It had been seven months since the accident.
John looked at the calendar on his mobile.
Seven months and three days.
He tossed his phone onto the mattress next to him.
Seven months and three days since Mary and their three month old daughter, Alice, died in a terrorist bombing on the Underground. Not a plot on Mycroft’s radar. Not anything New Scotland Yard had any information on prior to it happening. No intelligence gathered by the Americans to tip off the British government. Just an isolated case of a young, unemployed British Muslim who felt disconnected from the country of his birth and chose to ally himself with the Islamic State. One hundred fifteen perished that day, including the bomber. Including Mary and Alice Watson.
John could hear Mrs. Hudson on the floor below. Since Sherlock moved John back into Baker Street, she had been coming up every day to check on him.
“How is the poor dear today, Sherlock?”
“Not up yet, Mrs. Hudson. Well, he hasn’t appeared from his room yet. John’s been awake for hours, checking his mobile for football scores and I believe he watched a bit of a cricket match.” Sherlock tilted his head to one side as if listening to the bedroom on the third floor.
John rolled his eyes.
“The poor dear. Shall I bring him up a cup of tea do you think?”
Sherlock looked up from his laptop, mock surprise on his face. “Perish the thought, Mrs. Hudson. You are not our housekeeper.”
She reached for the Times, rolling it and slapping Sherlock gently on the arm. “I’ll just pop up and check on the dear.”
John stood at the bottom of the stairs looking disheveled. “I’m alright, Mrs. Hudson.”
“Of course you are, dear.” She walked over to embrace him. He gave her a little squeeze before she broke away, wiping her eyes with a tissue she had kept up her sleeve.
John and Sherlock looked at one another and both rolled their eyes. John placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and steered her towards the door. “Thank you for checking on me, Mrs. Hudson.”
She nodded and sniffed as she was hurried out the door.
“God that woman…” John started. Then he grinned. “It is nice to be mothered a bit.”
“Would you like me to make you a cuppa, John dear?” Sherlock asked in a falsetto.
“Sod off.” John laughed and pushed up his sleeves. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Are you going in to the clinic today?” Sherlock called out.
“Nope, not today.”
Sherlock appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. “Want to come down to New Scotland Yard with me? Lestrade has a missing persons case he can’t solve and he needs us, John.”
“Oh, did Greg text you?” he pulled two mugs from the cabinet.
“No. He’s been struggling with this case for three days. He’s just too damned proud to ask for help. But time is of the essence, John. We must let him know he needs us.”
John chuckled and shook his head. “Greg won’t like that.”
“Lestrade be damned. This case is important.”
“Why is it important?”
“Because the parents emailed us. They don’t trust the ineptitude of Scotland Yard.”
John put bags in the mugs and leaned against the counter. “Okay. Fine. Tell me about this missing persons case.”
Sherlock straddled the kitchen chair. His eyes were bright with excitement. “Teenage girl was babysitting her little brother when they both went missing.”
“Was it the parents? The girl’s boyfriend?”
“No. Daisy Harris, age fifteen, average student at Preston Manor School. Mother, a physician, Doctor Imogene Harris, originally from the Bahamas died when she was five. Father originally from Dover, works as a maths teacher at the school, remarried four years ago. Mister Edwin Baker and his wife Parveen have a sixteen month old son, Tommy. According to Daisy’s best friend, one Miss Ellie Partiger, Daisy resented having to help take care of her little brother. She doesn’t care much for her step mother. Daisy had been reluctant to grow up. She spent a lot of time reading fairy stories, keeping the toys from her childhood, especially ones her mother had given her. Lots of fairy and princess dolls, fantasy creatures and things that, according to Ellie, she should have grown out of when they were nine.”
“You got all this from an email from her parents?”
Sherlock raised one eyebrow.
“Of course not. You’ve been working on this case for what… two days already?”
Sherlock smiled. “You know me so well, John.”
The kettle whistled. John poured water into the mugs and placed the mugs on the table. Sherlock pushed a photo across the table. John looked at the image of a teenage girl, dark hair in natural, tight ringlets framing her face. Her skin was the colour of milky coffee, brown freckles splashed across her cheeks. She was wearing her school uniform; blue blazer, white blouse and blue tie with red stripes.
“Pretty girl. Looks like your average teenager. Smile doesn’t reach her eyes, though.”
Sherlock pulled the photo back and studied the eyes. “Hmmm… sometimes you do more than point out the obvious, John.”
John rolled his eyes and sat down. “So, unhappy teenage girl choosing to lose herself in fantasy and childhood, resents babysitting her half brother?”
“Both children disappeared from their home. No signs of forced entry. Doors locked from the inside. No windows opened. Daisy’s room looked like she had been playing with some dolls on her desk while having a book about a goblin king propped open. Her iPod was repeating a waltz. Tommy’s nursery was neat, no signs of struggle. A few stuffed toys on the floor, and his favorite blanket was missing from his crib.”
He paused to allow John to visualize the scene.
“Okay…” John sipped his tea.
“There were fresh leaves and petals on the nursery room floor.”
“Blown in by an open window? Tracked in on a shoe? Collected by an interested toddler?”
“Not crushed. Not from any tree on the property or in the neighborhood. The leaves and flowers were from a magnolia tree.”
“But it’s November. Magnolia trees aren’t in bloom right now.”
A broad grin crept across Sherlock’s face. “Indeed. They are not a native species, though I did find a few nurseries that carry them.”
“So Lestrade is stumped. But you have a theory.”
Sherlock steepled his fingers under his nose.
John sipped his tea again.
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
John breathed out a tiny laugh of derision. “How improbable are we talking?”
Sherlock grinned again.
“In 1985 a fourteen year old girl was babysitting her half brother while their parents went out for the evening. The parents came home early to find both children missing, a pile of magnolia petals on the nursery floor. While the parents were meeting with the D.I. in their kitchen, there were footsteps on the second floor. The baby was asleep in his crib, and the girl was asleep in her bed, a book clutched in her hand.”
John leaned forward as if listening more intently.
“In Exeter in 1972 a sixteen year old girl was home with her baby sister. She resented her parents for waiting so long to have a second child. She was reading her favorite story aloud to the baby. We know this because her copy of the book was found on the floor near a pile of blocks. The girls were found three days later sitting exactly where they had last been suspected of being - baby playing with blocks, her sister sitting cross legged in front of her reading a passage from her book aloud.”
John pressed his lips together in a smirk. “Okay, I’ll bite. What is the book? I presume it’s the same book in all three disappearances.”
“Twelve, John. Twelve disappearances. Twelve teenage girls babysitting significantly younger siblings all reading the same book. Twelve girls not wanting to grow up, lost in fantasy books and toys, no boyfriends, but all, by the diaries they each kept, longing to be swept away romantically by an older man.”
“Teenage girls with daddy issues?”
“The book,” Sherlock pulled a small red hardbound book without a paper sleeve from his jacket pocket. There were no marks on the spine. The title was stamped in gold letters on the front.
“Labyrinth?” John ran a thumb over the embossed word. “Never heard of it. What’s it about?”
“It’s a story about a king of goblins who falls in love with a human girl, and instead of simply professing his love for her or seducing her, he kidnaps her baby brother. The girl is an ordinary peasant, mother died of some plague or other. Father remarries and the girl resents it all. She wants to escape. So one night she cries out that she wishes a handsome prince would steal her away. In a flurry of mauve petals and leaves, a man in a glittering suit appears and the baby disappears. He makes a bargain with her, that if she stays with him as his queen, he shall turn the baby into a goblin and she will never have to suffer him again. If she refuses to be his bride, she must fight her way through a fantastical maze, a labyrinth, all the way to his castle to free the baby. Of course she has second thoughts, feels guilty about the baby, et cetera, so she refuses to marry the king and has adventures in the labyrinth on her way to save her baby brother.”
“Did you read this book, Sherlock? It doesn’t sound like something you’d normally read. No treatise on the effects of chlorine on flesh in varying stages of decay or how many millimeters the flesh retracts from nail beds after death.”
“Oh please, John, I wrote those books,” Sherlock said seriously.
Their eyes met across the table and both laughed.
“So how long were each of the girls missing? A day? Three days?”
“Three days was the most. For the ones that returned.”
“There were some that were never found?”
“In eighteen ninety two Elizabeth Smith, aged fifteen, and her two year old brother Jack, disappeared. They never returned. Elizabeth had been reading this book repeatedly for months prior to their disappearance. The police closed the case saying she probably ran off with a boyfriend and killed the baby. No bodies were ever found.” Sherlock sipped his now cold tea. He scowled. John rolled his eyes. He sipped again. “There was also no evidence of a boyfriend.”
John got up to place his empty mug in the sink.
“In nineteen twelve Amelia Burroughs, aged fourteen, and her one year old sister disappeared, both also never returned. Amelia’s copy of the book was found with the page marked where the peasant girl in the story cries out to the Goblin King to take the baby.”
John leaned his low back against the sink, crossing his arms over his belly. “And today is day three that Daisy and Tommy have been missing?”
“Yes. We can presume since the parents haven’t texted me to say the children are back, that this may end up like Amelia and Elizabeth.”
John picked up the little red book.
“Read it, John. Quickly. Time if of the essence!” He swung his long legs out of the chair and stalked to the peg to take down his coat.
“Where are you going?” John waved the book at him.
“I am going to check out Tommy’s nursery and Daisy’s bedroom again for clues. But you need to read that book, so make yourself a pot of tea and get to it!” Sherlock wrapped his blue scarf around his neck and in a flurry of dark fabric, flew down the stairs.