Standing in front of the main stage, foam plugs jammed into her ears, Sgt Sally Donovan sighed. She was not sanguine, no sir, not by a long chalk. This whole ridiculous undercover thing had its good points, obviously. Mostly related to one Thaddeus Anderson, who had been acting like it was Christmas for the last fortnight. Every private moment they’d snatched together in the last fourteen days had been filled with Tad’s excitement.
Good god, I still can’t believe John Watson is the John Watson! From Gladstone’s Collar! That was my favourite band. They were brilliant. I caught every show I could. I can’t believe I didn’t recognise him, though of course, he looks almost completely different now, twenty years on. I took up drums because of them. I can’t believe I’m getting to do this. I can’t believe I’m good enough to get to do this. I can’t believe it.
The guys in Tad’s weekend garage band couldn’t believe it either. They were probably here somewhere, hopefully cheering for him instead of waiting to see him fall flat on his face.
Sally was extremely fond of Taddy Anderson. She couldn’t say if it was love. Probably not, even though he was trying to leave his controlling wife for her. Trying, but not succeeding, because somehow, Tad’s missus seemed to not hear when he said No. I’m done. I want out. I’m seeing someone. She just… didn’t listen. She ignored the papers, his absences, everything, and just carried on like he’d never spoken. His missus let him have his lover, but not his freedom. It was a weird dynamic.
Sally sometimes wondered if it was possible to frame Anderson’s missus for murder. She also sometimes wondered if it was appropriate to wonder such things, but mostly, she just quietly wondered how it might be done. Not seriously, no. Just… idly. To pass the time.
Sally really, really disliked Tad Anderson’s wife.
But she was fond, so fond of Taddy. With Tad, Sally could relax, have fun, laugh. She loved how Tad liked the things about her that other men seemed to find intimidating. She loved how he was no good at playing head-games, which his wife, unfortunately, loved to do, because head-games like that rattled him. The Freak rattled him like that constantly, showing up and making everyone feel incompetent. Tad, even more unfortunately, responded badly to that. He became incompetent. He loved his job, despite his family’s general disapproval at his career choice, though it was better than becoming a drummer, apparently. But he needed calm, he needed a supportive, methodical environment, and the Freak tore that down every time.
Hell, the Freak even made her feel incompetent, and she knew that she wasn’t.
In front of the stage there, Sally’s sigh turned into a generalised scowl, aimed at pretty much everything: the stage currently occupied by roadies setting up instruments; the narrowness of the no man’s land between the stage and the crowd; the actual crowd; the two closest members of that crowd who had their heads together, muttering.
Now, that pair – an older couple, but not actually a couple, late thirties, one jowly and the other too thin with bad skin – their scowls were definitely specific, and aimed very particularly at the stage.
Part of Sally’s scowl was a gift from the heat of the very long day she’d already had. Some of it was a gift of regret, from her long gone teenage days of bands and rock concerts. A little of it was a tweak of annoyance that had not passed the audition to be up on that damned stage, but to be fair, Sally knew she couldn’t sing. She liked music well enough, but had no talent for it. It wasn’t important, because she had skills and wits enough for other things. But it would have been fun to be up there with Tad, because was having the time of his life. Even if it was destined to go horribly wrong. Part of her thought that maybe, if she was up there with him, she could maybe protect Tad from how wrong it was all, surely, going to go.
A portion of her scowl was because the operation had pretty much gone smoothly and quickly and she hated it when Sherlock Holmes was right. The Freak had identified the plotters who were using the festival as a cover to meet, exchange data, and plan mayhem. Government men had gently and firmly ushered most of the conspirators into dark cars and taken them away not ten minutes ago.
It had been swift. Discreet. It was important to avoid any kind of panic. At a rock festival, teeming with all those hormonal teens and twentysomethings, panic could lead to disaster.
But it had only been most of the conspirators. One had slipped the net. They hadn’t realised it to begin with, of course. The Freak had deduced the missing member of the group only after the rest were being herded out.
Most. There’s a word. Most was a word that kept her there, in the heat and the stinking sweat in the bouncer’s stretch of patrolled land to watch the Freak and his pet doctor and that mouse from St Bart’s and her DI and her Tad Anderson live out a teen wet dream and pretend to be a band. She’d seen the Freak and his blogger perform once at an open mic night and they’d been fine, but this, this was a whole band and a proper concert and an audience that expected something a bit professional.
It was going to be seriously, hideously embarrassing. She knew. She’d seen it. That glimpse, half an hour ago, of Doctor Watson, pale and shaking like he had a wasting disease, having a quiet and relatively dignified panic attack backstage while the Freak tried to talk him down with helpful phrases such as ‘For God’s sake, John, it’s not like this is your first time on stage’, and ‘it’s only 2000 people, John’ and ‘Breathe. Breathe. Stop being an idiot.’
She’d seen something much stranger than that only fifteen minutes ago, though. Tad and Sherlock Holmes sitting in the wings, actually talking to each other. Tad had been sitting backwards on a fold out chair, beating his drumsticks on the back of the seat while the Freak plucked at the violin and then pointed his bow towards the two people now scowling to the left of Sally, behind the barrier. Tad had frowned at the two, said something to the Freak, who then nodded.
Tad had been a little weird about the Freak for a few days now, truth be told. Not joining in with her acid commentary on this whole escapade for a start. It was one thing for him to be excited about playing with the doctor, the unexpected former teen rock star, because that was endearing and Tad’s enthusiasms were among the things she liked so much about him. It’s not like he was defending the Freak, really, but his lack of participation in the snark was unnerving.
Sally was also trying very hard to not think about five minutes ago, when she’s seen long legs in black-clad jeans topped by a dead sexy arse bent over while the owner tied a bootlace only to have him stand up and wave, smiling sheepishly, over his shoulder at her – because he was her DI. She’d waved back, slightly hysterically, her brain chanting the mantra: stop looking at Greg’s arse, stop looking at Greg’s arse, he’s your DI, he’s not hot, oh god, stop looking at Greg’s arse.
Now here she was (steadfastly not thinking about her DI’s arse) as part of the detail to keep things contained if that missing terrorist was actually located. If he was smart, he’d have slipped out when the rest of his crew were rounded up. No guarantee he was smart, though, so Sally kept her position, kept in line of sight with the other Yarders and the government men positioned around the stage, ready to mop up should the need arise.
The mood of the crowd suddenly changed, like a tangible thing, and Sally saw the roadies disappearing into the wings. Then out they came: this stupid idea of a band of amateurs, stepping onto a festival stage, about to make the most appalling fools of themselves. Sally hoped that at least Tad would have a good time before this sorry mess came to its humiliating conclusion.
First out was Doctor Watson, at least looking less like a high school English teacher than usual, dressed in a sharp, tailored dark purple pinstripe suit and collarless white shirt. He looked, in fact, very nearly fashionable. He had a guitar slung across his body. He raised a hand to the crowd and waved.
To Sally’s considerable surprise, a good portion of the crowd cheered and waved back.
On the doctor’s heels were the DI, looking properly rock ‘n roll, a bass guitar in his hand. He looked pale and a bit like he was about to be sick. The twittery one from St Barts, Molly, that was it, came out, barefoot and giggling, her hair shaggy and loose, to the keyboard. Oh, and there was Tad, grinning nervously at the doctor, but looking more the part today in the jeans and plain green t-shirt she’d helped him pick after he decided the Stones shirt was trying too hard.
And there came the Freak, thinking that a haircut and a beard would make him marginally normal, carrying a violin and watching the doctor intently. Hoping he doesn’t bottle out and ruin the whole scheme, probably.
Sally Donovan wasn’t a musician, but she did understand a lot about the power of voice, of command, and of teamwork. As a result, the next five minutes took her completely by gobsmacking surprise.
Doctor John Watson, in his sharp suit, strode up to the mic, grabbed it in one hand and leaned in. “Hey, London! How’ve ya been?”
London, or two thousand of her number, shouted something unintelligible but friendly back.
“Thanks for coming to say hi to Gladstone’s Collar,” he said, a laugh in his voice, “I’m John Watson. This is Second Chance.” And he stood back, hands on the strings, nodded at Tad to count them in. And then they played.
At crime scenes, the doctor always just seemed a small, exasperated shadow to the lanky freak, but this was no shadow. This man was solid, strong and absolutely real.
Here he was, shouldering down into a flurry of notes, then grinning up at Mousey Molly who, would you look at that, grinned and shimmied back at him, her hands dancing up and down the keyboard. Then John Watson, still playing, leaned backwards in the DI’s direction, as though transmitting energy through his back, and next thing the two of them were riffing. A moment later the doctor was leaning towards the drum kit, practically shooting energy across the stage – and Sally had no idea how she could see that happen, but it was definitely happening – and he nodded at Tad, and Tad, grinning like a loon, and smashed down into the drums and let loose.
Strangest of all, there was the Freak, Sherlock Holmes himself, watching John Watson with that same, avid look Sally could see on Taddy’s face, on Greg’s, on Molly’s. Coming in on his cue and choosing, obvious to her eyes, choosing not to dominate the stage, but to be the doctor’s shadow this time.
Then Doctor John Watson, the Freak’s willing fool, stepped up to the microphone and sang. A confident tenor with a pleasingly gravelly backnote, full of passion and a strange desperation.
My eyes are open wide
And by the way, I made it through the day
This… was not embarrassing. Sally knew sod all about music, but she knew that this was good. Everyone was good. Better than good. Even the mouse. Even the DI. Even Taddy.
Sally wasn’t sure what she expected when the song reached the chorus. She certainly hadn’t expected every single person on that stage to lean into their own microphones and hurl harmonies and soul into the lyric.
Sally watched, transfixed, to the end of the song. The crowd roared their appreciation. John Watson grinned and with hardly a break to breathe, he stood close to the mic while Sherlock swept a wailing phrase from his violin. John picked out a line of notes on his guitar and, matching those plaintive opening notes, he sang a new melody.
Is this the only way you know to let love in?
Even Sally could hear the sorrow in it, and the anger, as well as the hard-packed pain. How did he get that into a song? How did that even work? Tad’s drums were quieter, a kind of skittering heartbeat, while the bass throbbed and Molly’s keyboard managed to somehow be accusatory. Her voice lilted behind the doctor’s, sounding sad, but then there was the Freak, singing low and angry next to the doctor’s pain, and it was weird, that the three of them could sound so much not like themselves.
A few beats of silence at the end, then the shrieking crowd, and those two oddballs behind Sally were muttering. With her noise-dampening earplugs in, Sally had no clue what they were saying, but damn, they looked annoyed. Then John Watson raised an arm, held a pose just as though he knew what he was doing up there, and the crowd seemed to poise with him.
In that breathless second Sally realised that, even though only some of this crowd – a handful of intense and precocious music fans – had come to see the unexpecded Gladstone’s Collar revival with the original lead singer, the rest of them were actually enjoying the music. All these kids just hanging around after the preceding band, or waiting for the next one, were actually getting into that near middle aged army doctor and his band of misfits: because they were better than good.
Four girls down the front and to the right were making the biggest eyes at… Jesus, at Sherlock Holmes. Though, Sally supposed, looking less like a psychopath than usual, he did seem kind of… pretty. Ugh. Squash that thought, Sally. Better to be thinking of the DI’s ar…. No. Don’t’ think of that. Not that. Think of Doctor Watson and his unexpected magnetism and hot damn, those surgeon’s hands on his guitar… no no no…. Gah. Taddy. Taddy on the drums, getting sweaty with the effort and being the happiest she’d ever seen him. That was good. That was safe.
She’d almost missed that raised hand crashing down and the doctor – legs splayed and moving in a way that made three girls and a couple of guys off to Sally’s right practically swoon – played an opening riff, nodded at Tad (whose eyes shone like she’d never seen before, which made her strangely envious even as she was delighted for him) and Taddy slammed into the drums, and after the verse there was the band, the whole band, even the Freak, throwing themselves at microphones and making a noise that, to judge from the crowd’s reaction, was glorious.
Because the mind is a weapon, see
And it's got you on your hands and knees
Pull the trigger if you're gonna
We all know that you wanna
Count off 1, 2 – 1, 2, 3!
It was an angry, untamed sound, and god, since when did the DI know how to move his pelvis like that, or, for god’s sake, Sherlock Holmes, writhing with that damned violin in his hands, and dear god, when did Doctor Watson become five foot seven of guitar-thrashing sex on legs?
You better pray that there’s another way out
And that mouse was suddenly much more feline and feral than anyone would have given her credit for.
You better pray that someone’s listening now
Her own gentle Tad had discovered some inner T-Rex, shouting a line out over the other voices:
(And doesn't wanna watch you drown)
And he looked so damned pleased with himself.
'Cause when you lie like the devil himself
No angel’s gonna hear your cry for help!
Everything was going so well, really, that when it went pear shaped, the whole thing managed to be a very well-shaped pear.
What Sally heard and saw was this.
At the end of the first chorus there was a crashing sound that was definitely not from the drum kit. It was, very definitely, a gunshot. On stage, everyone’s eyes darted stage right. Sherlock scowled while John’s guitar screeched to silence. Next thing, John bellowed “PLAY!” and the music that had almost sputtered to a halt crashed into life again, led by Tad’s drums. The DI was making ferocious eyes at Sherlock who dropped his bow, threw his violin at John and dashed off stage.
John Watson’s face went chalk white, his hands flashed out and, with a desperate effort, caught the violin. For a second he stood, holding it, obviously trembling.
Then he turned, placed the violin very, very, very gently on the stage in front of Molly’s keyboard and went back to his mic. Where he yelled “SING!” at the remains of his band, unslung the guitar, whacked it ungently into a stand and launched himself into the wings after Sherlock Holmes.
The DI looked trapped, eyes darting from the audience to the wings, and Molly looked startled, but then she heard Tad’s voice – not brilliant, it wasn’t his forte, but there he was, taking up the slack – hurtling into a verse.
I know you must really think it's funny,
You had everybody fooled in the end
He unfroze the other two, though, and by the next line Molly and Greg were throwing themselves into the verse as well, though Greg kept casting desperate looks into the wings.
But it's a little unassuming considering you knew me
I'm the only one that called you a friend
Then with a crazed whirl of limbs and an offstage crash, three brawling bodies smashed onto the stage. John Watson split away from the tangle of thrashing limbs first, and Sally could see the gun in his hand, which he rapidly disassembled (how did he know how to do that? Oh, that’s right, army doctor) and dropped at Greg’s feet before he threw himself back into the fray. Sherlock, in the meantime, was using some dirty street fighting techniques in an attempt to pry his assailant’s hands from his throat. John seemed to jump and drop his elbow into the back of the guys’ neck, and sent him reeling.
Sally noted that, for some reason, the crowd was cheering, roaring their approval. Especially those who were older and who had clearly come specifically for Gladstone’s Collar. Even though the ear plugs, someone nearby was bellowing with terrifying approval: “GET HIM JOHNNY, GET HIM! JUST LIKE THE OLD DAYS! KNOCK HIM ON HIS AAAAARRRSE JOHNNY!!!”
The reeling perp – no doubt the missing member of the terrorist cell – righted himself as he reached the DI and looked ready to take a hostage, but Greg simply stopped playing long enough to punch the man in the face, sending him, staggering, back into Sherlock’s arms, and then turned right back to keep singing the chorus.
Sherlock had smacked the perp in the temple with the heel of his hand just as John delivered a precision blow to the guy’s solar plexis. And then, without a word of discussion, in the most perfect teamwork, Sherlock and John between them grabbed the perp under each arm and by his trouser seat, hefted him, swung him, and on the count of three hurled the perp off the stage and into the bouncer zone.
Whereupon Sally and several of her neighbouring colleagues did their job and dropped to cuff him, while the audience went absolutely bugfuck nuts with savage glee.
She caught glimpses, as the government men arrived to take possession of this thoroughly bowed down jerk, of John and Sherlock nodding at each other. Sherlock picking up his bow and fetching his violin. John slinging his guitar back on and stepping up to the microphone.
Then, almost as though nothing had interrupted them, the two of them, manic grins on their faces, just belted into the chorus with the rest of the band, letting Molly and Greg continue to lead the vocals. John’s knuckles were bleeding. His white shirt now held an interesting blood spatter pattern. Sherlock had a split over his eye which he mopped up with his T-shirt, exposing a pale belly to the girls in the front row who screamed appreciatively, though their appreciation seemed to pass him by.
And god damn, if they just didn’t keep on playing until the end. John paused to suck on his knuckles a second, before looking at the audience, all two thousand of them, square in the eye, called out “Hey!” as a kind of ferocious greeting. The audience roared “HEY!” right back.
Then, god damn again, Dr Sex just said “Sorry about that. Bloody press” – and the audience laughed and cheered – and the very next second, he was right back at that guitar, shaking a screeching note of it at Tad, who thrashed into the drums and they just kept on playing their set. All of them, including her DI, following the doctor’s lead, determined to finish what they’d started. All of them grinning like crazy people and playing and dancing at each other like they did this all the time.
Sherlock Holmes was roaming the stage, sawing his violin at Taddy, who was drumming back like his life depended on it, like they were working together, or like they liked each other. Then Sherlock and the DI were playing together like it was fun, and the John was sharing Molly’s microphone, and she was laughing around the definitely not happy lyric, and they were all actually clearly having the absolute best time of their lives.
These scars I scratch, I tear are there
under my skin where you've always been
Thank you for reminding me to sin with a grin
Sally Donovan took a moment to wonder, really wonder, what kind of kid that doctor had been to write lyrics like that.
The violence of that song was suddenly stilled and Molly came in with a steady keyboard melody and Dr Sex was suddenly melancholy, and he and Sherlock did this thing where they seemed to share the lead vocal, the violin and guitar blending together unexpectedly but perfectly.
Call me a sinner, call me a saint
Tell me it's over I'll still love you the same
Call me your favourite, call me the worst
Tell me it's over I don't want you to hurt
It's all that I can say. So, I'll be on my way
The set was nearly over. Dr Sex (stop thinking of him as Dr Sex!) was thanking London for making them welcome, and thanking his new band, and he was pointing at the two cranky people at the barrier and then he was thanking Bean and Kelly for making it along, (and he had a funny tone, a kind of military snap and an undercurrent of both irritation and fondness) and the two had to grudgingly wave back or look bad to the adoring crowd.
Sally pulled out her earplugs at last, and overheard their muttered exchange.
“You have to admit, John still puts on a hell of a show.”
“At least this time no-one’s attacked the drummer with a bottle of rum.”
“And for our final song,” called out Dr S… John, “Here’s Copper Beaches.”
The drums led, the bass and keyboard followed, then the violin and the guitar and finally, John’s voice.
A seaside in rain and a hollow in the heart
And sand is a grave for rocks and bone
Sally had to admit, dark as Dr S… John Watson’s song seemed, this one was all threaded through with a very odd hope that made her think of Taddy. When they got to the chorus, every voice on stage joined, as though they’d been singing this together for twenty years.
And everyone’s bleeding and lonely and scared
And the world wouldn’t notice if anyone cared
But we do
And we’re too small to matter to oceans and skies
And our hearts are too broken to love after lies
But we do
The last note held, ended, and John thanked everyone again and said goodbye, and there were fist-bumps on stage, and Sally could have sworn that Sherlock Holmes shook hands with Tad, and proceeded to look at Dr S… John Watson like he was made of obscure and stimulating clues.
Sally, for her part, couldn’t help thinking that Sherlock Holmes might be right.
Then Sally made her way backstage to congratulate her DI (don’t look at his arse) and Molly the not so Mousey, and to be at least polite to the Fr… Sherlock, and to tell Taddy he’d been amazing.
She even remembered to call John Watson John instead of Dr Sex. The second time, anyway. Once he and the DI and Taddy and even Sherlock Bloody Holmes had stopped laughing.
Molly, Sally noted, didn’t laugh, just gave her a knowing grin. Later Molly leaned over to Sally and whispered her confession that she had actually taken to thinking of Greg as Detective Inspector Hot. This was five minutes before she actually called Greg ‘Detective Inspector Hot’ to his face, and instead of laughing, Greg and Molly made a dinner date.
Tad came up to her afterwards, sweaty and rank and just beaming like his component molecules were made of sunshine, and he said “We did it, Sal. Weren’t we great? God that was fantastic. Fantastic. Wasn’t it?”
Sally suddenly decided she didn’t care how weird awkward it felt, being laughed at by Dr Sex, thinking that the DI had a fantastic arse, or that she was now having trouble called Sherlock names, even in her own head, because he had treated Tad with some respect out there. Her Taddy had been given something incredible by that sociopath and his crazy doctor, even though she didn’t fully understand what it was or how it worked.
“You were, Tad,” said Sally in her warmest, most encouraging voice, “You were amazing.”