't want to. The novelty is tempting- not so much looking at a corpse, but visiting a crime scene with a so-called "consulting detective" on invitation from the police. A chance to see what a consulting detective does. Maybe find out why the internet thinks Sherlock Holmes is a fucking arsehole. "Yeah, all right," John agrees, and he follows Sherlock out the door and into a cab.
"So this is what you do?" John asks in the cab. "Help the Muggle police? Go to crime scenes and do your…whatever it is?"
"Deduction," Sherlock says. He hasn't looked up from the screen of his mobile since they got in the cab.
"The science of deduction," John mutters, and Sherlock glances at him.
"You saw the website," he says.
"Yes," John admits. "It sounded kind of ridiculous. But…" But then you explained how you dissected my life, he doesn't add.
The crime scene is a small home on a quiet residential street, with police tape strung across the gate to the small, fenced-in yard like a grim party streamer. Uniformed officers keep out curious passers-by, but Sherlock and John are ignored as they slip between the patrol cars parked out front and through the gate. They aren't challenged until they reach the front door.
"What the hell are you doing here?" sneers a weedy man with elaborately oiled hair, stepping into the doorway to block Sherlock's entry. He is wearing a baby blue jumpsuit, latex gloves, and booties over his shoes.
"I think that should be obvious even to your limited intellect," Sherlock replies. His tone is so cool and matter-of-fact that John could almost believe Sherlock is unaware that he just insulted the other man.
"I'm handling the forensics here," the man says hotly. "And I don't want you mucking about as if you've never heard of chain of custody or cross-contamination."
"I don't believe that's up to you, Anderson. And never will be," Sherlock says. He steps toward the door but stops when Anderson doesn't move; evidently he's hesitant to resort to physical force.
"Hey, Donovan," Anderson says, turning slightly to call back into the house. "Did the DI invite the psychopath over again, or is he blowing smoke up my arse?"
"Sociopath, Anderson, and please don't make me consider your arse." The sardonic tone causes an involuntary smile that John tries to hide behind his hand.
"Unfortunately," says Donovan, appearing behind Anderson. "Sherlock Holmes plus guest. Apparently we're hosting mixers now, not solving crimes." Donovan is a slender black woman, also wearing a blue jumpsuit and an extremely irritated expression.
"Don't delude yourself, Donovan, you very rarely solve any crimes." Sherlock flicks his fingers at Anderson in a shooing motion, and he grudgingly backs out of the doorway so that Sherlock and John can enter.
Anderson turns his glare on John. "I've given up telling him, but you're going to wear a suit," he orders, pointing at a couple of open plastic crates set to one side of the front door.
John shrugs and finds himself a plastic-wrapped jumpsuit and a pair of flimsy booties. Sherlock contents himself with a pair of latex gloves he grabs from a half-empty cardboard box. John is just pulling on his own when Lestrade comes out of the sitting room to their right. "Ready?" he asks. "It's back through here."
John trails Lestrade and Sherlock through the sitting room to a large eat-in kitchen, whose most interesting feature is currently a man's body slumped against the cabinets by the sink. The man is slightly heavy but not fat, middle-aged, and dressed in a cheap suit.
Sherlock runs his eyes over the corpse, up and then down, walks over to it, and stoops to peer at the cabinet it's leaning against. He stands and looks down into the sink, frowning. "This tap was on when the body was found. Who turned it off?"
"It wasn't on when we got here," Lestrade says. "The neighbor, maybe. He's the one that called it in."
Sherlock makes an irritated noise and goes back to the body. He pulls a small magnifying glass from his coat pocket and examines the hands and face of the corpse, then the feet and ankles. "Doctor Watson, what do you think?" he asks suddenly.
John glances at Lestrade, who makes a hissing noise as he exhales sharply, but doesn't say anything. John goes to kneel on the opposite side of the body from Sherlock, wincing at the pressure on his leg. He leans the cane against the cabinet next to the corpse and looks at Sherlock, who just watches him placidly, not giving any sign or clue of what exactly he's looking for.
John inspects the hands but doesn't see what Sherlock was looking at. He raises one arm, finding it surprisingly easy; he expected the corpse to be much stiffer. He lifts the calf slightly- again, easier than it should be- pulling up the leg of the man's trousers to examine the skin where it had been pressed against the floor. He pulls up one of his sleeves to examine the forearm. There are flecks of dried blood on the corpse's lips, and a small trail at the corner of the mouth. More spots on the collar. The man's jacket is already open, so John untucks his shirt, unbuttons it, and spreads it open so he can see the corpse's chest and abdomen.
The stomach is slightly more rigid to the touch than the arms and legs. It is also darker than the surrounding skin, with deep purpling toward the center. "Huh," John says, half to himself. The pattern is familiar. Hey, wait, he says aloud, and looks up at Sherlock. This is very similar to those photographs you showed me yesterday. Was that one of the previous victims?
Sherlock, have you even heard of confidentiality? Lestrade demands. He squeezes one hand to a fist in his hair and looks about to yank out a fistful.
Sherlock, oblivious to Lestrade's obvious anger, just waves a hand dismissively. I don't want to bias your thinking. Carry on.
John puts aside his memory of the photographs and Sherlock's questions in the lab the previous day, and views the corpse as if it is the first of its kind. He runs his hands over the abdomen and chest to supplement his visual inspection, but doesn't feel any sign of laceration or abrasion. He flips the top back together and starts to re-button it.
"Internal bleeding," he says decisively. "Something abdominal, obviously. Could be any number of causes- cancer, an ulcer, vitamin K deficiency."
"Blunt force trauma," Lestrade suggests.
"Not likely," John says.
"What about the bruising on the stomach?" Lestrade asks. He's leaning against the kitchen table, watching John with a guarded expression.
"Not bruising, in the sense that you mean. The discoloration is caused by blood pooling under the skin, but it covers the whole abdomen. It's too broad and non-specific to be the result of a beating, John explains, largely for Lestrade's benefit because it's essentially the same analysis he gave Sherlock yesterday in the lab. He uses the cane and then the counter to push himself upright.
"Time of death?" Sherlock asks.
"Twenty-four to forty-eight hours," John says at once. "It's hard to be precise, but definitely more than a day." This is kind of a rush. John wonders if the Met has an opening for a consulting doctor.
"The pathologist said less than three hours," Lestrade objects, neatly bursting John's bubble. "Victim is Christopher Ames, of Consolidated Chemical's London sales office. He was at work until six yesterday, but didn't show up this morning. The office called his emergency contact, who came into the house and found the body."
"Oh." John can feel his face flush with embarrassment. It probably was ridiculous for him to think that he could walk into a crime scene and figure things out the way a trained investigator could. Perhaps Sherlock's confidence was just catching.
"He wouldn't be displaying that level of lividity if he'd been there less than three hours," Sherlock says. John blinks slowly, because Sherlock is right. And if he knows that much about time of death estimation, why the hell did he bring John here? Why did he actually seem to be interested in John's ideas while he'd been talking?
Sherlock returns to the arm John was just looking at and pushes the sleeve back up. "Where's his watch?" he asks.
"What watch?" Lestrade asks.
"Precisely," Sherlock says. "There's an imprint from the engraving on the back of his wrist. He wears it every day, so he wouldn't get ready for work without putting it on. If you don't know about it, that means it was gone when you got here."
"The killer took it," John says.
"Yes," Sherlock says simply. He turns out the corpse's pockets and finds a wallet, which he opens and rifles before passing it to Lestrade. He goes to a shallow dish at the end of the counter, from which he plucks a keyring. A moment's work with the magnifying glass and he tosses the keys to Lestrade as well.
"Well? Let's have it," Lestrade says.
"Obviously the victim was murdered, the scene rules out accidental death. If the previous deaths are in fact as similar as you tell me, I would speculate that they are murders as well. Same pattern, I take it? Victims found alone in their homes, dead of internal bleeding with no obvious injury, found after failing to turn up to work?" Sherlock doesn't pause for an answer before continuing, "This one died the night before last, not this morning. Ventilation took care of the odor. The only question is, what did a secretary like Ames have access to in the course of his employment that was worth stealing?"
"How do you get traumatic death? Why not natural causes?" John asks. Sherlock's face lights up at the chance to explain.
"Look at the cabinet, look at the tap! It has a single lever, and the lip of the drain is still wet- the water was running, recently. The neighbor wouldn't have had a reason to turn the tap on, nor the police, so it was already on. Why? Look at the positioning of the body, the way it's slumped over. Obviously Ames was thrown up against the counter, inadvertently pushing the tap on, then slid down to the floor.
"The wallet is still on the body and full of money, so clearly not a simple robbery despite the missing watch. So what else is gone? There's a key missing- a small one, you can see the marks where the teeth scratched the other keys on the ring. Too small for a car or house key; about right for a safe or a filing cabinet. He's also missing any form of work identification card, despite the fact that he has a clip for one attached to his breast pocket."
John's jaw almost drops. "That's incredible," he says. Sherlock smiles very faintly.
"Lovely," Lestrade says. "Only it doesn't give us any idea who the killer is, or what's making him target his victims. Or how he caused massive internal bleeding without apparently laying a bloody hand on them."
"The murderer's method is irrelevant," Sherlock says breezily. "The victims' employers are the key. Who were the first two, and who did they work for?"
Lestrade pulls a small notebook out of his coat pocket and flips rapidly through it. "First victim was Jared Hsu; he worked at the Petrochemicals Limited factory. Second victim was Rachel Barstow; she worked at the London branch office of Wainwright Forth."
"Also part of the chemical industry," Sherlock supplies. "I need to know what they did for their employers, what they had access to that someone might want. Industrial secrets, financial records, it will be something that could have a marketable value."
Lestrade hesitates for a moment, then nods grudgingly. "All right, I'll have someone make the calls."
Just then, a pair of emergency service technicians wheel in a gurney draped with an empty body bag. "Ah, good," Sherlock says. "Where are you taking it? Bart's? Excellent."
He breezes out the doorway, with Lestrade calling after him as if he has just thought of it, "Oi! Sherlock! The guy went to work yesterday, so he obviously wasn't dead the night before last!"
John limps after Sherlock as fast as he can manage. He pauses to remove the jumpsuit just before the front door, and Donovan wanders up to him while he's doing it. "You better hurry," she says. "He'll leave you here."
"How did he find you, anyway? Personal ad? Stalking?" Anderson puts in from the sitting room doorway. "Take my advice, you see him hanging about outside your flat at night, dial 999. He's mad, you know."
"He's bloody certifiable," Donovan says. John looks at her face closely, but he can't find any evidence that she's having him on. She seems very earnest, they both do. But then, it's clear from their earlier conversation with Sherlock that there's no love lost between them. So who cares what they think?
"I think I can judge for myself, thanks," John says.
They're right about one thing, though; when John gets back to the street outside, he's barely in time to dive into the cab Sherlock has hailed before it zips off. "Were you going to leave me here?" he demands.
Sherlock shrugs nonchalantly. "You know where I'm going."
"No I bloody well don't!"
Sherlock gives him a look of disdain and a raised eyebrow. "Bart's, John. I'm not sure how I could have made it more obvious."
"You could have told- oh, never mind," John says. "What do you need at Bart's?"
"To examine the victim's body. Privately." Sherlock makes a little humming noise to himself. "Curious, though. A dead man appearing at his job after he's been killed. It's nice to have a murderer who's interesting for a change. I wonder if the time of death given for the previous victims' was similarly wrong."
"So you're assuming the pathologist was wrong," John says.
"I'm not assuming anything," Sherlock says irritably. "I am building a complete picture of the situation. One that includes all the evidence, not just that which can be easily twisted to suit a pet theory. That method is what causes the Yard to go wrong so often. And hence, to need me."
* * *
Their cab arrives at the morgue just ahead of the corpse, and Sherlock leads John inside while the body is signed over to the hospital's custody. Sherlock pushes straight into a small office with a nameplate reading Dr. Molly Hooper, Pathology and begins haranguing the mousy woman at the desk inside. "What were the causes of death for Jared Hsu and Rachel Barstow?" he barks, without an introduction of any kind.
Hooper she simply blinks a few times before answering. "Non-specific internal bleeding as to both," she says. "I remember those because they were so odd. Something made a complete hash of their abdominal cavities but I couldn't narrow down a source for the damage."
"And time of death?" Sherlock demands.
"Also strange," she says. "Everything about the bodies suggested they'd been dead for one to two days, but they had both been seen alive within the previous twenty-four hours. Suggesting that environmental factors led to premature degradation of the bodies." She brushes her hair out of her eyes and sets aside the report she's been holding in one hand while talking to Sherlock. "I told the police they might be connected, very strange pair of cases."
"Three, not a pair," Sherlock says. "Your third corpse is being checked in now."
Hooper stands up, looking eager. "Well the third time's a charm," she says. "Maybe this one will give me a clue about the cause of death." She smiles warmly at John but her eyes are distant as she leaves her office and heads straight for the main room to take charge of the corpse. Sherlock follows swiftly, and John follows after him.
"I need you to distract Molly," Sherlock says under his breath, while the doctor is directing the techs where to put the body bag.
"The pathologist?" John asks, equally quiet. "What do you mean, distract her?"
"Yes. Get her out of here, I need a minute alone with the body," Sherlock says, and walks toward the gurney as the techs depart.
"How am I supposed to do that?" John mutters, starting after.
Sherlock moves quicker than a striking snake; his foot kicks John's cane out from under him and is innocently pulled back before John even hits the floor. The stumble itself doesn't hurt, but catching himself on his thigh to avoid smacking his head on the floor causes a twinge in John's leg. His bitten-off curse is completely genuine and makes Hooper turn to him instantly.
"Oh my God, are you all right?" she exclaims, hurrying over.
"Yeah," John says. "Yeah, it's just- sometimes, the leg- you know." John is a bad liar, but under the circumstances his stammering just makes him look more pathetically helpless. He flushes with humiliation and anger.
"Can I get you anything?" John stifles a scowl at Hooper's solicitousness; she's only trying to help.
"He's fine, Molly, quit fussing," Sherlock says, staring at the body bag with naked avarice.
Molly flushes. "Don't mind him," she tells John. "Anything? Ice pack? Parecematol? Cup of tea?"
"Any and all of the above would be lovely," John manages.
"You just wait here, I'll be right back," Hooper promises, and rushes out the door, letting it swing shut behind her. Sherlock is unzipping the body bag before the click of her footsteps has faded.
John rolls upright. "You bastard! You tripped me!" he snarls.
"Well spotted," Sherlock says. He is busy tucking the edges of the body bag under the corpse's arms, exposing its chest and stomach.
"That's- you are unbelievable," John says. He is angry, but not as angry as he probably should be.
"You don't actually need the cane," Sherlock says. "And I wouldn't have succeeded in tripping you if you used it correctly." He drapes his coat over another gurney and pulls out his wand. "We should have at least three minutes. Keep an eye out."
"What are you doing?" John asks, forgetting his irritation in alarm.
"Gathering data." Sherlock appears to be tracing an outline in the air above the corpse, using the tip of his wand. He takes two steps back, makes a tight, controlled gesture with the wand, and utters, "Ostendo."
The result is immediate: a purple mist rises from the corpse's torso and forms an arc that begins just below the sternum and curves slightly down and away to a point two feet from the chest.
"The angle indicates that he was pushed back and upwards by the blow, just as I suspected." Sherlock walks around the gurney. "It's not Avada, but that didn't fit with the internal damage anyway." Sherlock draws a notebook and pen from inside his jacket and begins to jot rapid notes.
"That mist represents a spell hitting him?" John asks. He pushes himself upright with the cane, so he can walk over and get a closer look.
"Obviously," Sherlock says.
"I never knew you could do that," John says wonderingly. "See an after-image of a spell."
"Only if you know how to look for it," Sherlock says, pocketing the notebook again. "Forensic spellwork is a much under-utilized field." He flicks his wand at the purple mist, and it dissipates. He zips the body bag back up. "Back to Baker Street. Come on."
Hooper comes back in, with an ice pack in one hand and a mug of tea in the other, as Sherlock is walking through the door. John hesitates a moment, torn between basic politeness and the sure knowledge that he will be left behind if he doesn't hurry to catch up. John doesn't stop to wonder why he cares about being left behind. "Sorry," he says to Hooper apologetically. "Thank you, really, but I've got to catch him before he gets outside, or he'll get a cab without me."
She bites her lip, seems on the point of saying something, then just nods. "If you're sure you're all right then," she says.
John smiles reassuringly. "I'll be fine. I'm getting used to it." He's not sure if he means the leg, or rushing after Sherlock.
Back at the flat, Sherlock goes immediately to a shelf in one of the bookcases that has already been filled with a neat row of hardbound lab books and selects one. He drops onto the sofa and flips it open, beginning to page rapidly through. John wanders over to the lab books and examines the spines; they are unlabeled, so Sherlock must have selected that one from memory, despite the fact that there are dozens of books on the shelves.
Sherlock's phone rings, and he answers it one-handed after a brief glance at the display. "What have you found?" he demands. John sidles slightly closer, almost unconsciously, as the conversation goes on, but is unable to hear whatever the other person is saying. Sherlock listens for several minutes in silence before snapping, "That's ridiculous. What's his name? I'll question him myself." A briefer pause, followed by, "Lestrade-" Sherlock removes the phone from his ear and glares at it for several seconds before dropping it back into his pocket.
"What's wrong?" John asks. "That was the detective inspector, I assume?"
"Obviously," Sherlock says scornfully. "Hsu was apparently a janitor, and naturally had access to every part of his employer's property. Barstow was a secretary, who at the time of her death was involved in a project to digitize certain business records of her employers. Ames was a secretary, as I had already deduced, but as part of his duties he had access to the secure area in which sensitive records were stored."
"What business records?" John asks, remembering Sherlock's earlier insistence that the information to which the victims had access was what the killer was after.
Sherlock clenches one fist where it lay on his thigh. "Exactly," he says. His eyes are bright with intensity, or perhaps just anger. "Evidently Ames and Barstow's superiors refused to provide that information to the police. And because Lestrade's constables are insufferable idiots, they evidently accept 'I can't tell you' as an appropriate response to police inquiries." He scowls. "When I have the information I need here, we will have to go to these managerial incompetents in person. A thorough waste of time, but I must have the proper data if I am to determine what the murderer is seeking and how best to discover his identity."
Sherlock begins to flick through the lab book in his lap again. John cranes his neck and sees pages of closely written notes, supplemented by sketches of bodies with lines and arcs extending from them. Sherlock pulls out his pocket notebook and opens it to the notes he just made at the mortuary.
"That spell at the mortuary," John says with dawning awareness. "You wrote it."
"Yes, of course." Sherlock runs his finger down a page of the lab book, then frowns and flips to the next.
"And you tested all these spells to see what they'd look like?" John remembers what Sherlock said in the lab about Avada and feels ill. "Oh my god. You tested the Killing Curse?"
"On a pig, yes," Sherlock says, looking up. John relaxes a little; Sherlock is a bit strange, but he's hadn't seemed like a killer. John feels embarrassed about jumping to conclusions, but Sherlock doesn't seem to be bothered. He is wearing a bemused smile as he looks back at the lab book. "Ah, here. Mid-range purple shade, low degree of spread, sharp arc." Sherlock's smile reverses itself and becomes a frown.
"So what is it?" John asks.
"Minuo viscera," Sherlock says. He sounds distinctly unhappy. "That's…." His voice trails off, and there's a pause before he seems to recover. "That's consistent with the injuries, at any rate. It causes massive internal bleeding."
"So the spell killed him," John says flatly. "A wizard killed him." As if there hadn't been enough of that to last a lifetime over the past two decades!
"Unfortunately," Sherlock says, frowning. He rolls his eyes when he sees the expression on John's face. "Don't be so tediously predictable, John. You've been of help thus far because you have an unbiased perspective, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't start leaping to conclusions involving dark wizards."
"You have to admit it's suggestive," John says.
"I'll admit no such thing," Sherlock rejoins. "One of the myriad reasons I do not work with the Aurors is because for them, everything points back to Voldemort. It's sheer intellectual laziness and it compromises investigations." Sherlock sighs heavily. "I hate when cases involve magic, it's boring."
John can't help but bristle. "So that's what bothers you about this? Not wizard-on-Muggle murder. Just that it's not interesting enough for you?"
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. "Wizards are careless and sloppy with their murders; it comes of thinking they can solve all their problems with spells. Ames would be just as dead if a Muggle had killed him, so what possible difference does it make that the killer was-" His eyes widen and he breathes, "Oh!"
"What?" John asks.
"Shut up a minute." He has his wand out again, poking from between his flat palms, which he steeples beneath his chin. He rolls the wand slowly between his palms and lets his eyes drift shut. John just stares.
"Ah!" Sherlock's eyes pop open. "Polyjuice potion. Obvious." He looks at John as if expecting approval. John can't even manage comprehension.
"Sorry? What's obvious?"
"The victim appeared in public after his death. Come on, you grew up in a wizarding household." Sherlock looks at John's uncomprehending face and sighs gustily. "God, you're as thick as the Yard. He kills Ames, steals his watch and his ID so he can pass as him, but he has to look like Ames to make it work. How does he do it? Polyjuice potion. Takes a month to make, so he's been planning for a while. The dosage determines the length of the transformation, he could easily create enough to disguise himself for the entire work day. When he's done, he walks out of the office and becomes himself again. Only now he has the information he wanted which Ames had access to."
"What information?" John asks.
"Exactly." Sherlock sits back. "But the methodology is obvious, once you realize magic is involved. I told you wizards are sloppy. But you should be happy, it completely vindicates your evaluation of the cause and time of death."
The mobile rings again, and Sherlock answers. "Lestrade, I presume you've reconsidered?" he snaps. As he listens to the response, his eyes immediately light with interest. "No," he says. "That isn't right." A pause. "Which chemical plant? Did he go to work last night?" Another pause. "Of course. I'll see you in a few minutes." He's grabbed his coat and is flying down the stairs in seconds, leaving John running to keep up. The cab is pulling over as John closes the door to 221 behind him, and he enters in time to hear "47 Bowditch," barked at the driver.
"What's happening?" John asks, settling back in the seat. Clearly it's not just the information about the documents, Sherlock seems far too excited for that.
"A fourth! Gerald Halbrud, a night security guard at Chemeuro's London manufacturing plant, was just found dead in his home, in the same manner as our previous victims," Sherlock says.
"That's awful quick work," John says slowly.
"Exactly!" Sherlock practically crows. "It's far, far too soon for another kill." His eyes are gleaming, and he begins to mutter furiously. "Second body found two days after first, third body found two days after second. Fourth body found four hours after third, no day of work between murder and discovery. Pattern broken. Intentional? No. Accidental? Likely. Why? Ahh." Sherlock smiles, a quick flash of a grin that immediately disappears again. "Someone found the body, someone whose arrival had not been expected. A girlfriend."
"How do you get that?" John asks.
"The other victims were all unattached, which meant that the murderer did not have to concern himself with the risk that their bodies would be found until after they had been missed at work. He had the leeway to murder each victim, leave the body where it fell, and go to work in the person's place on the next business day. But this time, the killer didn't have the choice of access points that he would like, and was forced to choose Halbrud, who had a girlfriend with keys to his flat. The body was discovered before the killer intended, because the girlfriend returned unexpectedly from a trip. He's made a mistake!" Sherlock's excitement over this murder is almost indecent, but John can't judge him too harshly because it's also contagious.
"A mistake, that's significant?" he asks.
"Clearly!" But Sherlock is obviously too thrilled to be properly disdainful. "We have him, John! We'll examine the scene, and then we'll catch the murderer when he makes his attempt to steal from Chemeuro, disguised as Halbrud."
They tumble out of the cab at a block of flats lit by street lamps and the flashing lights of patrol cars. Lestrade is standing on the edge of the lit area, frowning and hunched in his overcoat. "Something's wrong," Sherlock says immediately upon spotting him, and strides over so quickly that John has to jog to keep up. "Why aren't you inside?" Sherlock demands. "I expect that the scene will reveal nothing new about the killer's methodology, but I should at least inspect it to be sure. Which flat?"
"We can't," Lestrade spits out. "You're out, Sherlock." Sherlock's face darkens, but before he can speak Lestrade continues, "We're out. My whole team's off the case."
"What?" Sherlock says. "This is- Lestrade, you are being absurd. The case is three quarters solved. We know in general terms why the murders are happening, all we need do is-"
Lestrade makes a cutting motion with one hand. "Look, I don't like it any more than you do," Lestrade says harshly. "But the Home Secretary called my commander, and apparently there's some national security issue, and- well. It's not a matter for the Met any more, or so I'm told." He scowls. "Regardless of how many hours my team has put in."
"Whose matter is it then?" Sherlock asks. His eyes are scanning the building behind Lestrade. "I'll talk to whoever it is. They'll need me as much as you did."
"Sherlock, they specifically said that you were barred," Lestrade says.
John decides to intervene before Sherlock actually vibrates to pieces with rage. "Who's they?" he asks reasonably.
Lestrade darts a surprised glance at him, as if he's just now noticed John is present. "Agents Howard Dye and, uh- something Perryvall."
"Cassius Perryvall?" Sherlock's voice is incredulous.
"That might have been it," Lestrade says. "Why, do you- Sherlock! Hey!"
Sherlock is striding furiously toward the block of flats and a tall, dark-skinned man in a somber charcoal suit and wingtips who is standing beside it speaking to a uniformed police officer. John ducks past Lestrade and follows on Sherlock's heels, because damn if he's going to be left standing on his own by the cordon, looking foolish and out of place. At least if he's with Sherlock, the man's flamboyant presence distracts people from even noticing John is there.
Halfway to the building, John notices another man- also in a suit, a hair shorter than the other, years younger, padded around the middle but still fit enough- moving on an intercept course. "Sherlock, incoming," John calls softly, and Sherlock hesitates, turning his head in the indicated direction, which allows the man to get in front of them. The tall guy by the building has looked up at them and is also headed their way.
"Out, Holmes," the young man barks.
"On whose authority?" Sherlock sneers. "Hardly yours, Dye, when they still have you trailing more experienced agents like a confused duckling."
"The bleeding Minister's, you blasted-"
A long, elegant hand on Dye's shoulder cuts him short. "That will do, Dye." The tall man placidly appraises Sherlock and John.
Lestrade came running up behind Sherlock and John. "Sherlock, I swear, if you get me suspended again, I'll-"
"Detective Inspector, thank you for your diligence, but I assure you that no one in my office will hold you the least bit responsible for any action of Sherlock Holmes'." The man's short, black hair is shading into grey, and his eyes are piercing as they flit from Lestrade to John. "Would you mind excusing us? I'd like to explain the situation to Mr. Holmes personally." Lestrade backs off, obviously relieved to have this particular duty shifted to someone else. John can't blame him; if Sherlock mildly irritated is cutting and nasty, Sherlock in a rage must be terrifying. John would like to see it, actually.
"You too," Dye says to John, as Lestrade retreats back to the cordon.
"No," Sherlock says before John can react. "He's fine. He stays."
"Are you sure?" Dye says doubtfully, still eyeballing John.
"Exposing you idiots to Muggle London would be as annoying to me as to everyone else, much as I would enjoy your resulting panic," Sherlock snaps. "Of course I'm sure."
"Oh, you're with the Ministry," John says, suddenly realizing why Perryvall had cut Dye off so abruptly and then sent Lestrade away. "LEP?"
Dye visibly bristles at the reference to the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol, and Sherlock laughs. "Auror Office," the other man says. "Cassius Perryvall, Senior Auror." He tilts his head to indicate Dye, removing his hand from his shoulder at the same time. "Howard Dye, my partner." He turns his attention back to Sherlock without waiting for John to introduce himself. The Aurors are the best of the best, in terms of magical law enforcement; mistaking an Auror for a member of the LEP is somewhat like mistaking an MI6 agent for an infantryman. "How long did you think you could keep this a secret from the Ministry, Holmes?" Perryvall continues.
"It's not a matter of keeping it a secret, it's a matter of you being too unobservant to realize that wizards might be involved," Sherlock says. "When did you notice?" Sherlock watches Perryvall's face carefully. "Oh, yes, within the past hour. Typical."
"I'm not playing these games with you, Holmes," Perryvall says. "A wizard has been killing Muggles, which means this is my case and my crime scene. And I don't want you here. If the Muggle police knew you like I do, they wouldn't want you on their cases either."
"Wouldn't they, Sherlock says curtly. John glances quickly between the two wizards. Interesting-does this have something to do with why Sherlock handicaps himself, solving Muggle crimes instead of working with magical law enforcement at the Ministry?
"We've worked out what spell the killer used," Perryvall says. "And interestingly enough, it's-"
"Antonin Dolohov's spell, I know," Sherlock says. John stifles his sudden intake of breath, and flushes as Dye hears and glances sideways at him. John knows Dolohov's name: he was one of Voldemort's inner circle, had escaped Azkaban twice and murdered at least three members of the famous Order of the Phoenix.
"Two steps ahead as usual?" Dye asks sourly, curling his lip
"You'd need seven league boots to get within two steps of me, Dye," Sherlock snaps.
"It was his trademark during the second war," Perryvall goes on, locking Sherlock in his unwavering gaze.
"Dolohov is in Azkaban," Sherlock says. Used to be that if you once escaped Azkaban and they caught you, they let the Dementors- John decides he is not going to think about that, not right now.
"Yes," Perryvall agrees, leaning slightly forward. "That spell only ever appeared in writing once, Holmes. How many people do you imagine know how to cast it?" The tone of Perryvall's voice is almost threatening, but John isn't sure how this is meant to intimidate Sherlock.
Sherlock seems more irritated than intimidated in any case. "You are wrong," he says fiercely. "You are a fool, Perryvall, so caught up in what you think you know that you can't observe the evidence that's directly before you."
"Get off my crime scene," Perryvall suggests, stepping back after a long look at Sherlock. He turns and walks back toward the building, abruptly dismissing Sherlock from his attention.
Sherlock spins on his heel and stalks back towards Lestrade. "Come on, John."
Dye catches John by the arm as he turns to follow, and mutters, "I don't know who you are, mate, but take it from me. You want to keep well clear of Sherlock Holmes. Be sorry if you don't."
John jerks his arm free and refuses to dignify that with a response. He catches up with Sherlock, who has stopped to talk briefly with Lestrade. "Incompetents," he's ranting to the detective. "Utter incompetents, both of them."
"Perryvall seemed pretty sharp," John says, and Sherlock turns to glare at him.
"I would not trust Cassius Perryvall to investigate the demise of a pigeon," Sherlock says bitterly. "Lestrade, listen to me and you can have the killer tonight, I promise you."
"Sherlock, it's not my investigation any more," Lestrade says. "And if the new boss doesn't want your help, there's nothing I can do about it."
Sherlock turns his back and stalks down to the road without another word to Lestrade, and John hurries after. "We'll have to walk up to the high street to get a cab," Sherlock says, turning that way. He has his mobile out and is furiously tapping at the keys.
"All right," John says amiably. "Where are we going then?"
"The Chemeuro plant where Gerald Halbrud worked as a security guard," Sherlock says. "I'm getting the address now. I've determined based on the early discovery of the body and the fact that Halbrud was not scheduled to work last night that our killer killed Halbrud this morning and expected to turn up for his shift this evening. I can see the discovery of the body has not yet been reported in the news media, so the killer should be unaware and therefore has no reason to alter his plans. I do not know the exact time Halbrud is scheduled to begin work, so our best chance of apprehending him is to go directly to the factory now." John stops walking, and Sherlock takes three more steps before turning back and looking up from his phone. "Problem?" he asks.
"You're a civilian who's just been ordered by both Scotland Yard and the Ministry of Magic to keep away from this case, and your response is to go confront a serial murderer on your own?" John asks.
Sherlock raises one eyebrow. "Yes," he says, drawing the word out.
"That is utterly, barking mad," John says. His throat has gone dry, but he finds he's not feeling apprehensive at all.
"Does that mean you're not coming?" Sherlock asks.
John swallows. "I didn't say that," he says. "I just wanted to be sure we're on the same page." It's clear at this point that Sherlock and sanity are not on the same page, perhaps not even in the same book. And John is excited about this stupid plan, so what does that say about his metaphysical location?
"All right then," Sherlock says. He puts out his hand and a passing cab pulls over almost immediately. John makes a mental note to ask if Sherlock is using magic to summon taxis, as they always appear when he wants one.
"If we're doing this," John says, "I need to stop back at my flat first."
Sherlock looks him over carefully and says, "Is it important?"
Sherlock didn't respond with a gusty sigh or a roll of the eyes, to John's amazement. Does he suspect what John has at the flat that's worth taking time to go back for? It wouldn't surprise him, but he hopes not. He hopes Sherlock isn't going to roll off a chain of deductions that ends with So obviously you keep an extremely illegal firearm in your desk next to your laptop. He tries not to let this concern show in his face as he just answers, "Yes."
Sherlock steps back from the door of the cab. "You take this cab then. Meet me at the factory." He recites the address.
"Wait for me," John says, getting in. "I know I haven't been that helpful to you, but I do know my way around a fight. I don't like to think of you confronting a multiple murderer all on your own."
Sherlock nods and slams the door shut, then raises his hand to summon another cab.
It's a detour of perhaps ten minutes to drop by John's flat, pay the cabbie extra to wait, and dash up to the flat for the Browning. John's hands are perfectly steady as he tucks it into the back of his waistband, carefully hidden under the baggy jumper. Then back to the cab, where he balances perfectly on the edge of the seat, fingers shaped into a cradle around his knee. The chime of a new text message pulls him out of his reverie.
Far too slow. He's here. Going in. SH
His first thought is, Oh shit. Clumsily, he thumbs out a reply on the keyboard: "Wait for me damn it I'm almost there. John"
There isn't any reply, and John's hand is clenched in a fist on the door handle by the time the cab pulls up outside the factory, his other hand digging into his thigh to avoid reaching for the gun. The factory is a massive block of a building apparently designed before the advent of windows. John's eyes scan the side and find a metal fire door which is propped open and leaking light from a concrete stairwell. All the inner doors are locked. He pauses a moment to send another text: "I'm here where are you?" but again there's no answer. John begins to climb.
On the fourth floor, he finally finds a door that opens into the building proper. There's been no sound, no sign of Sherlock, the killer, or anyone else, and no new texts. John can only be five minutes behind Sherlock, so where the hell did he go? John grits his teeth and reassures himself with the thought of the gun pressed against the small of his back. Maybe Sherlock is secretly a master duelist, but John tends to doubt it. Most wizards aren't up to facing a duelist fighting to kill.
The fourth floor door lets John out onto a catwalk that runs around three sides of a massive, open factory floor. There's machinery here and there, some of it looming up several stories, and what appear to be conveyers, down on the floor. Distantly, across the room and on the ground floor itself, two men are grappling. At this distance, John can make out that one of them is tall and wearing a long coat, one is stouter and shorter. John runs.
Somehow he resists the urge to yell out, putting all his breath into motion: finding the nearest staircase, descending the stairs two at a time, running along the catwalk to find the next. In his half-second glances as he rounds corners and leaps down stairs, John can see that Sherlock and the other man have their fists twisted in each other's shirts, straining against each other like wrestlers. John pauses half a second as he hits ground to pull the Browning out of his waistband, then pounds towards the struggling figures.
Sherlock is doing his best to choke his opponent with his own collar; the man is in turn squeezing Sherlock's wrist with one hand and trying to club him in the side of the head with the other. John's run is eating ground but he's still too damn far away when the man- the killer, surely?- manages to hook one foot behind Sherlock's ankle. In a second he has Sherlock down on the ground and is staggering back, pulling his wand up and back as if he will swing it like a sword, beginning to speak: "Mi-"
John slams himself to a halt and raises his gun. Time to make a command decision, Watson.
The bullet punches through the killer's upraised arm and into the right side of his chest. John runs to the man, flips the safety back on and sets the gun aside as he kneels to rip his shirt open. The wound is already gushing blood, and John can hear the man's raspy, wet breathing and the sucking gasp of air in his chest. The bullet apparently was lucky or unlucky enough to catch the lung. He rips off his own jumper and presses it against the wound, trying to staunch the bleeding even though he knows that's virtually impossible.
"Call an ambulance," he snaps to Sherlock, who has risen to his feet.
"No signal," Sherlock replies instantly. "This building was an air raid shelter." John doesn't point out that the simplest way around that is to go outside. Surely he can bloody figure it out, and John has work to do. He tunes Sherlock out completely.
John doesn't have anything to improvise a seal with, although it may be irrelevant because the man's going to drown in his own blood before he really has time for the pneumothorax to become an issue. John finds the artery nearest the wound and tries to put pressure on that, but it's equally infective. Then breathing stops; John opens the man's mouth to attempt rescue breathing but his mouth and throat are full of blood. "Shit," John mutters, as he feels for a pulse and doesn't find one. He starts hands-only chest compressions, because that's what you do; and anyway, it feels somewhat unsatisfying to apprehend a killer by shooting him instead of arresting him.
Two minutes and at least six cracked ribs later, John gives it up and staggers back from the man- body- with blood splashed across the front of his jeans and saturating the sleeves of his shirt. He sits down heavily on the grimy concrete, only now starting to breathe hard. His left hand, the shaky one, is still rock steady though. Odd.
Sherlock is standing well back from the pool of blood, wand in one hand, staring at John.
"Oh, what?" John demands, feeling a flare of annoyance; irrational, surely, since it's probably normal to stare when someone guns down a man in cold blood right in front of you.
"You killed him," Sherlock says. "Why?" John is having a hard time reading the expression on his face; is it fascination, or shock, or horror, or what?
"Because he was pointing his wand at you," John says. "I told you to wait for me, you tosser."
"You didn't even know what he was going to cast," Sherlock says. He ignores the second statement entirely, which really isn't a surprise. It seems to be Sherlock's modus operandi when dealing with common sense: just ignore it and perhaps it will go away.
"No, I didn't," John agrees. This should probably bother him, but he finds he's completely comfortable with it. Christ, what's wrong with him?
"You barely know me," Sherlock points out. His tone is business-like, not shocked or horrified at all.
"Also true." John reaches for the gun and realizes his hands are coated in blood. He wipes them clean on the hips of his jeans as best he can.
"Incredible," Sherlock says. Definitely fascination, John decides. God, they're both twisted.
"Glad you approve," John says, finding that this is actually true- Sherlock's open appreciation inspires a warm little spark of pleasure to flare deep in his chest. "Just out of curiosity, this is the killer, right? Only I'd hate to think I murdered some poor night watchman who was only trying to keep a dangerous lunatic out of his factory."
"Definitely the killer," Sherlock says. "He's carrying Halbrud's identification card, and wearing his face."
"Brilliant," John says. "So when does he change back to his own?"
Sherlock gives John a pitying look, as if he's said something quite daft. "If someone dies under the influence of polyjuice potion, the effect is permanent."
John takes a second to parse this. It means that the police, the Aurors, have no way of knowing for sure that this isn't Halbrud. It means that they can't identify this man as the murderer, or identify him at all. It means that John is going to be in rather a lot of trouble, very shortly. "Oh," John says, staggered by the weight of the realization. "Oh, fuck me."
Sherlock stalks over to the body and retrieves John's crumpled, blood-soaked jumper with the tips of his fingertips. He holds it out away from himself with one hand, and aims his wand at it with the other. "Scourgify," he casts, and the blood clears itself from the jumper until it's the proper oatmeal color again. Sherlock flicks the wand twice more, giving John's other clothes the same treatment.
"What are you doing?" John asks, watching the blood disappear from his jeans; in the Army they washed out blood the old-fashioned way, and he's forgotten how easy magic makes some things.
"Destroying evidence, obviously," Sherlock says testily. "Put out your hands." John obeys. "Tergio." He siphons the blood off John's hands and sends it back to the body. "Now we can get a cab."
"But shouldn't we call-" John pauses for a second. If Sherlock isn't feeling inclined to call the authorities, why the hell should John? "You know what, never mind. Let's just go."
Sherlock smirks very slightly. "Knew you'd see things my way," he says.
John scoops up the gun with his newly-clean hands and tucks it back into his waistband. Sherlock tosses him the jumper as he stands up, and John puts that back on too.
They're getting in the cab when Sherlock looks at him and says innocently, "Where's your cane?"
His cane, he must have left it in the factory- no, back up, he had been running inside the factory, not using the cane. Did he leave it in the cab? No. He left it-
He left it at Baker Street.
John's leg feels fine. He settles himself in his seat and starts laughing, helplessly. "It is psychosomatic," he gasps when he's able to stop giggling. John relaxes a little more, rolling his shoulders. He looks over and sees Sherlock giving him that very intrigued look again. "What?"
"Are you all right?" Sherlock says carefully. "You seem- very calm. For someone who's just shot a man, I mean."
"Shht!" John hisses, darting a glance up at the cabbie, who fortunately seems oblivious. "Have a lot of experience with killers, do you?"
"Well, yes, but typically they are rather unbalanced." Sherlock considers John for a moment. "Perhaps this is how a balanced person acts when he kills someone."
For some reason, whether it's the words themselves or Sherlock's calm detachment as he says them, John finds this utterly hilarious and bursts out laughing. Sherlock joins him, this time, his mouth spread in a smile that somehow looks deeply genuine, not like the image of a smile that John's seen him plaster on all day.
The MOD flat to which John returns in the small hours seems colder and emptier than ever, but somehow John can't bring himself to mind. The adrenaline burned out of his system over risotto and wine at the restaurant Sherlock dragged him to, and now he's tired. John sets his Browning down on the desk and does the evening routine: uses the loo, brushes his teeth, changes his clothes, turns the sheets down. Tonight he adds an extra few minutes scrubbing his hands clean before he fetches his cleaning kit out of the desk. John removes the magazine and field strips the gun, laying the parts neatly in a row. Each part is cleaned and oiled, then laid back on the desk. Last of all he oils the barrel, then slowly and carefully reassembles the gun and reinserts the magazine. It doesn't have to be slow, of course, but John likes it to be.
The routine is always soothing, but tonight it takes on a special importance. It is after all the first time he's fired it. When he is done, he carefully caps the oil, bins the used patches, and tidies away all the supplies into the desk. It occurs to John that he should be freaking out. He should be worried about the fact that he just shot a man in cold blood; that the act was witnessed by a man who styles himself a detective and consults for the police; that the police are going to be after him; that the gun he shouldn't have in the first place is now a murder weapon. But he isn't. This may in fact be the least worried he's felt since before he got shot.
Every night since he bought the gun, John has felt compelled to flick the safety off and stare at the weapon. Sometimes he has to pick up the gun and twist his wrist so he can press the end of the barrel against the edge of his hard palate, carefully maintaining the proper angle. Many nights he has closed his eyes and thought about the cold, hard bite of unyielding metal cutting the roof of his mouth, the taste of oil and steel heavy on his tongue; he has imagined the tension dripping with the blood and cerebrospinal fluid out of an exit wound in his parietal bone.
Tonight, John puts the gun back in its drawer the instant he finishes cleaning it, without a second thought.
John still feels oddly good when he wakes up in the morning. It lasts through breakfast and getting dressed, till about 9:30, which is when his phone rings.
"Those Aurors are here," says Sherlock Holmes.
John's stomach clenches. "Are they?" he says carefully.
"They want to speak to us. Both of us, apparently," Sherlock says, just as calmly.
"I'll take a cab then, shall I?" John asks.
"Yes." Sherlock hangs up.
John's stomach is knotted with tension through the entire trip, although he maintains his facade of calm. They must have found something at the factory to link him or Sherlock to the scene. Or else- what if Sherlock called them? Surely not, he had made his feelings about the Aurors very clear. But he is a man who persists in solving crimes even when he's been specifically told not to, and he obviously loves to prove he's clever. Not calling the police from the factory last night might have been simple self-preservation. It would be easy enough for Sherlock to distance himself now, and all they need do is search John's flat for the gun….
When John knocks at the door of 221, it's Perryvall, looking stern and official in black robes, that meets him at the door and escorts him up to the flat. Mrs. Hudson is hovering in the hallway, fluttering her hands nervously; John smiles at her, but she doesn't follow them up to Sherlock's rooms. Dye stands just inside the sitting room, looking grim, but Sherlock lounges unconcernedly on the sofa with his hands steepled under his chin, wand clutched between them. He sits up as John and Perryvall walk in. "Very well, here he is. Can you stop wasting my time now, and tell me what this is all about?"
"Where were you after you left Halbrud's building last night?" Perryvall asks, crossing his arms over his chest.
"We went to Angelo's Trattoria for a late dinner," Sherlock says.
"At nine thirty in the evening?" Dye says skeptically.
"The owner is a friend of mine. He stayed open late for us," Sherlock says. John has to stifle the urge to look at him admiringly; the man lies beautifully, and Angelo will doubtless be more than happy to provide an alibi if asked. It was clear from the way he behaved last night that he practically worships Sherlock.
"And you- what time did you finish at the restaurant, then?" Dye asks, turning to John.
"How the ruddy hell should I know? I wasn't staring at the clock the whole time," John says. "Besides which, I was drunk. We split two and a half bottles of wine between the three of us." This is actually true, which may be why John can say it without a flicker of hesitation.
"Is this inquiry into our personal lives a prelude to an invitation?" Sherlock asks. "I can't speak for Dr. Watson, but I can assure you that I am far from interested, Dye."
While Dye splutters, Perryvall cuts in, "Something interesting happened this morning, Holmes. It seems that when Halbrud's employers opened for business, they found a body on the factory floor." Perryvall whips a photograph out of his robe and flips it onto the coffee table. "What do you make of this?"
"Gunshot wound to the chest," Sherlock says, examining the photo. "It appears to be something that Scotland Yard ought to be investigating, not the Auror Office." He offers the picture to John, who walks over and takes it out of his hand.
It's a regular Muggle photograph, of the Halbrud double's corpse at the factory. "Nasty," John says, handing the photo back to Perryvall.
"Quite," Perryvall says. "That's Gerald Halbrud."
"Oh?" Sherlock says. "Seems quite out of character for our killer, wouldn't you say?"
"Or rather," Dye puts in, "That's the second Gerald Halbrud. The original one was found dead in his flat last night, as you are aware."
Perryvall is looking Sherlock right in the eye. "Why don't you explain that, Holmes, as you're so clever. Enlighten us." With an effort, John manages to breathe normally. Sherlock is not going to be able to resist explaining it, not when the Aurors are challenging him right to his face this way.
But Sherlock smirks. "You wanted me out, and I'm out. Don't come begging for my help just because you found the case a bit more difficult than you anticipated."
Perryvall's face clouds over. "Give me your wand," he says.
"No, I don't think so," Sherlock says. He smiles pleasantly; it's the fake smile again, John is getting good at telling the difference.
"Fine," Perryvall grates. "Just put it on the table, then." Sherlock considers Perryvall for a moment, then sets his wand on the coffee table. Perryvall draws out his own wand and gestures. "Prior Incantato!" Faint pink wisps emerge from the end of Sherlock's wand in response to the spell, twining gracefully around each other before dissipating. It's meaningless to John, but evidently not to Perryvall. "Tergio?" he says sourly. "Doing a bit of cleaning, were we?"
Dye glances around at the decidedly untidy flat and snorts. Sherlock does not react.
Perryvall turns to glare at John. "And you?"
"He's a squib, you imbecile, he doesn't have a wand," Sherlock says scornfully. John tries not to wince and is mostly successful.
Perryvall makes a tiny moue of distaste. "The man in the factory was not killed by a wand," he says.
"Well I hardly have a gun either," John says. Sherlock must be inspiring him, this is probably the best lying he's ever done. "Just what are you suggesting?" Perryvall tries to stare him down, but John is not intimidated. This entire thing, he now realizes, is an attempt to scare them. The Aurors have nothing, know nothing; they just came here because they don't like Sherlock, not because they have any evidence to link either of them to the death.
"If that's all," Sherlock says after a moment. "I think I would like you out of this flat now." He picks up his wand and twirls in around his first two fingers like a baton. Perryvall finally breaks his gaze from John's.
"Holmes," Percyvall says. "Rest assured that if I find any evidence linking you to these murders, I will personally ensure that you die in Azkaban." He turns and descends the stairs regally, Dye clattering after him. A moment later, John hears the twin bangs of the two of them disapparating from the foyer.
Sherlock throws the wand back down. "Finally," he says. "I can feel my IQ dropping every moment I share a room with those idiots."
John looks at Sherlock and opens his mouth to speak. He's pretty sure he means to say something sensible like are we ever going to know who the killer was? or what the hell did you do to piss those guys off? or perhaps thanks for keeping me out of prison. Instead, he hears himself say, "I'd like to bring my things over this afternoon."
Sherlock smiles, brilliantly, and it's the real one again, a smile of genuine pleasure. "Yes," he says. "I thought you might."