"The length of the left middle finger," Mycroft said, dryly. "The research was... discouraged by the Home Office after the first world war. Rumour suggested that several prominent members of the Conservative cabinet had noticeably elongated middle fingers."
Richard laughed. "And did they?"
"Records do not exist, sadly. As it happens, I have had occasion to shake hands with a number of members of the current government. One cannot help observing, though passing on those observations might be considered indiscreet."
A lot of the conversations that Mycroft held while drinking tea in the small Camden house might be considered somewhat indiscreet, Richard thought. He'd raised the point once, while Mycroft was explaining the latest diplomatic tangle.
"Should you be telling me all this? What about the Official Secrets Act?"
Mycroft had frowned at him. "I leave official secrets to officials. My concerns tend to be outside their purview. Would you prefer that we discussed the weather, Richard?"
"No, please! This is fascinating." Though, to be honest, Mycroft could have been reciting the shipping forecast and Richard would still have been hanging on every word.
Tonight it seemed that Mycroft would go no further. He glanced at his watch. "Time I departed. You have an early appointment tomorrow?"
"It's only a corporate video, but it's work. And another one Friday. Should help pay the rent." Richard looked away from Mycroft, slightly embarrassed. He hadn't yet had a month in which he could pay his own way, but hopefully that would change. "There's a small castings company that have put a few small jobs my way, ones not worth auditioning. I'm hoping to get something more meaty from them, too, soon."
"I'm pleased to hear it. The work will no doubt keep you out of mischief." His mouth stretched in a smile. "Goodnight, Richard."
Richard showed him out, came back to wrap his own hands around the tea cup that Mycroft had sipped from. He hadn't said anything, again. He never dared try to venture past Mycroft's cool civility. What if the man took offence? It wasn't just his only real friendship that he risked, it was the financial support that let him follow his dream. Without Mycroft Holmes he'd be working in a burger bar, by now.
Time for bed. He relinquished the cup to the tray, reluctantly. Mycroft would be back again next week. In the meantime he needed to be top of his game tomorrow, show that he was a good reliable choice with a touch of flair. Playing Telephone Interviewer Two wasn't exactly Richard the Third, but it was still acting and he'd put his heart into it.
They were wrapping up the last scene on Friday when Nels came into the studio. Richard was aware of him watching, put a little extra effort in. Soon enough he was free to go over to say hello. Nels Finney, in his early fifties, was a partner in Capital Castings and the source of Richard's recent fortune.
"Nice work." Nels had a deep baritone that Richard secretly envied and a goatee beard and ponytail that he definitely didn't.
"Thanks. Got time for a coffee?"
"Got to talk to the clients, sorry, Rickie. How about a drink this evening instead?"
"Yeah. That would be great." There were auditions coming up. Richard would take any opening he could get.
"Say nine, then. Fox and Hounds in Lambeth."
Five to nine Richard shrugged his black jacket more comfortably around his shoulders, pulled the white t-shirt straight and walked into the bar. The place was packed with a Friday night crowd; it took him a while to spot Nels, leaning against the back wall with a couple of strangers.
"Evening." He nodded greeting at the other two men. "Can I get anyone a drink?"
Four pints put a hefty dent in the afternoon's earnings, but it was an investment. It was too noisy to hold much of a conversation and after a while they drifted out onto the pavement to talk. The others were a friendly lot, interested in his life, the house he shared, even his financial difficulties.
Nels was reassuring. "I'm sure we can find you plenty to do. A handsome young face like yours...always good to have you on the books. Stay in with us and you'll do OK."
"Thanks. I really appreciate it."
"I'm sure you do." Nels glanced at one of the other men, who put down his half drunk pint.
"It's getting late. Ought to call it a night."
By common consent they started walking towards the tube station. Nels' hand caught at Richard's sleeve.
"I didn't get round to the stuff I was going to tell you. How about a coffee? My place is round the corner."
"Sure." They made their farewells and set out through the busy street full of slightly inebriated Friday nighters. A couple of times Nels steered Richard around groups with an arm around his shoulder. The second time the arm stayed there.
Just a little drunk-friendly. Richard couldn't think of a polite way of rebuffing the man in the street. He'd pretend not to notice. That coffee would sober Nels up.
The flat was spotless and soulless. Richard thought of the sociable chaos of his shared house. The older man was probably lonely. There was no need to be harsh. He took the offered place on the sofa, didn't flinch as the other man came down heavily beside him.
"Would you like me to make the coffee?"
" Never mind that, sweet brown eyes. How about a kiss?"
Hell. Richard seized on the easiest response. "Oh, Nels, I'm flattered, really I am. But I've got a boyfriend." What he'd got was a hopeless crush, but it came to the same thing. He wasn't interested. He wriggled out from under the heavy arm. "Why don't I make coffee?"
Nels leaned back, watching him get up. Suddenly he didn't seem drunk at all. "I thought we were going to talk about your career, Rickie? A couple of good roles, and you'll be doing fine. You just need to be careful; It's easy to get a bad rep round here."
Richard cursed himself. Stupid, to get in this situation. Two years in prison carefully keeping out of the way of possible sexual predators and he walked into this!
Nels could do what he claimed, no doubt. Set a black mark against Richard's name with the other agencies; a rumour that he was unreliable or dishonest would do. Richard really couldn't afford to antagonise the man. He was sure Mycroft would be disgusted with him, for getting into this, for giving in, but Mycroft wasn't here. Maybe a kiss wouldn't be too bad, and then he could just go home.
He produced a smile with an actor's ease. "One kiss for good luck, then. Just don't tell my boyfriend!" Make it a bit of a joke.
He didn't resist as Nels pulled him down onto his lap. The kiss was unpleasant, a cold tongue pushed around his mouth. When the man licked his cheek sloppily, Richard had to repress a shudder. The hand fumbling at his belt was beyond tolerance; he pushed it away, up on his feet, backing away.
"Sorry, Nels. No. I don't want to do that. Can't we just have a drink and call it a night?"
Nels was scowling at him. "Fucking cock-tease. I don't want a fucking drink. What you going to do about this then?" His hand was now at his own buckle. Richard glanced at the bulge, then away.
"I didn't mean to... Look, I'm sorry. I'll just go, shall I?"
"Come on, Rickie." The tone had turned wheedling. "How about a quick blow? I'll make it worth your while." The buckle was undone, flies open. His protruding erection was a mass of grey-brown wrinkled skin.
One good part. Just one, and it wouldn't matter what this man or men like him said after that. And he wouldn't get to touch Richard. The younger man took a deep breath. "Okay."
He'd done this before. The act was familiar, though he didn't try to remember to whom, or when, just as he'd known he was gay without troubling his uncertain memory for past lovers. What his body did in pursuit of his vocation didn't matter, he told himself. Another performance to impress his audience, that was all. It didn't stop the bile from nearly choking him but it drove him to carry on through it.
Just before the end he pulled back, explained to Nels in a clear and steady voice exactly which upcoming audition he expected to succeed at. Afterwards he rinsed his mouth out, shook the man's hand and went out to find a taxi. The numbness held him together until he reached the privacy of his own room. Then he collapsed on the bed, swearing through his tears. Bastard. The bastard would pay. It wasn't bloody fair. Sometimes he wished that he really was a criminal fucking mastermind. Jim bloody Moriarty would eat the sad little fucker alive.
Jim Moriarty didn't exist. There was only Richard Brook, unsuccessful actor, ex-prisoner, jobless, penniless, at the mercy of creeps like Nels. When he'd cried himself to exhaustion he finally fell asleep.
The bedroom was lit with afternoon sun when he finally woke up again. The anger and disgust seemed to have settled to a tired acceptance. At least he'd get the role. He texted Nels after he'd had some breakfast, a brief reminder of their agreement. "Thanks for the drinks last night. See you Tues am. Richard B."
He wasn't necessarily expecting a reply. He was certainly not expecting the men on his doorstep half an hour later.
"Greg Lestrade?" Richard's memory of everything to do with his trial was crystal clear, including this man's reluctant evidence about Sherlock's schemes.
"Detective Inspector Lestrade. May we come in?" It wasn't a request. He led them through to the sitting room.
"Did you send a text to Nelson Finney at 3.23pm, Mr Brook?"
"Richard, please. Yes. Why? Is this something to do with Sherlock Holmes again?"
"Sherlock's been dead for years." Lestrade said, coldly. "When did you last see Finney?"
"I left his place at about half past midnight last night."
"Was he alone then?"
"Yes. What's happened?"
"Nelson Finney was found dead at his flat about three hours ago. I'm going to have to ask you to come to the station to answer some questions. You have the right to remain silent..."
"Yes, I know," Richard said, tiredly. "I've done this before, remember." If Nels was dead then his audition was blown, and now he was being arrested again. Life was so fucking unfair. Then he remembered Mycroft.
"Can I make a phone call?" He didn't know how Mycroft could help, exactly, but he was sure the man could get him out of this somehow. After all, if anyone knew for certain that Richard Brook was absolutely incapable of murdering anyone, it was Mycroft Holmes.