The rain is streaming down the glass of my window in lazy waves, as if cast against the frames sideways. I always imagined it was a giant dog slobbering our house from the outside. But that is utter nonsense of course, everyone knows that no living being has dared to tread the surface of the Earth for hundreds of years. Moreover I have only seen a dog in the books I am so fond of going through.
A large screen on the wall lights up and my mother frowns at me. I know she can see I haven't teleported anywhere for weeks. I see no point in social gatherings and haughty communications. On the other hand I don't care for relaxed thrashing against each other at the dance floor as well. There is no other socially acceptable way of spending free time for young people in our decadent and dying from boredom society. Books are out of fashion and mostly long forgotten. They say in the outer colonies people live differently, but since the last spaceship exploded together with the dock there is no way out from good old Mother Earth. We are doomed to finish the cycle of the humanity on this planet, hoping space colonists will learn from our mistakes.
"You've been reading all night again," is my verdict. I sigh. Guilty as charged. Dear mother, how else can it happen that I stand in the middle of the fluffy temperplast floor soaked wet in my overall? Of course I have been up all night, on deck of the "Duncan" admiring Lord Glenarvan from the distance and clutching the rails not to be washed over the board. My skin is still goose-bumped after the steely tongues of the winds tore at it. My eyes are still sore with the tears of happiness I shed when Captain Grant was found on a desert island. I only got back because I – so to say – turned over the last page of the book. And I am itching all over to send my dearest progenitress to seven hells and devour the next book. I feel that all my lifetime will be not enough to read all the worthy books written in the centuries past. My family thinks I am mad, spending time among the fictional characters, speaking of places that no longer exist and things that haven't been used for generations, and I think they are as insane, consciously preferring the artificially conditioned air of our houses to cool winds and bright sun of the books.
My mother begins ranting, I hardly listen, shedding my overall in haste and drawing another, crisply clean one on. One phrase catches my attention abruptly, she cries "Remember what happened to your great-uncle Horatio!"
Oh, yes, that one. I bitterly regret I was too small to remember the man himself. He went into a book one day when I was barely two and has never been seen since. I don't condescend to mention to my mother that I am planning to do the same in fact. I just haven't found the right book yet. The scraps of information I managed to find about book portals hint that if the book is just right for you – the characters will be able to see you – and accept you as one of them.
I don't want to argue with my mother, I know that I am much too tired to go on reading, but this is more than I can bear – the snakeskin rustle of the videocomm, the constantly gaining pitch shouts of my mother, the steady sloshing of the acid rain on my windows – all of it winding and straining and crushing on me in a wave of sounds that is creeping me out of my skin. I don't want to be here anymore. So I decide to sleep in the book and jump in the portal, my mother's words still hanging in the midair.
Floating in the subspace of the beginning of all the books in the world I lazily think that maybe reading was forgotten on purpose. Maybe people were afraid when the book portal was first created – a mind-blowing way to read a book in the essence – by simply living in the world where the plot was happening, with all the alterations, sequels and screen versions tightly interwoven together to produce the single environment that is emotionally closest to the author's initial intention. There were no limits in these worlds, you could wander along the plot – or stray off the road on purpose and explore. No one took any notice of you, could hear or see you – but everything was palpable. You stroll in the street fight and get killed. Maybe this was what scared people most. The only thing people these days still held dear was their own life. With powerful medicine to ensure the life was very, very long – it was unthinkable to mess with something that could end your existence prematurely.
Books align in front of me in the shimmering coil of the matrix. The infinite ever-shifting tapestry with a scattering of bookmarked highlighted dots – those are the books I have already read, some for several times. I wave the obedient lines of stories away and slide towards the random choice. I have trusted the random of my book portal for a very long time. This time it offers me a book with a seemingly never-ending list of authors, this is something that has a multitude of sequels and alterations, additions and fan-written versions. I know I will see the version that possesses all the important features of the original book but enriched and empowered with all the best from all the stories written by people who sincerely adored the canon. The very best carved out of layers of fantasy with the core of the story intact. I don't even care about the book name – it has lots of them as well, so I don't bother reading any.
I am thrown out of subspace in the middle of a busy street. I manage to scramble to the pavement before one of the ancient petroleum-fueled cars knocks me off. Slight headache is distracting and annoying, but that is the price for almost 40 hours without sleep and two different books accessed in rapid succession. I know I have to sleep before fully immersing in the plot but my curiosity burns brighter and brighter and I am already too much engrossed in staring at the city I turned out to be in. It is old to my twenty-third century eyes and at the same time seems to be constantly changing and evolving, new multi-storied buildings growing near tiny ancient churches like strong big brothers protecting their fragile little sisters. Cold drops of the not-quite-rain-yet refresh me and allay the seemingly irresistible urge to sleep so I wander off through the crowded streets and then go astray to the green of a small park. I feel the plot is tugging at my heartstrings, the story is starting there now.
I plop tiredly on the bench near two men conversing over plastic cups of some strongly-smelling hot liquid. I suppose it should be coffee or tea, seems right for this epoch from my solid background of books I have been devouring for the past ten years. One of the men, Stamford, is plump and wearing glasses, chatting away happily. I guess he is glad to see an old pal. The second one, Watson, is more complicated, the lines carved in his attractive but worn out face speaking volumes of his eventful past. He is toying with a cane nervously so I realize he must have a limp. Both seem to be medics. They are talking about sharing a flat which is a strange notion for me, having spent practically all my conscious life in my own house like the rest of my degrading society, communicating only via videocomms.
Stray shards of quivering sunlight burst through the shroud of clouds. I always feel so alive in books. I felt an intruder at first, being invisible but able to watch even the most intimate moments of the plot. I still blush remembering the time when I read "Lady Chatterley's lover". But now I feel simply inside a story that slowly unfolds in front of my bleary eyes. The small details get to me most of all: the tired furrow between Dr. Watson's brows and the unconscious way he stretches his numb fingers, the careless fold of Stamford's collar and charming dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. When Stamford offers Dr. Watson to introduce him to a friend who can potentially be his flatmate as well I feel the familiar tinge running along my spine. The story reigns in and I am ready to ride. Or so I believe strolling behind two men to the hospital building.
It's pleasantly cool inside St. Bartholomew Hospital and my curiosity is spiking all the time we move along quiet corridors. I feel strange tenderness towards Dr. Watson following closely in his footsteps and watching silky strands of his short hair that has such strange color that I can't define it for myself although I try during the whole walk. It looks like an exquisite precious alloy of silver, gold and brass. I like him despite the haunted restrained look in his eyes, despite the feeling of despondency that radiates from him like from a caged bird with cut wings. I have read many books and I am sure he will find his wings again – or someone will give them back to him. The more you read, the more you can predict from the first pages.
I realize how unreasonably self-assured I am and how you should never think too much of your own predicting capabilities when we step into one of the laboratories. I rather liked fluffy Stamford and was charmed with intriguing Dr. Watson but nothing could prepare me for the hailstorm of emotions I am thrown into when I see that man for the first time. I can't even remember what caught my stare first – ethereal shimmer of pale skin, dangerous planes of outrageous cheekbones, audacious springs of dark curls, a seemingly fragile curve of a strong wrist, uncertain of its own color jasper of mischievous eyes... I just force myself not to slide down the wall and watch, absorb him, breathe him in. And I see Dr. Watson watching him as attentively, there is obvious chemistry between the two of these men promising a complicated and incredibly close relationship.
Listening to the talk of three men in front of me makes things even worse. This man is a genius apparently. Maybe he reads other people's minds, I wonder. But this book doesn't seem to be the one about magic, it doesn't feel like that weird sort of electricity in the air. I listen and marvel at him and then suddenly I feel his eyes on me. He sees me over his shoulder.
"So how about that coffee, Molly? Black, two sugars." he turned to me and squinted slightly.
It wasn't even a shock, I just thought my exhausted body was playing tricks on me. I never expected to really find a book in which I would be happy to stay – and for sure never thought it can be a book I barely started reading. But the icy-blue (at the moment) eyes were probing me with merciless precision and there was no way he was staring at someone else. And if he was able to see me – that meant I had already subconsciously agreed to the book request to stay in it.
I close the door behind me trying to breathe, the air suddenly seems overloaded with smells and tastes. I realize my overall is gone and I am now wearing a strange match of shirt and trousers and a white smock. There is a disgustingly tasting substance slathered across my lips, I wipe it off absent-mindedly and then try to find something to wipe the startlingly red mess from my fingers with. Some instincts kick in suddenly, which is I suppose a part of growing into this world, by trial and error I find a room with a sink and a coffee machine and spend some humiliating moments trying to open the tap and then to make a cup of coffee. I am shaking all over and I suppose must look rather sheepish but the wish to see him again is overwhelming so I gather my willpower and stumble back to the lab.
"What happened to the lipstick?" he drops, his words seething through my poor heart like drops of hot molten lead through ice, and when I scramble for words and painstakingly mutter something in reply, he adds, "I thought it was a big improvement, the mouth's too small now."
I try to mumble something again, feeling hot flush of embarrassment conquering the inches of my face and run for cover. Ragged breaths like sobs hurt like hell, I can't say if I am crying or just feel overwhelmed. Two things are perfectly clear at the moment. I am staying in this book and I am doomed with unrequited feelings. But help me Gods I will see where this plot takes me.
Time flies by rather quickly I find. I am not sure if I was placed in an already existing character or just fit in a suitable lacuna in the cloth of the story but I see my old self when I look in the mirror. At the same time I find some new exciting knowledge under my belt, doing post-mortems is unexpectedly fulfilling.
My life in London is marvellous if only because I enjoy every second of my being here. In a short span of several months I manage to almost completely forget my previous life. This book is demanding, it fills you with emotions every waking moment so there is no time to miss the world without future drenched in acid rains. Soon I start to even find some masochistic pleasure in loving without reciprocity.
His name is Sherlock Holmes, he is the only consulting detective in the world of this book and he pays me no more attention than a clean scalpel. He is brilliant and unbearable, arrogant and charming, he takes away John's limp and gives him back the wings in his heart and the smile that lights his whole face up.
I don't know what I am hoping for, carefully preparing a Christmas gift for him and dressing for the occasion. He crucifies me in front of everyone, makes a post-mortem of my loving and caring heart. I feel I deserve it, I could see he feels nothing for me so I was just asking for trouble. I flee to the mortuary, this place has suddenly become my fortress, all the deceased my shields, I can hide behind any one of them and his attention will be distracted at once, although often not for long. And they need me there anyway, Sherlock and that condescending brother of his. There is a body of a woman – but then I understand this must be The Woman as I note the strange expression of Sherlock's eyes and a suddenly tense line of his lips. When they leave I weep, for the first time in this world, I didn't cry even after Jim used me to get closer to Sherlock – it seems that it was only days ago but I realize months have passed. I curl on the floor and cry bitterly, I think of my life before I met him, of all the adventures I witnessed and all the love stories I followed and I don't understand why I agreed to stay in this book if I am so unhappy here.
"Don't cry, my little girl," I hear suddenly and jump up to my feet, sniffing and rubbing my eyes bashfully. A tall man stands in front of me, his face is young if you don't count the crow's feet in the corners of his dark brown eyes, but his long tied back hair is what one calls gray, only in his case it's blindingly white. He is smiling at me, and this tender and loving smile shatter something inside me completely. I burst into tears again and he wraps his arms around me, whispering sweet nothings in my ear until I am worn out and my eyes are puffy and dry again.
"Who are you?" I pull away, embarrassed now by my weakness. Dark warm eyes envelop me with affection and caring, it is almost too much, "Why, your uncle Horatio, of course," he rumbles comfortingly. Then understanding dawns in his eyes, "You don't remember me, my girl," he sighs and pats me on the arm, "you were too young when I found my book."
Shock consumes me and at first I can only stare, my jaw dropped inelegantly. Then I stutter, "But, but, but…" He smiles encouragingly, "Go on, dear heart." I gulp some air and fire away, "but I thought you can't leave the book once the characters started seeing you."
Uncle Horatio (I can't doubt it, it is too much for the moment) becomes serious, "Who told you that nonsense, girl? Of course you can leave, you can place a bookmark and return, you can explore other books if you wish." He saddens a little, "You just have no wish to do that." And I understand what he means. But still there is so much I don't quite grasp, "So how did you find me? And was this the same book you stayed in? Why didn't you ever return to our world if you can actually leave a book?"
"Oh, would you like to do that?" he enquires mockingly, "I see no point in going there now. But I felt you had some of the writers' blood and you will follow your uncle in the world of books. So once I settled I started working on a scanner. It's not simple, mind you, to find a drop of familiar blood in myriads of books. But a modest genius such as I am and one of the greatest minds ever created by writers such as Professor Challenger managed to unite our attempts and we did it!"
"What took you so long, uncle?" it's not me speaking, it's my frustration and pent-up loneliness rush past my lips before I can stop my mouth. Uncle Horatio smiles at me again, this time for some reason he looks… proud? "My girl, it's all your fault for being such a quick reader. I never managed to catch up with you, once I succeeded in finding the necessary book you were already gone. I was always a couple of steps behind. And here you stayed so I had some time to drag my old bones over here and explain everything to you. You see, not everyone is capable of remaining in the book. You need to be a direct ancestor of someone who took part in writing it."
I frown, "But centuries have passed. Certainly most people on Earth have a drop of writers' blood in their veins by now." My uncle shrugs, "I am still not sure how it works, I must confess. I dedicated my life to this research but still there are blank spots. For example it's only my theory that we can return to Earth from books, I couldn't bring myself to test this hypothesis. But as you can see I proved the hypothesis that you can leave the book and return, either to the beginning or the bookmarked place. Still, dear heart, that isn't the most amazing thing." He grins so boyishly that I smile a little in spite of myself and continues, "The most unimaginable thing, my girl, is that we can take characters out of the books. We can travel with our favourite characters and show them other worlds much as we could see them ourselves! Our gift can be shared with the characters."
"Characters?" a familiar voice sounded like to me like a blown grenade in the emptiness of the mortuary. I froze, unable to comprehend what was going on. I thought Sherlock went away after his talk with Mycroft. But apparently he must have sneaked back. My uncle briskly turned to Sherlock and tutted, "Eavesdropping is not very polite, young man."
I was enraged and terrified at the same time and my uncle just looked infuriatingly smug, as if he knew Sherlock crept behind our backs in the mortuary and was sitting there all the time we had been speaking. Sherlock faintly smelt of tobacco so I guessed Mycroft was trying to sweeten the blow which the death of The Woman must have been to his little brother.
I surprised myself by saying, "Sherlock doesn't know what 'polite' actually means, uncle." I felt his eyes on my neck, burning like live embers. A pregnant pause ensued, during which I turned slightly to observe Sherlock out of the corner of my eye. He was contemplating me and my uncle in turns, then his eyes widened and he murmured, "No, you both aren't mad. And you aren't lying, I can see you were both telling the truth. Molly chews on her lower lip when she is lying and blushes up to her forehead when she hears lies," I gasp, unconsciously placing fingers on my mouth, and he goes on bitterly, "But it can't possibly be true, I can't be a fictional - " he spat this word out as if it burnt his palate, "- character in a book."
"Sometimes," my uncle Horatio kindly obliged, "when you have ruled out the impossible, the only correct answer is what remains." He hemmed, "And often it seems impossible as well."
Sherlock took a step back and I finally made myself look him in the eye. It was devastating to see this genius, always so self-assured, crumble in uncertainty. He looked lost and scared, and it was killing me that he seemed to be frightened of me. At last he simply turned and left in an uncertain gait.
My uncle departs the next day, leaving me distressed and still unbelieving that I can follow him out of the book that has become my life. He tells me where to find him and I spend several sleepless nights wondering if I should go and see him or stay and try to explain things to Sherlock.
He has been unusually depressed for some time after our unfortunate Christmas as I learn from John. I seem to be the only one who knows the true reason for Sherlock's being that much upset – John thinks it is because of The Woman's death. I don't see Sherlock for some time until he comes to me one day, unexpectedly, alone. I tremble watching his gloomy face, iron-strong decisiveness clouding his darkened eyes. He says, "Tell me more." And I am absolutely sure what exactly he desires to know.
The window is thrown completely open and it's relatively cold in the room. This isn't my laboratory but I know the owner won't be here for another hour or so and the fact that I have stolen the keys doesn't weigh on my conscience. I am shrinking into a corner, no one must see me from the street. Although I realize no one can actually see me here in this room on the first floor, because of a small building across the street blocking the view, but I still feel the need to hide. It's only a couple of meters from the window-sill to the rough pavement beneath. A small hands-free is stuck in my ear and an even smaller microphone is hidden under Sherlock's collar. I can hear his shaking voice, he is saying goodbye to John.
I try to brace myself, prepare for the inevitable. I tell myself it will all be over soon, but that is a lie. It is only the beginning. I just have to believe Sherlock has calculated everything correctly – but he is a genius and this is simple physics, what can possibly go wrong? This is a simple matter of the difference of heights from which two bodies are falling and the difference of weights and thus the difference of velocities that needs to be balanced. But there are too many unknown elements in this equation and although my uncle tried to persuade me that everything can be mended I still doubt. Only my stubbornness keeps me going. I remember Sherlock's words last night, he said "I think I am going to die" and I thought, no way, you're not, not if I can help it.
I hear a tiny click of Sherlock's phone falling to the roof and slide closer to the window, no longer trying to hide. If this doesn't work then it won't matter if anyone sees me now. I hear John calling Sherlock's name from far across the street but I can't see him as a small building is looming in my sight.
Sherlock breathes, "Now," and I jump. We both jump, only he is falling freely, flailing his arms, and I am accelerating before jumping, stretching my arms forward, searching blindly. I feel the rough wool of his coat and dig my nails in it, tearing both of us from the book. The sinister blocks of darkened pavement slide before my eyes and it's suddenly the silence of the subspace ringing in my ears instead of street noises. I can feel blood seeping from under my nails, brought by the sheer strain I applied to hold him and not let him go. I am calming down a little, pulse still drumming across my scull. I carefully lift another arm and hold Sherlock by the hand, then I dare to let go of his coat at last. We float together in the neon matrix of the beginning of all the books in the world. I look him in the eye and see, shuddering, that he has completely forgotten about me and everything else, he drinks in the new information, estimates the prospective, calculates what worlds lie ahead of him in the myriads of books obediently lining in front of us. I sigh and drag him along to the book where my uncle promised to wait for us.
I have read 'The Poison Belt' previously and my old bookmark was still there, almost at the very end of the book, when the belt of ether was already passed but people of the Earth were still unconscious. I returned there last night, read till the very end and left the bookmark again. This is where we now enter, Sherlock curios as a child, twisting his head round and devouring details with eagerness. My uncle and Professor Challenger greet us at the threshold, usher us in. While my uncle treats my hand, two geniuses get acquainted and at once chaos breaks loose. They immediately quarrel and I watch them, mesmerized, from the room adjacent to the laboratory where they engage in the most enthusiastic shouting. Professor is so tall that he is probably the first person ever to look down at Sherlock, his black spade-like beard dominates the local landscape like a stray storm cloud. Not to mention that the eternally too thin Sherlock is practically invisible near the barrel-chested Professor. But shout - they both know how to. I see Sherlock ruffle his hair in dismay and feel something slowly and painfully stretch in my heart, almost to the point of tearing.
My uncle watches me instead of the battle of brilliant minds. He murmurs carefully, "You haven't told him." And it is not a question. I swallow nervously, I really haven't even given it a second thought. Sherlock has no idea that I will have to go back to the very beginning of his book alone. This is one of the hypotheses my uncle proved along the way when he was looking for me in the first place and he warned me about that when I told him about my plan to save Sherlock. The thing is – if you leave a bookmark when you get out of the book with a character – you can only return together to the very moment you left (as you see, that's not an option) – or you can return to the beginning of the book – alone. And later if the character dies according to the plot, there occurs an empty space that can be filled – and this is where you can bring the character in again.
I try not to think about it, grasping for straws to distract myself from the immediate dreadful future that lies ahead. I try but I fail miserably. So I get up from the couch and determinedly turn my back on the two arguing geniuses, try to stop listening to the clash of Sherlock's velvety baritone with the booming bass of the Professor. My uncle looks at me with gentle sorrow. "How long?" I ask, "How much time will pass here, in this book? Almost a year as well?"
Uncle shakes his head, "It's impossible to predict. Time is relative if you move between the books as often as you did in the past few days. As far as my experience is concerned you may walk right back a minute after you leave." He hugs me tightly and whispers, "My poor dear little girl, how much you love him." I struggle not to cry, nod to my uncle and walk out of the book.
I am careful not to go through the park where Mike and John sit on the bench with their steaming cups of coffee. The story winds in the same direction only now I know where my place is and as this book is my home now, I don't have the advantage of invisibility even at first. And the feelings are even more intense when I see Sherlock in the lab this time. I feel that I simply can't do this, can't go on the whole year again, meet Jim again, lie to everyone – because I know what I have to say exactly, after all I have already said this once – but I have to, I must, I swore to myself I will never let Sherlock down.
It is ironic that this is exactly what I am going to do.
The window is thrown completely open and it's relatively cold in the room. This isn't my laboratory but I know the owner won't be here for another hour or so and the fact that I have stolen the keys doesn't weigh on my conscience. I am shrinking into a corner, no one must see me from the street. Although I realize no one can actually see me here in this room on the first floor, because of a small building across the street blocking the view, but I still feel the need to hide. It's only a couple of meters from the window-sill to the rough pavement beneath. A small hands-free is stuck in my ear and an even smaller microphone is hidden under Sherlock's corner. I can hear his shaking voice, he is saying goodbye to John.
I hear a tiny click of Sherlock's phone falling to the roof and slide further from the window, down on the floor. I hear John calling Sherlock's name from far across the street.
Sherlock breathes, "Now," and he is falling. And I am hiding my face in my crumpled smock and howling like a shot she-wolf. I don't hear the thump of his body on the pavement, I feel it with all my body, I shatter in pieces and my poor heart is bleeding because I have just allowed the man I love to die. I lied to him to save him. I feel I am losing my mind and there is nothing left to do but to create a bookmark and go. But I can't. I need to wait for a moment when I will be with Sherlock's body alone. I try to calm a little but I don't need to wipe my tears.
When several hours later I find myself alone with him on a slab in the mortuary I finally leave a bookmark and rush out of the book.
I hurry to find "The Poison Belt" again and slide in by my last bookmark. I feel the subspace give way to the warm air of the room and I just stand there with my eyes closed tightly, breathing in the smell of old leather-bound books and assorted chemicals. I dread opening my eyes, I am so much afraid something has gone wrong and I won't see him, alive and well, I will never see him again because I know I will never muster the courage to start the book from the beginning again, I will never be able to look in his eyes after I let him fall.
I listen to the echoing across the room deep rumble of Professor Challenger and my hope vanes. But then at last I hear a spiteful sharp comment in the oh-so-familiar low-pitched voice and I manage to raise my eyelashes. There he stands, so immersed in the argument, so concentrated, so self-assured that it hurts, so beautiful that it's hard to believe – but alive and well and it is all worth it. And I need to bring him back to fill the void, to allow the plot to go on – and then go lie down for a month or so.
"Sherlock," I stammer, "we have to go back now." He waves me away like an annoying fly, "Nonsense, we've only arrived, what, an hour ago?"
"Two hours," my uncle supplies helpfully, his eyes two wells of understanding. I don't need his pity now, I am starting to fume. It takes only another annoyed glance from Sherlock for me to finally burst into shouting myself. I feel the respectful gaze of the Professor, it seems my voice is shaking the walls. I never actually pronounce the words "a whole year" – but my tirade is full of "John", "assassins" and "pompous ass like you". And "I know I've never counted" as well. And all this time his eyes are on me and I start to realize, belatedly, that I should have at least checked how I look because now it seems obvious that he can read all the lines and shadows on my face and connect the dots. So he does. I can see the struggle in his eyes. He is desperately searching for a clue, a way to show how he feels, it's so strange to see him this vulnerable. At last he simply repeats what he has already told me once, ages ago it seems, "You're wrong, you know. You've always counted." And once again it seems just enough.
When I stand in the mortuary with Sherlock sitting up on the slab in front of me I finally relax. He dresses himself with an indecipherable expression on his face. And the story goes on. It will all be fine. Sherlock will fix everything, I am sure. And then, when peaceful times come I will take him to whatever book he likes. But there are many pages to be turned in this book first.
I honestly thought there was nothing more I can say here - but then I got a crazy idea and decided to give it a try. Hope I won't disappoint you.
Please, please, please comment!
I was walking determinedly along Baker Street in the hazy summer twilight. I was sick and tired of lying and pretending and nothing was going to stop me now. I was already raising a hand to knock on the door when one pale hand closed over my mouth muffling an involuntary cry of anguish and the other snaked around my waist practically lifting me from the steps. In a matter of seconds I was shoved in a sleek black car that started moving even before Sherlock slammed the door shut.
"It won't stop me, you know," I hissed. The Holmes brothers, Sherlock a little disheveled by my silent but furious resistance, stared at me disapprovingly. "Molly, he mustn't know," Sherlock said, "not just yet". It hurt me to see how much thinner he became, even though that didn't seem possible, and how deep were the shadows under his feverishly lit eyes. It hurt me as much to see John sink deeper and deeper in the pool of desperation each day.
"Please, Sherlock," I begged, the same way I had been begging for the last six months since the day Sherlock had fallen, "please, he deserves to know. And you have already found all the assassins and they are not a threat any more, why are you still hiding?"
The elder Holmes lifted a brow at me, almost frustrated, "Technically Sebastian Moran is still at large, and thus still can cause damage to John." I frowned back, "Your men are following him day and night, how can he be dangerous when he can be captured at any moment?"
Sherlock rubbed his cheek looking despondent, "Enough, Molly. You are not helping, you know." I swallowed that like many times before I had to do in order not to choke on hurtful things the man I loved threw my way. I felt that I was on the verge of giving up. But the unfairness of this whole situation was cutting deeply on my entire being. I knew exactly how John felt, I myself was in his shoes in those few hours Sherlock's dead body was lying in front of me and I was tortured by not being sure if I managed to save him or ensured his death.
The car stops near St. Bart's. Sherlock tries to smile at me and it looks terribly false. But I appreciate the effort, he has been showing me more of his human nature lately. His death is depressing all of us, the small club of three who know Sherlock survived the fall, an even smaller club of two who know exactly how that happened – Mycroft gracefully accepted the version about wonderfully strong bones, injected with certain painkillers veins and well-stuffed coat of his little brother, although I think someday he will be pressing Sherlock till he learns the truth. I leave the car, temporarily calmed again by his presence, by the reality of iron fingers on my wrist, by the unchangingly vivacious eyes that now look at the world from under surprisingly blond and almost straight locks.
Calmness starts leaking away drop by drop as the car drives away. I never know how much time will pass till I see him again. I hate myself for loving him so much, hopelessly and with abandon. But there is nothing I can do about it so I just have to dedicate myself to helping him in any way I can.
Lost in unhappy thoughts about my unrequited love I am absolutely unprepared for the body awaiting my examination at the mortuary this time. It is a young girl, rather pretty, slim and long-haired. The cause of death is blood loss. And there would be nothing strange about that if not for two small punctures at the side of her throat right against the jugular vein. Such a wound should have bled profusely but there is not a sign of red on her skin around the wounds. I feel my heart beat slower and slower under the heavy lid of horror. I know exactly who – or rather what – could have killed this girl. But there is no place for such a creature in the world of this book. Which can mean lots of things – and none of those signify a pleasant perspective.
I think I should have called Sherlock at once. But the complex mix of feelings that possessed me at the moment somehow also included shame and it stopped me from grabbing my phone straight away. It's difficult to explain but I felt guilty for any possible outer invasion in this world – because I myself in the end was just an outsider who was trying to imitate the locals not to stand out too much. My disconcerting feelings were also caused by the vague idea that if I was right and it really was a vampire introduced into the world of this book from another one then it could only mean that there was someone who helped the creature leave its book and enter this one. Someone who was reading the books like me and my uncle. Someone who had learned about the possibility to extract characters but used it to distort the plot and bring evil that wasn't supposed to be here in the first place.
So I leave the book, carefully placing a bookmark – every time I do that after Sherlock's return I re-check my bookmark several times before finally leaving, it's a sort of nervous tick really but I am still terrified of what I have done and what I would need to do if the plan failed, so I need to make sure I return to the moment I left and nothing goes wrong.
It's really quiet in the very end of the "Poison Belt" where I usually come to see my uncle. It's a warm and sunny afternoon, filled with languid cheeriness of birds and fragrance of flowers. Very often as I enter I see my uncle reading on a garden bench surrounded by tall ancient oaks. This time the familiar alley is empty. As well as the hall of the house and, unsuspectedly, the lab. It occurs to me that it's rather eerily quiet this time, I can't remember it to be that calm before. Dread starts chilling my skin as Professor Challenger walks in the room. He is unnaturally unruffled himself, no wild gestures and cheerful shouts at my sight as it used to happen previously. He doesn't recognize me, I realize belatedly as he asks, "Can I help you?"
"Where is uncle Horatio?" I ask in bewilderment and he shakes his head slowly, "I don't have an uncle, dear lady, there must be some mistake here." Then he turns away from me and I feel like fainting, because there are two red inflamed punctures at the side of his throat. I stumble outside, trying to comprehend and feeling my brain can't handle this. One thing is obvious still, my uncle was somehow removed from this book in such a way the plot went along from the very beginning without him in the way it was supposed to. Well, except for one small addition.
When I leave the book I do something I haven't done for a very long time. I turn my back on the endless coil of fiction and see the portal leading back to the real world. It is just sitting there placidly and for a very long moment I contemplate the possibility to enter it and return to the life I once considered normal. Maybe this will cure my heart that breaks over and over again from the hopelessness of my love. Maybe I will be able to read other books as I once had. But if there is one thing I learnt from Sherlock – it's curiosity, and if there is one thing I learnt from John – it's bravery. So I pull on the gossamer thread of my bookmark and soon find myself in the mortuary with the bloodless body of the vampire's victim on the slab in front of me.
I am still reluctant to call Sherlock. There are few things in life that hurt more than his cold-blooded mocks, so I can't just tell him that it looks like there is a vampire in London. I need some proof so I keep wasting time. A series of tests I run are a little bit unusual for a standard post-mortem, but I manage to find what I am looking for. It's a slight trace of saliva in the coagulated blood filling the wound that contains the DNA the likes of which I have never seen of thought possible to exist before. There is also an extremely tiny chip of tooth enamel in the skin layer. It gets me in sad little hysterics – do vampires even have caries or does this one just have some sort of enamel weakness? Maybe the author of that book thought it possible, I guess.
When I finally call Sherlock he snaps at me, obviously he is on to something and he thinks I just miss him and want to check how things are going on. He is in some noisy place and his voice is strained and irritated, "Molly, whatever it is it will have to wait. Moran behaves extremely suspiciously, I need to make sure he doesn't get away from the surveillance and my brother's men are just idiots."
I try not to stumble upon the long string of words scurrying from my lips, but it seems he still pays no heed to what I am telling him. I avoid the very word 'vampire' as carefully as possible and soon feel desperate because it seems to me Sherlock just doesn't pay any attention to me anymore. I have to stop at last to draw a convulsive breath and then he speaks – and I can clearly see in my head how his smile is lazily curling the very edges of his lips– he says, "You know, the way you have been skirting around the term 'vampire' is absolutely adorable but I'd prefer you could just say this one word instead of numerous useless sentences. As usual I don't think you are crazy but still I need to see the body before I agree with your conclusion. Wait for me in the lab." And he's off and I can only smile weakly and look at the screen of my phone with no doubt stupidly happily lit eyes.
It takes Sherlock a couple of hours to get to the lab. I hardly recognize him myself when he enters, subtle make-up makes him look twenty years older than he really is, and there are even gray strands of hair in his blond mane. I timidly show him the body and the evidence I gathered trying not to look hopeful of his praise. Anyway I am not getting any as after several minutes he spends whirling around the body with his magnifying glass he looks at me condescendingly and shakes his head in disapproval, "As usual, Molly, you managed to overlook everything that is of real importance here." I drop my eyes in embarrassment trying to think of something to say but he actually doesn't listen. He is over at the microscope somehow managing to look there with one eye and to keep another on his phone where he is taping something at a breathtaking speed. He keeps talking, seemingly at no one in particular, but that makes me feel even worse, because I am just a replacement – and a really poor one – for John. It's him Sherlock wishes to see nearby, not me.
"There are practically no hematomas on the body which could mean the girl didn't try to resist. You also didn't find any trace of drugs with which she could have been immobilized. But there is some dirt under the nails and her fingers are curled in the way that clearly shows she had been clawing at the ground where she lay. Which allows me to think she was resisting but barely could move, so perhaps was already too weak or, taking into consideration the vampire hypothesis, under some kind of hypnosis. What is even more interesting however is that the soil with these chemical elements can't be found anywhere in London, and in fact anywhere on the British Isles at all. And as I just used Mycroft's access to get into the customs database," he shows me an Excel file open on his phone, "I found an interesting fact that 60 kilos of soil were imported two days ago, supposedly for horticultural purposes, from Romania. But no one would import such little amount of soil be it ever so fertile from that far away."
I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and can't help but murmur, "Count Dracula then." Sherlock looks at me fixedly for a moment and nods. I ask curiously, "Do you believe in vampires at all?" Sherlock hems thoughtfully, "No, in fact, I don't', or rather I didn't, but after everything you've done for me and with me my horizon has broadened most unpleasantly. I can say it's disturbing when all the evidence points at a carious vampire but – why not? And," he stops me with a gesture seeing I have already opened my mouth for another question, "yes, I think vampires can have caries. Theoretically – as lots of websites specify – the vampire stays in the same state forever, is preserved in the state in which it has been in the last moments of its life. I don't think Count had lots of opportunities to maintain oral hygiene in medieval Romania."
With that he grabs his coat and is almost out of the lab when I catch him by the shoulder, "Where are you going?". He is visibly irritated but deigns to reply, "I have the address where the soil was delivered to. I need to take a quick peek before alarming Mycroft and calling for reinforcements."
"But what about my uncle? Will you help me to find him?" Sherlock suddenly looks very strange as if he'd rather walk away than answer these questions. His lips move as if he wants to say something but then he bits heavily on his lower lip. I can see the traces of his teeth on his lip when he speaks again at last, "I think we will find your uncle when we find out who masterminded this whole atrocity." I pick up my jacket from the chair and glance at sullen Sherlock with resolution, "I am coming with you."
Sherlock may have grudgingly agreed to take me with him but there is no way he is making it easy for me to keep up. He is striding along the dark alley with his unbuttoned coat billowing behind his back outrageously and doesn’t look back even once to check if I am still there. I don’t know where to look – at his back so that I wouldn’t get lost if he suddenly takes a turn – or on the ground as I have already stumbled several times. This alley seems very purposefully gloomy with almost all the street lamps broken. There is no light coming from the windows of the multi-storey building on the opposite side of the alley, it seems to be a warehouse of some sorts. The side of the street where we are briskly walking is bordering on a park. At least I think it is a park until Sherlock stops abruptly and silently beckons me to come closer.
Scattered light from the remaining street lamps allows me to realize two things. One is that the park in fact is a cemetery which surprisingly doesn’t scare me, I remember all too well what we are looking for and the setting seems appropriate if somewhat clichéd. The other thing I can see in the shadows of overgrown bushes at the end of the cemetery is a two-storey house with turrets on the corners that only an extremely flippant architect could have designed. A window in the attic is lit but the remaining part of the house is quiet and tightly wrapped in shadows.
Before I can say or ask anything Sherlock rests a foot on a knot in a trunk of one of the trees growing approximately opposite the window, then throws up his slim but incredibly strong arm and pulls himself up with seeming ease, straddling a thick branch. I gasp a little, his boyish grace of movements looks so odd with the elderly make-up still lingering on his face. He is moving slowly toward the end of the branch, balancing precariously but contriving not to cause any heedless disturbance in the reticular crown of the tree. I feel my neck is starting to get cramped but still stubbornly stare upwards, trying not to miss any changes in Sherlock’s expression. I know he will not shout down about what he sees, so it’s the only way to understand what’s going on. And when his face suddenly goes stiff and his eyes open so wide they seem to engulf his whole face I can see something is very, very wrong.
For a very long minute Sherlock is still, staring in the window and I am so intensely scared and curious at once as I have probably never been before in my life. Then a shudder goes through his muscles and his eyes drift closed, his fingers still clutching the branch under him tightly. Sherlock opens his eyes and his face is alive with emotion again, he looks annoyed and tired and mildly amused for some reason and I can hear his breathy whisper, “Does no one really dies at all these days?”
Cold metal touches my temple suddenly and when I instinctively jerk a strong arm winds around my throat. It’s done extremely professionally I think in pure terror, I still can breathe but however I strain my cords, no sound comes out. My eyes for some reason get fixed on the arm, slightly tanned and covered in faded coarse brown hair. I hear movement above and try to change the angle of my head to see what Sherlock is doing but I can’t move.
“Moran,” I hear Sherlock snarl and with an abrupt thud he lands in my field of vision at last. He is positively furious, probably at himself for losing his vigilance, or at me for being not only a burden but now an obvious hindrance.
“Isn’t it rather beneath you to be hiding behind a hostage?” Sherlock speaks coldly through his clenched teeth. Moran laughs unpleasantly somewhere behind my right ear sending flocks of shivers along my scalp, “Move,” and he apparently nods in the general direction of the house as far as I can judge by a slight change of the level I am being held at. Moran growls, “Hands behind your back and go.” Sherlock tightens his lips, “Well, doesn’t seem like I have much choice.” He crosses his wrists on the small of his back and walks leisurely towards the house. Moran is dragging me behind Sherlock. I try to move as slowly as I can to gain more time for Sherlock to think of something, I am sure he can think of something, but Moran handles me like a paper doll and my stalling seems to have no impact on the rough efficiency that accentuates every movement of his. Gradually warming gun muzzle indented in my temple seems to be pulsing against my skin. I feel dizzy from fear but at the same time keep detachedly watching everything we pass on our way.
When Sherlock stands in front of the door deliberately not moving his hands from behind his back Moran barks, “Open it. Slowly.” Sherlock carefully unfolds one arm and touches the door handle with the tips of his fingers. He swings the door inside and I can see a dark hall extending inwards. Moran prompts, “Light switch on the left wall, then hands behind your back again.” Sherlock obeys silently and we go on through the hall past several closed doors and up the stairs. At the top of the stairs Sherlock stops abruptly lingering on the threshold of an open door. I can see only his back wrapped in dark wool of the coat till Moran removes the gun from my head and nudges Sherlock roughly, “Go.” Sherlock enters the room, Moran drags me inside after him and I can finally see what was hidden by Sherlock’s looming figure. The room is practically empty save for a shabby couch and an oblong box large enough to be a coffin. One man is sitting on the couch sipping something from an elegant cup and another one is standing at the closed window. I feel my jaw drop inelegantly on Moran’s arm and only the relentless pressure on my throat helps me to contain a cry of shock. Jim Moriarty, apparently not deceased after all, is grinning insanely at me from the couch. The man standing in front of the window is my uncle Horatio.
For a couple of slow painful heartbeats the room was absolutely silent. Then Jim loudly sipped his whatever he was drinking and my uncle suddenly sobbed spasmodically. The frozen picture shattered. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was ready for the idea that somebody from the real world could be stupid and vain enough to help an evil mastermind plague fictional London with one of the most evil fictional characters in history – but I refused to understand what my uncle could do with it. He looked extremely haggard, soft brown eyes sunken and as if dusty. And then I caught Sherlock’s sideways glance at me and recollected all his awkward expressions and silences.
I also found Moran had somewhat relaxed his grip on my throat and some slight resemblance of my voice was able to break through my cords. I asked huskily, “When?” Sherlock acquired a guilty aura of a five-year-old who is asked why the cat suddenly acquired green fur. Jim laughed sharply, putting the cup aside. “Come on, Sherlock,” he dragged out melodiously, “tell our sweet Molly when you realized her own dear uncle was the one to bring true evil in our world.” He giggled with obvious enjoyment and nodded to my uncle, “I was tempted to visit Shakespeare, you know, Lady Macbeth must have been a charming woman. And other worlds of course,” Jim jumped on his feet and waved his hands theatrically, “alas, poor Yorick,” he pointed to the silent oblong box, “I knew him, Horatio.” My uncle started as if electrocuted and looked at me pleadingly.
Moriarty plops back on the couch and grins at Sherlock who stares back with his usual reserve. And keeps silent. Jim furrows his brow discontentedly, “No, no, no, don’t you understand? You’re not the one to do what he pleases here, my dear friend.” Sherlock flinches visibly at this and Moran takes it as a cue to turn me a little so that the gun pressed to my temple gets in Sherlock’s field of vision directly. I don’t try to struggle, all I can feel at the moment is very mild curiosity, it’s as if I darted fast ahead and stand alone at the finish line while all the more intense feelings are lagging behind. They will catch up with me soon, all the pain, hurt, disillusionment, sorrow, fear, loads of nuances, I know that, but for now it’s like watching the scene from behind a thick glass, I can barely hear Sherlock speak.
“I knew it was her uncle as soon as she described Professor Challenger’s state. It was obvious whoever took the vampire here, had taken it to Professor’s world as well. It could have been a coincidence but then Molly would have found the same drained corpse instead of comparatively alive Challenger. Professor remained alive because someone fought for it, someone who cared and someone who could influence the true decision maker (which was obviously you, Moriarty) – but only slightly – as this someone didn’t manage to ensure Professor’s safety fully. But he managed to save his life. So Molly’s uncle. The question how you got to know about him is also rather simple, of course.” Sherlock throws an enquiring look at Moriarty, “A bug in Molly’s lab?”
Jim giggles happily, “Indeed. Do you think I would have left without making sure I know what is happening with my sweet girl? Well, and I suspected you cared about her more than you would let on.” Sherlock shifts uneasily on the spot, it’s obvious he needs to move, walk around, gesticulate and animate his usual unfurling of the deduction, but he remains standing with his hands behind his back, feet firmly planted on the chapped floorboards as he continues, “I suspect he saved your life there on the roof approximately in the same way Molly saved mine. Or even simpler – I never touched your corpse to make sure you were dead. I saw you put the gun in your mouth, pull the trigger, fall and bleed. But you body was never found. So seems more plausible that after I jumped he took you away.”
Jim claps his hands adoringly, “Exactly! I didn’t have to actually die. Simple devices are everything, you know. But you, you overcomplicated things, made our little Molly suffer in vain – for a year! Just think of it!”
The glass between me and what is going on becomes even thicker, I feel like drowning in the cotton wool, it's plugging my senses, making me apathetic and listless. Sherlock throws a panicked gaze at me. My uncle is crying openly. I feel nothing. Moran breathes noisily behind my back.
“I don’t know how you managed to make Horatio do everything you ordered,” Sherlock adds hesitantly, then glances at me carefully and back to my shaking uncle, “but most probably you simply threatened him you will kill Molly. You will kill her if he tells her. You will kill her if he tells me. You will kill me if he takes her away from the book. Anything would work on such an elderly and overimaginative man. Of course he didn’t even try to disobey. He wouldn’t risk the life of his only close relative for anything. He only begged to leave his best friend, Professor Challenger, alone. But the Count was too hungry, so you decided on a compromise.”
Jim huffs, “I told the Count to leave him alive, still very generous of me, don’t you think?” Sherlock jeers at him, “Incredibly. I also don’t know how you controlled the Count in fact, he seems to be a rather willful character. I suspect he was just biding his time, trying to understand what the hell is going on and planning to overtake the leadership at any convenient moment. Oh, and judging by the impatient trembling of the lid I think we will be able to ask the Count himself right now.”
Sherlock steps away from the oblong box the lid on which is slowly rising. A rigid white-skinned body is slowly rising up following the movement of the lid. I can see large red eyes open and a couple of fangs protrude from under the upper lip when time suddenly decides to rush forward and the invisible bubble that ensconced us in seemingly lazy talk erupts with the series of gunshots. Count’s throat bursts with black and with immense surprise on the dead face Dracula falls back in the coffin. The heavy lid shuts down with a crash and everyone seems to move at the same time.
Sherlock throws himself on Moran and wrestles his hand with the gun away from my temple. I suddenly find myself free and decide to lie down as my knees refuse to cooperate. From a rather cozy position on the floor I manage to get under Moran’s feet which sends him and Sherlock flailing down. Sherlock hits his shoulder on the couch and Moran manages to get free. Another series of shots send him scurrying over the body of my uncle and out of the window.
The sight of my uncle’s body made me mobilize the rest of my strength and get up. I scrambled over to him and took his pulse. Alive. I checked the wound on his upper arm – shallow, probably a ricochet. Then I finally realized the room was silent again and raised my eyes. Heavily breathing Mycroft with a gun in each hand was standing above Moriarty’s body – this time definitely dead. Sherlock’s elder brother was mind-blowingly different from the prim and hypocritical Mycroft I knew. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and camouflage trousers, usually pristine hair ruffled and face alive with emotion. Mycroft was obviously having enormous fun. And Sherlock was clearly unused to seeing his brother in such a state.
“Have you finally run out of minions, dear brother?” Sherlock snaps and Mycroft smiles benignly, drawling, “You’re not the only one who gets bored from time to time, Sherlock.”
I hear a groan behind my back and see my uncle get up slowly. He is cradling his right arm, blood seeping from under his fingers, but although pain makes him bite his lip, his eyes are clear and vivid again. “Molly,” he says hesitantly, “Molly, I…”
“Don’t.” I whisper, “Don’t. Not now. Maybe not ever. Just take this thing and go.”
He awkwardly tries to open the oblong box with his good hand, then gives up and slips his hand under the lid, trying to get hold of the Count. I watch him struggle making no move to help.
Brothers are bickering behind my back.
“Did you really have to kill him?”
“It’s cheaper than waste money and MI-5 assets on trying to keep him locked.”
“It’s always about money with you, how do you manage to fall even lower each time?”
“Years of practice, Sherlock.”
My uncle finally manages to grab some part of the Count and after the last, sorrowful glance at me he leaves the book. I hear a gasp and realize Mycroft may still be a little unenlightened as to the nature of me and my uncle. I turn and see Sherlock back away from his still very much armed brother.
“Sherlock,” Mycroft growls vehemently, “I demand an explanation.” With a single long stride he cuts off the way to retreat through the door. Sherlock looks in despair at the window broken by Moran’s body. “Don’t even try,” Mycroft condescends, “no one is going anywhere till I finally understand what the bloody hell is going on.”
“Mycroft, language!” Sherlock exclaims but he looks rather surprised than acerbic as usual. We both sink on the couch like scolded children under the steel gaze of Holmes the senior. The story turns out to be surprisingly long. Somewhere in the middle Moriarty’s body is taken away by a set of identically looking men in uniforms without marking. The moon is shining brightly through the remaining shards of glass still shimmering in the window frame.
It takes Sherlock another two years to track Moran again even with Mycroft’s help. By this time John suddenly finds himself helping the police on his own. The case of Ronald Adair finally brings them together as Sherlock tells me he needs John’s help to get Moran at last.
I ask John to meet me at 221b and follow Sherlock to Baker Street but watch from afar as he waits for John at the door. I seriously expect John to punch Sherlock or to faint or to punch Sherlock so hard he faints. But John only stares at Sherlock with such severe longing, with such unconditional love. And then he hugs lanky detective, tightly and desperately as if he never will let go. And I can see Sherlock is hugging him back as resolutely. It’s all going to be just fine.