Part One – The Detective
"I still get nightmares."
"Why do you think that is?"
"Dunno. Stress, I suppose. Still can't find a place to live." A pause. "Did you read the papers this morning?"
"Yes. You served with him, didn't you?"
"Yeah. He survived the attack, too."
There was a long pause, during which Dr. Stratson scribbled a few things in her notebook which John tried not to read from his position on the other sofa. She'd just pointed out his "trust issues" yesterday, and the observation had left him self-conscious.
"Would you like to talk about it?"
"I've told you five times. Why should you start believing me now?"
She switched her legs around so that the left was crossed over the right, but didn't answer. After a long pause during which John chose not to say anything, she asked, "Is your leg still bothering you?"
"You saw me walk in here, didn't you?"
Admittedly, it was relaxing to talk about what had happened even if she didn't believe him, but relations between he and his therapist weren't particularly friendly.
"Why don't you tell me again about the attack?"
So you can see if something changes in my next retelling? John inhaled through his nose and let it out in a long sigh, his eyes—gray in this dull light—fixing on a peculiar pattern in the carpet to his right. Then he took a breath and began to tell her again.
Half an hour later, he was limping down to the pub, a stormy expression in his creased forehead and downturned mouth. As he had expected, she didn't believe him. She didn't say anything to suggest that—it was the way she wrote in her notebook. She held her pen in this cynical way, and he could just hear the written words through his mind: still suffering delusions, unwilling to let go, imagination getting away with him. He knew because he'd read it; he couldn't help himself this time. Why did she have to hold it at that angle if she knew he was going to read it, anyway?
It was late evening by that point and fairly crowded in the pub as John made his way towards the bar at the back, dodging by wandering passerby with mumbled "Excuse me"'s as he went. It was loud and a bit smoky, but he didn't mind. He wasn't much of a drinker, especially after seeing its effects on Harry, but that didn't mean he avoided drinks altogether. Even he enjoyed a brandy after a bad therapy session every once in a while.
There weren't many seats available, so he took one between a tired-looking woman who might possibly have been a prostitute and a man in a military coat with cropped black hair and a beer at his fingertips.
"Shot of brandy, please," said John to the bartender, offering a fiver.
"Rough day, huh?" said the man in the military coat. Interesting—he was American.
"You could say that," John replied.
The man smiled knowingly, his blue eyes flicking to the bartender, who had just returned with John's drink. He had lines around his cheeks like it was something he did often. "He'll have another shot, on me," he said.
"Thank you," said John. He held out his hand. "John Watson."
"John Watson?" said the man, sounding a bit surprised. Then, remembering his manners, he shook hands and reciprocated, "Stamford. Mike Stamford." Something seemed to sparkle in his eyes, like he was sharing an inside joke with himself.
The name "Stamford" seemed to throw up a flag in John's memory, but he couldn't grasp where he'd heard it before. He paused, his drink halfway to his lips. "Something funny?"
"No, no. You just reminded me of someone, that's all." They both took a moment to enjoy their drinks before Mike said, "You don't strike me as a drinker, Dr. Watson."
John's brows knitted together over his eyes. "I never told you anything about being a doctor," he said warily.
"Lucky guess," replied Mike with that same smile on his face. "You could say I learned a few tricks from someone. So, go on then. Why tonight?"
John's eyes weren't any less suspicious, but his tone was normal as he answered simply, "Afghanistan."
Mike set down his drink with a look of keen interest. "Do tell," he said.
"I'd rather not, thanks."
"Sorry." He took another sip of his beer. "How long ago?"
"Not long. I haven't got a job, so money's a bit tight, but I manage."
"Does it haunt you?" asked Mike in a low voice.
John smiled grimly, and it was not the type of smile that someone would wear if they were pleased. "Quite the opposite, actually," he admitted.
"You miss it," Mike inferred with astonishment.
John was silent for a moment. "I'm bored here. Nothing ever happens to me," he said. "Believe me; I know how callous that sounds with people out there literally killing to be where I am right now, but… when you go from that to this, it takes some getting used to."
Mike took a sip of his drink, his expression thoughtful. "I might be able to help you," he said.
"If you suggest golfing or something, I'll punch you."
He laughed. "No, nothing like that. Come on, I'll show you—he's in walking distance." After paying for the drinks, he slid off his stool and headed for the door. John, after downing his second shot, followed him. "You up for rooming with someone?" asked Mike.
"I suppose," answered John, settling into the limp he'd adopted since he got back. "I'd thought about getting a flatmate. Splitting the rent would make things a lot easier on me."
"Good," replied Mike.
The air was cool and crisp, the sky a bit darker than when John had left it. Most people had either ducked inside or were taking cabs due to the nippy breeze that bit through his jacket. Neither men spoke for a while; then Mike turned off onto a narrow, shabby-looking side street called Baker Street and John suddenly realized where he'd heard the name "Stamford."
"Oh, hilarious," he said, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, his spine stiff and his eyes cold. "Yeah, real funny. Everyone's laughing. You can drop the joke now."
"You almost had me going for a second there, Mike. Is that even your real name?"
"Yes," replied Mike, appalled. Then, after a moment of John's stubborn glare, he admitted, "No. But—"
"I've read the Sherlock Holmes stories, too, Mr. Stamford, and I liked them very well, even with all the teasing I got as a kid, but don't you think this is taking it a step too far?"
He said urgently, "Please, you have to trust me—"
"You'll have to excuse me if I don't trust a man who gave me a fake name," retorted John, cutting him off. "Thank you for wasting my time, Mr. Stamford."
Ignoring the other man's protests, he turned and limped back down the street. He was so furious he was about ready to level that man with his cane.
He remembered the time he'd first heard the name "Holmes." It was in grade school, on the bus; another boy, the class clown, thought he'd be funny and asked, "Where's your Holmes, Watson?" John wasn't quite sure what to say, since he didn't know at all who the other boy was referring to. It was only the beginning, though. Since then, rarely anyone except his friends ever called him by his first name. Even the kids who had never read the books picked up on the joke. At first he resented it, but eventually he learned to take it in stride.
Once he got out of school, of course, people were generally much more mature about it, and he didn't get bothered as often, even when he did become an army doctor and get sent out to Afghanistan. But this was quite an outstanding recurrence. Even as a child, no one had ever taken the coincidence this far. Just the sheer nerve of the man was enough to make him grit his teeth and clench his empty hand into a fist.
Then, two blocks away, something made him pause. Wasn't there a Sherlock Holmes museum at 221B Baker Street? He didn't recall that Baker Street looking anything like the dim, dusty place that Mike had begun to lead him down. But then, there couldn't be two Baker Streets so close together, could there?
"Damnit," he muttered, reluctantly turning around and heading back the way he'd come. If he didn't investigate this anomaly, he knew it would bother him for several days.
Mike—or whoever he was—was nowhere to be found when he got back, but that was fine with John. He didn't care to admit that his curiosity had been roused by the encounter, nor did he want anything more to do with the arrogant man.
He stopped for a moment at the mouth of the street. It was perceptibly darker, as there were fewer lights on in the buildings; a couple of them looked like they'd been empty for years. The streetlamps had been turned on not long before, but one flickered irregularly and another didn't shine at all, as it appeared to be broken. Despite the foreboding manner of the place, he steeled himself and began his uneven trek down the sidewalk, looking for anything that might offer any clues as to why there were two very different Baker Streets in London.
There was, in fact, a second 221B, as well, to John' surprise; and it seemed starkly out of place amid the graveyard of architecture surrounding it. It looked considerably cleaner, with a glossy black door marking the entrance and a shining—if a bit tarnished—door knocker underneath gold embossed lettering that read 221b.
Why am I doing this? This is ridiculous, John thought as he ascended the steps, gripped the knocker, and rapped it against the door. But then, the coincidence was too large to ignore.
He half-expected to be greeted by a tall man in a deerstalker with a pipe between his teeth, but instead the door was opened by a tiny old woman with bright brown eyes and large auburn curls. "Yes?" she said in a sweet voice.
This couldn't be Mrs. Hudson, could it? "I'm here to see the man in 221B," said John hesitantly, his eyes flicking over her shoulders for any sign of the man in question.
"Oh, yes, you must be a client of his," said the woman happily. She ignored John's half-formed protests that he wasn't a "client" of any sort and led him inside, up the stairs. "He's out at the moment, but he told me he'd be back in a little while, so you can just make yourself at home and I'll let him know you're up here."
She opened the door to reveal a room that looked remarkably similar to its original, though with obvious modern-day revisions: a laptop on the desk, a pair of headphones hanging off an animal skull, and various scientific instruments, for example. Despite its clutter, the room seemed clean somehow, and it was entirely possible to ignore the state of the sidewalks outside. John did notice, however, a vivid yellow smiley face spray-painted onto the black-and-white wallpaper with several bullet holes dotting its outline. He also noticed, just from one sweeping glance, multiple boxes of cigarettes—open and unopened—scattered about the room. Just like the books, there were two chairs set up by the fireplace, but though Sir Conan Doyle often made the place seem warm and homely, it seemed cold and empty without a fire feeding smoke to the chimney. He felt as though the walls were staring at him disdainfully down turned-up noses.
"You look like a man who enjoys his tea. I'll make you a cupper," said the landlady sweetly, bustling off to the kitchen and preparing the hot drink. She seemed nice enough, at least; perhaps the owner of this peculiar place would be as well—though, glancing about again, he doubted that notion. There were scientific devices lying all about the room, some of which John had never seen before in his life. It looked less like a living place and more like a makeshift laboratory.
He grabbed a pillow with the Union Jack sewn across the front and set it down on the chair before taking a seat in it. He decided right off that he liked it—it seemed like his chair, right from the moment he walked in, like it was waiting for him. If the chairs were any show of character, though, then judging by the other one, the owner was bound to be dark, foreboding, and uncomfortable.
"Are you here for a case, dear?" called the woman from the kitchen.
"Sorry, what? No, I'm just…" he started, but he trailed off, unsure of how to say exactly why he was here.
"Oh, I see. He never gets many visitors outside of business, but I was always hoping he'd bring someone home someday. How long have you two been together?"
"Oh—" John laughed. "No, it's really not like that," he said fervently. He had to wonder what that said about the state of the mystery man's character—did he often bring other men home? Perhaps that was how "Mr. Stamford" knew him…
"It's alright, we get all sorts here," she said, shuffling out of the kitchen with the cup of tea in her hands. "Mrs. Turner next door's got married once."
He took the cup with murmured thanks and took a sip. It wasn't the best tea he'd ever had, but it was tea, so he drank it.
"I'll be downstairs, so just give a shout if you need anything," she said, kindly patting his arm before departing. He sat in his chair and sipped his tea, wondering who this man was and what he would be like. What did the landlady say? "A case"? What was that supposed to mean?
He finished his cup of tea and set it down on the desk by his elbow before clasping his hands in his lap. Glancing about again, he caught the eye of a skull on the mantelpiece which seemed to be laughing at him. He still wasn't sure what to make of his evening so far. It all seemed like some huge, cruel joke, but if someone was behind all of it, they would've had to go to strenuous—even ridiculous—lengths to pull it off. This is too strange, he thought as his eyes landed on an open violin case. Every detail of the room that corresponded with the famous detective novels made him doubt even more. It seemed too big of a coincidence to simply be a coincidence, yet at the same time too elaborate to be a prank. I don't suppose there's a deerstalker hanging up here somewhere, too.
Thankfully, he didn't see one. He did, however, happen to look down the hall and spot a door which seemed strange to him. He couldn't exactly place why—it looked identical to all the other doors (except that it was closed), but there was something off about it, like it shouldn't be there. Without consciously realizing it, he stood and began to walk towards it. It was as though something was drawing him to it. He felt like he needed to open that door.
His hand, inexplicably, was on the knob when a clear, deep voice rang out, "Don't go in there!"
He jerked his arm back, turning towards the sound of the voice. "I'm sorry—I don't even know why—" he started, but he broke off, realizing how silly that sounded.
The man who had just walked in the front door—presumably the owner of the small flat—was bundled up in a navy blue coat past his knees with the collar turned up against the wind. A lighter blue scarf—the only colorful thing in his wardrobe—was wrapped tightly around his long neck. He was very pale in skin tone with high cheekbones and a mop of black curls that fell in neat locks around his head. At the sight of John, his brows drew in over angular, cat-like eyes that seemed to analyze his guest in a quick, flinty sort of way.
Oddly enough, he was carrying a small cooler, and despite the situation, John had to ask: "What's in there?"
"Severed finger," replied the man without missing a beat. John couldn't tell whether or not he was being serious, so he simply said nothing. The man seemed more interested now than annoyed, but he still started harshly, "Who are—" He broke off, however, his lips moving soundlessly as John walked briskly back into the sitting room. Now that he was closer to the man, he could see that the man was easily a head taller than himself, though that wasn't saying much. He set the cooler down on the kitchen table without breaking eye contact. "You're John Watson, aren't you?"
"Dr. John Watson," John corrected stiffly. "How did—?"
"Excuse me, I have to make a phone call," said the man coldly without offering his name. He turned away, reaching into his pocket—presumably for his phone—before freezing and turning back to John. "May I borrow your mobile phone?"
"Sure, what's wrong with yours?" said John, as he could clearly see the indentation of the other man's phone against the fabric of his pocket; however, he pulled out his own phone and handed it over.
The man didn't answer. He turned away again, flipping the mobile phone over once in his long fingers before dialing a number and holding it to his ear.
Sherlock—for that was the name of the man—had been having quite an ordinary day (by his standards, at least) and was therefore frustrated by the disturbance of his routine, though was at the same time keenly interested in the appearance of Dr. Watson. Well, "keenly interested" was putting it nicely—mildly curious was a better way of stating it. There was, after all, only one person who could possibly be responsible for this man's arrival, and at this point he was playing an irritating game of "The Boy Who Cried Watson."
The phone rang only twice before being picked up. "Hello?" answered a man with an American accent.
"Well done, Captain Jack," said Sherlock, "you've really outdone yourself. This one's much better than the android you sent me last time."
"Oh, hey, Sherly," replied Captain Jack Harkness. He knew how much it annoyed Sherlock to be called that. "So he actually went to see you, huh?"
"Obviously. So where did you find him? Do you just have a list of men named John Watson on hand, or did the good-luck-fairy swing by and drop him out of the sky?"
"Excuse me—what?" said John incredulously, but Sherlock wasn't listening.
"You never run low on sarcasm, do you?" said Jack.
"Answer the question," Sherlock snarled.
"I met him in the pub," Jack obliged. "Told him my name was Mike Stamford. He saw right through your perception filter, by the way."
"Yeah. The name didn't ring a bell for him—not then, at least—and I got him to tell me he'd just gotten back from Afghanistan, was having financial troubles, and would love a roommate."
Sherlock was furious—again. "Jack! You know this can't happen! Look at my lifestyle! Look at my—" He broke off suddenly, glancing at John as though just remembering he was standing there. "—my hobbies," he finished forcefully.
"He's in the room with you, isn't he?" asked Jack slyly.
Sherlock didn't answer. "You've probably just wasted this poor man's entire evening. Not that he'd miss much, of course—avid tea-drinker, by the looks of it, and probably into mystery novels…" He made a noise of disgust, to which John scoffed disbelievingly in response.
"I'm right here, you know," he said.
"That's the thing," said Jack, sounding excited. "He said he missed the war. Said nothing ever happened to him. I figured you'd be perfect for him, even without the books in mind. I mean, come on. All that travelling must get lonely."
Sherlock scoffed in reply. "Don't make the mistake of comparing me to The Doctor, Jack." He hesitated. "You said he wasn't affected by the perception filter?"
"No, sir. As soon as he saw the name of the street, he thought I was pulling some kind of prank on him."
"Small wonder there," muttered Sherlock, though the matter intrigued him greatly. John had not seemed influenced by the perception filter placed on the door, either—rather, he seemed oddly drawn to it.
"I'm surprised he went back there, though—last I saw him, he was storming off down the sidewalk."
"You're not really surprised, are you?" said Sherlock dryly.
After a pause, he admitted, "No. But even you've got to admit this is meant to be. This one's different, I can feel it. Just keep him around a bit, see what happens."
Sherlock hung up the phone and handed it back to John. "Thank you," he said. He didn't know what else to say. Things for him were… complicated. Ever since Jack first introduced him to a stranger named John Watson roughly two months ago, he'd been opposed to the idea, but Jack had insisted. Since then he'd met five people—not including this stray who'd just wandered in—named John Watson, plus one android that had attempted to gut him. He couldn't say the concept warmed on him any more since then.
John took back his phone and pocketed it. "Who are you?" he asked sharply, as though it were this man who had intruded on his home instead of the other way around.
"Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective," answered the man, opening the cooler.
John was speechless for a moment. "You're Sherlock Holmes?" he said incredulously. "Like… the detective in the story books? Who smokes a pipe and wears a funny hat? 'As ever, Watson, you see but do not observe'? That Sherlock Holmes?"
"Yes," answered the man in a perfectly even tone, his expression inquiring.
"Right, yeah, okay. And I suppose the landlady downstairs is Mrs. Hudson, then, is she?"
"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?" His hands descended into the cooler, delicately retrieving what was indeed a severed finger. So he was being serious…
"Alright then, Holmes," said John, spreading his arms challengingly. "Deduce me."
He didn't even spare a second glance up from the dead finger which he was now examining under the strangest magnifying glass John had ever seen. "You're an army doctor, recently returned from Afghanistan with a leg injury which your therapist believes to be psychosomatic. Quite right, too, I'm afraid. You're looking for a place to live, but you haven't asked your brother, possibly because of his drinking habits, or perhaps because he recently left his wife and you disapprove. Also, you just got back from the pub after a bad therapy session, and you were sitting next to a man in a military coat with an American accent who I assume bought you a drink and talked you into coming here. Other than that, you drink a lot of tea and like jam on your toast."
"How could you have possibly gotten all that from the phone call?" asked John, both awed and incredulous.
"I didn't," replied the man proudly, glancing up. "The only thing I gathered from the call that I didn't already know was whether you had served in Iraq or Afghanistan."
"That's impossible," said John in disbelief. "How?"
"Come, John, if a magician revealed his tricks, he wouldn't have a show."
"At least tell me how you knew my name," said John.
"Well, once I'd deduced all that, who else could you be?" said Sherlock with a sly smile.
John laughed a bit in spite of himself. After a pause, he said, "I can understand my mum calling me John—I mean, it's a pretty common name—," he said, "but what kind of mother names her child 'Sherlock'?"
"You could say she was a fan of the nineteenth century," said Sherlock sarcastically.
"No, seriously," insisted John. "Did she push you down the path of solving mysteries, or did you go there yourself?"
"It's a bit more than mere coincidence, Dr. Watson. For me, anyway—I don't know about you."
"Thanks, that's…. that's lovely."
He waited expectantly for more of an explanation, but none came, and before he could ask for one, the other man snorted in revulsion. "Well, this is rubbish. It's not even human," he said, putting the finger back in the cooler and pocketing the odd-looking magnifying glass.
"Hold on—what—" John started, but just then there was a knock at the door. The landlady's—Mrs. Hudson's—voice called, "Sherlock, you've got a visitor! It's Mr. Lestrade!"
"Lestrade—! Did people you meet just change their names around you, or…?"
Sherlock didn't answer. "Let him in, Mrs. Hudson."
The door opened, and a silver-haired man with keen eyes and a serious expression stepped inside. "Sherlock, there's been another—" the man started, but he stopped mid-sentence when he saw John.
The only thing John could think to say was, "Isn't he supposed to have a mustache?"
"Aren't you supposed to have a mustache?" countered Sherlock in an amused tone, quirking an eyebrow. He added to Lestrade, "Go on."
"…Another poisoning," Lestrade finished, though he was still eyeing John with some suspicion. "Can you come have a look?"
"I'll need an assistant," said Sherlock.
"I've got Anderson on it."
"You know I can't work with Anderson."
"Damnit, Sherlock, I wouldn't be asking you if I didn't need you!"
They glared at each other for a moment, Lestrade's dark, intense eyes versus Sherlock's cool gray ones, before John asked hesitantly, "What is it you need, exactly?"
There was a moment of silence in which Sherlock turned his gaze—now thoughtful—on John. "I'll be right over," said Sherlock to Lestrade, though he didn't look up until the man had left. "Seen enough dead bodies, Dr. Watson?" asked Sherlock as he stowed the cooler in the freezer.
"For a lifetime," replied John, shifting slightly.
"Would you like to see another one?"
John considered the fact that he'd only just met this man, that he didn't know what division of the police Lestrade was a part of, and that the presence of a dead body was never a good thing. Then he considered all his recent days, spent talking to his therapist, reading books to pass the time, and searching for some mundane job to pay for expenses. Most people wouldn't hesitate to say no, but for John, it was quite the opposite: "Oh, God, yes."
A couple minutes later, they were in a cab on the way to a back alley about half an hour away. John couldn't believe he was doing this. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, investigating a mysterious murder? It was too much. Sherlock, of course, didn't seem affected by it at all, though John did notice the other man shoot him a sidelong glance, and he could've sworn there was something excited in his sharp eyes.
"So, what's the deal?" asked John. "What are we… investigating?"
"Did you read the paper this morning?"
The question caught John off-guard, but he answered quickly, "Yes."
"You saw, then, the article about Carlton Stockholm, the man who'd been killed last night?"
"Yeah, they said it was an animal attack of some sort?"
"Don't trust everything you read," said Sherlock. "That's the first rule."
"I looked at the body myself. There was a bite mark on the man's arm which, on its own, would've been harmless. It severed no vital arteries or veins, so he wasn't at risk of bleeding out, but there were no other wounds on his body. What would you deduce from this?"
"Poisonous bite," John concluded, remembering what Lestrade said. A shiver ran down his spine. He was convinced that he, Stockholm, and another man—Jim Graham—had narrowly missed dying of poison from the attack in Afghanistan that landed them back in London. It was a cruel twist of fate that poison should take him now.
"Who did it?" asked John. "Or, rather, what?"
"That's what we're going to find out," answered Sherlock. He was drumming his fingers on his knees absently; there was a restless demeanor about him, like he was anxious about something, but there was nothing about his expression to suggest that he was worried.
After a few blocks drifted by the window, John said, "I served with him, you know. Carlton. There was an attack—that was when I was injured—and he and I were two of the survivors." He paused. "He was a funny bloke."
"Please, Dr. Watson, I have no desire for sentiment."
"Right. Right, yeah, right." A busy shop center floated by. "How did you know all that stuff about me?"
"I didn't know. I noticed." He hesitated. "When you walked up to me, you limped, but you didn't use your cane even though it was in your hand, suggesting you'd forgotten about it. That suggests it was psychosomatic. Psychosomatic suggests it was a traumatic injury. That, combined with your haircut and posture, said military—you were wounded in action. But you introduced yourself as 'Dr. John Watson'; so, army doctor. Your face and hands were tanned, but not above the wrist, which means you were recently abroad: Iraq or Afghanistan."
"How did you know I have a therapist?"
"Traumatic injury abroad? Of course you've got a therapist. Now there's the matter of your phone. It's an expensive model only six months old, meaning it's probably new, but there are scratches covering it, probably from being in the same pocket as coins and keys—meaning you wouldn't spend so much on such a luxury item, otherwise you'd probably treat it better. A gift, then. It's a young man's gadget, so unlikely it came from your father. Could be a cousin, but you're a man recently returned from service and searching for a place to live, so it's unlikely you've got any extended family—not any that you're close to, at least. So, your brother.
"Then there's the inscription—'To Harry, from Clara, XXX.' Three X's suggests a romantic relationship; the value of the phone suggests it's serious—or was, in this case. The fact that your brother gave it away means he broke up with her. If she'd broken up with him, he'd want to keep it for sentimental purposes, but no, he left her and wanted to be rid of it, hence why he gave it to you."
"And the drinking?" John prompted.
"Ah. Shot in the dark—good one, though," he said with a wry smile. "The port for the charging cord was scratched and scuffed up more than the rest of the phone, meaning it was plugged in with unsteady hands. He probably plugged the phone in to charge every night after going to the bar."
"What about the tea and the jam?"
"I noticed Mrs. Hudson made you a cup of tea, and you drank every last drop. Not many people would, unless they can appreciate a broad range of teas. As for the jam, well, that was a lucky guess."
"That's… wow. That's brilliant."
Sherlock looked surprised. "You think so?"
"Yes. Hell yes. Extraordinary. Except…"
The other man's eyebrows drew closer. "What did I miss?"
"Harry's short for Harriet."
"Oh, of course, your sister!" said Sherlock in frustration. "There's always something…"
"Still fantastic, though."
They lapsed into silence, and not another word was spoken for the rest of the cab ride. At first, John felt a bit awkward, like he should be making some attempt at conversation, but Sherlock wordlessly made it apparent that he had no more desire for such interactions. John settled into his seat, content for the moment with this mutual pact. He couldn't help but wonder, however, if this was going to be his life from here on in: shadowing a remarkable man from a storybook who suddenly didn't seem to want anything to do with him.
As they were nearing their destination, Sherlock remarked, "You have a rare gift of silence, Dr. Watson. You'd be surprised how many people don't understand that I require it to think clearly."
"Thank you," answered John, "though I hope that's not all I'll be good for in this arrangement."
"As do I," replied Sherlock, but he turned his head enough to give John a look that made him feel a little better about where their unusual relationship was going.
A minute later, Sherlock instructed the cabbie, "Here's fine," and the cab rolled to a stop outside a line of run-down flats. The sky was black and pinpricked with a few stars, but they were hard to see in the city. Sherlock looked up at them almost longingly it seemed to John as they stepped up onto the empty sidewalk.
"Where are we, exactly?" asked John, looking about for some kind of yellow tape that would mark a crime scene.
"About a block away from where we need to be," answered Sherlock. "I couldn't risk the cabbie seeing anything. I work outside of the police; it's a very covert business."
John frowned as they set off. "Isn't Lestrade from the police?" He noticed that Sherlock had to check his long stride to make sure he didn't leave John's limping gait in the dust.
"Okay… Why involve me, then?"
"Well, you're bored, aren't you?"
John laughed. "Fair enough."
A minute slipped by. The street they were walking was dingy, dark, and empty; it seemed like the perfect place to commit a spontaneous murder. John glanced over his shoulder twice to make sure they weren't being trailed by anything or anyone unwanted. Sherlock broke the wordless haphazard rhythm of their footsteps by asking, "So you still need a place to live?"
"You can live with me, if you like," he suggested in an offhand sort of tone. "I can't guarantee it would be the most normal lifestyle, but from what I gather, that's the last thing you want, anyway."
John pretended to think for a moment. "Yeah, I suppose I could get used to it." Another moment of silence. "Your landlady thought I was your date."
For a moment, Sherlock said nothing, and John had just glanced over to get a gauge of his reaction when he burst into laughter. It was a deep, resonant chuckle, one that John couldn't help but share. "That must've been an interesting conversation," he remarked, still laughing as they turned a corner.
Once they turned down a dark, narrow side street, it was easy to see where they were headed, and their laughter died away quickly. At the far end, bright, massive lamps were set up, all spotlighting the distinct form of a human body lying sprawled and bloody on the concrete. Two men were standing nearby, one of whom was Lestrade. A woman stopped them at the mouth of the alley. "Where d'you think you're going?" she asked sharply.
"Lestrade called me here, you twit," retorted Sherlock.
"I know that. But you can't bring him here!" She pointed accusingly at John without looking at him.
"Of course I can. He's my plus-one." Sherlock stepped around her. "Come on, Dr. Watson."
John, after an uncertain glance at the angry woman, followed after him. As they got closer to the body, he saw that there wasn't enough blood spilled for the man to have bled to death; it was merely a flesh wound. It did, however, look like a particularly nasty animal bite. It was frighteningly similar to the wound he himself had suffered in Afghanistan. He couldn't see the face of the dead man, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something familiar about his muscular build and close-cropped brown hair.
"What do you make of it?" asked Lestrade, completely ignoring John.
"Same thing as the last one. I can't pinpoint it just from a bite mark, though, I'd need an eyewitness account," Sherlock said. He squatted down by the body, giving it one long, sweeping glance. "He's a military man, recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan." John's heart skipped a beat. "Looks like he was held at gunpoint and forced back here on his way back home from a dinner for two. His date had left him by this time, but not before breaking up with him first. He recognized his attacker, but didn't see it as a friend—so whatever killed him, he's met it before. Probably had a nasty run-in with it that he didn't tell anyone else about."
"How exactly do you know all this?" asked the second man; he had straight, dark hair and a long thin nose down which he glared suspiciously at Sherlock.
"It's obvious enough to anyone who pays attention," Sherlock sneered back.
John might've been intrigued by this little banter if he was still listening, but he'd just circled around to get a look at the man's face, and a stone dropped in his gut. It was Jim Graham, the third man who had survived the attack in which he was injured. Here was a second man he was directly connected to, lying dead on a slab of dusty concrete.
"Sherlock," said John, interrupting whatever snappish remark Anderson had planned. "You know how I said I served with Stockholm?" He paused. "I served with this man, too. Jim Graham. I nearly died in Afghanistan from a wound like this one."
For a moment, Sherlock's wide eyes locked with his, and nobody said anything. Then Sherlock stood, brushed off his coat, and placed his hand on John's shoulder, steering him back towards the street. "We're going back home," he announced.
"But you can't leave already—!" Lestrade protested.
"Sure I can. I've just got my eyewitness account," said Sherlock. As they reached the main street, Sherlock said in a lower voice to John, "Come on. I think it's time you told me what happened in Afghanistan."
By unspoken consent, neither of them spoke a word for the duration of the entire cab ride. John had no desire to talk about anything in the presence of a third person, and Sherlock had every notion to grant that wish. John's heart was hammering in his chest. If this was the same thing that killed Stockholm and Graham, then there was no question that he was next. And he knew exactly why. He was terrified. He was sure Sherlock noticed the way his white-knuckled hands were gripping his knees, but the man said nothing on it. He kept expecting, any moment, for that monstrous thing he saw in Afghanistan to lunge out of every shadow and smash into their cab.
For whatever reason—perhaps to escape the present dread—the strange door down the hall in Sherlock's flat surfaced in his mind. He realized then why the presence of the door struck him as odd: the way the flat was laid out, the door would've opened to the outside.
There couldn't possibly be a room there.