Jim skimmed a hand across the surface of the water, watching the four faint trails left by his fingers deepen faint trenches and then vanish as the water smoothed itself out again. He leant back, closed his eyes, and let the ethereal and ancient harmonies echoing off the tiled walls transport him to a place of serenity. It was difficult, at first; the music presented itself as mathematics, the dorian mode, the fourths and fifths (4/3; 3/2; Pythagoras, you clever little so-and-so) that medieval musicians considered sublime. It took long minutes, soaking in water hot enough to scald, for him to strip away the ruthlessness of numerical perfection and allow the melody to absorb itself into his skin. At last, only the music mattered; the world, with its billions of pitiful insects conducting themselves as if their lives made a difference, fell away.
Until the knock came on the door.
Five quick raps, utterly destroying his hard-won calm. He ground his teeth, wincing as his muscles contracted and his blood raced faster. “Yes, dear?”
The door opened, and Jim watched in mingled annoyance and pleasure as Sebastian’s brow wrinkled in consternation. “It’s like a fucking sauna in here.”
“Isn’t it just. Close the door.” Jim dipped a flannel in the water, wrung it out, and folded it over his eyes, leaning back against the rim of the tub. “I assume, since you know how I hate to be disturbed in the bath, that you have something really earth-shattering to tell me.” The scent of sandalwood and cedar drifted to his nostrils.
Sebastian closed the door and strode to the vanity, rummaging through a careless disorder of SK-II and Clinique and Tom Ford and Dr. Hauschka. He made a small triumphant noise, and the music’s volume dwindled to almost nothing.
“I was listening to that,” Jim snarled softly, though he didn’t bother to remove the flannel from his eyes. He settled back, feeling the thrumming tension of Seb’s lean, taut body, sensing the narrow intensity of Seb’s gaze fixing itself upon him.
“You knew about this. How? How did you know?”
If not for Seb’s unflagging loyalty, Jim might have killed him years ago.
“Seb. Sweetheart. I can’t help not answering when you use too many fucking pronouns and not enough antecedents. Now tell me – what did I know about?”
“Trevor. He talked to his sister.”
“Ah.” Now that was interesting. Jim sat up and let the cloth fall from his eyes. “I didn’t know, but the probability of him contacting her was high. And?”
“And nothing, yet.” Sebastian leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. A glimpse of ankle holster peeked past his immaculate trouser cuff. “I could take care of…your little problem, you know. Quickly. Efficiently. I don’t understand why you’re playing this stupid fucking cat and mouse game.”
Jim laughed. “Seb, you know I hate explaining things. Don’t ask questions.”
Sebastian’s face contracted for a moment, as if he were in pain. Then he smiled thinly. “Ours is but to do and die, eh? Right. You’re bloody lucky you pay so well.”
The grin tugging at the corners of Jim’s mouth faded, and he shot Sebastian a quick glare. “You’re showing disturbing signs of developing an independent streak, Seb honey. Remember, I own you, body and soul, and if you forget –“
“Don’t threaten a killer, Jim,” Seb replied softly.
Gosh. Seb was showing his teeth. “If you forget,” Jim went on, as if Seb hadn’t spoken, “I’ll feed you your own entrails with béchamel sauce.” A headache was developing behind his eyes. “Now – was there something else you wanted?”
“Do you want me to take care of Trevor?”
“God, no! And spoil all the fun? You are such a wet blanket sometimes, Seb.” Jim stretched his leg and nudged the hot water tap into life with his toes. “No, you sit tight, sweetheart. I’m sending someone else in for this.”
Sebastian snorted. “To do what?”
“He’s a little more devious than you, Seb. You’re good, don’t get me wrong, but you have all the subtlety of a cannon shot. What I have in mind is a little more…complex than your customary bullet in the skull.” He looked up, noting that Sebastian was staring at his naked body submerged in hot water.
“Adler,” Sebastian murmured, his lip curling. “That fucktoy.”
Jim lowered his eyes, modestly, as if Seb had delivered a compliment to him. He loved it when Seb got jealous. Loved it. “Now, now.”
“Fine.” Seb got to his feet. “I’ll make a bet with you, though – you’ll need me before all this is over.”
“I’m not taking that bet, honey.” Jim let his gaze travel the length of Sebastian Moran’s hard, spare body, then leant back again, listening to the soft chant still bouncing off handmade Italian tile. “Now get your fucking clothes off.”
“Okay. Breathe in for me? Nice deep breath.”
The woman on the examining table sucked in a quick breath and let it go.
John blinked and clamped his lips together so that his sigh issued through his nose. Why couldn’t some people fathom the meaning of the word deep, especially the patients he saw twice a month as a matter of course? “Right, let’s try that again, Mrs. Parker. Big breath, from the bottom of your tummy up to your throat. Like this.” He demonstrated loudly and settled his stethoscope against Mrs. Parker’s back. “Ready? Have at it.” Mrs. Parker tried again, and managed a fair approximation of a deep breath. John leant close and listened. “Well, I’m not hearing any congestion in the lungs – that’s good news. Any pain in the chest?”
“No. Just the tightness.”
“You can button your blouse up.” John unhooked his scope and hung it round his neck. “Do you notice it at any particular time of day, or during any particular activity?”
“When I – why do you ask?” Mrs. Parker’s immaculately made-up face darkened with suspicion.
“Well, sometimes exercise can bring on an asthma attack, or it could be induced by cleaning chemicals in your house, or anxiety – there are all sorts of reasons. I’m trying to narrow the cause a bit.” John smiled in his most placating fashion. Mrs. Parker, as well as being a frequent flier in the surgery, was a bit of a wild and woolly one at times.
“I’m not sick in the head,” Mrs. Parker spat. “I can’t get air. I can’t breathe. That’s not anxiety, Dr. Watson.” She buttoned her blouse with rapid, stabbing motions. “If you don’t think you’re qualified to diagnose me properly, perhaps Dr. Sawyer can see me next time instead.”
Christ, if only. “Mrs. Parker, it’s not my intention to belittle your symptoms, not in the least. I can give you some albuterol, but what I’d really love for you to try is a marvellous little pamphlet I’ve got on reducing anxiety through breathing techniques. It’s worked wonders, without medication –“
“Oh, I see. Breathing techniques. Dr. Watson, I do not pay outrageous taxes to get an appointment only to be told that my only hope of not dying in the street is doing some bloody New Age breathing techniques. Honestly, with the state of things in this country, you’d think that doctors would at least –“
“Albuterol.” John cut her off firmly, pressing a small inhaler into her hand. “No more than four times a day if you can possibly manage it, and ease up if you feel yourself getting a bit shaky or jittery.” He watched her expression alchemize from outrage to melting sweetness and smiled at her again, trying to keep a nasty, cynical smirk from overtaking his face. “Let me know if you run into any trouble with it, all right?”
“Oh. All right. Thank you.”
He watched Mrs. Parker leave, tipping a little wave as she rounded the corner. After she’d disappeared altogether, he let out a sigh – big deep breath – and sank onto the rolling chair. It could have been worse, certainly – it wasn’t as bad as the time she insisted a mosquito bite was the beginning of a full-blown MRSA infection, or the time she was convinced that a trip to Ireland had left her with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but it wasn’t a bed of roses, either. Yawning, he stripped off his white coat and tucked his scope in a drawer. He looked forward to a quiet night at home – well, as quiet as it ever got – some takeaway, maybe a movie on telly, and an early night. He hoped, at any rate, but one never knew.
There was a tap on the door, and Sarah peered in. “All clear?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Typhoid Mary’s just gone home.”
“What was it this time?”
“Asthma. Contracted just like that.” John snapped his fingers. “Thing is, I’m sure it’s stress-induced, but she didn’t want to hear it from me. I gave her some albuterol. I’ll bet you a fiver she comes in next week with an empty inhaler and heart palpitations.”
Sarah laughed. “You’re probably right. I can see her from now on if you like.”
“No, I’m used to her.” John pushed himself to his feet. “I’m knackered. Come on, I’ll walk you to the tube.”
“Colder than I thought out here,” Sarah said, stuffing her hands into her coat pockets. “You’ve got that holiday coming up next week. Big plans?”
John shrugged. “Not sure, really. I was thinking about going to Cornwall –“
“No,” John said, then realised how sharply the denial had emerged from his mouth. He laughed little to take the sting from his words “No – actually, getting away from Sherlock is sort of the point. There’s a girl I’m seeing, name’s Alice. Her parents have a cottage there.”
“Oh! That’s nice.” Sarah’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “It’s sure to be warmer there now.”
“I suppose so. Anyhow, it’s not set in stone.” He and Sarah hadn’t dated for a few months now, and he didn’t mind telling her about the women he saw – she was dating another bloke as well – but he always felt as if he were fighting some kind of losing battle when he did; Sarah would get a funny sort of look in her eyes, as if she didn’t quite believe him, and more often than not she tended to refer to Sherlock as if he were, well –
“No, I expect it’s not. Nothing is when you live with Sherlock Holmes, right?”
“Sarah –“ John stopped dead, almost colliding with an old lady lugging a cotton sack of fruits and vegetables. “Sorry,” he called, and turned back to Sarah. “Look, Sarah, you know I’m not –“
“I didn’t mean anything by it.” Sarah laid a hand on his arm. “Just that he’s a bit unpredictable. Anyhow, I like him. Sort of.” She gave him a sweet smile and a warm hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks for walking me.”
John watched her trot down the staircase. She was still sexy – fantastic legs, great face, pretty hair, luscious breasts. They hadn’t broken apart as much as faded away, and he wasn’t sure why, really. He still found her attractive. She was the one who’d changed – she’d deny it, probably, but it was true. She even looked at him differently – there always seemed to be a light of speculation in her eyes, as if he had some invisible problem and she was trying to sort out what it might be. Drove him barmy sometimes.
He blew out a breath, stuck his hands in his pockets, and went in search of dinner.
“Sherlock?” John trudged up the stairs. “You hungry? I got udon –“ He stopped short at the sight of a tall, slim woman peering at one of the bookcases. “Hello.”
“Hello there.” The woman smiled at him. “You must be Dr. Watson. Sherlock said you’d be home soon.”
“Erm, yes. I live here,” John said unnecessarily. He took the woman’s appearance in a single glance. She looked expensive; not flashy-expensive, like a footballer’s wife, but the sort of expensive that meant she bought her clothes in the sort of shops that buzzed you in or made appointments. She wore a suit of chocolate-coloured wool that looked wonderfully soft to the touch, and gleaming shoes with very high heels. Flung across the sofa was a camel coat and a handbag he’d remembered Sarah admiring in a magazine once. Her black hair was pulled back from a high, wide brow into a bun, like a ballet dancer, and she wore red lipstick. She wasn’t pretty, not exactly, but she was striking, definitely attractive; most men would give her a second look, and a third. John moved closer and smiled. She had a nice perfume. “Is Sherlock around?”
“Oh, he’s having a bath. Almost finished, I should think.” The woman bent close to a shelf, examining the book spines. “Well, his reading tastes haven’t changed much.”
John raised a mental set of eyebrows. “You’re a friend of his?” A bath? Surreptitiously, he eyed her clothes; they were perfect, unwrinkled.
“I don’t know if he’d say that about me, but I consider him a friend. God, sorry, I’m being disgracefully rude.” She stretched out a hand. “Victoria Trevor. How do you do?”
“John Watson. I’m…great, thanks.” He beamed at her. The evening had just got a bit more interesting. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine, thanks.” She looked at the bag in his hand. “I’m interrupting your dinner.”
“Will you stay? There’s plenty for three.”
“Thank you, no. I have an engagement this evening.” She moved to the sofa on racehorse legs and sat, crossing her ankles. “Please, I feel terrible. You must have had a long day. Do eat, Doctor.”
“It’s fine.” John set the bag on the kitchen table, nudging aside a pile of books and a decapitated turkey’s head on a china plate. “I’m sure Sherlock will be out in just a bit.” He looked down at the turkey’s head. It stared sadly up at him with one dull, pebble-coloured eye. “You sure you won’t have tea?”
“Well…all right. Twist my arm.” She smiled at him. “He’s never mentioned me, has he?”
For no reason that he could determine, the casually intimate question set his teeth on edge. What are you on about, then? If Sherlock had one relationship that he didn’t manage to completely destroy, you should be glad. He shrugged apologetically and took another surreptitious look at her. Tall, thin, elegant, sort of unusual looking – probably just Sherlock’s type, if he had a type – and there was a narcissistic streak in him, to be sure. “No, but I don’t hear a lot about Sherlock’s past. I don’t get to meet many of his old…friends.”
“And why should you?” Sherlock strode into the kitchen in his deep-crimson dressing gown, his hair wet. “Why on earth should I keep in touch with a pack of idiots just to parade them in front of my flatmate? I haven’t met many of your old friends, either. Oh, did you get udon?” He fished a container from the white paper sack and flung himself into his chair, not glancing at Ms. Trevor. He opened the carton, plunged chopsticks in, and began to eat.
“You certainly don’t keep in touch with me,” Ms. Trevor said.
Ms. Trevor smiled. “It’s the question that answers itself, I suppose. How was your bath?” Was there an edge of flirtation in her voice?
“Not hot enough,” Sherlock muttered through a mouthful of noodles.
John handed the woman a cup of tea. “There you are.”
“Oh, thank you.” She beamed at him, and he couldn’t help smiling back.
John wasn’t ordinarily attracted to women in the severe mode, but she seemed genuinely friendly, and didn’t take offense at Sherlock’s rudeness, which was extraordinary. He found himself curious about their shared past. “So…were you two at school together, Ms. Trevor? Or did you –“
“Infant school,” Ms. Trevor replied. “And please do call me Victoria.”
“If you’ll call me John.” He sneaked a glance at her legs.
“I’d love that, John.”
“She’d love it,” Sherlock snorted. “John, if you must know, we were at infant school together, and then at Cambridge. For a while. And then Trevor sold her soul.”
“I got married,” Victoria said.
“I fail to see the difference.”
John sat in his chair. “Well, that’s interesting. Did you two…erm, date?”
Victoria laughed. “If you call dashing round to morgues and crime scenes and police headquarters and digging through rubbish skips on week-ends, then yes, I suppose we did, after a fashion. It was more interesting than studying.”
John looked at Sherlock for some sign that he’d once been intimate with this compelling and rather sexy woman sitting across from him on the sofa and saw no change in Sherlock’s usual demeanour. In fact, he looked more bored than usual as he picked through the udon to find the most succulent pieces of meat.
“Ancient history,” Sherlock said.
“And in my third year I fell in love and left school.”
“Stupid,” Sherlock said.
Victoria crossed her arms. “Me, or Horst?”
“Both of you.”
“He was lovely – he still is lovely – and your treatment of him was absolutely beastly, Sherlock. You really don’t deserve to be forgiven for that.”
“Who says I want to be?” Sherlock set his carton of udon on the floor and stretched his legs out. “You could have been something, Trevor, and you chucked it all for some bloody schloss in the middle of nowhere and some inane job looking after charlatans’ finger bones.”
“Sorry, you…?” John shook his head, puzzled.
Victoria let out a long, slow breath and gave John a tight-lipped smile. “I’m attached to Cologne Cathedral, John. It’s a World Heritage site, and incredibly beautiful –“
Sherlock snorted loudly.
“And I suppose you could call me a docent, although that doesn’t quite cover it. It’s fascinating work, and –“ She broke off and gave Sherlock a cold stare. “Are you at all curious about why I’m here?”
“I was wondering when you’d get to it,” Sherlock replied. He picked up the udon again and stirred it idly.
She bit her lip and looked as if she were about to say something very acerbic, then crossed one leg over the other and leant forward. “You remember my brother Simon?”
“Yes,” Sherlock sighed.
Victoria turned to John. “My brother is the spiritual director at a Dominican monastery – San Stefano, in the Italian Alps. It’s a wonderful place – self-sustaining, gorgeous location, and a small but rich library. There are a number of codices, hand-crafted books –“ Graceful fingers shaped the dimensions of a book, “that date from the Dark Ages onward. They’re nearly priceless, worth millions of pounds. Scholars from all over the world come to examine them, and the contents of the library in general. A week ago, one of the codices was stolen.” She looked at Sherlock. “I want you to find it and restore it to the monastery.”
Sherlock yawned. “No.”
“There’s more.” She glanced at John. “Three monks are dead. Not obviously murder in any case, but all three deaths occurred within two weeks. The police are baffled, Sherlock, and I’m afraid Simon’s reputation is in danger.” She paused. “If not his life.”
“Probably an inside job, Trevor,” Sherlock said with a sniff. “One of the monks got greedy and decided to make a killing, pun very much intended. You’ve got connections – dig about for a medieval codex sold at private auction. Then call your brother and find out if one of the monks has done a bolt recently, and you’ll find your thief.”
“Do you really think I’m that stupid?” Victoria snapped. She set down her teacup, gathered her coat and bag, and got to her feet. “I have feelers everywhere I can put them. The last death was this morning, Sherlock. Would the killer bother to hang about? It’s not coincidence, it’s – look, just think about it, all right? And for once in your life, will you – “ She broke off, her face pink, and moved close to Sherlock’s chair, sinking to her knees and putting her hand atop Sherlock’s.
John watched, scanning Sherlock’s closed face and then watching the woman’s hand as it tightened on Sherlock’s fingers. His stomach clenched.
“Please, Sherlock.” Victoria’s voice was low and caressing. “Please.” She got to her feet and addressed him in a more businesslike tone. “If you want to find me, I’m at the Dorchester, and will be there until Sunday morning. If you do decide to take the case, your expenses will be paid, naturally, and there will be a generous bonus at the end if you manage to solve it.”
Sherlock gave her a brief, chill glance. “Don’t insult me.”
“Think about it,” she repeated, and nodded to John. “Dr. Watson, it was lovely to meet you. Good night.” She hurried from the room, leaving a faint wake of pretty scent.
John stared at Sherlock. “She’s the only person I’ve ever seen who – aren’t you even going to –“ He shook his head, jumped up, and ran down the stairs. “Ms. Trevor!” he called.
She turned in the act of getting into a black car. “I didn’t leave something, did I?”
“No….” John paused for breath. “It’s just that I – I’m sorry. He’s been a bit…not himself just lately.”
Victoria Trevor smiled. “I have a difficult time believing Sherlock is anything but himself. I’ve known him too long to think otherwise.” She shifted her bag to her other hand. “Do you think he’ll take the case?”
“Well, it’s…hard to say.” John suddenly wondered why he’d chased after her. She was nice enough, sexy in her way, and evidently she and Sherlock shared a History of some sort. Was that why he’d run? “I’ll certainly speak to him about it.”
She tilted her head to one side, as if to get a better look at him. “How long have you lived with him, Dr. Watson?”
They were back to Ms. Trevor and Dr. Watson now, apparently. “Almost a year.”
“And do you often go on cases with him?”
“Yes. It’s….” Fun? A hobby? Avocation? Beats a kick in the teeth? “It’s interesting to watch him work. And to help him, where I can.”
“Yes, it is. He’s fascinating. Always has been.” She dove into her bag and came up with a bright red leather case. Opening it, she withdrew a picture and handed it to him. “Have a look at that.”
John moved closer to the streetlight and peered at the photo. Startled, he let out a chuckle. “God, look at that!” The picture showed a teen-aged Sherlock, sullen and a bit awkward in formal evening dress, linking arms with a scrawny, homely, buck-toothed girl in a white dress that looked like a wedding cake. “When was this?”
“Oh – nearly twenty years ago now. That was my deb party.”
“I –“ John gaped. “That’s…” That’s you? he’d been about to say, but swallowed the unkind remark back. “That’s quite a pretty dress.”
Victoria smiled. “Oh, I know. I was a horror. I begged and begged my parents not to have the party. I was never one of those girls who managed to swan through their adolescence with grace. Being ugly makes one persona non grata at that age, you know – or maybe you don’t, you’re quite handsome. I’d go to dancing classes and even the least social and attractive boys would wince if they were partnered with me.” She held her hand out for the photo and looked at it. “So there I was, the night of my deb party, all alone. Can you imagine – the star of the show, and nobody talked to me. And I’d never looked so disgusting, me in that gigantic meringue. But then Sherlock – he was at Harrow then, and he was lovely, but not popular – all the Hoorays in training teased him pretty relentlessly – at any rate, he walked up to me, and do you know what he said?”
“Well, if it were anyone but Sherlock….” John trailed off uncertainly.
“Quite right. What he said was, ‘Well, if we’re both going to be mocked, we might as well present a united front.’” She laughed.
John grinned. “Yeah, that sounds like him.”
“He saved me that night. I know it sounds stupid and trivial, but childhood hurts seem to sting the worst – and last longest of all hurts.” She slipped the photo back into its case. “He was tactless, but he was kind, in his way. I never forgot that, and I never will. I like to think I’ve done him the odd favour or two as well, and I’d hoped….” She shrugged, looked up at the windows of 221b, and smiled. “He was watching. You’ve lived with him a year?”
“An extraordinary amount of time, for Sherlock. But you must know that.”
“Yeah, I suppose I do at that,” John said, and felt a little glow, as if she’d paid him the most extravagant of compliments. He smiled at her, and saw the same speculative look Sarah often gave him. “Not to say he’s not a pain in the arse at times. Well, all the time.”
Victoria bit her lower lip. “Yes. I imagine that the rent on this place must be quite steep. He says he never does things for money, but one can always use money, and if his trust were more generous, he wouldn’t need a flatmate.” She put her hand on his arm. “If you two manage to solve the case, I’ll pay your rent for a year. No – please don’t say anything. As I said, you know where to find me. Good night, Dr. Watson.” She slipped into the car, and it pulled away silently into the indigo-coloured evening.
John watched until the car’s taillights blurred into the cityscape, then climbed the stairs back to the flat. Sherlock was slumped in his chair, contemplating his toes and looking as if he were about to perish from ennui. His hair had separated into dozens of shining curls, and his dressing gown was rucked up around his knees, as if he’d sat hastily. John hid a smile. “Well. She was quite nice, wasn’t she?”
Sherlock said nothing.
“She seemed quite concerned for her brother,” John ventured.
“She ought to be. It’s rather a miracle he’s lived as long as he has – he’s unbelievably stupid.”
John retrieved the takeaway bag from the table and slid into the chair opposite Sherlock. “I have that holiday coming up next week. A whole fortnight.”
Sherlock’s gaze settled on John for an instant, wide-eyed and – dare John think it – hopeful, or vaguely confused; John could never quite tell. His fawn-in-lorry-headlights gaze. “You’d go?”
Sherlock sniffed and wriggled his toes. “I suppose I could have a look about.”
“Then I’ll go too.”
One corner of Sherlock’s mouth turned upward, and John felt that odd little glow again, creeping from his belly up into his neck and cheeks. He peered into his container of udon. “Cold,” he mumbled, and this time didn’t trouble to hide his smile.
Sherlock’s phone chirped, but he ignored it. Much more interesting to continue his veiled examination of the woman across the aisle and three seats down. She was a florist, likely working in an outdoor market due to her pale face (wide-brimmed hat against the sun) and her weathered hands (sensible, blunt nails, sun-damaged, dry from continuous exposure to water, tiny cuts and scrapes from thorns and prickly plants). White stripe of skin on third finger of left hand – wedding ring, recently removed. Clothes more stiff and confining than her customary garb, judging from the way she tugged at the collar of her suit now and then, and though the suit itself was in nearly pristine condition, the style and colour were dated, unfashionable. She’d taken some trouble to get herself up, though – she wore earrings (no stretch at the lobes, so the pendants dangling were a rare occurrence) and lipstick (red, a bit dry because she’d clearly bought it years ago and used it perhaps twice a month, if that). Her demeanour had become more and more agitated as they drew closer to their destination, and Sherlock wondered who she was meeting. A lover? A solicitor? A private investigator?
His gaze slid to her handbag. Ah. Lover. It was expensive, butter-soft leather, in a brilliant cobalt blue – not the sort of handbag someone accustomed to austerity would buy for herself, nor would a husband who didn’t merit significance purchase for her. A lover it was, then.
The phone chirped again. Sherlock scowled, reached into his pocket, and took it out.
Where are you?
Sherlock’s mouth twisted to one side as he typed. None of your business. SH
You’re in Italy.
If you’re trying to prove your own omniscience, you need to step it up. SH
I seem to recall asking you to work on the Voorman problem.
Yes, I seem to recall that too. SH
When can I expect your return? His brother’s impatient sigh was nearly audible in the text. Sherlock decided he needed to record it somehow and use it as Mycroft’s ringtone.
I really couldn’t say. SH
Do me the courtesy of informing me when you return to London.
If you like. SH Doubtless Mycroft would know almost as soon as Sherlock stepped on the train for home, but he was bored with the sparring. He muted his phone and stuck it back in his pocket.
Seeking stimulation, he glanced at the woman who was now visibly excited, wringing her hands and staring eagerly out the window, but the novelty of picking her apart had faded. He let his gaze wander and finally settle on John, who was sleeping in the seat next to him. John, who performed all tasks with quiet economy, even slept neatly; his hands were folded together in his lap over a copy of The Lancet, his feet were planted firmly on the floor, no more than a hand’s width apart, and his head was tilted back on the seat rest. His posture looked as if he might jump to his feet at the least noise, but in the late afternoon sunlight his face in repose was peaceful and still. His eyelashes, Sherlock noticed, were gold and quite long.
Suddenly and quite unaccountably annoyed with himself, Sherlock turned and stared out the window at the passing countryside, at the blue sky and lush spread of conifers bookending sharp, jagged peaks of mountain, snow-capped even in high summer and now, in early spring, swathed in white. The train was slowing, allowing a clear view of the picturesque landscape and the tidy houses and shops they passed, more German in character than Italian. It was quite pretty; even a dedicated city rat like Sherlock admitted that to himself.
“John,” he said quietly. “Wake up.”
John blinked and peered round as if he were a chick fresh from the egg. “Hm? What?”
“We’re here. Get your things.”
“Oh, right, right.” John stretched and yawned, then leant forward to peer out the window. “Wow. Look at that, Sherlock. Gorgeous!”
“I suppose so,” Sherlock returned, all indifference. “It certainly won’t be as warm as Cornwall would have been. At the cottage.” He felt in his pockets for his gloves and slid them on, smoothing the fingers one by one.
John didn’t rise to the bait; he was still gaping out the window. “No, I reckon it won’t be.” A gentle smile creased his cheeks, and his voice was positively dreamy.
Sherlock looked askance at John. “Is this your first sight of a mountain, John?”
“My first sight of these mountains. Sort of romantic, aren’t they?”
“Romantic,” Sherlock mused.
“Yeah, like The Sound of Music.” John caught Sherlock’s eye, blushed, and cleared his throat. “Or, you know, Where Eagles Dare. With, ah…Nazis.”
“I haven’t the least idea what you’re talking about,” Sherlock said. John gave voice to the oddest non sequiturs at times. “Come on, don’t dawdle, we’re here.”
They retrieved their bags and disembarked onto a flagstone platform attached to a long, low stone station with a cloister-like arched walkway. Sherlock looked for the woman he’d been watching on the train and saw her embracing another woman, petite and chicly dressed. They walked away arm in arm, and their intimate posture indicated they were more than sisters, likely more than best friends. Sherlock gave himself a tiny mental pat on the back and turned to John. “Trevor said we’d be met here.”
Sherlock turned to see a man dressed in a long white habit with a black cape. Ah. “Yes.”
The man – monk, or friar, Sherlock supposed – broke into a grin, showing even white teeth in a craggy, sun-tanned face. “Knew it was you. Father Simon said I should look for a tall, skinny bloke with dark hair and a bit of a scowl.” He stuck out a weathered hand. “Brother Edward. Welcome.”
“Simon always did know how to give a compliment,” Sherlock remarked dryly, shaking the monk’s hand. “And he always was suspicious of anyone who didn’t go about with an idiot grin pasted to his features. I was surprised when he didn’t go into public relations. This is my colleague, Dr. John Watson.”
“Doctor,” Brother Edward said, inclining his head politely. His voice was deep and held traces of Yorkshire. “Welcome, both of you. I’ll be driving you up to San Stefano. Have you got more baggage?”
John shook his head. “No, this is it.”
“Ah, that’s good,” Brother Edward said with approval. “Anyone who needs more than one bag is a tourist, not a traveller. I’ll take them.”
“No, it’s fine –“ John began.
“No trouble,” the monk said cheerfully, and divested John and Sherlock of their bags. He tilted his head westward. “Come on,” he said, and loped toward a small car park.
“Sorry to take you from your gardening,” Sherlock said.
“Eh?” Brother Edward looked over his shoulder. “How’d you know that?”
“Cracks in your hands as well as embedded dirt,” Sherlock said. “You scrub them meticulously, but you can’t get quite all the dirt out despite your diligent efforts. Doesn’t matter, you wouldn’t wear gloves at any rate because you can’t bear not to feel the plants and dirt under your fingertips – you’re incredibly tactile, going by the way your thumb is caressing the leather handle of my bag. Faint grass and dirt stains on the lower portion of your habit, fresh as well as aged, and the habit’s quite worn, so you’ve been at it for a long time, years, most likely. Your work boots are likewise stained with years of dirt and grass. Sun-weathered face and hands, incipient arthritis from the way you’re walking, and a soft but distinct intermittent pop in your knees, clear sign of someone who’s up and down frequently. Also, you smell of early lavender plants, a common natural pesticide. Conclusion: if you’re not a professional gardener, you’re an extraordinarily keen amateur.” Sherlock nodded toward an elderly Volvo estate car. “Is this your car?”
The monk had stopped walking and was staring at Sherlock. His gaze slid toward John. “Chuffin’ heck,” he said softly.
John smiled. “Yeah. He’s always like that.”
Brother Edward blinked, then shook his head. Greying wheat-blond hair fell in his eyes. “I can see why Father Simon asked you to come. Right, hop in.” He opened the rear of the car and put their bags inside.
The car was old, but newly tuned and in excellent condition, and Brother Edward negotiated it with smooth surety on the curving mountain road leading to the monastery. The road rose steeply through a forest of tall pine trees, black-stemmed with thick green branches weighted with dazzling lashings of silvery white. The road had been cindered, and great banks of black-speckled frozen snow lined it on either side.
“This is breathtakingly beautiful,” John said, swivelling his head from side to side so as not to miss a thing. “You’re lucky to live in such an astounding landscape.”
“Don’t I know it,” Brother Edward said. “Not that I don’t miss Leeds now and then, but I visit my family every so often, and I’m always grateful to come back.”
“Can you shed any light on what’s been happening at the monastery, Brother Edward?” Sherlock inquired, unwilling to listen to any more rhapsodic waxing about scenery and the sound of Nazi eagles or whatever the hell John had been banging on about.
“Not sure I can,” the monk replied. “And to be quite honest, Mr. Holmes, I’m not certain how much I should say without Father Simon’s permission.”
“Surely you have your own thoughts on the matter,” Sherlock said.
“Aye, I do, and if Father Simon gives the word, I’ll be happy to offer them.” Brother Edward bit his lip, seeming to consider, and then said, “But I’ll tell you this. It’s a strange thing, three deaths in two weeks.”
“And none of them appear to be connected,” John prompted gently, and glanced back at Sherlock. Sherlock lifted his eyebrows in acknowledgment of John’s soft touch.
“No,” Brother Edward said. “Not so you’d notice.”
“You thought there was something unusual about them?” Sherlock asked. “If it’s a question of confidentiality that disturbs you, Brother Edward, I assure you that nothing you say to me or Dr. Watson will be repeated in any fashion.”
“I suppose there’s no harm in it,” Brother Edward said hesitantly. “There were three deaths, like I said – the choirmaster, Father Bernard, Brother Matthias, the head librarian, and the assistant librarian, Brother Adelmo. Father Bernard died of a lingering illness – trouble with his kidneys, God rest him. The others – they didn’t go as peacefully, I’m afraid. Brother Matthias died in a fall – broke his neck – and Brother Adelmo….” The monk gave a mournful sigh. “Suicide. Christ have mercy on his sweet soul.”
Sherlock sat up. This was marginally more interesting than he’d anticipated. “And the codex was stolen – when, exactly?”
“Exactly? Oh, I couldn’t say exactly. All those deaths have been a turn-up. They’ve cast a pall over the community, I can tell you. Three weeks ago, now, I should guess.”
“And the librarian and the assistant librarian both died within a few…days of each other, was it? Under suspicious circumstances. And the police haven’t been able to make connections?” Sherlock gave a scornful little laugh. “Pathetic.”
John looked over his shoulder and shook his head almost imperceptibly, folding his lips tightly together.
Sherlock noted the silent reproof but didn’t quite know how to redeem his remark. It was pathetic that the police hadn’t discovered anything, after all. “I suppose they’ve been tramping in and out of the place.”
“Father Simon’s kept it to a minimum,” Brother Edward said.
“One of the perquisites of organised religion.”
John’s head snapped round, and he shot Sherlock a glare that telegraphed the order shut your gob quite clearly.
“Well,” Brother Edward gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “Maybe so.”
Sherlock quirked an eyebrow at John. Ha.
John folded his arms. Oh, shut up.
It really was remarkable that they managed to communicate so much without words lately. Sherlock had never done that with anyone except Mycroft, and with Mycroft it wasn’t so much communication as it was lobbing sarcasm.
There was no more time to reflect on the nature of flatmate telepathy, though, as the car rounded a final curve and glided beneath a stone arch that was, Sherlock saw, actually a gate house with the arch cut out of its centre, its massive iron gates hanging open. Beyond that, on a sort of plateau higher than the conifers, stood the monastery of San Stefano.
It was not in the low, sprawling Mediterranean style he’d expected. Surrounded by a high wall, the buildings were pale quarried stone, grouped closely together, like a tiny self-contained city. The eye was drawn to the central structure, what must have been the church, also of the same stone, with a tall steeple jutting into the clear blue sky. The monastery itself abutted a limestone cliff, so that the cliff appeared to have grown from the monastery.
“Here we are,” Brother Edward said cheerfully, driving toward the foremost structure, a buttressed tower that soared perhaps six storeys high, ornamented with small, narrow arched windows. They drove not to the massive double doors ornamenting the wall at the base of the tower, but to a side portal cut into the wall, with a sign that read Tradesmen’s Entrance in Italian, German, and French. So not entirely self-sustaining any longer, but then even monks liked indoor plumbing and telly nowadays, and indeed, as Sherlock examined the graceful structures, he was tickled to see a satellite dish atop an ornately decorated building, as incongruous as a tyre jack on a wedding cake.
Brother Edward pulled into a stone courtyard and cut the engine. “Father Simon’s in that building there, just to the left of the church,” he said. “He’s expecting you, so I’ll have your bags brought to your rooms. Someone will show you to them after your conference.”
“Thank you,” John said, shaking the man’s hand.
“And where can I find you if I need to speak with you again, Brother Edward?” Sherlock asked.
“Ah, I’m always in the botanical garden – but then you probably knew that, eh?” He got out of the car, and Sherlock and John followed suit. He pointed vaguely east. “It’s up there – there’s a greenhouse attached, so you can’t miss it. Come by any time.” He saluted them with a wave and moved up a winding stone path, falling into conversation with a passing monk.
“Well,” Sherlock said, “here we are. The sanctum sanctorum.”
John smiled faintly. “So you know this Father Simon well?”
“I knew him as Trevor’s brother, before he became a priest. I wouldn’t have thought him the type.”
“Now what makes you say that, John?” Sherlock said, amused. “No – I think he might have fancied himself as such, but the reality came as a rather crushing blow as compared to the fantasy.”
“Maybe that’s why he became a priest.”
“Maybe. Wouldn’t surprise me. Anyhow, he was a self-important fool then and I’ve no reason to believe he’s changed appreciably. Come on, might as well get on with it.”
They walked toward the church, a really beautiful structure, with tall arched windows and what looked like astounding examples of medieval stained glass. Compared to the mountain pathway, there wasn’t much snow, and beds of brave violet and white croci decorated the stone walkway on either side. Sherlock looked up at the steeple, then twisted to examine the stone tower at the entrance to the monastery. All the other buildings were no more than three storeys each, and most were two. He wondered where Brother Matthias, the head librarian, had fallen and broken his neck. And the assistant had committed suicide shortly thereafter. Interesting….
“…a place like this,” John was saying.
“I said try not to insult the man too much, especially in a place like this.”
“Well, be sure to stand clear of me if I do,” Sherlock returned. “Maybe the lightning bolt won’t smite you when it hits me.”
“That’s not what I mean, you eejit,” John said, hurrying to keep up with Sherlock’s longer stride. “Just…be nice, all right? Try not to alienate him right away.”
“Right. I’ll wait ‘til tomorrow, shall I?”
John laughed. “Yeah, ‘til tomorrow at least. It’s gorgeous here, and I’d like to have a look around before they boot us out into the snow.”
“No promises,” Sherlock warned, grasping the heavy iron handle of the door and gesturing for John to precede him. “After you.”
They found themselves in a large, square hall or foyer, sparsely decorated with a threadbare sofa along one wall and a desk and chair tucked in a corner. A wall niche held a statue of a male saint clutching a palm frond in one hand, his face turned up to heaven. “Cosy,” Sherlock remarked quietly.
A door opened, and a youngish bearded and bespectacled monk advanced into the room. “Good afternoon.” His voice was hushed, German-accented. “Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson?”
“That’s correct,” Sherlock said.
“Welcome. Father Simon is waiting for you. If you’ll follow me, please….” He went back to the door and opened it, holding it wide so Sherlock and John could pass through. They went into a small antechamber and then into another room where a lean, balding monk sat at a desk.
Upon seeing them, the monk rose to his feet. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said, extending a hand. He spoke without much evident pleasure, and his mouth contracted into a pucker.
Sherlock shook the smooth, limp hand. “Simon. So lovely to see you too, after so long.” He heard John’s sigh and gave a mental shrug. He hadn’t expected a warm embrace, but honestly –
“And this must be Dr. Watson. Welcome, Doctor.” Simon shook John’s hand and indicated the two chairs in front of his desk with a languid wave of his hand. “Please sit. Can I offer you some coffee? Tea?”
“Tea would be very nice. John?”
John smiled politely. “Oh, yes – thanks, that’d be lovely.”
“Brother Wilfred, some tea, if you please,” Simon said, sounding rather persecuted, and sank into his chair as the young monk bustled out. He folded his hands atop the leather blotter on his desk and regarded Sherlock with a jaundiced eye. “How have you been, Sherlock?”
“Fine.” Sherlock saw three long blond hairs on the black capelet of Simon’s habit and smelled a very feminine aroma of lilies of the valley pervading the room. There were no flowers in evidence, and he very much doubted that any of the monks cultivated hair quite that long. He bit his lower lip hard enough to hurt. Perhaps John had been right about not alienating Simon right away. And perhaps being a priest had improved Simon’s chances with the ladies rather than diminishing them. There was always some romance attached to an unattainable figure, and with his dull wits, Simon needed all the help he could get, vows of celibacy notwithstanding. Still, he should have been a bit less obvious with the evidence. Sherlock wondered if the other monks knew about their spiritual director’s proclivities. “And you?”
“I’ve been better, in all honesty. Perhaps we’d better dispense with the pleasantries and get right to it. Vicki told you why I’ve asked you here?”
“Stolen codex,” Sherlock replied. “Three monks dead in a two-week span.” He mentally reviewed the details Brother Edward had confided, just to see if they lined up with what Simon had to say.
“Yes.” Simon sighed and rubbed his eyes with his fingertips.
“Why don’t you tell me about the deaths and the missing codex, in that order?”
“Very well. The first death was Father Bernard, two and a half weeks ago. He was our choirmaster. We have a very fine choir,” Simon said with a hint of pride. “Not famous, for they neither tour nor record, but exquisite nonetheless and certainly well-known in this part of the country. Father Bernard died of a long illness – the doctor who treated him said it was kidney failure. He wasn’t diabetic, but he was elderly, and who knows what might have caused it.”
“No reason to believe it was foul play at all?” John asked. “Poisoning, for instance?”
“He hadn’t an enemy in the world, Dr. Watson. Everyone adored him. No, the only reason I mention it at all is because I believe the codex was taken from the library during his funeral.”
“And the other two deaths?” Sherlock inquired.
“Well, this is troubling, frankly. The other two deaths were the chief librarian and his assistant.” Simon looked uncomfortable. “And a stolen book. You can imagine how it would stain our reputation if –“
“Yes,” Sherlock interrupted. “How did each death happen?”
“Brother Matthias was the chief librarian. He fell down a flight of stairs in the library four days after the codex was stolen. His neck was broken in the fall, and I’m afraid by the time he was found, it was far too late to get help.”
“And his assistant?”
“Ah.” Simon shook his head. “Brother Adelmo regrettably took his own life.”
Simon shook his head. “I think the details are not relevant.”
“Simon,” Sherlock said with exaggerated patience, “I’m not a psychic. If I’m to be of any assistance with your problem, I need data. How did he kill himself?”
“He…he was found in the bath. His neck…there was a cord about his neck, attached to a heavy stone.”
Simon frowned. “But….”
“You obviously think there’s something amiss. Your fingers had been perfectly still – now you’re tracing figure-eights on your blotter in a rather compulsive fashion.”
A deep frown laddered Simon’s brow. “Yes, there was something amiss. There was an autopsy, you see – we tried to prevent it, but it was impossible. The coroner insisted upon it. It was discovered that there was no water in Brother Adelmo’s lungs.”
Sherlock nodded in satisfaction. “Therefore he was dead –“
“Before he was submerged,” John finished. “Christ.” He blushed violently. “I mean – sorry.”
Simon seemed not to notice John’s mild faux pas. He exhaled softly. “The cause of death was a broken neck. I’ve spent a great deal of money keeping the coroner silent on the matter. I haven’t told Vicki all the details. Not even the other monks are aware of this. We cannot afford a scandal.”
“No, I expect not. Tell me about the codex.”
“You’re familiar with the classification,” Simon said, and then looked at John. “A codex, for our purposes, is a hand-written book dating from late antiquity to the Middle Ages. Our library contains nearly a score of such books, and their value is…incalculable. The one that was stolen contained the writings of Saint Jerome. It was an exquisite piece, roughly dating from the year 900 A.D. and full of the most extraordinary illustrations.”
“And someone just happened to make off with it,” Sherlock said.
“It would have been a difficult thing to conceal. It weighs about thirty kilos and is fifty centimetres tall, twenty-two centimetres wide, and ten centimetres thick. It’s a sturdy piece, relatively of course, but the pages are terribly fragile. They can’t be exposed to direct light, and I fear that whoever might have taken it knows little about the necessity of preserving such a treasure.”
“Did you keep it locked up?” John asked.
Simon looked offended. “There has been no need, Dr. Watson. Until now, there has never been a single theft or misdeed within the walls of this monastery –“
“Oh, I doubt that,” Sherlock snorted.
“Of this magnitude,” Simon said, gritting his teeth together. “The library is open and attended during the day, and locked at night. Only the chief librarian has…had the key.”
“And now he’s pushing up daisies, and so is his assistant. Is there an assistant to the assistant? I’d tell him to watch his back if I were you.”
“No, there is not. In fact, I possess the key now.” Simon’s face was turning an interesting shade of lavender.
“Then you’d better watch your back. In any case, I’ll be needing it for the duration of my stay.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Simon folded his hands atop his desk.
Sherlock gaped at the calm, weaselly face. “Not possible? Why not?”
“If you require access to the library, I will turn the key over to Brother Wilfred and he will let you in. The library is only open intermittently now, and that includes guests.”
“Guests,” John said. “You have other guests?”
“Yes, of course. We accept paying guests throughout the year. They come for one of two reasons: spiritual renewal, or scholarly study. At present we have two guests beside yourselves – one is on pilgrimage, travelling from monastery to monastery, and the other is a Latin scholar. Both arrived very recently. You may have an opportunity to meet them at dinner, which is at six o’clock, by the way. I hope living according to the monastic schedule won’t discommode you unduly.”
“It shouldn’t, not unduly,” Sherlock replied with a touch of acid in his voice. “I do hope you’ll permit me access when I request it, though.”
“Within reason, yes.”
“As I said before, I need data, Simon. Did you bring me here to solve this case, or to be brought up short at every turn? Or are there other troubling secrets here you’d rather not have revealed? The Church certainly sits on quite a nest of them, or so I’ve heard.”
Simon’s knuckles turned white as he clenched his hands together. “Let’s get one thing quite clear, Sherlock. I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. You were an unpleasant, arrogant boy and now you’re an unpleasant, arrogant man. What Vicki saw in you I’m sure I’ll never understand, but she tells me that you’ve developed a reputation for solving difficult cases. You can find the most obscure clues in the twist of a discarded cigarette, she says, or the torn corner of a photograph, or a handful of tattered cloth. She tells me you’re extraordinary and brilliant, and so you might be, but I tell you there is a limit to my patience. I am willing to grant you more access to this abbey than any layperson has ever enjoyed, but I will not have the community here badgered, nor the walls of this sacred place belittled in any fashion. Vicki is paying for your accommodations here, and I assure you I have no compunction about asking you to leave if it comes to that.”
Sherlock smiled. “Touched a nerve, did I?”
“All right –“
“Look, Father,” John said, placing a warning and restraining hand on Sherlock’s arm. “I promise you that we’ll treat you and your community with respect –“
“Can you make that promise?” Simon sniffed.
“Yes,” John said with a firm nod. “But in order to help you, Sherlock – we – need to know that if the investigation requires some concession on your part that’s slightly out of the ordinary, that you’ll at least meet us halfway. Can we agree to that?”
Sherlock held Simon’s gaze, but a little jab of warmth made his mouth twitch. Dear John, such a diplomat.
“I suppose so,” Simon returned grudgingly, rising to his feet. “Brother Wilfred will show you to your rooms now. You have carte blanche to wander the grounds, and at dinner this evening I will let the community know that you’ll be conducting an investigation and that they’re to answer your questions. You’ll find them agreeable, I believe, and most if not all of them speak excellent English.” He picked up a bell on his desk, rang it, and set it down again. “I hope you’ll forgive my outburst,” he said stiffly.
“Of course,” Sherlock said. “Your cooperation is appreciated.” He and John bade Simon farewell and followed the bearded monk out of the building and up a gently sloped path lined with bare trees.
“Well, that went better than I’d anticipated,” John said in a low voice.
“Well, all things considered. He’s not really fond of you, I noticed.”
“No,” Sherlock said. “No, he’s not.”
John bit his lip. “There’s a story there, I bet.”
Sherlock smiled. “Another time. You were remarkably gracious.”
“I thought you were going to make some smart-arse comment about monks diddling altar boys. I was ready to slap my hand over your mouth. But you didn’t – well done.” John reached up and tugged at a branch with tender pale-green buds as he walked.
“I don’t think monastic communities have altar boys.”
“Is that the only thing that stopped you?”
Sherlock shrugged and stole a glance at John, who was smiling. “Anyway, altar boys aren’t the problem here. Two dead librarians with broken necks, that’s the problem.” He rubbed his gloved hands together gleefully and when Brother Wilfred, walking a few metres in front of them, peered at him curiously, stuck his hands in his pockets. “The first place I want to see is the bath where the assistant died,” he said to the monk. “Can you tell us where that is?”
“Why, yes. That’s the balneary. Brother Adelmo was in one of the indoor baths.”
“Indoor?” John asked.
“Yes,” the monk said. “We have a hot spring around which the balneary was built. It’s one of the only structures that hasn’t been extensively modernised. There are indoor baths, and an outdoor bath. I recommend you avail yourselves of the outdoor bath. It is a refreshing and rather lovely experience, I think, particularly on cold, clear nights.”
John made a noncommittal noise.
“And the indoor baths are ordinary, but also refreshing. Your rooms have showers, but I have always preferred the baths. ‘Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.’ Thomas Aquinas.”
“Sounds like a bloke after my own heart,” John said.
“Of course,” the monk went on, “no-one has used the bath where Brother Adelmo lost his life. So if you need to investigate it, you will find it untouched since that day.”
“Excellent. Let’s go there now,” Sherlock said. He looked at John. “You’re not tired, are you?”
“No,” John said. “Let’s have at it.”
The monk led them to a low building with arched windows of plain glass. “It is a beautiful structure,” Brother Wilfred said. “The monastery is built in the Cistercian style, for the most part, but as it was constructed toward the end of that era, there are touches of Gothic architecture here and there. There’s a sort of whimsy to it, if such stately design can be called whimsical. The balneary, however, is almost purely Cistercian. Come.” He opened a door and led them inside.
The structure was a long room, flooded with light from the windows, and lined from one end to the other with oval wooden tubs. There was a small stone fountain in the centre of the room, and the water, Sherlock surmised, came from a hand pump in the corner. The buttressed walls were unadorned except for a plain wooden cross at one end.
“This is the bathing room,” Brother Wilfred said. “Brother Adelmo perished in one of the larger soaking tubs, across the courtyard.” He opened another door onto a square courtyard, bordered on all sides by a cloister walk. In the middle of the yard was what looked for all the world like an ancient hot tub, a rock structure rising out of the ground like the topmost turret of a castle buried beneath the monastery. Sherlock saw a long, bare arm flung over the side of the tub, and steam rising from the surface of the water and disappearing into the air. Someone was enjoying a late-afternoon soak.
As they drew closer, the arm withdrew, and there was a faint splash as the tub’s occupant rose to his feet. He was tall and slender, with a lean, chiselled face and curling dark-blond hair. He turned to the newcomers, evidently careless of his nakedness, the cold weather, or the water streaming down his body, and smiled.
“Why, hello. You must be Sherlock Holmes.”
He hadn’t given it a great deal of thought, but if he’d been asked, John would have said yes, he considered himself socially adept in most situations. He’d always had lots of friends in school and uni, being a GP meant that you more or less had to get on with most sorts of people, and his stint in the military had given him a liberal helping of international diplomacy. He wasn’t some wet-behind-the-ears intern any longer. There were some situations that just warranted a little awkwardness, though, and one of them was standing eye to…whatever…with some strange bloke’s twig and berries.
And the worst bit was that the bloke wasn’t moving – no, he was just standing there smiling benignly at Sherlock as if he were bloody Venus on the half shell, as if he expected a choir of angels to descend from the heavens and hand him a towel spun out of moonbeams or something. It just wasn’t on. So John did the only thing possible under the circumstances: he turned round and examined the weathered flagstones of the courtyard.
They looked really old.
“That’s right,” Sherlock said.
John heard an odd, unfamiliar twist in Sherlock’s voice and stole a glance at him. A frown laddered Sherlock’s brow and his posture was a bit more rigid than usual. He couldn’t be upset by the man’s casual nudity, surely. Sherlock wasn’t flustered by that sort of thing. Most people, clothed or unclothed, fit into one of two categories – useful or not, and he’d seen plenty of people – okay, most of them had been corpses – naked. So had John, to be fair – it was a bit different when it was a live human being just standing there as if nothing was amiss.
“I confess I’d hoped to meet you when I heard you were coming,” the young man said. “And I must say, your newspaper photographs don’t do you justice.”
John spun on his heel and peered curiously at the man. Was that…flirtation? He’d seen a few people try to flirt with Sherlock, only to be met with a stony wall of indifference. He stole another look at Sherlock, who was still frowning, and who didn’t appear to be melting beneath the warmth of the compliment.
A funny little tug of irritation and confusion pulled at John’s insides. Christ, was he pleased by Sherlock’s demeanour? Well, maybe, just a little. It was oddly refreshing to have a flatmate who wasn’t a self-described horny bastard, who didn’t bring people home at odd hours and stumble into the kitchen with the latest in a long line of lovers in tow at eight in the morning, wanting a fry-up and half of John’s coffee. Sherlock preferred bouts of frantic crime-solving activity interspersed with periods of intense silence and a dash of violin abuse, and body parts in the fridge instead of bacon. After a year, John really couldn’t imagine living with anyone else, and the introduction of sexual interest in Sherlock’s life would have been more than a little odd. So maybe it was just relief at preserving the status quo.
Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back. “Do you have some particular connection to the case, Brother….”
The young man laughed, showing a great many perfect teeth. “Oh, I’m not a member of the community.” He stepped over the lip of the tub and descended to the courtyard, apparently undisturbed by the chilly weather. He stretched out a hand. “Adler. Ian Adler.”
“Mr. Adler.” Sherlock shook Adler’s hand. “You would be the Latin scholar, then.”
“Yes.” Adler beamed. “How did you work that out?”
“Simple enough. The other guest is an itinerant monastery traveller, and he wouldn’t have had time, nor probably the inclination or vanity for a haircut and conditioning treatment four, possibly five days ago. Particularly not using products from….” Sherlock leaned a little closer to the man. “Molton Brown, generally not available in monasteries, I should think.”
If Adler’s smile got any wider, John thought a bit sourly, the top of his head would unhinge and fall off. “That’s absolutely correct, Mr. Holmes.” Adler leant back against the stone tub. Christ, was he totally unaware that he was stark-bollocks-naked? “But that was simple, wasn’t it, especially for someone like you? What else can you discern about me, just by looking?”
John stiffened. Now if that wasn’t a bloody come-on – not that it mattered, because obviously Sherlock wasn’t interested. He looked at Sherlock again and saw him studying Adler – not with the critical detachment that characterised most of his interactions with people, but with keen intent and, John thought, though he couldn’t have absolutely sworn to it, a bit of confusion.
What the fuck? Christ almighty, Sherlock, you’ve never seen a naked man before?
Any further detection on Sherlock’s part was interrupted by Brother Wilfred, who took a step forward. “Mr. Adler, have you left your dressing gown inside the balneary?”
Adler’s eyes flicked toward Brother Wilfred, and then back to Sherlock. “You’re absolutely right, Brother Wilfred. Terribly immodest of me. Forgive my dishabille, Mr. Holmes.” He pushed himself away from the tub and seemed to notice John for the first time. “And this must be Dr. John Watson. I’ve read some amazing things about you in the papers.”
This time the brilliance of his smile was directed at John, and John would have been a liar if he’d said it wasn’t at least a bit flattering. John wasn’t about to fall over himself, though. “That’s me,” he replied coolly. He glanced at Sherlock, who was still staring at Adler, and wondered what was going on in that complicated and infuriating brain. “Sherlock, we should get a move on, yeah? Father Simon said dinner was at six, and even if you don’t eat, he’s going to introduce you.”
Sherlock wrenched his gaze from Adler and focused on John. His eyes lost some of their ferocious concentration. “Yes. All right.” He turned to Brother Wilfred. “Sorry, Brother Wilfred. Lead on, if you please.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing more of you,” Adler said to Sherlock. His regard took in John for a moment. “Of both of you. And if you need anything translated, Mr. Holmes, don’t hesitate to let me know. I know a little Greek as well.” He smiled again. “See you at dinner.” He lifted a hand in farewell and sauntered toward the balneary. John looked at his retreating figure. He was a handsome bloke all right; slender, but lightly muscled in all the right places, and a round, firm arse, like a statue come to life.
“Huh?” John turned a bit clumsily on his heel.
“Stop gaping and come along.”
“Me?” John spluttered indignantly, but Sherlock was already out of earshot, following Brother Wilhelm through the door on the other side of the courtyard. “I’m not the one who was staring like an idiot thirty seconds ago….” He sighed and broke into a trot.
A little Greek?
“Yeah, coming! Give me a minute, for God’s sake.” He was beginning to wonder if he shouldn’t have gone to Cornwall after all.
He reached the other side of the balneary and stepped inside. Its proportions seemed identical to the first room, but because it faced east, it was considerably darker. The tubs in this room were much larger, easily accommodating a man, and stood in rows on either side, each separated by a heavy curtain. Sherlock was at the far end of the long chamber, in front of a sizeable fireplace. “You said this building hadn’t been modernised, Brother Wilfred? Therefore no electricity?”
“That is correct.” The monk stood by the door, his hands folded within the sleeves of his habit.
John dove in the pocket of his jacket, came up with a small, high-powered torch, and tossed it to Sherlock, who caught it one-handed and switched it on immediately. “Which tub was it?”
“The one closest to you – there.” The monk pointed.
John drew closer as Sherlock swung the torch over the tub. “Better to examine everything more closely in the morning, but it won’t hurt to have a look now,” Sherlock murmured. “What happened to the stone that was tied to Brother Adelmo’s neck?” he demanded.
“It’s in the infirmary,” Brother Wilfred explained. “Brother Adelmo was carried there once discovered.”
“Good, I’ll want to see it.” Sherlock swung the torch back to the fireplace. He scowled and moved closer to it. “He died last Thursday – or last Wednesday night. I assume there was a great deal of activity that night, judging by the sheer variety of footprints here.”
“Yes. Several of the brothers assisted in getting him to the infirmary.”
Sherlock moved the flashlight to the floor. “And nobody’s used this section of the balneary since?”
“But someone built a fire here more recently, and extinguished it quickly as well. Look, the wood’s hardly burnt at all, and it’s sitting atop a large pile of ash.” Sherlock touched a small section of log with the tip of one gloved finger. “Whoever found the body discovered it in the morning. And whoever killed him either followed him here with the express purpose of murder, or sat here waiting for him.”
“How do you know?” John asked.
“There’s very little untidiness here, John. The drive as we came in was free of snow and ice, the earth around the trees and plants has been tilled recently, the car that brought us here was in tip-top shape despite its age, and the interior of the first balneary was as clean as a whistle. So either Brother Adelmo came here alone to have a bath and lit the fire himself, to heat the water and warm the room, or the murderer lit the fire to keep warm against the chilly weather and the stone walls while he waited. Was it his habit to bathe at night, Brother Wilfred?”
“Yes,” the young monk said. “He bathed nightly. Most of the brothers do not – as you see, it’s a great deal of trouble to heat the fire and water to get a decent bath so most of the brothers use the showers, but Brother Adelmo considered it a spiritual exercise. And as you correctly observed, Mr. Holmes, the balneary is usually very clean. Brother Adelmo cleaned it himself, as he was one of the few who used the tubs. Mr. Holmes, the Angelus bell is about to ring, and I have duties. Will you please make your way to the refectory in a moment? It is the long building on the top of the eastern walk. I will be happy to bring you both here tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. Thank you,” Sherlock murmured, and as Brother Wilfred left, returned his attention to the fireplace. “The murderer likely knew he’d be here, then. Had he been brought here by force, there’d be no need for a fire. And the screen’s been moved aside.” He pointed to the wall where a large ornamental screen leaned against the white stone. “Look, soot marks where it’s been dragged. And the pot, there….”
“He heated his bath water,” John said. “But…wouldn’t he have dragged it over before he’d built the fire? That screen’s made of metal; he’d have burned his hands otherwise. If there are soot marks, then that means the fire had already produced ash and had been burning awhile.”
“The murderer tried to make it look like a suicide,” Sherlock mused. “And maybe counted on a religious community not wanting an autopsy. Mistakes everywhere.” He grinned suddenly.
“Any ideas?” John asked.
“Well, whoever killed him knew his habits and the habits of the rest of the community well enough to know that the deed could be committed with relative ease and away from prying eyes, which doesn’t bode well for someone here.” Sherlock sounded inordinately pleased.
“The case of the murderous monk,” a voice said.
John turned and squinted in the waning light at Ian Adler leaning negligently against the door frame, dressed – thank God – in dark jeans, a dark, thin pullover, and a close-fitting black motorbike jacket. “Sorry?”
“I read your blog, Dr. Watson. You have such clever and inventive titles for all your cases. I just took a leaf from your notebook, that’s all.” Adler straightened and walked into the room. He paused beside John and looked down at him for a moment with a peculiar smile on his face, then moved toward Sherlock with lazy, sinuous grace.
Annoyed, John cleared his throat. “Look, Mr. Adler, I’m sorry to be abrupt, but we’re trying to carry on an investigation, and –“
“Oh, I won’t get in the way,” Adler said. “I just wanted to see Mr. Holmes at work. Just for a moment.” He stopped in front of Sherlock. “You don’t mind, do you, Mr. Holmes?”
John watched Sherlock staring at Ian Adler. He folded his arms and sighed. Sherlock, resist showing off for complete strangers? Couldn’t be done.
“I don’t know that Father Trevor would approve of you being here,” Sherlock replied.
“I can be discreet if you can,” Adler said. “Anyhow, I expect the entire community will know that a murder has taken place in a day or so.”
“Oh, I think that’s inevitable,” Sherlock said. There was an odd catch in his voice, and he was staring at Adler as if he were the most fascinating thing on God’s green earth.
“Maybe we’d better head to dinner,” John said. “It’s almost six.”
“Yes, perhaps we had.” Sherlock blinked and turned to John. “I want to talk to the coroner as soon as we can. Let’s ask Brother Edward for a ride into town tomorrow.” He turned back to the fireplace and crouched down. “John – get your phone out. I need a photo.”
“Right.” John brushed by Adler and went to the fireplace. He leant down and stared at the cold, dead ash that stubbornly withheld its secrets from everyone but Sherlock. “What do you see?”
Wordlessly, Sherlock reached out and, without actually disturbing the ash, traced a fingertip around the impression of a very large foot. “That.” He moved his hand slowly across the breadth of the fireplace. “And that.” He pointed at another impression. “Wide stance. Deeper than the others. Stood here a while.”
John took some photos. “Warming up?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Look. The feet aren’t *quite* as wide as they appear. Whoever it was had a shaky grip on his balance – the pattern of the sole created a small sweep of movement in either direction.”
“Maybe it was Brother Adelmo. Maybe he was lifting the kettle.” John nodded toward a large aluminum pot in the corner of the room. “It would be heavy, with a lot of water in it.”
“I wonder,” Sherlock said. “The tread indicates some rather stout boots, and thus far I’ve only seen Brother Edward wearing boots, and his feet aren’t quite this big. Brother Wilfred wore Birkenstocks, and the monk Brother Edward spoke to earlier wore leather walking shoes. Even if Brother Adelmo’s feet were this large, why would a librarian wear heavy boots?” He gave John a pointed look.
“Then perhaps that’s the tread of the man who did him in,” Adler said.
John twisted to stare at Adler, who was standing close behind Sherlock, gazing down at the ash in the fireplace.
“Possibly,” Sherlock said.
“If he couldn’t keep his balance, maybe it was because he was holding something heavy,” Adler went on. “A body.”
Sherlock looked up at him. “Possibly,” he said again, and then glanced at his watch. “It’s two minutes until six. We’d better get to the refectory.”
“I hope you don’t mind if I walk with you,” Adler said.
Sherlock got to his feet. “You’ll have to run. Come on.” Without another word, he strode across the room and out the door, leaving John and Ian Adler gaping after him.
Adler gave John a wide smile. “Well, I guess we’d better follow,” he said, and broke into a trot.
“Right,” John muttered, and stuck his phone into his pocket.
They made it to the refectory with seconds to spare, bursting into the hall as the monks were clustering round long tables fitted together in a U-shaped formation. Father Simon’s eyebrows climbed nearly into his high hairline, but he said nothing, merely indicating where Sherlock and John should sit with a backward gesture of his hand. Adler had already slipped into an empty place between a monk and an older man in a thick grey woollen jumper.
The dining hall was spacious, with plaster walls, arched ceilings and windows, a huge fireplace at one end, and a sort of pulpit-cum-table at the other. It had clearly been built to accommodate a much larger number of diners, for the tables in the centre of the room seemed curiously dwarfed, though each was about three metres long. The sound of a bell filtered into the room through an open window, and en masse, the monks bowed their heads and folded their hands.
“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae,” Father Simon intoned.
“Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto,” the monks responded, and then the congregation spoke as one. “Ave Maria, gratia plena; Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
The prayer went on for a good bit, and John did his best to listen carefully though his Latin was limited to medical terminology. In the end, he didn’t really know what they were saying. It was pleasant and soothing to listen to, though, and he thought he saw the appeal of living in a routine of deliberate calm and thoughtfulness – not that he could have done it himself. His belief in God was a little amorphous at best, and the thought of lifelong celibacy made him blanch.
He peeked at Sherlock; true to form, Sherlock’s head wasn’t bowed. Instead, he was inspecting the rows of monks – about fifty in all, John guessed quickly. Sherlock’s eyes were narrowed as he appraised each black-and-white clad figure and moved on to the next.
There was no point in elbowing Sherlock to urge him into being a bit more respectful – that would probably result in Sherlock indulging in some dramatic dumbshow, or at least an elbow fight. Instead, John found himself looking at Ian Adler, whose head was bowed, whose hands were folded, and who was moving his lips along with the monks. Well, of course. He knows Latin.
At that moment, Adler glanced up and saw John staring at him. He smiled and dropped John a wink.
Oh, Jesus. Blushing, John stared down at his clasped hands. Cheeky sod.
The prayer ended, and the monks took their seats except for a few who filtered out of the hall. “Not a foot in the bunch as big as the imprints we saw,” Sherlock murmured to John, shrugging out of his coat.
“They’ve all got long robes on. How on earth did you –“ John went silent. “Ah. Right. Hand and foot size correlation.”
“The very thing.” Sherlock nodded approvingly.
John smiled and folded his napkin onto his lap, then turned to greet Brother Edward, who was sitting beside him. “Nice to see you again.”
Brother Edward inclined his head in a friendly fashion. “The guests don’t change much at these dinner parties, but I think you’ll find the brothers interesting – and interested, I reckon.”
“I hope so. I know we’ll need to talk to some of them at least.”
There was a brief conversational lull, in which Father Simon rose to his feet. “Brothers, we are privileged to have in our midst Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.” He indicated Sherlock and John with another languid wave of his hand. “They come to us from London and will be investigating the disappearance of the codex.” He coughed and his complexion turned slightly pink. “They will also be investigating the deaths of our dear departed brothers Matthias and Adelmo, as there may…ah, may be some connection between their deaths and the theft of the codex.”
An excited buzzing broke out among the monks. John scanned their faces rapidly, but saw nothing that would have indicated fear or guilt. In fact, it seemed as though few of the monks were truly surprised. He saw, though, that one young monk sitting at the end of the opposite table covered his face with his hands briefly, and when he took his hands away, his eyes were wet.
“Particular friend?” Sherlock murmured.
“We can talk to him.”
“Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson have been given licence to examine most of the abbey,” Simon went on. “Those of you who are given charge over areas forbidden to them will be duly notified.”
John and Sherlock exchanged a glance, and John saw Sherlock’s eyes light up. If there was one thing guaranteed to pique Sherlock’s curiosity, it was a locked door. Forbidden, my arse, John thought with a stifled grin.
“Our lay guests, Mr. Adler and Mr. Figueroa, are exempt from questioning as they know little of these events and in any case arrived only a few days ago. To the rest of my brothers, I entreat you to answer their questions candidly so that justice may be done in the sight of God. Let us pray.”
The monks bowed their heads again. John looked around, puzzled. Hadn’t they just prayed? It was only a short grace, though, and John sniffed in anticipation as the monks who’d left the table earlier returned bearing wheeled carts of food. He turned to Brother Edward. “I don’t know the protocol….”
“They’ll serve us,” Brother Edward said. “We all get our turn at it, even Father Simon.”
John was given two slices of bread and butter, a wedge of cheese, and a hearty vegetable stew that smelled absolutely glorious. He dove in happily, slowing down deliberately so he wouldn’t bolt his food. Beside him, Sherlock was stirring his stew and regarding it with suspicion. “It’s delicious, Sherlock. And probably really good for you.”
Sherlock snorted and took a tentative spoonful. His face screwed itself up into a grimace.
“It’s mostly hothouse stuff right now, but those are our own veggies and herbs,” Brother Edward said, dunking his bread in the stew. “We buy the cheese and butter from local farmers, but the bread’s ours as well. You should taste the fresh tomatoes and summer peas.”
“It’s amazing,” John said. “Best I’ve ever tasted.” He took an enthusiastic chomp of bread and butter. The bread was still warm from the oven and he tried not to moan with pleasure at its taste and texture. “God. Sorry.”
Brother Edward smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment. So how does a doctor become a private investigator?”
“I sort of fell into it,” John admitted. “I’m still a GP, but I help Sherlock where and when I can. We’re flatmates.”
“Interesting fellow, Mr. Holmes. Bet you’ve seen some mad stuff with him.”
“Life’s never dull,” John said.
“You’d probably go barmy here. The missing codex is probably the most fascinating thing that’s happened here in a hundred years – until the deaths, of course.”
“I have to say nobody seemed really shocked,” John remarked.
“We live simply, but we’re not fools, Dr. Watson,” Brother Edward replied.
“Sorry,” John said. “I didn’t mean –“
“It’s nowt,” Brother Edward said. “It’s only that I think Father Simon was the only one who didn’t believe that something funny was up with Brother Matthias’ death. Took Brother Adelmo’s suicide to convince him.”
Wasn’t a suicide, John thought, but refrained from speaking the thought aloud. “Is this a huge imposition on you?” he asked instead. “I don’t know much about monasteries. Are we breaking a vow of silence or anything?”
Brother Edward laughed. “That’s a pretty common misperception. No, we’re not. Some communities are quieter than others, but we’re not forbidden to speak to one another. We are cautioned against idle talk, but even that’s relaxed. There are times specified for silent contemplation, though, and every one of us participates in that. My brother gardeners and I often work in silence. Suits me. We’re not chatterboxes, as a rule.”
John glanced at Sherlock, who’d eaten his bread and butter and cheese but left the stew mostly untouched. John suddenly pictured Sherlock as a kid, one of the fussy ones who only liked sticky toffee pudding and ice cream and who refused to eat his vegetables on a nightly basis. Sherlock was deep in conversation with the monk on his right, and the monk was talking to him happily. John bit his lip. Sherlock could be quite charming, when he chose to be. It was just that he didn’t usually choose to be.
“There should be a pamphlet in your room,” Brother Edward went on. “It’s got the abbey map on it as well as the rules and rubrics of conduct. I expect a lot of that will be waived in your case, though, since you’re investigating. Oh, and speaking of rubrics, you’ll probably want to have a lie-in tomorrow, unless you want to go to Brother Adelmo’s funeral mass. It’s at eight a.m. and the entire community will be there, so you won’t be able to ask questions until afterward.”
“Ah,” John said. “I didn’t realise.”
“No reason you should. They just brought his body back from the coroner’s yesterday.” Brother Edward shook his head. “Poor lad.”
An idea began to coalesce in John’s head. After supper and a short post-meal prayer, John drew Sherlock aside as the monks were filing out for vespers. “Brother Adelmo’s funeral is tomorrow,” he whispered.
“Yes, and there’s nobody in the infirmary at present,” Sherlock said. “Except for the unfortunate monk’s corpse.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I was sitting next to the monk in charge of the infirmary. He’s a doctor, and while I’d ordinarily say you two should have a lot to talk about, you won’t. I found him extraordinarily obstructive.”
John couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “One of those areas forbidden to us, is it?”
Sherlock gave John a rather naughty answering smile and turned away. “You’re learning, John.”
There was a funny little glow in John’s chest, but he didn’t poke too deeply at the embers of feeling buried within. Sherlock was sparing with his praise; it was nice to be acknowledged sometimes, that was all.
Really sort of nice.
The sound of plainsong came faint and ghostly from the dimly lit church. John looked over his shoulder. “I feel like we’re committing a sin.”
“The only sin is the lock on this door,” Sherlock grunted, working his picklock back and forth. “You’d think they’d keep it up a bit better.”
“Maybe they only lock the infirmary when there are corpses inside.”
“Ha – maybe so. Oh, there it goes.” Sherlock stood and turned the iron knob. “Come on.” He led the way into the infirmary, letting John close the door, and swung his torch round the room. It was kitted out in fairly standard order: curtain-separated beds marched along one wall, some low cabinets along another, and John saw some modern medical equipment – an IV pole, a blood-pressure cuff, a medical scale.
“Presumably there’s a place set aside for corpses,” Sherlock said.
“Further back,” John said. He moved across the room and into the next, which was fitted with more examination equipment. There was a single low door set in the wall, and John turned the handle and stepped inside.
“Yeah. Here.” It was cold, and a mortuary refrigerator squatted against the wall. “Close the door, Sherlock. There aren’t windows in here for anyone to see us.”
Sherlock closed the door and flipped a light switch. Two bright banks of fluorescent light came to blinding life with their accompanying irritating hum. He strode to the topmost compartment and opened it. “Ah, there we are.” Nodding in satisfaction, he grasped the little handle on the slab and rolled it out.
“Oh, Christ – he’s just a kid,” John said softly. He sighed at the discoloured face. “Can’t be more than twenty-three, twenty-four.”
“His age is irrelevant,” Sherlock said. “Tell me about how he died.”
John gave Sherlock a brief glance of disapproval, but Sherlock had whipped out his glass and was gazing at the corpse. “Right.” He slid on a pair of latex gloves, bent close and examined the marks on the young monk’s neck. “Definite ligature marks in accordance with what Father Simon said, but….” Gently, he felt the throat and moved his fingers up and down.
“Broken neck for sure. But…no evident compression of the laryngopharynx, larynx, or trachea. I wouldn’t be able to tell if the carotid artery or jugular veins had been compressed without cutting him open, and the coroner evidently didn’t feel he needed to do that.” John nodded toward the Y-shaped incision in the young man’s chest.
Sherlock was examining the fingernails of one pale hand. “So he wasn’t drowned and he wasn’t strangled. Could the rock have been heavy enough to snap his neck, if he was tied to it?”
“Any ligature marks on the wrist?” John asked, bending close to the young man’s face.
John tried to imagine what it would be like to have his neck suddenly snapped in two. The strength it would have taken, or the weight of a very heavy rock –
“He fought his attacker,” Sherlock said.
John looked up. “Poor kid.” He resumed his examination of the face. There was something odd –
“Skin and blood under the fingernails.” Sherlock moved down and examined the knees and feet. “Bruised knuckles. And two – no, three broken toes. He kicked and struggled. No lividity on the knees, however.”
“Much taller than Adelmo here. He can’t be more than five-eight at most, and if those footprints were an attacker’s, then he was considerably taller. Kept him upright.”
“If it was the weight of the rock that snapped his neck, how did the killer manage to tie it while he was still conscious – no, can’t be. Had to be a quick break. Imagine that sort of strength –“
Sherlock looked up. “What?”
An awful foreboding sensation prickled at John’s spine. “Looks familiar, don’t you think?”
A frown creased Sherlock’s brow. “What do you mean?”
“Look. Hard to see because of the discolouring in the face, but –“ Carefully, he turned the face to one side and pointed out the large finger-shaped marks on the skin. “There, and there. I mean…it could be a coincidence, but….”
Sherlock slipped his glass into his pocket. His mouth moved soundlessly, but John knew exactly what word his lips had shaped.
“Shit,” John whispered.
They sat quietly in John’s room. It was spare, but comfortable enough, with a bed, a dresser, a night table, and a little desk in the corner. There was also a little electric heater, and a kneeler that Sherlock had called a prie-dieu upon which John had draped his jacket. Sherlock sat cross-legged atop the desk, idly paging through the monastery brochure, and John lay back on the bed, his shoes off, his arms crossed behind his head, his eyelids drooping. It was nearly midnight, and he was knackered.
“Could be someone else,” he ventured. “Might just be a coincidence.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Sherlock said, not lifting his eyes from the brochure.
“If it is Dzundza, he gets around.”
“He’s an assassin for hire. That’s what assassins for hire do.”
“Yeah, I know.” John yawned. The initial scare he’d experienced had dwindled quickly enough. It was highly unlikely that Oscar Dzundza would be hanging about, just waiting to smother the next over-curious monk to death. Even if he had committed the murder, the immediate danger was past. He hoped, anyway. An inadvertent shudder travelled up his spine as he thought of the Golem slowly squeezing the life from Sherlock’s body. And he remembered Sherlock’s panicked eyes; most of all he recalled the fear in Sherlock’s eyes, and his own sudden killing rage. “I just don’t fancy tangling with him again, that’s all.”
Sherlock looked up, and an unexpectedly gentle smile curved his mouth. “No, nor do I.” He regarded John in silence for a moment, then heaved himself off the desk. “It’s late, and you’re tired. Get some sleep.”
“I’m all right,” John protested. “Did you want to –“
“Sleep,” Sherlock said. “We’ve a funeral to attend in the morning.”
“I’m not usually this tired.”
“Probably the altitude. Good night, John.”
“G’night, Sherlock,” John murmured. As Sherlock left, closing the door quietly, John shucked most of his clothes and crawled underneath the blankets and sheets. He mused for a moment on Sherlock’s unflappability – if it was a front, it was a damned good one. The only other time he’d seen Sherlock scared was when John had been draped in Semtex.
Sleepily, he put a hand between his legs and stroked himself. He wasn’t thinking of anything in particular; not really. It just felt good.
He fell asleep before the hazy image in his mind could solidify into something that might prove disconcerting.
Ian watched as the light was extinguished in Dr. Watson’s room, and the light in Sherlock Holmes’ room went on. He lifted a set of tiny but high-powered binoculars, but saw only bare wall through the rippling glass. Presumably Sherlock was sitting or lying in bed. Tempting thought. He could go there now, no-one would be the wiser…but it was too soon. Just a little too soon.
He drew out his mobile and punched in a number. There was a faint, faraway buzz, a ringing, and then an oddly high-pitched “Hellooo, darling.”
“I think you should be careful,” Ian said without preamble. “Holmes broke into the infirmary tonight, and I’m fairly certain it wasn’t just for a giggle. And he noticed a few interesting and incriminating details at the murder scene. I’ve cleaned up a bit there, but he’s got photos.”
“You’d better hurry up, then.” The voice on the other end lost its teasing musicality and became flat and menacing.
“I’ve only got two hands, clever as they are. It’s not my fault you hire incompetents to do your work for you.”
“What can I say? I dig loyalty.” There was a noisy hiss. “This isn’t part of the game – it’s just a straightforward transaction that’s going to put billions in my pocket, Ian honey. So you distract him. Do what you need to do. Is his little doggie with him?”
“Watson? Yeah, he’s here. And I don’t know why you call him that. He’s quite fit, you know. I thought I might have a go myself – that is, if he can take his eyes from Sherlock for a minute.”
“Why do you think I call him that? Duh.” The voice faded out for a moment. “Look, I don’t care who you fuck, as long as you get the job done. It won’t be Sherlock, though. Purer than the driven snow, that one.”
“How much do you want to bet that he’ll fuck me?”
A thousand miles away, Jim Moriarty giggled, and the sound rippled unpleasantly in Ian’s ear and down his spine. “If you do, and provide proof, I’ll give you a bonus of a quarter million pounds.”
“And if you don’t, I get to watch Oskar fuck you. He has a taste for blonds. He’s not all that gentle, though, so I’d be awfully diligent about winning if I were you.”
Ian bit his lip and thought about deals with the devil. “Fine. I’ve got to go. I just wanted to warn you.”
“How kind,” Jim purred. “Talk later, sweetie.” There was a click as Jim disconnected, and Ian was left standing in the evening chill of the lodgings garden. He was freezing cold, he realised; cold enough to shiver uncontrollably. Surely it wasn’t talking to Jim Moriarty that made him shiver.
He slipped back into the long building that held the monks’ quarters, and swiftly and silently made his way to a cell in an unused wing. With only fifty-one…well, forty-eight monks now, there was a great deal of unused space. It made his job so much easier.
The little room was unfurnished except for a single bed, upon which lay Brother Marcelo, the youngest monk in the community. His wrists and ankles were bound to the iron slats, and a blindfold covered his eyes. A leather bit had been bound between his teeth, and a long band of soft leather snugly confined his balls and the thick, rigid cock that lay nearly flat against his belly. He’d been surprisingly and quite deliciously accommodating, to Ian’s delight. Made his job so much easier.
As Ian approached the bed, the young monk groaned and shifted his hips.
“Shh.” Ian arranged the tiny camera in the corner of the room, securing it to the wall with a bit of Blu-tack. He switched it on, then set a leather valise on the floor. He took out a little velvet box, opened it, and lifted out three braided lengths of stiff leather fitted with gold ferrules on the ends. He sat on the bed, stroked Brother Marcelo’s thigh, then fitted the lengths together. He rose to his feet, stripped off his jacket, and removed the monk’s blindfold. Large, dark eyes fringed with thick lashes stared at him in mingled arousal and apprehension.
Moonlight streamed into the room, limning Ian’s body. He raised the riding crop and addressed the young man in Italian. “I appreciate your patience. Do you see this?”
Brother Marcelo nodded. His cock twitched in its bindings of leather.
Ian stroked the crop down the youth’s naked chest. “Penance comes in so many forms. Saint Ignatius said that the safest and most suitable form of penance is that which causes pain in the flesh but does not penetrate to the bones. Wise, don’t you think?”
The young monk nodded again. His body gleamed with sweat.
“Well, then. Let us begin.”
The night brought dramatically colder temperatures and a stiff breeze that set the new foliage on the trees to rustling. Sherlock huddled in his coat as he walked the empty cobblestone paths of the abbey toward the library, now dark and locked – a deeply foolish notion, to be sure, if Simon thought a simple lock would keep him out, but then Simon was a deeply foolish man. He wondered for a moment if it would be worth the time to break in, just to prove how easily the task could be accomplished, and then decided he’d simply reconnoiter a bit and have Brother Wilhelm show him and John around in the morning.
Overhead, the stars glittered with cold vitality, astonishingly bright far away from light-polluted London. He craned his neck to look at them and picked out Mars – at least he was fairly certain it was Mars. On his birthday, John had, with a badly stifled grin, given him an oversized book called Universe, filled with extravagant coloured photographs of planets and stars and other cosmic phenomena. Sherlock had pointedly ignored it for weeks, and then one night as John slept, had picked it up and read it cover to cover, from Planet Earth to Dark Matter. Halfway through the book, between IC 2944 and DR 21, there had been an inscription scrawled on a yellow sticky note:
I knew you’d read it, you silly tosser. Happy birthday.
Pride had sealed Sherlock’s lips and he never mentioned the note at all, but he had the oddest sensation that John knew he’d read it all the same. Perhaps he’d inadvertently cracked the spine a bit. At any rate, it had been mildly, if only momentarily, diverting, and he’d filed some information away for possible further use. One never did know when it would come in handy.
He reached the library and studied the façade. Three storeys, nearly as wide as it was tall, and fairly unadorned. He ambled to the doors and frowned. There was no exterior lock, so evidently there was another point of ingress.
“Looking for something to read?”
Sherlock stepped back from the doors and made out a tall, slim figure silhouetted a few metres away. “Mr. Adler, I presume.”
“I’m flattered. You recognised my voice.”
“No. I can see your shadow. No clerical habit.”
“Oh, pity. I was hoping I’d made more of an impression.” Adler strolled into the scant light provided by a bright half-moon and stopped beside the doors. He wore dark clothes and carried a small valise in one hand.
Without appearing obvious, Sherlock assessed him quickly. It wasn’t easy, given the faint illumination, but scent and hearing compensated for what his sight lacked. A difference in gait, new wrinkles in clothing, a faint tang of sweat and other substances – gradually myriad pieces fell into place with a satisfying click. “Did you enjoy your little assignation this evening? One of the younger monks, I’d guess, judging by the lateness of the hour.”
Adler took a step back. “Dear me, Mr. Holmes. I’m not sure I want to know how you arrived at such a conclusion.”
“No, you probably don’t. Most people wouldn’t. Given how furtive most people are about sexual conduct, they’d be horrified to hear how obvious they really are to anyone who cares to indulge in more than superficial observation.”
“And is that what you were doing just now – observing me in more than superficial fashion?”
There was a light, teasing edge to Adler’s voice that put Sherlock on his guard, though – frustratingly – he couldn’t have said why. There was something underneath the smooth, polished, casually elegant surface that eluded and annoyed him, as if he knew far more than he revealed. Sherlock glanced down at the leather case in Adler’s hand. Its sleek, anonymous surface seemed to repel the application of creative deduction. He looked into Adler’s eyes, wide and shining in the moonlight. “What makes you think you merit more than superficial observation?”
Adler smiled. “Maybe I have an overdeveloped sense of self-worth.”
“Or maybe I know a thing or two about observation myself,” Adler went on. “For example – you’re astute enough to tell a thing or two about my proclivities, but you don’t indulge yourself. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say you haven’t had sex in years.”
“Sorry?” Sherlock replied coldly.
“Oh, there’s no shame in it.”
“Yours very truly. I wasn’t implying –“
“It’s just that it becomes easy to tell…sometimes. It’s all in the eyes, you see. I’ve read the articles about you, you know. Ordinary people who look at you see hunger in your eyes and they think it’s hunger for knowledge, or for information, or clues to whatever you happen to be working on, but to other people – to those who tend to observe more than superficially, one might say – there’s another sort of hunger locked tightly behind that lovely, stony face of yours, a fire you keep banked. Surely someone close to you has seen it – Dr. Watson, perhaps?”
A strange heat blossomed in Sherlock’s chest and made its way up his neck and into his face. “I really don’t think that’s any concern of yours. Good evening.” He shouldered past Adler and started back down the cobblestone path. To hell with Adler and his absurd faux-psychology – he was a distraction, nothing more.
Against his better instincts, Sherlock stopped.
“How did you know?”
“You tell me,” Sherlock retorted, “since your own powers of observation are so extraordinary.” He stayed still, facing away from Adler, planting his feet firmly to keep from swaying on the incline of the path.
“All right.” He heard Adler moving closer to him. “Odours, perhaps, if your nose is particularly sensitive. Saliva, perspiration, semen.”
“That’s a start.” He felt Adler standing beside him, close enough to touch.
“How did you know it was a young monk? It couldn’t just be the time.”
“New wool,” Sherlock said. “Distinct aroma. Could be a new habit for one of the older members of the community, but unlikely, given the worn state of most of their garments at supper. There were five monks who wore new-looking habits, and three of them were quite young. Statistically, that puts the odds of your little rendezvous firmly in favour of one of the three.”
“Good. And do you know what we did together, this young monk and I?” Adler’s lips were close to his ear, as if imparting a secret.
“Going by the bag you’re carrying, the faint tang of leather and metal and the red marks on the inside of one of your hands, I’d say it had something to do with bondage and domination of some sort. I’m sure you’d prefer I didn’t go into detail.”
“You do have keen eyes, Mr. Holmes.”
“Hungry,” Sherlock replied. “So I’ve been told.”
“Would you like to look at some of my toys?”
“Are you sure? You might learn a thing or two.” The faint metallic tearing sound of a zipper drifted upward. “And I won’t charge you a penny.”
Sherlock turned to face Adler. “You’re a…professional, Mr. Adler?”
“Please call me Ian. I’ll call you Sherlock, if I may. And yes, I’m a professional – thanks for putting it so delicately. I put myself through university allowing myself to be bound and beaten and intimately explored by far wealthier people than I. Now, however, I prefer to have the upper hand.”
“It’s lonely at the bottom.” Sherlock couldn’t resist a little mockery.
Adler…Ian…laughed quietly, almost drowning out a soft, slithering noise from the vicinity of the bag. “Yes. Not at the top, though. And fortunately, the top is vastly more remunerative.”
“If that’s the case, then how does a monk afford your services?”
“How unimaginative you are. Not all transactions are conducted for cash. Everybody pays one way or another. Brother Marcelo’s case required a bit of creative accounting, that’s all.”
Sherlock let out a small, disdainful exhalation of breath. “Wonder what that means.”
“It doesn’t matter right now. Have you ever been tied up, Sherlock?”
“Probably more often than you have.”
“Oh? Is that a challenge?”
“No, just a statistical likelihood.” Sherlock had, in fact, spent a fair amount of his early adolescence studying escapology and had, as practice, tied or chained himself up so many times he’d lost count. It had never given him the slightest hint of sexual pleasure, though he’d received more than one peculiar look from his mother in the odd moments that she’d found him tied up in his room or the cellar, and despite his assurances that it was merely research. He’d asked her to tie him to a chair, and she’d refused with startling vehemence. He hadn’t understood her discomfort until much later, when his reading had led him to some of the more prurient aspects of restraint.
It had taken him a long while to become proficient, too, to learn to slip knots and pick locks; on one memorable occasion, when Sherlock was fourteen, Mycroft had found him bound and blindfolded at the bottom of his wardrobe, weeping silent tears of rage and frustration after three hours of fruitless struggling and a steadfast refusal to shout for help. Mycroft had simply hauled him out of the wardrobe, found a pair of scissors, and cut him free. Sherlock, too mortified and full of wounded pride to thank him, had limped to the bathroom and locked himself inside for hours. Neither brother had ever mentioned the incident again.
Still, his efforts had paid off. More than once, Sherlock had managed to escape restraints, much to the dismay of the criminals who’d thought they could contain him. He’d never been able to connect restraint with anything but discomfort, inconvenience, and danger, and the notion of bondage in sex or the application of pain baffled him.
“I see. You’ve made a study of technique without enjoying any of the side benefits.”
“There aren’t any side benefits, as far as I can determine.”
“Then you haven’t explored them very thoroughly,” Ian said. He turned and walked back up the path toward the library.
Let him go. There’s nothing duller than someone nattering archly about sex. He watched Ian moving slowly up the path. Something long and thin, some sort of restraint, dangled from one hand. He didn’t look behind him to see if Sherlock followed.
“It’s perfectly obvious why some people go in for that sort of thing,” Sherlock snapped. Ian stopped walking and stood still. “Endorphin rush,” Sherlock went on. “The sensation of helplessness, the loss of control. Some want the intensity of pain, some merely enjoy the feeling of restraint.”
“You’ve done your preliminary reading, I see. Certainly that’s part of it.” Ian moved toward the library again and sat on a low stone bench beside the door, setting his bag at his feet but holding on to the rope. Almost against his will, Sherlock followed. “I’m not so reductive myself. In my line of work one comes to discover that there are almost as many reasons for enjoying it as there are people who do so. And frankly, it doesn’t really matter to me. My customers are bright enough to explain exactly what they want – I insist upon it.”
“Mustn’t have unhappy clients.” Sherlock drew close to the stone bench.
“Precisely.” Ian looked up. “Sit,” he said, patting the empty space beside him.
Sherlock remained standing. “So you’re a sex worker who moonlights as a Latin scholar. Or is it the other way round?”
“Whatever you like. It isn’t the Latin translation that pays the bills, though.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” Ian chuckled. “Supply and demand and all that.”
“So what are you doing here – the former or the latter?”
“I wondered when you’d ask.” Ian looked out at nothing, a reflective and abstracted expression on his face. Sherlock discerned a faint tang of leather and sweat as Ian drew the fingers of one hand through his curling hair. “Both, obviously. I’m translating from a codex written by Irish monks in the eleventh century, a pilgrim’s guide to Rome, at the behest of the bishop of the Dublin archdiocese. A very prestigious client, not much money, but enormous purity of intention, no doubt. The other is none of your business, I’m afraid.”
“It might be.”
“That little encounter you had this evening with your young monk. Bit of a busman’s holiday for you, wasn’t it?”
“Au contraire. I mix business and pleasure all the time. And sometimes it’s quite nice to be with a novice. So to speak.”
“Yes, but you said everybody pays, didn’t you? That’s hardly the attitude of someone who mixes business with pleasure. And he didn’t pay you in cash, so it had to be for something else – not the finer points of Catholic doctrine or hints on deciphering eleventh-century Latin texts, I’m certain. So – what were you after tonight, Ian, besides an altruistic urge to gift a monk with sexual favours?”
“What a suspicious mind you have,” Ian said. “Is that a blessing or a curse? Never mind. What do you say we make this interesting. If you can slip a knot I tie, then I’ll tell you why I went to see lovely, pliant Brother Marcelo.”
Sherlock frowned. “And if I can’t?”
“Then your curiosity remains unsatisfied.”
“I’ll find out one way or the other.”
“Yes, but why be dull? Dull doesn’t interest you. The ordinary doesn’t interest you. Anyone who reads the newspaper and net accounts of you can tell that.” Ian got to his feet and moved close to Sherlock, an intimate distance that Sherlock didn’t protest. “What does Sherlock Holmes care about battered babies in Peckham, or a murdered junkie in a Brixton doorway, or some little Russian girl used by a dozen men a night in Nine Elms? That’s not the sort of evil you pursue, is it? I can’t really picture any of that capturing your attention.”
“Any more than the notion of you accepting the sort of customer who’d ask you for a twenty-quid shag, I’d imagine,” Sherlock replied tartly. “We each have our areas of interest and expertise.”
“Touché,” Ian said. “But it only proves my point. Come on. Are you willing to gamble a little for information, Mr. Holmes?”
“Escape one of your knots?” Sherlock let his voice drip with hauteur. “Mr. Adler, I’ve managed to escape from people who’ve been quite serious about wanting to keep me captive, in dire scenarios. I very much doubt your little bondage-game restraints would be much of a challenge.”
“Is that a yes, then?”
Sherlock studied Ian’s face in the moonlight. He was smiling serenely; something about that smile made Sherlock want to take him down a peg or two. Or more. “Yes. I work my way free and you tell me what you really wanted from Brother Marcelo.”
“Marvellous. Turn around, please.”
Sherlock hesitated. “Here?”
“Oh – did you want to go back to your room? Or mine, perhaps?”
“No,” Sherlock snapped, and spun on his heel, turning his back to Ian. He removed his gloves, stuffed them in his pockets, and thrust out both hands, curling them into hard fists. One of the basic tenets of escapology lay in the escapist’s tension of the muscles – the trick was to expand the muscle whilst being bound and then gradually relax, gaining slack in the rope. Escape from chains or cuffs was a different matter entirely, of course, but irrelevant, as Ian had specified knots. “I expect you’ll want a time limit.”
“That would be fair. Ten minutes?”
“My, you live dangerously.” Ian stepped closer and took Sherlock’s hands in his. “A little tense, are we? And you still want five minutes. Very well.” He brought Sherlock’s hands together until they touched, then wrapped the cord – tightly braided leather, from what Sherlock was able to perceive – around one wrist, then the other.
Sherlock counted three passes around each wrist and smirked. It wasn’t the coils encircling his wrists that mattered – it was the knot. “I do hope you’re planning to be quite truthful.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly.” Suddenly and without the least warning, Ian grasped Sherlock’s bunched fists and dug his thumbs into the pressure points on the inside of his wrists. Sherlock let out a startled gasp and stumbled backward a little, and Ian steadied him, then pulled the cord tightly, to the threshold of pain. “It’s not quite cricket to cheat, Sherlock. Did you think I wasn’t familiar with that little trick?” As he spoke, he tied the cord so quickly that Sherlock couldn’t determine what sort of knot he was tying. “Play fair, now.”
All right, Mr. Adler. Point to you for duplicity and dexterity. Sherlock held his tongue and his temper, for the moment. No sense in wasting energy on verbal excoriation when he only had five minutes and the disadvantage of inadvertently relaxed muscles. He held perfectly still as Ian finished tying the knots – three, from what Sherlock could tell – and then took him by the shoulders, gently turning him round. He cocked a brow at Ian’s grinning face and began to move his wrists in small inward circles, all the while searching for the knot that held the cord secure.
Ian looked at his watch. “Any time.” He sat on the stone bench once more, leaning back against the wall. Nonchalant, he crossed one leg over the other and took a pack of Silk Cuts from the pocket of his motorbike jacket. He lit one and drew deeply, then exhaled, never taking his eyes from Sherlock.
Sherlock had located the outermost knot by dint of a great deal of straining and exploring fingertips, but the cord round his wrists was too tight to twist them into a position convenient to begin unpicking it. He plied the rope harder, still moving his hands in tight circles, clenching and unclenching them in an effort to expand the cord. He gritted his teeth, pulling harder, and tried to ignore his internal clock that told him a minute and a half had already slipped by. Not all that difficult. You’ve slipped complicated bonds before. He’d been prepared before, though, not blindsided by Ian’s little pressure-point manoeuvre, and when he hadn’t – well, John or Mycroft had usually shown up. Admittedly, he wasn’t now at his absolute best.
“Would you be more comfortable if you sat?”
Sweat had begun to emerge on Sherlock’s upper lip. It itched, a distraction. Sullenly, he backed up to the bench and thumped down on it, ignoring Ian’s gently triumphant smile. Closing his eyes, he called up the image of a bomb planted at his feet. Right, now there was incentive – an increased sense of urgency, as if his life depended on his freedom. He pulled his arms from either side and gained the faintest slackening in the cord, enough to twist one of his hands round. He explored the knot with his fingertips, but couldn’t find its end, as if Ian had tucked it beyond reach. It was like trying to find the end of a Mobius strip. The tantalizing perfume of smoke from Ian’s cigarette tickled his nose, tempting him to move closer, to try to breathe a bit in. It would calm him, relax him –
“Here.” Ian held the cigarette to Sherlock’s lips. “You’re dying for a drag, I can tell. I’ll give you a ten-second handicap.”
Sherlock inhaled and held the smoke in for a few heartbeats before exhaling. The sensation was momentarily dizzying; he hadn’t smoked in months, hadn’t even used a patch for weeks now. Oh, he’d forgot how glorious it was. He exhaled slowly, serene, soothed by the precious nicotine. John would be disappointed if he knew. “Don’t need it,” he said hoarsely. Three minutes. Sweat greased the palms of his hands and the insides of his wrists as he fingered the knots again, trying to undo them with his fingernails. No good; they were too bloody tight, and the rotating movements he’d made had only made them tighter. Absolute focus was needed now, and a choice: unpick the knot, or try to slip free. Neither option was proving easier, but he couldn’t do both. He closed his eyes for a moment, let his rapidly numbing fingertips graze the tied end of the cord, and decided to keep at the efforts to loosen the braided rope. Two and a half minutes. Halfway through, and no closer to freedom. God damn it.
“I wonder what a friar would think if he were to walk by and see us? Though it all looks perfectly innocent, doesn’t it? Further investigation might prove rather interesting, though.”
“Am I distracting you? Sorry.” Ian leant back against the wall and exhaled a jet of smoke. “Lovely night,” he murmured softly.
A bead of sweat rolled down Sherlock’s temple. The bindings had loosened incrementally, but not much more, certainly not enough to slip free. He began to twist his wrists harder, cognitively aware that it wouldn’t help. Panicking wouldn’t help. A ragged breath escaped him as he struggled, and he clamped his lips tightly together. Why the hell was he panicking, anyhow? It was just a stupid bet, he didn’t need to prove a bloody thing to –
God damn it, God damn it! He jerked and tugged at the bonds, conscious of twin bracelets of aching rawness now encircling his wrists and a strange pain in his abdominal muscles as well as tightness in his jaw. Too much tension. Should have relaxed more. Desperate, he fumbled for the knots again, clawing at them haphazardly and failing to gain purchase. A hissing breath issued from his nose, and his arms trembled with exertion. Just a little more, another centimetre or two –
“Time.” Ian pinched his cigarette out with his fingernails and deposited the end in a bare stone planter. “I win.”
Sherlock leant against the wall, breathing hard. Sweat plastered his shirt to his back and trickled down his temples. “Congratulations.”
“It was a valiant effort.”
“Thanks,” Sherlock retorted. He glanced at Ian; he was staring intently at Sherlock, his gaze slowly travelling the length of Sherlock’s body. A flush rose to his cheeks, and he swivelled on the stone bench, impatiently thrusting his hands out. After a moment of silence, he looked over his shoulder and glared at Ian. “Well?”
“Indulge my curiosity,” Ian said. “You felt no arousal at all?”
Sherlock turned back to Ian, regarding him incredulously. “You must be joking.”
“Not in the least.”
“No, I didn’t feel any arousal at all. I was concentrating on freeing myself.”
“Well. That’s a pity, Sherlock, because watching you try to free yourself made me very aroused indeed.” Ian got to his feet, moved directly in front of Sherlock, and pushed him back against the wall with one hand.
Stunned, Sherlock said nothing, merely staring at Ian’s face. But then Ian leant down, put his hands on Sherlock’s thighs, and pushed them together, and then knelt on the bench, straddling Sherlock’s legs. He lowered his body until Sherlock discovered that Ian had been telling the truth. He struggled, but Ian, though slim, was strong. He pinned Sherlock to the bench and gently, voluptuously ground himself against Sherlock’s thighs. To his utter horror, Sherlock felt his cock getting hard. Another wave of panic struck him, and he writhed against the rope tying his wrists together, but it did no good at all. “What the hell do you think you’re –“
Ian silenced Sherlock with a kiss – if one could call auguring a tongue down one’s throat a kiss. Sherlock reared back in surprise, but he had nowhere else to go. He let out a muffled, angry protest, but Ian ignored him, twining his tongue lazily round Sherlock’s and threading one hand into the damp curls at the nape of Sherlock’s neck. At last Ian pulled away and wiped the back of his free hand across his mouth. “Not really a busman’s holiday at all, Mr. Holmes.”
“Let me go.”
“Not quite yet.”
Sherlock tried to buck Ian off, but Ian had the advantage of balance and gravity and two free hands. He braced himself against the library wall and held Sherlock trapped on the bench. Sherlock snarled in frustration and anger and the discomfiting knowledge that Ian’s prick was now rubbing against his, and his arousal was distressingly evident. “Whatever you think you’re trying to accomplish with this sad little display is entirely fruitless, I assure you. Perhaps you ought to try another monk tomorrow, since you obviously don’t –"
“Do you know who my clients are? What sort of people they are, I mean?”
“I don’t really care who your clients are.” Sherlock held himself perfectly still, which seemed to be an invitation for Ian to grind himself harder against Sherlock’s erection. He gritted his teeth. It was maddening, sublime, horrifying. He wanted it to stop. His body arched up slightly, aching for rougher contact. “Get off me.”
Ian brought his hand to Sherlock’s cheek and stroked it. “They’re powerful, by and large. People who are in control of themselves and their environments almost every waking moment of their lives. People who make order out of chaos. And almost invariably, when they first come to me, they’re terrified – of what they want and need, of having to ask for it, of what I can make them feel.” His hand drifted down; his fingers spanned Sherlock’s throat, caressing it lightly. “You’re breathing so hard, Mr. Holmes. Are you frightened?”
“Of you?” Sherlock snorted. “Please.” He gasped as Ian’s other hand slipped between his legs and fondled him. “Stop it –"
“Is this how you get what you want? You just take it?” Sherlock couldn’t prevent a soft groan as Ian’s hand rubbed against him slowly, with just enough pressure to make his body crave more, to make him squirm with longing.
“You’re no weakling. You could throw me off, if you really wanted to.” Ian loosened Sherlock’s scarf and laid the ends aside. His fingers were cool against Sherlock’s skin as they drifted downward, outlining the curved hollow of his throat. “You want to yield, don’t you? You’re dying to succumb, but oh, that pride.” His other hand tightened incrementally, enough to elicit another faint groan issued between clenched teeth. Ian smiled and dipped his head to kiss Sherlock’s neck. Then he climbed off Sherlock and stood over him, his face concealed by night and shadows. “I’m not going to take what I want, Sherlock. Not my style. You’ll come to me, and you’ll beg for it.”
Sherlock fought to get his breathing under control. His skin was hot where Ian had kissed it; the sensation burned into him, down his spine and into his hard cock, along his thighs, pressed tightly together. “I hope you’re prepared for an eternal wait.” He was grateful that his voice was steady and contemptuous.
“I do pride myself on my patience. Come on. Up you get.” He grasped Sherlock’s upper arm and heaved him to his feet. “Let’s go.”
Sherlock gaped in outrage before he got his feet moving, and stumbled a bit as Ian propelled him toward the guest quarters. His cock was painfully hard, his body thrumming with tension and damp with sweat. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking you to your room.” Ian sounded mildly surprised. He pulled his phone from his pocket and began fiddling with it, tugging Sherlock along. “Keep your feet.”
The paths of the abbey stretched out like long, searching black fingers in the moonlight. Ian veered right, pulling Sherlock between two long buildings tall enough to blot out most of the light, so that the only illumination came from Ian’s phone. Sherlock stayed silent. He’d wither and die before asking Ian to untie him, much less beg for anything else. He’d bide his time. There was more to Ian Adler than what he’d told, and Sherlock meant to find out what that was.
Not part of your investigation.
Frustration clenched tight in Sherlock’s throat.
“Will you be at the funeral tomorrow?” The question was offhand, tinged with casual expectation as if he’d met Sherlock on the street and asked him for a light. It startled Sherlock into honesty.
“I expect so, yes.”
“I think I’ll sleep in myself. Tired.” No missing the slight mischief in his tone. “Here we are.” He stopped at an arched wooden door, banded in iron, set into a thick stone doorway. With a peculiar tenderness, he pushed Sherlock forward, at last pressing him against the wall. “Hold still now.”
Sherlock tensed as Ian’s fingers closed around his wrists and pressed against his icy hands, numb from lack of circulation. Deftly, Ian plucked at the leather cord, and it fell away as if by magic. Nice trick, Sherlock wanted to say, but the sudden rush of pain as his hands were freed stopped him, and then Ian was massaging his palms and fingers, kneading blood back into the starved pathways of muscles and veins and bones. He held still, allowing it. His treacherous cock, which had gone quiescent as they’d walked, began to stir to life again.
Ian’s mouth brushed against his ear. “Better?”
“Stop touching me.” Sherlock put ice and steel into his voice.
Ian stepped away and moved to the door, opening it and gesturing for Sherlock to precede him. When Sherlock didn’t budge, he shrugged. A flickering light from a clear filament bulb illuminated his face, deepening its shadows and dappling his skin to gold. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Do give my regards to Dr. Watson.” He crossed the threshold and let the door swing shut.
Sherlock’s shoulders ached as he brought his hands together and rubbed them, coaxing life back into the half-frozen digits. He leant against the stone for a long time, staring up at the vast clear sky. Anyone passing would have thought his countenance blank and serene and would have been utterly ignorant of the chaos that teemed inside his head.
He wheeled abruptly and strode down the hall to his room, fishing the key, on a plain wooden tag inscribed with its Roman numeral – VII – from the depths of his coat pocket. He fitted the key into the lock and went inside, closing the door firmly behind him, and flicked on the woefully dim electric light on a bedside table.
His phone chirped. He extracted it and glanced at the message:
Picture Message - Unknown Caller
He brought up the message. It was a green-tinted photograph – low-light camera – depicting a young man, quite naked and very much aroused, bound to a bed. Sherlock brought the phone close to his nose. It was difficult to make out features, but it looked like the young monk who’d been upset by Simon’s announcement at dinner.
The phone chirped again.
Text Message - Unknown Caller
He opened it.
I possess many qualities, Mr. Holmes, but altruism is not among them. Nil magis amat cupiditas, quam quod non licet.
Sherlock silenced his mobile and set it on the bedside table. He took off his coat and tossed it over the little wooden chair in the corner of the room, then went into the tiny but adequate bathroom between John’s room and his. He paused for a moment at John’s door, his hand hovering above the knob. He caught a glimpse of his wrist – reddened, raw in spots – and pulled his hand away.
Silently, he tore off a generous length of bog roll and undid his trousers. He took his cock in his hand and gave himself a languid stroke, then another. Biting his lip, he stroked harder and faster, his body rigid with tension, until he came, shuddering, noiseless. He sagged against the wall, his breath shivering from him in ragged gasps.
After a moment he flushed the bog roll, fastened his trousers, and washed his hands and face.
“Sherlock? That you?” John’s voice, thick with sleep.
“Of course it’s me. Who else would it be?” Sherlock lowered his voice. “Go back to sleep, John.”
“Okay,” John replied agreeably. He probably wasn’t even awake.
Sherlock went into his room, got into his t-shirt and pyjama bottoms, and crawled into bed. He lay awake for a long time, his feverishly active brain whirring round the day’s events and deftly avoiding the sly nudge of Ian Adler’s text. Ian Adler, who tied people up and toyed with their bodies for a living and translated Latin on the side.
A likely story.
It followed him into sleep, though, and if he dreamed of a particular face, a particular body, of acts unspoken and unacknowledged in his conscious mind, he’d never own it, not even to himself.
Lust wants whatever it can’t have.
If you're reading, I'd love to know what you think. Thank you. :)
John awoke to birdsong and the pleasant sensation of having had a long, dreamless span of slumber – peaceful sleep wasn’t a valuable commodity until one couldn’t remember what it was like any longer. He was warm and content in the narrow bed, the slightly coarse linen of the pillowcase held a faint fragrance of laundry dried on an outdoor line, and the soothing, familiar sounds of Sherlock rattling around in the bathroom just managed to penetrate through the connecting door. He needed a piss, but he was too comfortable to move.
His phone chirruped twice – text message. Sighing, he stuck a hand out from his cosy pile of blankets and tipped it up. Alice had sent him a text. No, five texts.
Five? He hoped nothing was wrong. Groaning, he glanced at the time – seven-fifteen – and threw the covers aside. The need to urinate was getting urgent. He sat up, swung his feet onto the wool rug, then heaved himself off the bed. The plank flooring was cold.
“Sherlock?” John tapped at the door, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “You decent?”
“Decent enough,” came the muffled reply, and the door swung open to reveal Sherlock with wet hair, a towel knotted at his hips, his upper body pink from the heat of the shower, and shaving soap lathered over the lower half of his face. Sherlock preferred that old-fashioned, excessively fancy stuff that needed a brush and elbow grease to get foamy, and he was the only man John knew who had a steel razor with replaceable blades. When John had accused him of vanity, Sherlock had replied with the haughtiest of sniffs that his sort of razor was much better than landfill-clogging plastic rubbish – as if he really gave a toss about environmental consciousness – and that his shaving soap was infinitely preferable to cheap, nasty aerosol foam in a can. Whereupon John had called him a snobby bugger.
Well, he was a snobby bugger. John supposed he had a point, though.
“Have to pee,” John muttered, and half-stumbled to the toilet.
Sherlock returned to the sink, rubbing a clear spot in the steamed-up mirror, and began to shave.
John sighed. Better. “Did you go back out last night?”
“See anything interesting?”
“No. Not really.”
“I suppose there wasn’t much to see. All those forbidden areas.” John yawned, shook off in leisurely fashion, and flushed. He stepped to the side, not wanting to back up and bump into Sherlock. The loo was hardly big enough for both of them. “Any hot water left?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“There,” Sherlock said, casually stretching out one arm in a languorous gesture at a corner shelf where several oatmeal-coloured towels were neatly stacked.
John found himself watching the shift in muscle and bone in Sherlock’s shoulder blade and arm, the long expanse of clean skin, and only dimly registered the towels. His gaze halted at an incongruity. “Oi – what’s that?”
Sherlock dropped his hand. “What’s what?”
“What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing. What on earth are you talking about?”
John heaved an exasperated breath at Sherlock and his semantics. “Your wrist, I mean. What happened?”
“Oh.” Sherlock held his left hand up and regarded the angry red marks on it in bemusement, as if seeing them for the first time. “Caught it in the bathroom door last night.”
“That must have hurt. Want me to have a look at it?”
“No, thank you.” Sherlock dropped his hand and went back to his shaving. “You’ve got another text. Sixth one in the space of twenty minutes.”
“Oh, Christ, yeah.” John went back into his bedroom and picked up his phone. That was six texts from Alice now. With a hint of trepidation, he opened the first one.
I hadn't heard from you for two days so I stopped by the clinic & talked to that doctor you used to date & she said she didn't know where you were. So I
He sighed and opened the second.
I went to your flat & your landlady said that you'd gone to Italy with Sherlock. Thanks for telling me.
“Oh, God.” Hadn’t he told her? He swore he’d sent her a text. He knew he hadn’t phoned. It was a little – all right, a lot caddish of him not to have phoned, but he’d wanted to avoid any protracted discussion of why he’d chosen to take his holiday with Sherlock and not with Alice.
I know it wasn't definite or anything but I did think that maybe you were interested in coming to Cornwall. That was what you said anyway & I believed it.
He had been interested, it was true. But…. John sighed, anticipating the content of the next text. He wasn’t far off.
Whatever John. It's done & that's fine, but I think that when you get back & I come home from Cornwall, we need to sit down & have a talk.
Oh, God. Exactly why he hadn’t wanted to phone her in the first place.
Actually never mind. I'm inviting another friend to come with me. I don't really think you & I are working out & I'm not in the mood for this anymore.
Right. Well, he couldn’t say it was entirely unexpected. She’d accused him of neglect before, and they hadn’t even been dating that long. It was unfortunate, and it left him feeling a bit weary, but not exactly bruised of soul. He opened the last text.
Have a good time with your FLATMATE.
“Christ.” That was unnecessary. He set the phone on the nightstand, peeled off his t-shirt, tossed it on the bed, and trudged back into the bathroom, where Sherlock was pressing a damp towel to his face.
Sherlock took the towel from his face and gave John a brief glance. “She broke up with you.”
He didn’t even try to deny it. “We’d only been dating for a couple of months.” John slipped out of his tracksuit bottoms and hung them on a hook behind his door. “I don’t think she was all that keen on me.” He tried and failed to prevent himself from letting his gaze slide over Sherlock’s naked upper body, milk-pale once more, as he moved toward the corner shelf and snatched a towel. “I thought I’d told her I was leaving, though.”
“You announced your intention to text her night before last,” Sherlock said. He brushed his hair, flattening it almost completely. No matter – it would spring into crazy life in a few moments. “Evidently you failed to follow through.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“We only have a little over half an hour, John. Hurry up.”
That was Sherlock in a nutshell. “Thanks for the words of consolation.” John drew the shower curtain aside and turned on the tap. Hot water cascaded from the narrow showerhead, sending up billowing steam.
“Yeah, all right, Mum. Jesus.” John stepped into the shower and stood under the spray. The water was gloriously hot and pounded on his back and shoulders. “Oh, shit. Hey, Sherlock?” He drew the curtain aside. “Could you get my shampoo from my bag? I forgot it.”
“Just use mine, John. It’s on the floor.” Sherlock strode into his bedroom, yanking the towel off as he walked. John had a brief glimpse of high, round bum just before Sherlock turned the corner, and an entirely unsuitable and inappropriate surge of blood went straight to his cock.
Oh, God. Come on now. Light-headed and flushed, John leant against the rough tile of the shower stall and rested his cheek against the wall. It wasn’t the first time, if he was entirely honest with himself, that he’d found himself aroused at the sight of Sherlock partly or wholly undressed. Sherlock was attractive; John wasn’t blind, after all, and he’d have died before admitting it to anyone, but he’d had an experience or two with blokes in the RAMC.
Right, maybe twelve or fifteen. But who was counting? The point was, John wasn’t entirely oblivious to Sherlock’s elusive charms. It happened. It didn’t mean a damned thing, not really. A few stray thoughts here and there didn’t mean he wanted to fuck his flatmate.
And the thing was…he’d never really considered himself sensual. Sexual, yeah – he loved sex, loved looking at the soft, sexy bits of women that were ordinarily covered up – the silky skin and yielding flesh of an inner thigh, the curve of a hip, the lush ripeness of a breast – and he liked just enough foreplay to really get his engine revving, but he didn’t go in for hours of fondling and stroking and kissing and licking. But lately he’d been catching glimpses of Sherlock – not even his arse or anything, for God’s sake, just little things, like a flash of collarbone or the inside of his wrist or the shape of his mouth taking a sip of tea, and an odd, tiny ache would radiate from the center of his chest, and his hands got restless, wanting to touch, and his mouth dried up, and –
Christ, it was ridiculous, like some corny 1950s love song. He was pining. It was one thing to be horny, another to moon dreamily over his flatmate, a man utterly lacking in sexual appetite, a man who, as far as John could tell, regarded sex as messy, inconvenient, and foolishly tied to emotional upheaval. Well, he had the inconvenient bit right, anyhow. What was John supposed to say? ‘Hey, Sherlock, I quite fancy the way you solve crimes and the way that your hair curls on the nape of your neck – let’s fuck!’
Yeah, that would go over like a tin toilet in Siberia.
Idly, John curled his hand round his cock and pulled a bit. In the other room, Sherlock was dressing, wriggling into his underpants, buttoning the shirts that clung so worshipfully to his body. On anyone else they’d have been vulgar, but Sherlock managed to make ridiculously tight shirts seem absolutely right. He imagined the process in reverse, slowed to a crawl: Sherlock undoing his buttons one by one, shedding his shirt and letting it fall to soft folds at his bare feet, pulling down his thin boxer briefs –
Oh, fuck. He didn’t have time for a wank, and it was Sherlock he was thinking about, for fuck’s sake, not Alice or Sarah or any of the lovely women who’d paraded in and out of his life for the past year and a half. Because as gorgeous and sexy as they were, none of them were quite intriguing enough, not quite there enough –
“Christ –“ John snatched his hand away and stifled a groan. He was hard and the water was hot and felt marvellous, and he could have lingered for half an hour, but the bellowing martinet he fancied was ticking down the minutes, apparently. He stuck his head out of the shower stall to see Sherlock fully dressed, arms folded, and standing uncomfortably close – well, it was a tiny bathroom. “Are you actually timing me?”
“You haven’t even washed your hair,” Sherlock pointed out. “What on earth are you doing?”
“Enjoying the water,” John snapped. “God, Sherlock.” His erection started to wilt, and he ducked back inside and snatched up Sherlock’s shampoo. He lathered up hastily and washed himself with the big cake of soap sitting on the little built-in ledge – it smelled good, like a field of freshly mown grass – and finished up in five minutes. He towelled off, brushed his teeth, shaved, and was in his room in another five. Sherlock was sitting in the chair in his room, fiddling with his phone, and John saw that he’d laid an outfit on the bed – slim dark jumper, dark trousers, socks, underpants. It occurred to him to demand privacy, but Sherlock appeared to be ignoring him anyway. He gave a mental shrug and started dressing. “This is nice and funereal.”
Sherlock didn’t look up. “Well, we are going to a funeral. Don’t you think it’s appropriate? Hurry up, I don’t want to be late.”
“You’re awfully concerned about getting there on time,” John grumbled.
“According to Mycroft’s sources, the last sighting of Oscar Dzundza was in Prague, two days ago.”
“Back on his home turf,” John remarked, sitting on his bed to slide his socks on. “Enough time for him to finish his job here and leave.”
“And Trevor reports still no word of a newly surfaced codex, no rumours of private sales. Nothing public, naturally. Ah.” Sherlock’s mouth twisted upward. “She’s placed a discreet advert in some pertinent art periodicals – substantial reward for missing book, no real specifics, and no strings attached. Good girl.”
John frowned a little at the affection that had filtered into Sherlock’s voice. Arse, he chided himself. “The thief wouldn’t come forward, though – wouldn’t that just frighten him or her off?”
“Ransoming stolen art is more common than you’d think, especially amongst private collectors. And there are plenty of unsavoury dealers in the business. So much of it changes hands illicitly, provenance can’t be properly verified, law protects private sellers – it’s a lucrative profession for some clever people. But I don’t think Trevor’s on the right track. If whoever did this brought in Dzundza, there’s more to it than simple theft.” Sherlock compressed his lips and slipped his phone into his pocket.
John paused in the act of tying his shoe. “You don’t think it’s –“
Sherlock shrugged, but a strange light came into his eyes. “Could be. Doesn’t matter right now. Another thing – Brother Peter, the monk in charge of the infirmary, said that the codex was valuable, but not among the most valuable of all the codices they possess. So – why that one? Why not one worth more?”
“Easiest to pinch?” John suggested. “Father Simon said it was big, so maybe the more valuable ones were too unwieldy. Difficult to hide.”
“Maybe. We’ll find out. Ready?”
“After all your nagging, yeah, I am. Let’s go.”
“Bring your torch.”
“Just bring it.”
As they walked briskly toward the church, a single bell tolled, slow and solemn, echoing in the bright, cold morning. John breathed in the crisp air and admired the light on the mountains soaring high above the monastery. If he had a sight like that to wake up to every morning, he might feel pretty serene too, he thought.
“The service should take about an hour. And they’ll inter him in the crypt, so that should keep them a while longer,” Sherlock said.
“Why are you so keen to go, anyway? What are you hoping to find?”
“We’re not going to the funeral, John.”
“We’re – then – Sherlock, do you want to let me in on what’s happening?”
Sherlock gave John a glance that seemed faintly amused. “Well, we are making an appearance.”
“It’s not a cocktail party, Sherlock,” John said, exasperated. “We can’t just swan in and out.”
“We’re only staying long enough to get a head-count,” Sherlock replied. “I think the entire community will be in attendance, but I want to make certain. Then you and I are going to the library. With any luck, we’ll have at least an hour to look around without interference.”
“That’s why you wanted me to bring the torch. Well, you could have told me,” John said mildly. He knew well enough by now that Sherlock loved hatching plots and keeping him in the dark until the last possible moment, but he was used to being briefed on a need-to-know basis; it might have bothered other people more, he conceded. It was one of Sherlock’s more irritating and oddly endearing traits. He didn’t need to prove he was clever to be clever, but he didn’t seem to realise that quite yet. Someday, maybe.
“You have an underdeveloped sense of urgency.”
“Oh, bollocks – if that’s not the pot calling the kettle black. Every time you’re needed at NSY, Lestrade knows your actual ETA is about an hour after you’re scheduled to turn up. He adjusts his calendar accordingly.”
“Does he?” Sherlock seemed pleased. “I’ll have to show up early next time. Wouldn’t do to have him get complacent.”
John saw Sherlock’s smile and felt his heart give a funny little twist. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He held the heavy wooden door of the church open so Sherlock could go in.
The church wasn’t enormous, but its high, vaulted ceilings and tall columns contributed to a sensation of vast space, made kaleidoscopic thanks to the arched stained-glass windows that dappled the interior with clear, luminescent colour. The place was smoky with incense, and in the centre aisle stood a white-draped coffin on a wheeled wooden platform.
John moved toward the rows of pews at the front of the church, but Sherlock caught his arm and indicated, with a slight gesture of his hand, that they should stand near the back. Sherlock led him to a column of scored white stone. “There are forty-seven monks in the abbey, if every one of them was present at supper last evening.” He frowned, peering at the monks already gathered in the pews and on a raised dais near the altar in two small rows. “Forty-four, including the choir on the side there. I expect the celebrants will proceed through the back.”
The sound of footsteps silenced Sherlock. John saw Ian Adler, immaculately dressed in a dark suit and tie, dip his fingers in the holy water font and cross himself. He glanced at John and Sherlock, nodded, and made his way up the far right aisle to an empty pew, where he genuflected deeply and then knelt, folding his hands and bowing his head.
John scowled. Adler didn’t strike him as the praying sort, but one never knew about people.
“Thought he wasn’t coming,” Sherlock murmured.
Sherlock shook his head and raised a finger to his lips. The back door swung open once more, and the choir began to intone a solemn chant. Sherlock had been right about the choir near the front. There was no loft; the rear wall soared straight up to the ceiling, broken by weight-bearing piers and pointed arched windows of stained glass, topped with a brilliantly hued rose window.
Two monks entered the church, one bearing a crucifix on a metal pole, the other swinging a brass censer that billowed smoke. Behind him came Father Simon Trevor and an aged, stooped monk who shuffled forward slowly as if each step might have been his last. The first two monks were in their regular habits; Simon and the old monk were in heavy, richly embroidered vestments. Simon, John saw, supported the ancient monk by one arm as they made their way up the centre aisle.
“Forty-eight,” Sherlock whispered. “All right, John – that’s all of them. One extra, actually. Let’s go.”
“Who was the old fella?” John wondered as they swung onto the path toward the library. “Didn’t see him last night.”
“Don’t know. Neither did I. Maybe some emeritus monk they wheel out on special occasions.”
“Sherlock,” John scolded.
“Anyway, the point is we won’t have anyone hovering as we work.” Sherlock ducked down a side path of smooth flagstone and came to a plain wooden door. He tried the knob and then fished his picklock out. “Terribly suspicious now, these friars.”
“With good reason.”
“True.” Sherlock felt about patiently and then made a small noise of satisfaction. “There. Come along, John.”
John followed Sherlock into the library and closed the door behind him. It wasn’t much different from an ordinary library; there were rows of tables, and shelves and shelves of books. The atmosphere was still and peaceful and a bit dusty, and it held that smell of old books that sometimes made John mildly horny – some of his earliest make-out sessions had been in the stacks at school, and he’d never forgot the association. Light poured in from the clear glass windows, and an old steam heat system clanked faintly in a nearby radiator.
“What was the name of the fellow who died here?” John asked.
“Matthias. Brother Matthias. Fell down a flight of stairs.” Sherlock looked around. “Plausible enough, for the moment. Where are the most precious and unusual books kept in any library?”
“Top floor,” John said promptly. “The one near me had a creaky old lift that only the librarians were allowed to use. We had to take the stairs, but even then, the top floor was barred off.”
“Right,” Sherlock said. “And they’d be…right there.” He pointed toward an arched doorway and strode toward it. “Up we go.”
The staircase proved to be quite narrow and dark, with stone steps worn in the centre from hundreds of years of tread. “Easy to fall down these,” John said, taking out his torch and flicking it on.
“Or be pushed,” replied Sherlock. He moved past the landing to the second floor and made his way to the third. “John – give me your torch.”
John reached the top of the stairs and handed the torch over. Sherlock played the beam over the door, which had no handle or knob. The arched doorway was of stone, elaborately carved with strange and fanciful creatures that looked like the product of some feverish and possibly demented imagination – snakes with the heads of dogs, dolphins with legs, birds with hands at the ends of their wings, clawed and fanged deer, rampant lions with oddly human hands and feet. “Christ, that’s creepy,” John muttered. “Is that supposed to inspire devotion?”
“More likely to scare off any would-be intruders.” Sherlock moved the beam to the door. “Hinges are on the inside.”
“How do we get in?”
“I’m sure it was a conundrum when it was built,” Sherlock said, letting the light play over the carvings. “Fortunately, we have hundreds of years on our side.” He pointed to the upper left side of the doorway. “There – see how worn it is? Years and years of arms and sleeves brushing against the stone.” Carefully, he began to explore the carvings with his fingertips. “Should be here somewhere. Hold the torch, John.”
John held the light and backed up against the wall. “Skinny space here.”
“Yes, isn’t it? If Brother Matthias was pushed, whoever pushed him was probably in the library already. Hard to shove someone down the stairs without taking a tumble yourself.”
“Does that mean he let them in, then?”
“Maybe. Maybe the codex wasn’t so much stolen as it was given away. Oh!” Sherlock stopped and traced his fingers over the face of a snarling dog, or some snarling creature with sharp fangs and gaping tongue and weird, hollow eyes. “There it is. Ha.” He put his finger inside one of the eyes and pushed hard.
John waited, and bit his lip.
“Damn it,” Sherlock muttered.
“Try it again,” John suggested.
Sherlock frowned over at John, but he put his finger inside the hole and pushed again. “It’s a sort of latch. I can feel it yielding.”
“Maybe there’s a – a code or something,” John said. “Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me.”
“The Trinity, perhaps,” Sherlock said. “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Here goes nothing.” He pushed again, and there was an audible click. The door swung open quietly.
“Good guess,” John said. “I’m impressed. You’re not even a churchgoer.”
“I never guess,” Sherlock replied smugly, but it was obvious he was pleased. “Hold on, don’t move. Give me the light.” He played the beam over the floor. “No obvious prints – all right, we might as well go in.”
They stepped into a dark, narrow passageway. Three doors stood before them, plain, unadorned, and a bit ominous. “There’s a tiger behind one of them,” John joked.
“Right.” John looked at the identical doors and placed his hand on the knob of the one closest to him. “This one.” He turned it, and stepped inside.
Something brushed John’s cheek, and he leapt back with a stifled yelp. Behind him, Sherlock chuckled, reached past him, and tugged at something hanging in the air. A yellowish bulb flickered into life, feebly illuminating a not-very-large room with stacks of bookshelves holding books and what appeared to be carved wooden boxes.
“Oh, shut it,” John murmured, and moved into the room. He examined some of the spines of the books, most of which were far too old and worn to read properly and in any case were in a number of different languages. He saw German, Spanish, Latin, Italian, French, and what looked like Farsi before he finally came upon an English title. “The Anatomy of Melancholie. Nice one.” Carefully, he touched an ornately carved and gilded wooden box. “Pretty. What are they?”
“I imagine they hold the codices.” Sherlock grasped one and set it onto a small table. “This one’s still inside. Heavy.” He unhooked the latch and lifted the lid, then opened the front cover of the thick book.
“Wow.” John peered closely at the page covered in coloured illuminations that seemed to glow under the light of the bulb. The central figure was an angel with a shining sword, treading upon a feathered serpent, surrounded with tiny pictures of animals and people working in fields, starry skies, carefully inscribed flowers, and flourishes and curlicues that held no meaning that John could see but that were very beautiful indeed. The inks were as bright and vivid as if it had been completed the day before, and there was a faint sheen of gold here and there, carefully etched into the illustrations. “I can see why they’re so valuable.”
Sherlock made a noncommittal noise and turned a page.
John shook his head. “What is this? Latin?” He squinted at the words. Ic eom wunderlicu wiht wifum on hyhte neahbuendum nyt; nægum sceþþe burgsittendra nymthe bonan anum. “Hang on, that’s not Latin.”
“Can you read it?”
“No.” Sherlock closed the book and replaced the lid. He sighed and scanned the shelves rapidly, giving each box a little push to ensure that it held a codex. “There doesn’t seem to be anything missing here. Let’s try the next room.”
John paused over the codex box. “Funny that. If we time-travelled – if we went back a thousand years, we’d have no idea what anyone was saying to us.”
“We’d probably be burned at the stake,” Sherlock said. “Come on, hurry up. We only have about forty-five minutes left.”
“There’s a cheerful thought.” John pulled the light chain and closed the door quietly. All at once, he paused. “Was that –“
Somewhere far below them, in the main room of the library, there was a sound of approaching footsteps. Sherlock wheeled on John, a finger pressed to his lips, and gestured for John to open the middle door. John scrabbled for the handle and hurried inside, only to run soundly into a stone wall. He grunted, touched the sore spot on his head, and was about to turn to tell Sherlock that they’d found a closet when the door closed behind them, plunging them into complete darkness. Sherlock collided with John and let out a low cry of surprise. “What the hell, John?” he whispered.
“Cupboard,” John whispered back. Sherlock’s body was pressed tightly against his. “Come on, back up.”
John held his breath and heard the heavy tread of footsteps ascending the library stairs. It was probably one of the monks – Simon, maybe. The funeral apparently hadn’t run long. “Why do we have to –“
Sherlock pressed his fingers against John’s mouth, and all at once his lips were against John’s ear. “Quiet,” he murmured, his lips brushing against the sensitive flesh.
It was the most sudden and unexpected erotic contact, and as he felt the light, teasing sensation of Sherlock’s lips and the long length of his body pressing close, John’s cock answered happily, ready for action. Appalled, John squirmed into the corner. Oh, Christ’s sake, not now. He held himself very still and listened as the footsteps came closer.
It was a heavy tread, slow and even, but were they booted feet? Was it perhaps their old pal the Golem? Sherlock would probably know, but John had no idea. He longed for his weapon, but he’d been obliged to leave it behind. Probably one of the monks. Don’t want to be shooting at them. He breathed in Sherlock’s scent. He had to; Sherlock’s neck was practically smashed into his nose, and his fingers still lay lightly over John’s mouth. A terrible impulse leapt into his head to touch his tongue to Sherlock’s hand. Oh, God, what the hell is wrong with you? Sherlock’s thigh and hip nudged at him; he felt wool and the warm insistent pressure of Sherlock’s lanky body.
The footsteps ceased at the top of the stairs, and there was another sound – heavy breathing, as if the person was out of shape. John shuddered slightly as he heard the left door open, then the right, then a frustrated, wordless growl.
“Get ready,” Sherlock whispered. His hair tickled John’s face; his lips were soft against John’s ear. Slowly, noiselessly, he turned, not without some difficulty – it was close and getting stifling – and reached down to briefly grasp John’s wrist.
The handle of the middle door rattled, but the door stayed closed. John felt his body thrumming with tension and anticipation. Come on, you bastard.
The footsteps moved away, and began to descend the stairs. After a long, agonising moment, the footsteps faded away altogether, and the tiny closet was silent once more. John let out a sigh and sagged against the stone wall. “Christ,” he said softly. “I – what the hell….”
A faint hiss insinuated itself into the tiny room, and John began to smell something noxious, like rotting eggs and swamp water. Inadvertently, he sucked in a deep breath and took in a lungful of smoke. “Oh, Jesus, what –“
“There’s no handle on the inside of the door.” Sherlock’s voice was still a whisper, but unexpectedly harsh and agitated.
“What do you mean? How did you close it?”
“I mean –“ Sherlock coughed. “I didn’t – it must be weighted. I can’t get out.” He coughed again. “Here.”
John felt something soft and warm thrust into his hands. “What’s th—“
“Tie it over your mouth and nose and get down on the floor. I’ve got to figure this out.”
“Where’s the torch?”
“I left it on the table.”
John groaned. “Oh, fucking hell, Sherlock –“ He sucked in another mouthful of smoke and choked. Tears filled his eyes, and he rubbed at them.
“I didn’t do it deliberately, for God’s sake!” Sherlock snapped. He coughed again, and the sound of his voice dipped, as if he’d bent double. “Have to find the hinge – might be a simple pin –“ He coughed again, convulsively. “Whoever that was…must have known….”
“Sherlock, you take the scarf –“
“I said tie it over your mouth and nose! Don’t waste my time arguing.”
“Fuck.” John tied the scarf around his face, knelt on the floor, and groped forward to help Sherlock. “Here, let me try.”
Sherlock moved aside as much as he could, which wasn’t much. He coughed and gasped. “There’s some sort of ventilation pulling at the smoke, or we’d both be unconscious by now. It’s –“ He broke off, wheezing. “It’s got to be here somewhere.”
John tugged frantically at the door’s lower hinges, but they were tight and secure. He blinked against tears as he felt along the door frame for something that might get them out. Frustrated, he pounded on the door. “Hey!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Sherlock demanded.
“I don’t feel like suffocating in here,” he retorted, and began to slam against the door in earnest. “Hey! Help! Let us out!”
“Move aside,” Sherlock gasped, and John pressed himself against the wall. He felt Sherlock back up, then lash out with one foot, trying to kick the door down. The sound of Sherlock’s foot connecting with the thick, solid wood was depressing, to say the least. “Hell.” He took a hitching breath, spluttered, and began hacking again.
John resumed pounding on the door. “Simon! Brother Edward! Somebody! Anybody, for God’s sake! Help!” He had the horrible suspicion, if not the certainty, that any sound they made was swallowed by the thickness of the wood and the stone walls. “Hey!” His last shout broke on a series of coughs that made his head spin. He was getting dizzy.
“John—“ Sherlock said, and John let out a startled cry as Sherlock’s body pitched forward, crumpling heavily against him.
“Oh, fuck – Sherlock? Sherlock, please –“ Despite the scarf, John was getting light-headed. He caught Sherlock around the waist, trying to support him, but it was no good. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t suck in the slightest bit of clean air, and he was sliding down the stone wall, falling into an endless well of thick choking blackness.
--- One day, Sherlock, you’re going to pay rather dearly for this incessant and dreary penchant for exposing yourself to danger. I do hope you realise I cannot be there to extricate you from every perilous situation in which you find yourself entangled.
--- Oh, shut up, Mycroft. When was the last time I begged you for a favour?
--- You were seven, I believe. Stranded in a willow tree.
--- I’ve learnt a thing or two since then, believe me.
The darkness that surrounded Sherlock resonated with smoke, a thick, muffled scraping, the warmth and solidity of another body, and shouting that faded away into a dim, pleasant hum. He wanted to tell John to stay low, that he might possibly survive until help arrived, but he couldn’t speak for the smoke clouding his lungs. His head struck something hard, and a bright flash of pain, along with the depressing notion that Mycroft could have been right, reverberated in his skull before he slipped under entirely.
He came to with his cheek pressed against cool stone and the sound of vaguely familiar voices floating above his head.
“Just lie still, Sherlock. It’s all right.”
He struggled to get up and sucked in a lungful of clean air. Glorious, until he choked on it.
“Get him some water!”
John. Where was John?
“Come on, now, lad, hold still. It’s all right.” A deep voice, English, Northern-accented. Brother Edward.
Where was John?
“He’s all right. He’s right here.”
A hand squeezed his.
“I’m okay, Sherlock.” John’s voice, rough and shaky, but unmistakably his, unmistakably alive. “I’m okay. Brother Edward--” There was a convulsive fit of coughing.
Sherlock’s vision cleared enough to see John bent over, his hand pressed to his mouth.
“I’m all right. Choky, that’s all.” John’s hand brushed the hair from Sherlock’s forehead, touched his cheek. Tears occluded Sherlock’s vision. “Brother Edward’s going to take us to a surgery in town. I don’t think it’s --” Another round of coughing. “I don’t think it’s serious, but I think we could both do with a hit of oxygen. And maybe bronchoscopy for you, since you fainted. Oh, good – here, Sherlock.” John’s arm slid under his head and supported his neck, and something cool and wet was put to his lips. “Have a drink. Little sips.”
He sipped. His teeth hit the glass, and water spilled down his neck. He couldn’t see past the burning and stinging in his eyes. He sipped again, and choked again.
“It’s okay.” How soothing John’s voice was. Lovely bedside manner. “I think we can get moving now.”
“Is he all right?” That voice, with a little catch in the centre of the words.
“He will be.” John again, grim and brusque. “Excuse us.”
“Let me help.” Ah. Ian Adler. What was he doing there?
“Right.” John was really dreadful at concealing his animosity. Sherlock couldn’t fault his instincts, though. “Grab him under the arm – Brother Edward, can you support his other side? I can’t --”
For God’s sake, John, don’t worry about me. Look after yourself, you idiot. You inhaled a lot of smoke too.
“Settle down, Sherlock. You want some more water?”
No, I want to find out who decided to sabotage our investigation, for God’s sake.
“Don’t try to talk, you’ll just end up coughing. Wait until you can breathe properly again. Yes or no? Shake your head if it’s no, stop being so bloody – all right, never mind, let’s just go.”
They bundled him downstairs and out of the library and into the back seat of the Volvo. Through a greyish veil of smoke-induced tears, he saw Simon and Brother Edward in the front, John beside him.
“Don’t rub your eyes, Sherlock. Let the tears take care of that, okay?” John’s hand grasped his wrist and set it in his lap.
The execution of a mutinous glare was difficult whilst tears were streaming from one’s eyes, not to mention the frequent seal noises that insisted upon making an escape from one’s chest. Sherlock settled for folding his arms tightly and letting the cold wind from the open windows rush past his face. The clear air felt good, restorative even, though he still coughed continuously. He batted away John’s tentatively comforting hand and bent almost double, annoyed by the constant hacking and the pain in his chest. Not to worry, they were on their way to a surgery. Breathing treatment, a hit of pure oxygen. Beside him, John coughed as well. The back seat of the car sounded like a tuberculosis ward. The front of the car was silent; Brother Edward, driving, whipped the car around the turns, every so often glancing anxiously over his shoulder at his noisy passengers. Simon, back in his ordinary black-and-white habit, sat unmoving, doing his best imitation of an Easter Island statue. Sherlock would have dearly loved to make a snide remark, but he couldn’t gather the breath to speak. Enforced silence was awful.
Half an hour after leaving the abbey they found themselves not in a surgery, but a small hospital, with Simon explaining the situation to a doctor and two nurses in rapid-fire Italian. Sherlock and John were whisked into a room with two beds, and the curtain partition was drawn. Wearily, he submitted to an examination, with Brother Edward standing nearby to translate, though he was able to describe most of his symptoms in faulty Italian. After it was determined, following a great deal of poking and prodding, that no intubation was necessary, he lay back on the narrow, uncomfortable bed and allowed an oxygen mask to be strapped to his face and soothing drops applied to his aching eyes. He heard John’s raspy voice and a brief chuckle, and relaxed enough to fall asleep.
Sherlock turned his face toward the hand resting on his forehead, leaning into the touch.
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty. Wake up.”
“Mm?” Sherlock opened his eyes – still a bit sore – and saw John standing over him, looking as though he’d just washed his face. His hair looked a bit sooty and stood up in tufts here and there.
“Hi.” John took his hand away. “I’m going to take the mask off, okay?” His voice sounded a bit ragged, overtaxed, but not dreadful. He was upright and besides the smoky-smelling clothes and hair and eyes that were still a bit bloodshot, he looked fine. He hadn’t been badly injured. Good. Good.
Sherlock nodded and closed his eyes again. He felt better. His lungs hurt less, and breathing wasn’t the effort it had been a while ago. He felt John’s fingers brushing against his face, undoing the straps that held the mask tight over his mouth and nose, and lifting it off. He took an experimental breath: a bit of an ache, nothing terribly debilitating. The medical staff would no doubt tell him to take it easy for a few days. John would almost certainly tell him the same thing.
Highly, highly unlikely. But then John knew that.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Sherlock croaked, and blinked at the rasp in his own voice.
John smiled a little. “Here, drink this.” He handed Sherlock a cup of fruit juice, and Sherlock sipped meekly enough. “They said there’s no need to keep us longer. Got some instructional pamphlets --” John rummaged in a pocket and flourished a handful of folded leaflets. “All in Italian, of course, but it’s standard stuff – watch your breathing and how you sleep and make sure you don’t vomit blood and call 999 if your nails turn blue. I don’t know if it’s 999 here – anyway.” John shrugged.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Worried about you, mostly, you git – you’re the one who sucked in all the smoke. I had your scarf, remember?”
“Of course I remember.” Sherlock tried to frown, but it was too much of a relief to see John up and about. He felt his mouth twitching into a smile and settled for an expression of bored impatience. “Who found us?”
“Never mind that now. Let’s focus on getting you up and about.”
“Do we get to leave now?”
“We do,” John affirmed, stuffing the leaflets back into his pocket. “Simon and Brother Edward are in the waiting room, but you can rest a bit – no need to rush. The oxygen might make you feel a bit shaky on your legs.”
“I’ll be fine.” Sherlock rose and swung his feet onto the floor. His head swam, and he blinked still-scratchy eyes.
John eyed him dubiously. “You sure about that? They checked you for concussion, didn’t they? Let me have a look at your eyes.”
“Of course I’m sure, John, and yes, they did. No need for you to slip into A&E mode.” Sherlock pushed himself to his feet and swayed. His vision blurred a bit.
“Okay, okay.” John caught his arm and guided him very firmly back to the bed. “Let’s not tip over, yeah? Nice and slow. Where are your shoes? Oh.” He crouched and picked up one of Sherlock’s shoes, untying the laces. “Right foot. Come on, don’t make me do all the work.”
“I’m perfectly capable of putting on my own shoes, John.” Nevertheless, Sherlock stuck one foot out and focused on John’s hands pulling the ends of the laces out of the shoe, stretching it open to accommodate Sherlock’s foot.
“Uh-huh. Your other right.”
John squinted up at him. “You sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Absolutely. One hundred percent.”
“Right,” John snorted. “I’ll tell you this – I don’t care what you say, you’re taking it easy for the rest of the day. No running around and fainting because you’re short of breath and too bloody stubborn to say so. You’ve got to let your lungs re-acclimate to ordinary respiration. Deep breathing at intervals, food and water.”
“Whilst the trail grows cold and whoever managed to attack us gets away.”
John shook his head as he tied Sherlock’s shoelace. “You know better than I do that if it was outside talent, he’s long gone by now, and if it was an inside job, he’s not going anywhere. In either case, whatever he was trying to prevent us from seeing is probably still in the library, so just resign yourself to a day of enforced leisure, all right? It’s already noon, anyway. Half the day’s gone.” He peered up at Sherlock, challenge darkening his eyes.
A sharp retort constructed itself from the still-lingering haze and disorientation inside Sherlock’s cranium, and he opened his mouth to let it fly out – and then, contrary to his temperament and nature, shut it again and regarded John curiously. A certain blunt practicality always infused John’s utterances, and he was learning – with agonising slowness to be sure, but learning nonetheless – some of the more obvious processes of deduction, but it was still surprising and not altogether unpleasurable to discern a measure of personal concern in his admonitions, insofar as emotions were unpredictable and routinely defied analysis. It had been a long-held tenet of Sherlock’s personal beliefs that anyone who hadn’t been able to discipline themselves enough to display the thinnest possible slivers of emotion was unmistakably a fool, but there was John, who laughed and swore and even got misty at ludicrously stupid movies, and John wasn’t, Sherlock admitted – if only to himself – a fool.
And then there had been that fleeting moment in the cupboard, where Sherlock had thought, just for a moment, that John had been excited by his proximity. He’d heard John’s breathing speed up, felt the slightest tremor of John’s lips beneath his fingers – but then John had moved away from him, wriggling into the furthest corner of the cupboard. In the midst of danger, Sherlock had experienced a brief yet acute stab of disappointment. Quickening hearts and trembling breaths in the context of desire had always meant very little to him, but lately –
“Sherlock, are you listening to me? I want you to rest today.”
“I heard you perfectly well,” Sherlock replied, adopting his crossest tone to disguise the vague embarrassment of having been caught staring into John’s eyes – slate blue with a corona of hazel round the pupil, and a sunburst of striation in each iris – and thrusting his left foot imperiously forward. “I want to talk to a few people, and I suppose I can do that sitting down, if you insist. And we’re going back to the library and the balneary.”
“We can do that tomorrow, if Simon doesn’t throw us off the premises. He looked like thunder.”
“We’re the best hope he’s got right now,” Sherlock said, then slid off the bed as John finished tying his shoe. “Come on, we’ve wasted enough time here.”
The first ten minutes of the ride back to the abbey were silent and thickly weighted with Simon’s disapproval. Sherlock watched his face darken to crimson – even the bald patch at the back of his head had turned bright pink – and waited in amused patience for the explosion he knew was coming.
He didn’t have to wait long. “I thought I had made it perfectly clear, Sherlock, that you would receive an escort to the library. Moreover, I indicated last night that there were certain areas that were forbidden to you. I would have thought that someone with your cognitive capabilities would understand what that meant.”
“Yes, but fortunately I have a talent for ignoring pointless edicts and hindrances. Who was it that let us out?”
Simon turned and glared at Sherlock, then at John. “I have half a mind to turn you both out,” he said. “So far as I’ve heard, the best you’ve done is to turn up a couple of footprints in the balneary, which doesn’t bring us any closer to retrieving the book or discovering who murdered Brother Adelmo.”
“And yet someone was keen enough on keeping us from discovering more about the library, and willing enough to suffocate Dr. Watson and me to death in order to do it.” Sherlock’s voice began to rasp. “I’d call that significant, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe you wouldn’t. Now are you going to answer my question or not? Who let us out of the cupboard? And it’s not really a cupboard, is it?”
John gave Sherlock a startled glance. “It’s --”
“Come on, John. An empty cupboard in a library – not a single box or broom or dustbin? Libraries are overcrowded by nature, constantly expanding with new acquisitions, and in this particular sort of library, they don’t just chuck the old books to make room for the new, do they? An empty space in any library is practically a contradiction in terms. Add to that the source of ventilation that kept us from succumbing to the smoke immediately – what happened to the smoke bomb, by the way?”
“Father Simon asked me to take it to the police,” Brother Edward said.
Sherlock sighed loudly. “Oh, excellent move, Simon. Tell me, are you actively attempting to grind this investigation to a screeching halt or is it just a symptom of your general idiocy that prevents you from making decisions that involve more than three brain cells at a time?”
Simon’s face was an intriguing shade of purple. “I had Brother Edward take the device to the police for fingerprinting, in the hopes of discovering your assailant.”
“You might as well have tossed it in the bin. Well done.” Sherlock turned back to John. “The library’s constructed of stone and despite the presence of Simon here, relatively well-kept. Chinks are regularly mortared, windows kept tight, that sort of thing. And the cupboard that wasn’t a cupboard was an interior room, so where did that airflow come from? Another door, I think – yes, Simon?”
Simon glared at Sherlock, then shook his head. “Yes.”
“So are you going to give us carte blanche to examine the library or do we have to make another stealth entry? Breaking and entering gets a little boring. Waste of time.”
Simon seemed to be struggling with himself. Beside him, Brother Edward bit his lip and looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else. “Mr. Holmes,” Brother Edward ventured, “I know it’s difficult to understand our ways, but the truth is we’re not very used to laypeople having free run of the abbey. Father Simon is only –“
“I understand that you’re not accustomed to it, Brother Edward, but Simon seems more interested in protecting some petty little non-existent fiefdom than in actually getting this case solved and bringing a murderer to justice. So to get back to an earlier question – who was it that responded to John’s banging and shouting?”
“It was Mr. Adler,” Simon said. “He was on the second floor.”
“Mr. Adler has the run of the library?” Sherlock mused. “Interesting.”
“Not in the least,” Simon retorted. “He was accompanied by Brother Marcelo, one of our novices. Marcelo had expressed interest in the library when he joined us, and is now in the unique and unenviable position of learning to maintain it without the benefit of Brother Matthias or Brother Adelmo’s counsel.”
Sherlock sat up. “Brother Marcelo.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Brother Marcelo, who’d wept at supper over his colleague’s death. Brother Marcelo, who’d been photographed in the most compromising position by Ian Adler. How very interesting indeed. “I’d like to speak to him as soon as possible.”
“I suppose that can be arranged,” Simon said ungraciously. The car drew to a stop in the cobbled courtyard and Simon heaved himself out and walked away. Sherlock followed as quickly as he could – not as quickly as he’d have liked, thanks to the still-wobbly state of his legs.
“See that it is,” Sherlock called. “Because someone in your community gave our assailant the means to enter the third floor.”
Simon halted in his tracks and stood quite still for a moment before turning slowly on his heel. “What are you saying?”
“I think you know what I’m saying,” Sherlock replied, “but I’ll clarify nonetheless, and I’ll be sure to use small words so you understand. Someone gave third-floor access to the man who tried to kill us. We didn’t prop the door open. Whoever it was couldn’t have got in without knowing how. So the question is: who was it? Brother Marcelo? Brother Matthias or Brother Adelmo? You, Simon?”
Simon shook his head. “If you believe that anyone here is capable of murder --”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. That’s why you brought me here, Simon.”
“Vicki wanted you here,” Simon said. He moved a few steps closer to Sherlock. “I never wanted you here, Sherlock. I still don’t. You’ve managed to disrupt a very solemn day, and if you hadn’t broken into the library, you wouldn’t have been assaulted. I’ll grant that something very peculiar is happening, but you seem to be causing more trouble than you’re averting.”
“So boot us out,” Sherlock said. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“I want this solved. I want the murderers brought to justice, and I want the codex back.”
“Then don’t obstruct me,” Sherlock said. “Believe it or not, Simon, I’m trying to help you. Someone doesn’t want me to discover more about what’s happening here, and you might find yourself with another dead monk on your hands.”
“Or a dead detective.”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry.” Simon bit his lip. “That was…unnecessary and unkind. What I mean is that Vicki would never forgive me if something happened to you.”
“I trust you’ll send Brother Marcelo my way in a short while, then.” Sherlock turned to join John, who was talking quietly to Brother Edward.
John gave him a faintly reproachful look. “You just had to piss him off more, didn’t you?”
“Oh, God, he deserves it. If I didn’t know him already, I’d say he had a hand in this whole thing, he’s so determined to be difficult, but that’s just Simon being Simon.”
“Don’t blame him too much,” Brother Edward said. He saw both Sherlock and John staring at him and a blush rose to his cheeks. “It’s not easy, running this place. He’s been under some pressure to sell recently, and the abbey isn’t making money. We’re operating in the red, to tell you the truth.”
“Money,” John said. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you didn’t get the grand tour,” Brother Edward said, scratching his neck. “We brew beer, and the profits offset our cost of living. The information’s in the leaflets that should have been in your room.”
“Yes,” Sherlock said. “I saw that.”
“It’s lovely stuff – a winter stout and a summer blend. We brew it in small batches and sell it under the name San Stefano. It’s artisanal – snob appeal, I guess you’d say. But the economy hasn’t been kind to us – costs are up and sales aren’t what they used to be, so he’s worried. We all are. And even though Simon’s not the abbot, all the burdens of the abbey fall on his shoulders.”
“So who’s the abbot?” John asked.
“Father Umberto. He was the co-celebrant at the funeral this morning, but he’s old and frail and hardly leaves his room these days.” Brother Edward shrugged. “Anyhow, if Father Simon’s a bit…abrupt, or unhelpful, try to remember that he’s under quite a lot of strain.”
“All the more reason for him to want to get this case solved in short order,” Sherlock said.
Brother Edward smiled. “You’re a bit relentless, Mr. Holmes. How did you get into the library? And onto the third floor, for that matter?”
Sherlock dove into his pocket and produced his picklock. “With this. As to your second question – only a few people seem to know how to access the third floor. I doubt you want to add to those numbers. It would only complicate matters.”
“True enough,” Brother Edward sighed. “Forget I asked. Oh – you should know that Brother Marcelo doesn’t speak much English. You might have a time of it trying to ask him questions.”
“Perhaps you’d be so good as to translate for me, then.”
“Aye, I suppose I could,” Brother Edward said. “I don’t reckon either of you have had any breakfast.” He squinted up at the sun. “And it’s past lunch now. I’ll have someone bring something to your room.”
Sherlock glanced at John, who was looking a bit pale and drawn. “That would be appreciated, thank you.” He nodded a farewell to Brother Edward and he and John made their way back to their lodgings.
“You’re eating something,” John said.
“Not if it’s that God-awful stew from last night.”
“It was delicious,” John said. His voice was still a bit raspy. “You have the eating habits of a primary school kid.”
“Untrue. I like a glass of wine now and again.”
“I wouldn’t mind trying some of that beer,” John said. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” Sherlock grasped the lapel of his coat and put it to his nose. “My clothes smell, though. I should air the coat out, at least, and get the rest laundered.”
“I doubt they have dry cleaning here, unless it’s the old-fashioned sort - sponge it down and hang it outside.”
“Remind me never to be a monk.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” John said. “I think you’d do all right.”
Sherlock peered at John. “What makes you say that?”
There was a momentary silence, then John shrugged. “I don’t know. You’ve got that Jedi thing going on sometimes.”
“Never mind, scratch that. You’d go mad without your mobile after two days, not to mention being out of London for more than a month would send you round the twist completely. Come on, I’m starving.” John surged ahead, leaving Sherlock to follow.
Sherlock watched John’s progress for a moment. There was, he knew, an entire vocabulary of reference that separated the two of them, but Sherlock had never troubled to learn it; it simply wasn’t important. But a year of observing John had taught him that there were small obscurities woven into John’s speech. Coupled with recurring facial expressions indicating some strong emotion on John’s part, it made for the most aggrieving perplexity at times, as if John was attempting to convey something in a code he couldn’t possibly understand. More confounding and annoying still was that it had begun to bother him at all.
He scowled and set off after John. He wondered what a Jedi was, but he’d be damned if he’d ask.
Lunch turned out to be thick sandwiches of ham and cheese, with accompanying bowls of the previous evening’s stew. Sherlock pushed his soup and half his sandwich toward John and ate while he stripped out of his smoky clothes and changed into fresh garments.
John, who’d changed first thing, finished his lunch and tucked into Sherlock’s, looking a little guilty. “Waste not, want not.”
“Enjoy it. You missed breakfast, after all.”
John pointed at Sherlock’s glass of water. “You’re drinking every bit of that, at least. How are you feeling?”
Sherlock put his sandwich on his plate. “You do realise that’s the sixth time you’ve asked me that today?”
“I’m concerned. You passed out, you know, and hit your head and you were unconscious for a few minutes. You weren’t breathing. That’s not a good thing, Sherlock, especially with how often it happens. In fact, I’m starting to think about insisting on you wearing a crash helmet when we go out on cases.”
Sherlock chuckled. “Excellent idea for a Christmas gift.”
John tried to look stern, then snickered, then looked stern again. “Come on, I’m not joking. You’ve only got one skull, Sherlock, and as careless of it as you are at times, I wonder if you remember your brain’s in it.”
“In fact, John, I have –“
“Yeah, I know. The one at home on the mantel doesn’t count. Look, all I’m asking is that you take reasonable care of yourself after something like this happens, yeah? Don’t let yourself get dehydrated, don’t let your blood sugar drop too much, don’t run around and exhaust yourself.”
“You’re exhausting me. I’m perfectly fine, as you’d know if you’d been listening the first five times I’ve said so. Cognitive function is entirely unimpaired, and motor skills have returned in full, thank you very much and for heaven’s sake don’t ask me again.” He opened the window and hung the coat from the outside hinge. “Ugh, potassium nitrate – it’ll take forever to get the smell out. I’d like to wring Simon’s neck for giving the smoke bomb to the police.” He turned at a knock on the door. “Come in.”
The door opened to admit Brother Edward. “Is this a convenient time, Mr. Holmes?”
“Now’s as good a time as any. Have you got Brother Marcelo with you?”
“I do that.” He opened the door wider and urged forward a young monk with dark, closely cropped hair, and large brown eyes with purple smudges beneath. “Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, this is Brother Marcelo.”
Brother Marcelo peered apprehensively at Sherlock and John, then nodded politely. “Hello.”
“Thank you for translating, Brother Edward. Please duplicate my questions with as much exactness as you can manage, and convey his answers with the same exactitude. And please keep in confidence anything you hear until after the case is concluded.” Sherlock leant against the windowsill and folded his hands together. “Now, Brother Marcelo. Was it your desire to be a librarian when you first joined this particular community?”
Brother Edward frowned a little, then turned to Brother Marcelo and translated. Brother Marcelo answered in voluble Italian. Brother Edward said, “He’s always loved books. In university he studied Latin and classical Greek, and part of the reason he joined this particular community was because of its fame as a…repository of learning.”
“So even as a little tot in the schoolyard,” Sherlock mused aloud. And Latin and classical Greek. “I take it you and Mr. Adler had a lot to talk about.”
Brother Marcelo’s eyes widened. He bit his lip and shrugged as he answered. “Mr. Adler is a learned man, a scholar, and knows a great deal about ancient texts. We have found much in common,” Brother Edward translated.
“Oh, I’ll bet you have.” Sherlock noticed John staring at him in puzzlement and moved on. “What time did the funeral end this morning?”
“It lasted about forty minutes,” Brother Edward said. “Sorry – I won’t bother to ask him that one as I was there. Simon and Father Umberto performed the graveside service about five minutes later, and that lasted about ten minutes. We were finished just before nine.”
Sherlock tilted his head to one side. “And you and Mr. Adler came to the library straight away.”
Brother Marcelo nodded. “Yes,” Brother Edward said. “And we heard the shouting and banging on the door and found you immediately thereafter.”
“I see. Can you tell me who found Brother Matthias immediately after his death?”
Brother Edward hesitated, then asked the question. Brother Marcelo’s face contracted as if he were in pain and his gaze darted to the floor as he mumbled an answer. “I did,” Brother Edward said. “That is --”
“Yes, I do understand a little Italian, thank you. I thought as much. Brother Marcelo,” Sherlock said sharply, “Tell me about the condition of Brother Matthias’ body in as much detail as you can recall.”
Brother Marcelo’s answer was halting, and several times he paused to wipe a tear from his face. He spoke to the floor, and his hands played nervously over each other as he talked. Brother Edward listened carefully, and then began to speak. “He was on the second floor landing, and he lay face-up. The passage is dark, so I didn’t see him right away – my foot struck his body. I knelt and then realised he was dead. I ran back for a torch, and when I saw his face I cried out. He looked….” Brother Edward turned to the younger monk. “Paura?”
Brother Marcelo shook his head. “Terrorizzato.”
“Terror-stricken,” Brother Edward said. “As if he’d seen something dreadful.”
Sherlock sighed. “Naturally.”
“His body was still warm. His habit had been torn, and his fingers were broken.” Brother Edward held his hand up to Brother Marcelo, who nodded. “And he had bruises, many bruises on his face.”
“On one side, or both?” Sherlock asked.
“I can’t remember. I only remember that his face was bruised.”
Sherlock touched his own cheek, conscious of a strange apprehension churning in his stomach. An unpleasant and ultimately useless memory, one he should have deleted some time ago, left to shadows. Why had he saved it at all? Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John looking at him and clasped his hands together.
Let him go, or I will kill you.
Sherlock bit back a smile. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t deleted it. He turned his attention back to the wan-looking Brother Marcelo. “You saw nobody leave the library this morning?”
“And were you close to Brother Adelmo?”
Brother Marcelo frowned at the question. “Yes. Yes, he was like a brother to me,” Brother Edward translated.
“Then why didn’t you stay for the graveside service?”
Brother Edward hesitated before asking the question, and shook his head as if in disapproval. Brother Marcelo’s complexion paled, and he stammered his answer. “I had to let Mr. Adler into the library. He was anxious to begin his work.”
“Surely another ten minutes wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Brother Marcelo’s posture became rigid, and he folded his hands tightly together.
“Yes. That’s true.” Brother Edward gave the young man a compassionate glance and turned to Sherlock. “Mr. Holmes, the lad’s had a bad time of things lately.”
“Yes, I don't doubt that at all,” Sherlock replied. “Thank you for your time, Brother Edward. Grazie, Fra Marcelo.” He turned and faced the window. He saw the library, one of the taller structures of the abbey, and focused on it for a moment, only dimly hearing John thanking them as well and ushering them out. Three floors, and that middle room – the back wall had been stone, with no door. Which meant –
“So. What was that about Ian Adler?”
Sherlock glanced at John. “What?”
“Those questions you were asking about Adler. You think Adler’s connected to this in some way? He didn’t show up until after the last murder.”
“I think Brother Marcelo had an inordinate interest in escorting Mr. Adler to the library when by all rights he should have been paying his respects to his superior and colleague.” And Ian Adler had incriminating and explicit photos of Brother Marcelo on his mobile – there was no mistaking that Brother Marcelo and the young man in the photos were one and the same. But why the rush? Sherlock turned back to John. “John, it’s not even two o’clock and the rest of the day yawns before us. Since we’d both make terrible monks, let’s not even bother spending it in contemplation. I want to go back to the balneary and re-examine the spot where Brother Adelmo died.” He saw John’s face and heaved an impatient breath. “And yes – I’m feeling fine.”
John shook his head slowly, and a smile tugged the corners of his mouth outward. “You’re impossible. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.” Sherlock couldn’t help an answering smile.
“Thanks, by the way.”
“For the scarf. You didn’t have to give it to me, you know.”
“Oh, John, don’t be ridiculous. One of us has to stay conscious, after all. We only have three skulls between us.”
“Two, unless you brought the other one with you.”
“Hm. Fair point.” Sherlock grabbed his coat from the outer hinge and shrugged it on. “Are you coming?”
“Of course I am,” John sighed. “Someone’s got to keep an eye on you.”
Sherlock swept out the door, holding it open for John and wondering at the most peculiar sensation – despite the abbey’s stubborn withholding of information, the possession of undisclosed secrets that always produced a wonderful mingling of driven curiosity and avidity – it was the oddest admixture of contentment and desire that he now experienced.
Strange. Very, very strange.
“You’re certain nobody can hear us?” Ian glanced apprehensively up at the low stone ceiling of the crypt. “I don’t trust the conduction of sound in this place.”
“You’re the one who insisted on meeting now,” replied a low, gravelly voice from the shadows. “It would have attracted attention if you’d left abruptly.”
Ian dismissed the response with an impatient chopping gesture of his hand. “Why, Dzundza?” He spoke French, the only language they had in common. “Why did you do that? What in God’s name possessed you?”
“They were a bit too close to the truth.”
“I had it under control. They’ll only go back, you know – now they’ll be even more curious. Well done, you. Unless you planned to kill them outright. I didn’t think Moriarty wanted that. Of all people, you were the last one I expected to go rogue.” Ian paced back and forth, unnerved by the darkness of the crypt, by Dzundza’s refusal to emerge from the shadows.
“You had it under control – in what way? You knew they'd entered the library, that’s all. And what do you care if I kill them?”
“Moriarty might care. I don’t need you throwing spanners into the works. Why are you even here? You’ve finished your assignment, haven’t you?”
“Mr. Moriarty requested that I remain on hand in case I’m needed. If Holmes and Watson can’t survive, then they’re not worth his time.”
“You do realise that’s not exactly a compliment to you. And they’ve escaped you once already.”
“It pays the same.” Dzundza’s voice was soft and implacable and vaguely frightening.
“It’s in my best interests to keep Sherlock alive at the moment. And by extension, Dr. Watson. Sherlock would be…upset if something happened to him.”
“Don’t touch him. Don’t touch either of them. I’ll call Moriarty myself if I have to.” Ian took a deep breath. “You need to leave, Dzundza. Let me handle this on my own.”
“Why? Afraid you’ll lose your bet?”
Ian’s breath caught in his throat. “What --” He stiffened as he felt powerful arms wrap round his body. Before he could pull away, he was pulled against a broad chest and a hand clamped over his mouth. He hadn’t heard Dzundza moving toward him, hadn’t seen a shift in the shadows. A scarlet blossom of terror unfolded in his vision and he longed to fight, but held himself perfectly still. Dzundza wouldn’t dare to kill him. He wouldn’t dare.
“Yes. I know about your little bet with him, Ian.” Dzundza pulled him closer. “You’re trembling, Ian.”
Ian forced himself not to claw at the hand over his mouth. He closed his eyes and waited.
“It’s always said, isn’t it, that one should do what one loves. You’ve found your calling, Ian, and so have I. This is not my only means of disposal – far from it. It is, however, my favorite.” Dzundza’s breath was hot against Ian’s ear, and two hard fingers pinched Ian’s nose shut.
Oh, God. No, no -- Ian writhed in Dzundza’s grasp, unable to suppress a protest that was swiftly smothered by Dzundza’s huge hand.
“Did you know I live for this moment – the fear, the small, strangled noises of panic, that inexorable knowledge of approaching finality? The little death for me, Ian, in one way or another. Every time.” The hand not clamped over Ian’s mouth and nose drifted downward until it rested on Ian’s belly. “And the great abyss for you, after I've had my way with you. Who would miss you, after all? So win your bet, and good luck. We’ll see who reaches Mr. Holmes first, no?” He released Ian abruptly and shoved him forward.
Ian stumbled and fell to the ground, breaking his fall with his hands and knees. Terrified and enraged, he curled up for a moment, gasping for breath. “Keep away from me, you bastard. You –“
But there was only silence in response. Dzundza had gone.
Ian reached out to a nearby stone sarcophagus and climbed to his feet. He sat on the casket, afraid his legs would give out, and ruefully picked tiny pebbles from the heels of his hands as he waited for his breathing and heartbeat to resume its normal rhythm.
He wouldn’t be rushed or pushed out of the picture. His was a delicate craft, and he executed it with skill and surety. Why had Moriarty allowed Dzundza to remain? The man was a brute, a mindless killing machine, fit only for sweeping up –
Ian froze. Sweeping up leavings.
He glanced round the crypt, but it was empty. The only illumination came from a red glass lamp with a guttering candle inside, presumably left over from the morning’s funeral. Poor Brother Adelmo, another one of Dzundza’s casualties.
Cautiously, he exited the crypt through the church and slipped into the daylight. Immediately, his mobile rang. “Ian Adler,” he said, his voice a trifle shaky. God damn it.
“Hi, honey! Been trying to call you.”
A shiver of loathing travelled up Ian’s spine. “Really? I did get your message.”
“Oh, good! The thing is, we’re going to have to step it up a little. You have enough evidence by now, with Simon and that pretty piece you were fucking.”
“I wasn’t fucking him,” Ian hissed.
“Oh, right – you’re saving that for Sherlock. I forgot. You’d better get on that, as well, hm? Don’t get too sidetracked, though – I want you to talk to Simon tomorrow at the latest.”
Ian rubbed his eyes. “All right.”
“Good boy! By the way, I do hope Oscar wasn’t too forceful. He has a way of letting things get out of hand sometimes.”
“I have to go,” Ian said.
“Tomorrow, Ian.” Moriarty’s voice had lost its singsong jollity. “I don’t want to have to come up there.”
“You can rely on me.”
“That’s my boy.” Moriarty rang off, leaving dead air behind.
Ian put his phone in his pocket and turned round to examine the church, pristine and beautiful in the crisp spring air. Crushing cold shuddered through his body as he realised that Oscar Dzundza was right – nobody would miss him if he disappeared. Ian had to depend on the quicksilver swiftness of his own wits to protect himself. He’d got in too deep, and there was no escaping now.
Gingerly, he touched his jaw, sore from Dzundza’s hand, and impotent anger coursed ice through his veins. He’d come out of this elegantly, and most importantly, on top.
He always did, after all.
His self-containment had always been extraordinary – except for a few missteps. He’d been skilled at it since his earliest childhood, when he sometimes saw worry and alarm in his mother’s face; she would laugh without humour and call him changeling, wee changeling and he would laugh in return, but he perceived the distress beneath her skin, her frightened eyes and crawling flesh when she beheld the child she’d borne and raised. She lied to him, kissed and embraced him though he felt her horror and disgust and couldn’t quite determine what it was that he’d done to repel her.
It taught him to dissemble early. He looked in the mirror and rehearsed the lies he told, making his face soft, open, and innocent. When he went to the pet shop, he told the proprietor the mice were for his big brother. As he took them home, soft and scrabbling in their little cardboard box, he congratulated himself on the transaction, concluded so easily and without alarm. And when he took them apart, he was very careful: he did it in the shed. Not as much mess, little noise, and it was a relief to strip away the mask of a child and wear his own face.
It had only been the one time, anyway. Animals were boring, predictable. People were more interesting. He was careful, but sometimes he made mistakes. Maureen McKechnie had tattled on him because of the string and the needles, and they’d had to move, and his mother wouldn’t let him play outside for a long time. He learned more. Sweet smiles and soft voices gained more than screams and blows. Logic and mathematics presented themselves to him in the form of punishment and reward, depending upon his actions. He learned to be crafty, aided by his own smallness, his ordinary features, the modest demeanour he cultivated early on. By the time Carl Powers took notice of him, he was almost ready. It took six months and multiple thrashings before he found the nerve to go through with things.
That night he had tossed and turned, hot and cold and trembling with excitement, Carl’s shoes under his bed. It had been so easy, and no-one had seen him. He asked himself, in a moment of stillness, why the world wasn’t awash in blood, and the answer followed fast on the heels of the question: people were stupid, that was why. Boring and dull and too stupid to do what most people wanted to do at one time or another. It was just a matter of time and care, and…isolating variables, really.
Then it occurred to him (it was like a revelation, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus) that if he was cautious, and clever, that he could have whatever he wanted. He wasn’t locked into a miserable little flat with its piss and fish-smelling corridors – for a while, yes, but not forever. He could have nice clothes, a car maybe. He could go to smart restaurants, have the sort of life he saw on telly.
Mam wanted him to go to university, to be a professor – he was more than sharp enough, he knew, and there were scholarships and all sorts of ways to manage, she said. It would be an uphill struggle, but persistence would pay off in the end. He would be respected, a man to be reckoned with. But to go through all that and ending up having to cope with eejits and arseholes like Carl Powers every single day? Oh, God. No. It was bad enough being crammed into classes with people who made him want to set the building on fire (and maybe, just maybe, someday he would), but having to look at their stupid sheep faces for the rest of his life? He wouldn’t be able to choose his own students, and that was what he wanted. Not students, but to be able to pick and choose his….
Clients. That had a nice ring to it.
He could manage things for people who had money, but who weren’t bright enough to manage things themselves. All sorts of things. He’d have to tighten the mask he wore, he knew, but it would be worth it. He’d have so much. And if he was clever enough, nobody would ever, ever catch him.
“Oh, that’s so great, Seb. You’re a champ. Don’t stop.”
Jim reached down and brushed a hand over Sebastian’s short, sweat-soaked hair as Seb’s mouth, hot and wet and so very mobile, worked over and around his cock. It always took him forever to get hard, but once he was there, oh. And he could keep it up for a really long time – a little gift from the gods of screwing, bluing, and tattooing, compensation for slow arousal. In fact, give it another minute and a half or so, and Seb would start getting tired. That was fine – better than fine, in fact. He loved when Sebastian had to work for it. Besides, he was still thinking.
If he were entirely honest with himself [and he was – no point in lying to oneself. One always got caught at it, one way or t’other] he had to admit that he’d slipped up just a teeny bit. Really, who’d have thought it, though – the brother of one of Sherlock’s school chums running the very place Jim had his sights set on at the moment? And too stupid to realise he was sitting on a perfect little goldmine.
Well. Not a goldmine, exactly. Close.
Thing was, he hadn’t factored Sherlock into this particular equation at all. It was just dumb luck that Sherlock had found out about it. Jim had so many interests, spread all over the globe; even Sherlock couldn’t muddle his way through all of them. It would take years. But did he really want to play the game that long? Sherlock couldn’t keep up with Jim unless Jim provided clues, and that got boring eventually. Maybe…maybe, just maybe, Sherlock would connect the dots on his own this time.
Wouldn’t that be exciting?
Seb was making sounds now, muted, pathetic little grunts that were a sign that he wanted to stop. Jim loved those little noises. He looked down and met Sebastian’s pleading eyes. “Not yet, lover-boy. You can just take it until I’m fucking finished.” He touched Seb’s cheek. “Where’s your stamina?”
Seb’s eyes flashed, a look that promised death to lesser mortals. He cupped Jim’s balls in one hand, fondling gently, and bent forward to take Jim’s entire cock into his mouth. He gagged.
“Oh, come on,” Jim sighed.
Sebastian grunted and bent lower. Jim felt the constriction of Seb’s throat around his cock and kept perfectly still, resisting the urge to thrust. Good boy, Seb. He stared at the Giotto Ognissanti Madonna on the wall [the real one – the one in the Uffizi was, ha-ha, as ersatz as ersatz could be] and marshaled his thoughts once more.
If Sherlock knew that Oscar was involved with things, then some of the element of surprise would dissolve. And with his usual dogged persistence and without Jim’s help, Sherlock would get to the heart of the matter in a few days. He wasn’t completely stupid. Wouldn’t it be intriguing to see the expression on Sherlock’s face when he learned Jim was in the centre of the web again? Oh, God, his face - to lead Sherlock a merry chase, throw out a few threads, ensnare him, and watch his face –
Jim pulled out abruptly and grasped Seb’s hair, holding him still. He gave himself three hard, merciless strokes, and came, spurting over Seb’s mouth and chin. “Clean it up, sweetheart,” he whispered, shuddering. “Clean it all up.” Sebastian’s tongue crept out and licked. Jim rubbed a thumb over the stubble on Seb’s chin, sliding the stickiness around, making his beard gleam, then bent and kissed him. “Mm. Sweets for the sweet.” He rearranged his clothing and then glanced down at Seb’s open trousers, his wilted cock. “Aw, no joy, Seb?”
“I might have, if you didn’t take an hour to come.” Seb got to his feet with a groan and buttoned up.
“I’ll make it up to you. Anyway, never mind that now. I just had a thought.”
“Oh?” Sebastian disappeared into the bathroom. Jim heard the sounds of running water and Seb gargling. Honestly!
“How do you fancy a little trip to Italy?” Jim called.
“Didn’t I hear you telling Adler you didn’t want to have to show up there?”
“Oh, that was just to keep him on his toesies. What do you think?”
Sebastian re-entered the bedroom, flung himself into a chair, and crossed one leg over the other. He picked up the Paris Match lying on the edge of the bed and opened it. The inset picture on the cover was Sherlock in a ridiculous hat, with the caption Le célèbre détective Sherlock Holmes. Jim employed a clipping service (well, media monitoring, really, but clipping service sounded so much nicer) to keep him abreast of Sherlock news. It was a bit of a quirk, but fun nevertheless. “I knew that once Holmes was involved you couldn’t resist staying away.”
“Do I detect a note of jealousy?”
“You detect bafflement, if anything. You don’t want him, not really – you’d rather fuck his brain than his body.”
Sebastian smiled at him over the pages of the magazine, and Jim’s heart fluttered the tiniest bit. Seb had a killer smile to go along with the rest of him. “I say. If you do want to fuck him, that’s just an aside. But it’s daft as all hell, Jim. He’s got the law on his side – you know who his friends are, not to mention his brother – and it just doesn’t make the slightest sense to me, the way you keep goading him. Christ, it’s like you want to get caught.”
Jim laughed and sank to the bed. “I’d rather watch you fuck him.”
Seb smiled and turned a page. “Not my type. It’d be like fucking an ice cube with a hole in the middle of it.”
“You never know. Anyway, there’s a lid for every pot – look at that sad little puppy John Watson. Trails him everywhere.”
“Ah.” Sebastian’s eyes gleamed. “Now there’s someone I wouldn’t mind bending over a barrel. Compact, wiry, knows his way around hardware. Admit it, Jim, he barely broke a sweat when I strapped him into all that Semtex. That man’s no puppy. He’s got balls of steel.”
“Maybe I should test them,” Jim mused.
Seb shrugged. “When are you planning to leave?”
Jim leant back on the bed and propped himself up on his elbows. “Let’s see what the next day or two brings.” He drew his tongue across his upper lip. “For now, let’s pick up where we left off. Speaking of balls, can’t have yours turning blue, can we?”
Sebastian gazed coolly at Jim for a moment, then dropped Paris Match to the floor.
John stopped dead beside the hearth. “Sherlock.”
“Hm?” Sherlock looked up from his examination of the bathtub where Brother Adelmo had been submerged.
“Someone’s cleaned up the footprints.” John examined the hearth in dismay. All the distinct footprints had disappeared, swept up hastily but not scrubbed. The stone was still grey with soot.
“I thought someone might. Not important. You did get snaps, after all, and I think we may know who our assassin is. We need to find the whereabouts of the codex, and why Brother Adelmo and Brother Matthias died because of it.” He bent close to the floor, then dropped to all fours. “The tub’s heavy, but it’s been shifted just a bit – back and forth, judging by the scrapes against the stone.”
“How the hell do you drain a tub like this?” John asked, peering into the shining copper-lined bathtub.
“Open that wardrobe,” Sherlock pointed to a heavy dark cabinet in the corner.
Obediently, John opened it and laughed, pulling out a siphon and hose. “How’d you know?”
“There.” Sherlock nodded toward a capped copper pipe protruding from the wall. “My guess is that it leads to a gutter of some kind – maybe they water plants with the used bathwater.”
“Can’t be all that bad. The plant life here seems healthy. Brother Edward would know, I’m sure. Anyhow, they don’t eschew every mod con here – it’s not quite as rustic as it appears to be on the surface. Ah! John, come here. Have a look at this.” Sherlock knelt on the floor and pointed at a tiny scrap of what appeared to be paper wedged between the outer wooden shell of the tub and the interior copper lining. He slipped off his gloves and tried to ease it out with a fingernail, but it wouldn’t budge.
Sherlock frowned. “What? Oh. Quite right.” He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and produced his debit card with a flourish. Carefully, he slid it into the narrow space and urged it out with gentle pressure.
“That’s how Sarah clears paper jams in our printer.”
Sherlock gave him a look of exaggerated and long-suffering patience and grasped the paper between two fingernails. He pulled it out and unfolded it. “What…?” He held the paper close to his face, then heaved an impatient sigh.
“What is it?”
“Latin.” Sherlock thrust the paper under John’s nose, too close to read.
“All right, all right, hang on.” John took the torn bit of paper and examined it. The handwriting was beautifully formed, but the words were oddly small and cramped.
Sederunt principes, et adversum me loquebantur: et iniqui persecuti sunt me: adjuva me, Domine Deus meus, quia servus tuus exercebatur in tuis justificationibus. Beati immaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini.
“God, I’ve no idea. If it’s not in Gray’s Anatomy I’m sunk.” He handed the paper back to Sherlock.
“’Princes sat, and spoke against me, and the evil persecuted me.’ Something…. ‘Lord my God….’” Sherlock sighed again and got to his feet. “I’ll work it out later.”
John turned to see the monk Sherlock had spoken to at the previous evening’s supper standing in the doorway. He was in his early or middle fifties, with longish salt-and-pepper hair and a short beard, and he wore Birkenstocks with rag-wool socks, sort of like an aging hippie Jesus. John chided himself for the vaguely disrespectful thought.
“Ah. Brother Peter.”
“Brother Wilfred said you wanted to speak with me.”
“Yes. I understand you’re in possession of the stone that was attached to Brother Adelmo’s neck. I wonder if we might examine it.” Sherlock tucked the folded bit of paper into his pocket.
“No problem. Come along with me, please.”
“Dr. John Watson, Brother Peter,” Sherlock said by way of introduction as they left the balneary.
The monk shook John’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Dr. Watson. We did meet briefly this morning, but you were a little out of it. Glad to see you’re both okay. I told Father Simon and Edward to get you to the hospital right away – looks like it went well.”
“Yeah, we’re fine, thanks. American?” John asked.
“That’s right. I’ve lived here for about fifteen years now. Came backpacking and never left.” Brother Peter clasped his hands behind his back as he walked. “Suits me. The mountains, the air, the sense of peace and communion with God and nature…it’s amazing.”
“Fascinating,” Sherlock said. “Brother Peter, can you tell me about the condition of Brother Matthias’ body following his fall down the library stairs?”
“It was pretty much what you’d expect,” Brother Peter said, businesslike now. “Standard injuries of a fall like that. Due to repeated impact, his entire body sustained trauma – broken bones, lacerations, bruises. Cranial and cerebral trauma, of course – we didn’t have him autopsied, but the cranial trauma was evident, so it follows that there were grave cerebral injuries.”
“A great deal of bruising on his face?” Sherlock wanted to know.
“Yes. Mostly on the left side, which was funny – not funny, but odd, I mean. His right supraorbital ridge and his --” Brother Peter glanced at John. “his cheekbone --”
“Zygomatic arch,” Sherlock said wearily.
“Right. Both sustained severe damage, but it was the left side of his face that was terribly bruised.”
John and Sherlock exchanged a glance. “Could the bruising have resembled finger marks, Brother Peter?” John asked quietly.
Brother Peter stopped in his tracks and peered warily from Sherlock to John. “You think he was murdered.”
“I think the cerebral trauma might have occurred first, precipitated not by a fall but by suffocation,” Sherlock said. “Why, with two suspicious deaths in a short amount of time, is anyone surprised by this?”
“Sherlock,” John began, with an apologetic look at Brother Peter.
Ian Adler was walking – no, sauntering was what he was doing, a cool gliding strut that he must have practiced because, John admitted grudgingly to himself, he was bloody good at it. He didn’t like Ian one little bit and wasn’t particularly inclined to sit down and work out exactly why that was so, but he had to concede that Ian was a really handsome sod. Hideously overconfident, of course – nobody who smiled that much, exposing that many teeth, could be anything but a smug bastard – but wasn’t he half good-looking? God, it was annoying.
“You’re a resilient pair,” Ian said. “I was frightened half to death this morning.”
John snorted. “Not as much as we were.”
“I’m sure. You’re both all right?” Ian looked from John to Sherlock. “I was particularly concerned for you, Mr. Holmes. You were out cold. You’re very fortunate to have such a devoted friend in Dr. Watson.”
“He’s handy in a crisis,” Sherlock replied shortly, and John winced inside. From Sherlock, that was a compliment, but the odd look Ian gave him made John want to hit him on the nose. “Pity you didn’t see anybody leaving the library this morning.”
“I’m fairly certain the library has more than one point of egress,” Ian said. “I think you probably know that better than I do.”
Sherlock sniffed, then stuck his hand in his pocket and withdrew the folded scrap of paper he’d prised from the bathtub. “Perhaps you can make amends by translating this for me.”
“Make amends?” Ian smiled without showing his teeth this time. “I wasn’t aware I owed you a debt, but….” He shrugged and took the scrap of paper, unfolding it. He scanned the paper, frowning and biting his lower lip, then translated. “Princes sat, and spoke against me, and the wicked persecuted me. Help me, O Lord my God, for Thy servant was employed in Thy justifications. Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” He handed the paper back to Sherlock.
“Sounds familiar,” Sherlock said.
“It is if you know your Psalms,” Ian said, “and I expect the friars here would know that particular Psalm quite well. It’s from an Introit.”
“What’s that?” John asked.
“It’s a processional psalm – well, a fragment of one, really, sung prior to a mass as the celebrant enters the church and approaches the altar. There are many, but this one commemorates the martyrdom of St. Stephen – San Stefano.”
“You seem quite versed in church tradition,” Sherlock said.
“My field at university was early Christian texts.” Ian lowered his eyes modestly. “You can imagine what a treasure trove all this is.”
Sherlock slid the paper back into his pocket. “Oh, I’m sure. Difficult to imagine a scholar like you can exercise any restraint at all in a place like this.”
Ian dialed his smile to full brilliance. “Yes, you’re absolutely right, but I’ve always prided myself on my restraint, so much so that I consider myself rather an expert. Should you need any help in that regard, do pay me a visit.”
John scowled. The bastard was flirting again, but flirtation always seemed to bounce off Sherlock’s impassive surface as easily as soap bubbles. “We’d better get going, Sherlock. Brother Peter’s time is being wasted.”
“And I have a meeting in just a few moments with Father Simon,” Ian said, glancing at his wristwatch – a very expensive Tag Heuer, John noticed. “But I’d love to chat later. Perhaps if you’re both free after supper. Well – goodbye for now.” He nodded and went on his way. John watched his long legs with a prickle of unease.
“Come along, John.” Sherlock and Brother Peter were already striding away.
“Right,” John muttered, and the three moved toward the infirmary again. “So do you think there’s a possibility that the cause of death might have been murder, Brother Peter?”
“We didn’t have Brother Matthias autopsied, as I said.” Brother Peter was pale under his outdoor tan. “But the placement of the bruises and the skin under his nails…I don’t know. I didn’t think of it at the time because his was the first death, and when I examined him in the library, it looked like an ordinary fall. But --” He stopped, as if trying to recall some particular and upsetting detail.
“Yes?” Sherlock prompted.
“His habit was torn. Not abraded, as if he’d torn it in the fall, but actually ripped at the hem and sleeve. That’s a tough thing to do – this is pretty sturdy stuff,” Brother Peter tugged at the sleeve of his own white garment. “Which brings us to what you’ve come to see, as it happens.” They stopped at the door of the infirmary, and he produced a key from his pocket and fitted it into the lock.
John watched the key turn effortfully in the lock, and glanced at Sherlock, remembering Sherlock’s difficulty breaking in the night before. Sherlock winked at him, and John stared at the ground, stifling a grin.
Brother Peter led them into the now-familiar infirmary and ducked into a tiny storage closet just off the examination room. “The police photographed it, but didn’t take it to examine because Father Simon was so insistent on it being suicide.” His voice was muffled. “It’s here….” He emerged with a large cardboard box in his arms and thumped it on an examining table with a groan. “Weighs a ton. Brother Adelmo had similar bruising,” he said in a low voice. “I should have…I didn’t make the connection when I saw his face. Who could have done a thing like that? Brother Adelmo was…a bit on the frail side, but Brother Matthias was a fairly large and very strong man.”
“There are people trained to kill, Brother Peter,” John said. “And the man who killed them both is --” He folded his lips together as Sherlock shot him a warning glance.
“You know who it might have been?”
“Possibly,” Sherlock said, apparently resigned to John’s gaffe. “There’s an assassin by the name of Oscar Dzundza whose trademark is suffocating his victims to death. If what you say is true, then the markings fit the general pattern of his contract killings.” He didn’t compound John’s error by mentioning the little nighttime foray they’d made into the infirmary to see Brother Adelmo’s body. “Let’s have a look at this rock, then.” He opened the lid and pursed his lips. “Interesting.”
“What’s that?” John asked.
Sherlock withdrew a torn piece of white wool twisted into a rope and tossed it on the table.
“From the…his robe,” John said.
“Yes, but that’s not the interesting bit. Hold the flaps down.” As John obeyed, Sherlock lifted the rock out with a grunt and set it on the table with a resounding thud.
“I can see how it could have held his body underwater,” John said, marveling at the size and apparent weight of the rock, large and irregularly shaped, pale brown in colour with thick nodules of dark grey. A cord of the same wool was fastened around the rock at intervals, knotted off and frayed where it had apparently been torn or cut from Brother Adelmo’s corpse. “It’s huge.” He hoped that the poor young guy had been unconscious or dead when Dzundza had submerged him. He couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be to drown. Smothering would have been much quicker and probably less painful. He glanced at Sherlock, who had taken off his gloves and was running a finger thoughtfully over the stone. “What?”
“Interesting,” Sherlock murmured again.
“Speak English,” John said.
Sherlock’s mouth turned up at the corners. He went to the sink and washed his hands. “Brother Peter, if I were you I’d keep that stone away from your medical supplies. It’s not a problem at the moment, but I wouldn’t hang on to it as a souvenir.”
“It’s radioactive.” Sherlock wiped his hands on a paper towel and tossed the towel into a waste can. “Uraninite. Uranium ore. The stuff they use to make yellowcake which is then processed into uranium fuel for nuclear power plants and sometimes high-grade U-235 for nuclear weapons. This is a nice rich specimen, too. You wouldn’t happen to have a lot of this lying about the abbey, would you?”
Brother Peter was looking at the stone as if it might bite him. John couldn’t quite blame him for that. “No, I don’t think so.”
“The uraninite is actually these dark pieces,” Sherlock said, pointing. “They’ve got a bit of a dull sheen to them, if you can see…and it looks like this rock was cut by machine. Do you see the clean edge on the bottom here? Brother Peter, are there uranium mines in the vicinity?”
“There are some near Lake Como, so far as I know, but none very close. There’s always been a great deal of opposition to it, thank God.” Brother Peter went back into the closet and emerged with a monk’s white wool habit. He threw it over the stone and made to pick it up.
“Hang on.” Sherlock took the habit and picked it up. It was shredded on one side, with a large section torn out. “This is the source of the rope.”
“It was Brother Adelmo’s.”
Sherlock frowned as he held it up. “I thought you said Brother Adelmo was slight.” He didn’t mention that he’d seen the young man’s body himself.
“He is – oh, I see what you mean. That’s…well, yes, that’s a bit long for him, isn’t it? But then why would he be wearing someone else’s habit? There wasn’t another one found in the balneary, and this one has blood on it consistent with wounds found on Adelmo’s body.”
“I think we’re finished here,” Sherlock said, drawing on his gloves. “Thank you for your time, Brother Peter. Good afternoon.” He turned abruptly and marched from the infirmary, leaving John to follow.
“Um – thank you,” John said, shaking a bewildered Brother Peter’s hand. “I’m sure we’ll let you know if we have more questions, but for now I think you can probably tidy things up. So long.” John rushed out of the infirmary and ran to catch up with Sherlock. “What the hell, Sherlock?”
“This case has finally become interesting.”
“Didn’t realise you were bored before.” John panted a little as he trotted beside Sherlock. His lungs were starting to ache a bit. “Where are we headed now?”
“To the library, to get a sample of Brother Adelmo’s handwriting.”
“What about the rock? Why did you want to see it in the first place?”
“I didn’t especially. I really wanted to draw Brother Peter out about the matching markings on the monks’ bodies, but this…this is quite something, John. Uraninite. Out of nowhere, it seems, and Dzundza uses it to submerge Brother Adelmo’s body. Where did it come from?”
“Can’t imagine,” John wheezed. “But it’s a rock, Sherlock. Even if it is radioactive…who cares? What makes that more interesting than the codex and the monks?”
“I don’t know. Not yet. Come on, it’s getting late.” Sherlock picked up his pace, and John followed obligingly. They went into the library and immediately made their way to a large desk where Brother Marcelo sat with a mound of paperwork. “Good afternoon, Brother Marcelo.”
The young monk nodded and said something in Italian.
“Oh, come on, I know you understand more than you pretend to,” Sherlock said loudly. “I watched you react to my questions earlier, especially when I asked you why you left early with Mr. Adler.”
“Sherlock, keep it down,” John pleaded.
“Actually, I think it’s rather good that everyone can see and hear us.” Sherlock pointed at a stack of ledgers on a shelf behind Brother Adelmo. “Registri,” Sherlock said. “Più recenti.”
Hesitantly, Brother Marcelo got up and took the newest-looking ledger from the shelf. He brought it to the desk, but clung to it tightly, his eyes betraying unease.
Sherlock held out a hand. “Now, if you please.” Slowly, the monk handed over the book. “Thank you.” He opened the book and began to page through it.
John became aware of a buzz of whispered conversation behind him. He turned around and threw the monks a feeble glare, then looked away, embarrassed. The monks went on whispering with no apparent problem. Presumably the story of the morning’s attack had made the rounds, and like as not with varying degrees of accuracy. Sherlock ignored the whispering and Brother Marcelo’s nervous fidgeting and flipped through the book quickly, then made a small noise of triumph.
“Got something?” John asked.
Sherlock took the folded scrap of paper from his pocket and unfolded it, spreading it out against an entry in the ledger signed by Brother Adelmo. The two handwriting samples were precisely the same. Sherlock straightened, put the scrap in his pocket again, and smiled at Brother Marcelo. “Grazie.” He wheeled and made for the door. “Come along, John. Time for a rest.”
John did a double-take as he followed Sherlock. “Rest?”
“Yes, you’re exhausted. It’s showing in your eyes, your tread, and your respiration. We have some time until supper, and I have some research to do.”
“So Brother Adelmo was the one who slipped that note into the tub. Why?”
“A message,” Sherlock said. “And reluctant as I am to admit it, one I wouldn’t have discovered - immediately, anyway – without the help of Ian Adler.”
Great. “What message is that?”
“I think the codex is still somewhere in the Abbey.”
John frowned, then a light clicked on. “Because…that proverb --”
“Whatever – it’s about St. Stephen. San Stefano. So you think Adelmo knew that?”
“Yes. It doesn’t explain why he died, but it gets us a bit closer to the truth. As does a recently let down hem and a spot on a sleeve.” Sherlock slid his key into the lock and turned it, then stepped aside for John. “After you. Have a lie-in.”
“I’m all right,” John protested, but he was feeling a bit tired and grateful for a respite. He went into the bathroom, used it, then went into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, fully dressed. It was still unmade, and he smiled a little. No chambermaids in an abbey. With a sigh, he pulled out his phone and looked at his list of texts. He considered texting Alice to apologise, then decided not to. He’d try to talk to her when they got back.
Sherlock opened John’s bathroom door. “Have you got service on your phone?”
John glanced at it. “Ah…yeah. You need it?”
“Please.” Sherlock took John’s phone and went to the chair beside the window, folding himself into it and tapping away.
John watched Sherlock for a moment. “I think Ian Adler has a bit of a crush on you.”
“Yes, possibly.” Sherlock didn’t look up from the phone.
John’s mouth dropped open. What the hell? He’d expected a sour look, or an indignant snort, or even silence, but that…ready acquiescence…that was the last thing he’d expected. “Didn’t think you were bothered about that sort of thing.”
“Really, John.” Sherlock’s voice was dry and lecturing. “Regardless of what my proclivities may or may not be, that does not mean I’m utterly oblivious.”
The hell you’re not, John thought, then bit his lip, as embarrassed at his bitterness as if he’d said the words aloud. He hadn’t been obvious – that is, it was a good thing he hadn’t been obvious. The last thing he wanted was Sherlock giving him some harangue about the pointlessness of John harboring feelings for his flatmate, when he’d categorically stated, and hadn’t John heard him the first time, that –
Hang on. ‘What my proclivities may or may not be?’ What the fuck was that supposed to mean?
“So you noticed,” John said tightly.
“Rather difficult not to. Mr. Adler’s a shameless flirt. He flirted with you, too, or hadn’t you noticed?”
John frowned. He’d noticed, but mostly he’d noticed Ian all but draping himself over Sherlock. He laced his hands together behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.
You don't have a girlfriend then?
Girlfriend? No, not really my area.
All right. Do you have a boyfriend? Which is fine, by the way.
I know it's fine.
So you’ve got a boyfriend?
Right. Okay. You're unattached. Like me. Fine. Good.
John, erm... I think you should know that I consider myself married to my work, and while I'm flattered by your interest, I'm really not looking for any...
No. I'm... not asking. No. I'm just saying, it's all fine.
Good. Thank you.
Oh, shit. Shit.
He’d never said boyfriends weren’t his area.
John turned over on his side, away from Sherlock, so Sherlock couldn’t see the sudden contraction of his brow and what was probably a very red face. He lay awake for a long while, listening to the tapping of Sherlock’s fingertips against the buttons of his phone and tried not to feel jealous.
It wasn’t fucking working.
Ian felt almost sorry for Simon. He sat rigidly upright behind his desk, all the colour slowly draining from his face, looking as if someone had pulled out his batteries. His fingertips moved ceaselessly over the handsome pen on his blotter in a rhythmic caressing motion, and his eyes darted occasionally to Ian’s phone, now black and silent, as if it were a poisonous snake. There were moments when Ian took absolute joy in this aspect of his work, but this time, he felt a faint twinge of regret.
Still, he had to keep things moving along. “Do you need any particulars repeated, Father?”
Simon took a ragged breath. “I thought you were a Latin scholar.”
“I am. I’m very proud of my accomplishments in the field. And my work for the Dublin diocese is perfectly legitimate. But Latin translation doesn’t pay all the bills – in fact, it really pays for very little. So I’m forced to find other employment, and in this case, both vocations happened to line up nicely.”
“As a prostitute,” Simon said quietly. “And a blackmailer.”
“Well, let’s not split hairs over titles,” Ian said, rising to his feet. He leant over Simon’s desk, picked up his phone, and slipped it in his pocket. “My employer --”
“Yes, let’s discuss your employer,” Simon said, picking up a sheet of A4 with densely packed, tiny type covering one side. “HRH Industries. Why do they want to acquire this parcel badly enough to blackmail both me and some of the brothers who live here?”
Ian shrugged and resumed his seat. “I don’t know, and in utter honesty, I don’t really care.”
“This abbey has been in the possession of the Church for nearly a thousand years, Mr. Adler. If you think I have the authority to simply give it away --”
“At the price listed here, I might as well give it away. And as I was saying, I haven’t the authority.”
Ian shook his head. “Father, please. Let’s not waste time dissembling. My employer has been investigating your financial situation for some time now. He knows that your superiors have been urging you to turn a greater profit on the little cottage industries you’ve got going here, and you’ve been ignoring them quite blithely.”
The colour was returning to Simon’s face. Twin spots of pink bloomed in his cheeks. “This is a monastery, Mr. Adler. It is a place of spiritual retreat, worship, and devout contemplation. It is not now and never should be a tourist destination.”
“Some spiritual director you turned out to be, too – banging the mayor’s wife.” Ian smiled. “Imagine the scandal that would arise from that revelation. Can you? I can. I’ve seen it happen so many times. Disgrace, ruin – for both parties. Forget sweet little Marcelo for a moment. Imagine the agonies that Signora Lorenzetti would suffer if this little tidbit of film came to life. Do you really want that to happen?”
“You’re a monster,” Simon breathed.
Ian let out a soft sigh and shook his head. “As I was about to say, your superiors are almost ready to sell this place from under you. It loses more money every year, and without a new and steady infusion of capital, it’s nothing but a drain on Church coffers. And we all know how reluctant the Church is to part with even a single penny. One recommendation from you and they’ll be happier and richer, Signora Lorenzetti will be safe, and Brother Marcelo can resume his ordinary life as if nothing had ever happened to disrupt it.”
Simon stared down at his pen and his restless fingers. All at once he stiffened and looked up at Ian. “Please tell me that the missing codex and the deaths of Matthias and Adelmo have nothing to do with this.”
Ian schooled his face into a bland, pleasant mask. “Why would they?”
“Blackmail is one thing, Mr. Adler. Murder….” Simon placed both hands flat on his blotter. “You really don’t know what your employer intends for the abbey once he purchases it?”
“No, I don’t.”
“May I speak with him?”
“I’ll phone him this evening and let him know the conversation took place. Whether or not he decides to contact you is up to him.”
“I would be disappointed if I were to research HRH Industries, wouldn’t I?” Simon’s hands resumed their caressing of the pen. “It’s a pretty façade for something vile, I’m sure. I want you out of here, Mr. Adler. Tonight. Now, in fact.”
Ian rose to his feet. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. You’ll just have to suffer my presence until you come to a decision and it’s finalised in ink. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but sometimes the old-fashioned and direct ways are the best. I trust that your hospitality won’t change, Father. I’ll still need access to the library. I haven’t finished the job for the Dublin diocese yet. And please don’t alert the authorities. The moment I sense the slightest hint of trouble, all I have to do is press a few buttons and these films go out to every scandal-rag in the UK and Europe, and you’ll be drummed out of here and the place will be sold whether or not you want it. Trust me – you can’t afford that, Father. So do think very carefully before you try to do me harm in any way.”
“You won’t get away with this, Mr. Adler. I promise,” Simon said in a hoarse voice.
“Sorry. I like you, and I’m sorry you have to sell. This is a truly beautiful place, even for a lapsed soul like myself. But we must all bow to the inevitable, mustn’t we? Good afternoon, Father.” Ian left Simon’s office, nodded to Brother Wilfred in the anteroom, and stepped into the fresh spring air.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and felt the comforting weight of his phone. He’d phone Jim, and then go to dinner, and then…then he was inclined to a bit of mischief. And possibly Sherlock Holmes was inclined the same way. He didn’t have much time to make good on his bet – an extra quarter million and not being fucked and strangled by Oscar Dzundza were excellent incentives.
For a moment he felt a pang of remorse and wished he’d answered Simon honestly about the murders. He didn’t see the point of them, not really – Oscar having fun? Something else? Maybe it was best that he didn’t know after all.
It wasn’t his concern. Not his game.
Ian strode toward his lodgings to get ready. He and Sherlock had a date, and though he’d said Sherlock would come to him, sometimes people needed a little nudge. A little extra stimulation.
It promised to be an interesting evening.
Sherlock finished his search, got to his feet with a yawn, and put John’s phone down on the bedside table. He paused and regarded John’s still form, his face in repose, and willfully turned away, stalking to the window and staring out at the ancient buildings and the rose-coloured sky behind them.
It wasn’t profundity he sought, nor even truth; it was causality, really, simple enough in its way. The application of his intellect to what lesser beings deemed chaos, the delicate threading through seemingly random objects, locales, and events to find a pattern shimmering with meaning and symmetry, the clear-headed, knowing, and rational immersion of self into the minds of those who fancied themselves different, unusual, brilliant – Ian Adler was right. He didn’t give a damn about a junkie in a Hackney doorway, or whatever. Why should he? There was nothing interesting about the millions of brutal, tiny little minds of the ordinary criminal class. It was the outré that seduced him, the problems that the authorities found insoluble, the ostensibly senseless riddles that threw up locked and barred doors that tempted and beckoned. Minds and methods could be picked apart and laid bare for examination. Hearts, now….
He pivoted on his heel and stared down at John for a moment, conscious of an uncomfortable knot in his midsection that had nothing to do with hunger. So much care and attention lavished on matters of the heart, so much misery caused by the attempt to interpret emotions as if they held some underlying truth, as if they weren’t a furious, churning stew of chemicals that sent confusing messages to the brain and spurred people into making ridiculously foolish decisions that they fancied would bring them happiness beyond fleeting physical pleasure. Even Sherlock, to his own considerable distress, had been subject to repeated attacks of physiological confusion, and the subject of his confusion lay sleeping peacefully in bed.
At times, he contemplated the possibility of simply slipping into bed beside John and curling his hand around John’s cock. Given the statistical probability of erections achieved by the human male during sleep, he had no doubt that he’d be able to bring John to a heightened state of arousal in fairly short order, and when John awoke, odds were that he’d be too far gone to protest (though if he did, Sherlock would certainly stop...almost certainly) and that they could both satisfy their physical urges. Sherlock wasn’t quite as oblivious as he sometimes affected to be; surely, surely, despite his uncertainty and lack of in-depth experience with affairs of the heart, he had correctly interpreted some signals from John – offhand remarks, the occasional lingering gaze – and if he could bring them both relief, then so much the better. Things could go on as they had in the beginning of their relationship.
“Relationship,” Sherlock muttered softly. “Oh, God.” He went back to the window and glared out at the darkening sky. His imagination wouldn’t compensate for how John might actually react to such a thing. What if John read more into an encounter than was really there? If he fantasized an intimate relationship where none existed because clearly the platoons of women he dated weren’t meeting his (oh dear God in heaven) emotional needs? Even as an experiment, it seemed doomed to utter failure, and though he knew he trampled rather serenely over John’s feelings from time to time, he thought in this instance, it was best to tread carefully. For John’s sake.
Not that any of this new-found sensitivity solved the problem; in fact, it made things worse. He’d been happier existing in a realm of cognitive hyperactivity and blithe imperviousness to the feelings of other people. John had thrown a spanner into his works, and he wasn’t sure he liked it at all.
John made a small noise in his throat and shifted. One hand slipped off the bed and dangled limply, half-curled like a trusting child’s, but alluring in its unmistakable masculinity: solid, strong, ruthlessly competent, bearing small white scars here and there, testament to a life fully lived, spent in both combat and healing. God knew Sherlock had felt them often enough, warm, probing gently at half a hundred hurts. And he’d be lying if he said he’d never imagined those hands touching him in another capacity.
Silent, catlike, he approached John’s bed, lifted his hand, and laid it gently on the mattress. John sighed and shifted again, his forehead contracting in a frown. Sherlock stifled the impulse to touch the furrows, to smooth them away, and stepped back from the bed.
A knock sounded at Sherlock’s door. He moved through the connecting bath into his own room and opened the door. Simon stood on the threshold, his hands laced tightly together.
“May I speak with you?”
Sherlock cocked an eyebrow, closed his side of the bathroom door so John wouldn’t be disturbed, and ushered Simon in.
Sherlock sat cross-legged on his bed, fingers steepled beneath his chin, and listened to Simon’s weary, frightened monologue without speaking. One thing in Simon’s favour – he didn’t mince words. He reached the point in fairly short order.
“I don’t see what bearing any of this has on the present crisis, Simon.” That wasn’t quite true, but no point in encouraging Simon in what seemed a fruitless venture. “My advice? Sell. Mr. Adler has you by the short hairs.”
Simon rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. “Give in? That’s your advice? I thought you of all people might have a better idea than that.”
“You’ve made matters rather easy for him,” Sherlock observed. Simon lifted his head and glared. “God, Simon. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not sitting in judgment – what you do in your downtime is your business, though you might have been more discreet. Ian Adler has the power to ruin you. If you tried to fight him, or his employer, what weapons have you got at your disposal? Hardly anything, as far as I can see.”
“I’ve – I’ve broken things off with Elena. No point in making things worse.” Simon crumpled a bit in his chair. “What if I do agree to sell, and he publishes the evidence nevertheless? There are those who seek to damage the Church in whatever scurrilous way they can.”
Sherlock refrained from a crack about altar boys, but just. John would have been proud. “He might,” he conceded, “but I can’t see why he would. He wants you to sell. He doesn’t bear any personal animosity toward you, does he?”
“No. I’d not set eyes on him until a few days ago. There are forty-six other monks in this abbey, Sherlock. Whatever I’ve done – or whatever foolish choice Brother Marcelo has made – the others don’t deserve to be tarnished as well. Surely you can see that.”
Sherlock lifted his shoulders in a shrug of pure indifference. “You should have thought of that before having an affair with the mayor’s wife.”
“Yes, I realise that. Thanks ever so much. Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Incredulity laddered Sherlock’s brow. “What do you want me to do – beat the pictures out of him?”
“You’re clever,” Simon said grudgingly. “Can’t you…I don’t know, steal his phone?”
“Hardly ethical.” What sort of challenge would it be to obtain Ian’s phone? “Besides, he might keep copies of the pictures elsewhere. Of course, copies might beg the question of whether Ian was actually the originator of the evidence, mightn’t they? Interesting conundrum, Simon, but not a problem in which I’m particularly interested. And I need hardly remind you that I’m working on something else at the moment.” Ian Adler. Brother Marcelo. Oscar Dzundza. The missing codex. And a hunk of radioactive rock. Why would Ian, or his employers, want this monastery so badly? It had to be difficult to maintain, expensive to house and feed and keep warm four dozen monks. One couldn’t do much with a site like San Stefano, so why purchase unless the possibility of significant remuneration was –
“Sherlock….” Simon began. “Sherlock, I’m – I’m begging you. This abbey has been extant since the thirteenth century. I know you’re not the sort of person who believes in purity of intention, but I can only assure you that my concern is for the monastery, not myself. It would break my heart to leave, but –“
“Shut up,” Sherlock said, and held up a forestalling hand. “I’ll do it.” It was all connected. There were just a few pieces missing, pieces that Ian Adler would be able to fit in place.
Simon’s face sagged. “You’ll get the phone?”
“Yes. Assuming the content is unique to his mobile, that’s one facet of the problem taken care of. The problem of financing this place isn’t mine, I’m afraid.”
“Let me and Vicki worry about that.” Simon glanced up as a bell tolled. “Supper. You’d better wake your friend.” He rose to his feet. “Sherlock – thank you. I know I haven’t been –“
“Thank me when you’ve got the phone,” Sherlock said, standing and moving toward the connecting bath. With a bit of luck and persuasion, he’d have this entire case wrapped up by the end of the evening. Ian Adler, he suspected, was the key.
John was still asleep. Sherlock watched him for a moment, willing himself to examine John with flat objectivity, to allow the thrill of pursuit and unravelling the tangle of uncertainty that surrounded the monastery to assume dominion over all else, to sink back into the unchanging self that had filled him with contentment for so long. He took a step toward the bed, bent down, and grasped John’s shoulder, warm and solid beneath the scratchy woollen fibres of his jumper.
Sherlock’s fingers tightened minutely, pushing themselves into the yielding warmth of John’s flesh. He sucked in a quick breath, frowned, and shook John’s shoulder abruptly. “John. John! Wake up.” A humming sort of grunt emerged from John’s parted lips, and Sherlock shook him again. “Come on, John, get up.”
“Uh?” John blinked, looked up at Sherlock, and pressed his face into the pillow. “Tired.”
Sherlock snatched his hand away. “Dinner time, John. Get up. I doubt they’ll let you raid the fridge at midnight.”
“Okay, okay,” John mumbled, and pushed himself up. He yawned deeply and sniffed. “Thanks for letting me nap.”
“Not at all. Hurry, though – we’ll be late.” Sherlock went into his room and shrugged his coat on. If he were to act upon his impulses – what then? Would the resolution of their alliance falter? He needed John; he could admit that much to himself. If John wasn’t a genius, he was so often the catalyst that fuelled Sherlock’s perspicacity. They worked well together, John tolerated almost all of Sherlock’s eccentricities, and it was awfully handy to have a doctor around when necessary. Were they to couple for the sake of impermanent pleasure, the warp and weft of their friendship might change irrevocably – might, in fact, dissolve altogether. He didn’t want to endanger the only lasting friendship he’d had in – well, almost the only lasting friendship he’d ever had.
John ambled into his room. “What have you been up to?”
Sherlock let his gaze brush John’s face, lingering for the briefest moment at his mouth. “I think we’re close to cracking this, John.” He turned away and opened the door, holding it so John could pass through. “I need you to do something for me tonight, though.”
Dinner was roasted aubergine with a sprinkling of some soft, creamy cheese and herbed tomato sauce. Sherlock tasted it tentatively and found it not bad. Beside him, John was chewing with his eyes closed as if he were in ecstasy. “I’ve got to get this recipe,” he mumbled.
“It’s…rather good, actually. Do that, John.”
“I bet it’s not difficult. Maybe you could even learn to cook it.” Sherlock snorted in reply, and John chuckled. “Yeah, I won’t hold my breath or anything.”
“Wise,” Sherlock said. “John, look at Brother Marcelo.”
“Either the aubergine isn’t agreeing with him or he’s nervous and twitchy about something,” Sherlock said, pitching his voice so that only John could hear him. “Keep an eye on him whilst I get the phone from Adler.”
“You sure you don’t need help with that? The monks will be going to prayers, and Adler might have something tricky up his sleeve.” John stared at Ian in flat dislike. Ian’s attention was concentrated on his food and the garrulous monk next to him. “I knew he was a sneaky bugger the minute I clapped eyes on him.”
“I think it’ll be simpler if it’s just me. Brother Marcelo looks as if he’s about to snap. Follow the monks to Compline – they welcome visitors to their services – and then see what Brother Marcelo’s up to. He knows the net is closing around him and he might have access to some vital piece of evidence – maybe the codex itself. If we can break him open, he could yield some valuable information.”
“All right,” John said, though he was clearly reluctant. “Be careful. Call me if it gets sticky.”
“Don’t worry. I can handle him.”
“Right,” John muttered, and Sherlock gave him a sharp look, but didn’t reply.
Supper concluded with a sugar-dusted berry tart with crème fraiche and tiny cups of coffee. Enjoying it far more than the aubergine, Sherlock wolfed his and licked the cream from the tines of the fork. He caught John’s eye. “What?”
“Nothing.” John dropped his gaze and cut into his half-eaten tart. “You enjoyed that.”
“You should get that recipe, too.”
John let out a noncommittal grunt. The monks were beginning to gather up plates and cups in orderly fashion, and Sherlock and John followed them into the kitchen, placing their dirty dishes in shallow bins. Sherlock nodded toward Brother Marcelo who kept darting glances at them as he engaged in conversation with another monk. “Go on,” Sherlock murmured, and moved swiftly through the knots of white-and-black-robed men to catch hold of Ian’s leather-clad arm before he left the refectory. “Can I have a word?”
Ian stopped and pivoted on his heel. Sherlock dropped his hand and Ian smiled. “Certainly. You can have whatever you like.”
“Good, that’ll make this so much easier.”
“Shall we talk here, or somewhere more private?”
“Your room, I think.”
“Ah.” Ian’s smile deepened. “Splendid. Follow me, please.”
Ian’s room turned out to be in the same building as Sherlock and John’s, at the end of the long corridor. Ian opened the door and gestured for Sherlock to precede him. Sherlock gave Ian a thin smile. “No, after you. I insist.”
Ian’s good humour was irrepressible. “Whatever you say, Gaston.” He moved into the room, clicked on the bedside lamp, tossed the key on the night table, and sat on the iron single bed, leaning back on his hands. “I imagine the décor in your room is similar. They went for a sort of minimalist chic. Not quite sure they succeeded, but I doubt Homes & Gardens will be stopping by for photographs, so it doesn’t really matter.” He glanced around and regarded Sherlock pleasantly. “So. What can I do for you, Mr. Holmes?”
“You have something I want.”
One eyebrow tilted delicately upward. “Do I indeed?”
“Ah.” Ian’s smile thinned a bit. “You spoke to Father Trevor, I take it. Or rather, Father Trevor spoke to you. That was rather unwise of him.”
“Blackmailing a monastery’s rather unwise of you,” Sherlock replied.
“Quite truthfully, it isn’t. I have several business interests. Professional blackmail happens to be the most lucrative.”
“Until now.” Sherlock held out his hand. “The mobile, please.”
Ian sat up. “When did you become Father Trevor’s hired hooligan? Are you planning to break my arm if I don’t give it to you? And isn’t this a bit of a distraction from your other case?”
“Ah, but that’s just it, you see,” Sherlock said. “I have a feeling that my other case and the matter of your mobile are closely intertwined. Who are you working for, Ian?”
The smile finally dissolved from Ian’s face. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Isn’t it? Whoever it is, he or she is interested in uranium mining. Isn’t that so?” Sherlock produced his own phone and typed rapidly. “Quite a lot of limestone in this region. Quite a lot of recently discovered uraninite in this region as well. Possibly a large cache in the mountains behind us. Could be it’s not the monastery they’re after at all.”
Ian shook his head. “Could be. I don’t know what my employer wants the place for. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just a means to an end, Sherlock.”
Sherlock studied Ian’s face, which appeared totally guileless. Lying, Sherlock thought. Has to be. Doesn’t matter. He shrugged. “I suppose your knowledge of your employer’s motives are irrelevant, in the end. Male or female, by the way?”
Ian’s shrug matched Sherlock’s for nonchalance. “Male.”
“Irish? Slight, dark hair and eyes?”
“Again, none of your business.”
“Very well.” Sherlock held his hand out again. “Mobile, please.”
Ian slid his hand into an inner pocket of the sleek black leather jacket he wore. Sherlock braced himself for a weapon, but it was a black rubber-cased mobile phone lying benignly on his palm. Ian’s eyes met Sherlock’s, then he smiled and slid the phone into his front trouser pocket. “Sorry, Sherlock. If you want it, you’re going to have to come and get it.”
“Charming,” Sherlock said dryly. He sighed, took off his coat, and draped it on the back of the room’s single chair, then seated himself, folding his arms and crossing one leg over the other. “Are you implying some sort of rematch? Because if I wanted to take it by force, I could.”
“Could you now?” Ian asked, clearly delighted. “Well, well.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Oh, please.”
“I knew you’d be back. The mobile’s just an excuse, really.”
“Your sense of fair play is skewed.”
“Oh, come on, Sherlock. You were cheating, bunching your muscles up the way you did – I had to even the playing field.”
“Since we’re here, why don’t you tell me what Brother Marcelo is doing for you, and how he’s connected to the deaths in the abbey. He’s your conduit, isn’t he? Hiding you, hiding Dzundza –“ Sherlock smiled. “That’s right. Didn’t know I knew about Dzundza, did you?”
Ian frowned and pulled his expensive leather duffel onto his bed. “Sherlock, you’re involving yourself in something very dangerous. Dzundza is nobody to antagonise.”
“I’ve tangled with him before.” Thank God for John.
“And lived? Well done, you.”
“Is the codex still here?”
Ian shook his head, rummaging through his bag. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Sherlock stood up, stalked to the bed, and grasped Ian by his jacket, hauling him up. “Why did those monks have to die?”
“I didn’t kill them, if you’re curious.” Ian’s face was calm and still.
“Not a murderer? That’s one thing in your favour.” Sherlock pulled Ian close until they were nearly nose to nose. “I’ll ask you once more. Why…did…they…die?”
Ian laughed. “You think I’ll just spill it? Are you planning to slap me around a bit? I don’t do that gratis, Sherlock. I never have.”
An elegantly disbelieving snort escaped Sherlock. “You expect me to pay, is that it?”
“Of course. At this point, as Winston Churchill once said, we’re merely quibbling over the price.” Ian reached up and stroked Sherlock’s cheek, not minding that Sherlock flinched away. He pressed his body close to Sherlock’s. “You might enjoy it, you know.”
Sherlock felt Ian’s stirring erection against his thigh; more importantly, he felt the square bulge of Ian’s mobile. He slipped his hand into Ian’s pocket and grasped it, pulling it free. He held it up in front of Ian’s face. “Thank you.”
Ian grinned. “You’re welcome.” His hand darted swiftly, and Sherlock gasped at a sharp, silvery pain in his arm.
“What –“ Sherlock gaped down at his arm, at the small needle attached to a syringe that Ian carefully withdrew. A peculiar numbness travelled down his arm and began to insinuate itself into his chest. “What –“ His tongue felt thick. He dropped the mobile, staggered forward, and lost his balance. Ian caught him, holding him upright. What have you done to me? He tried to punch Ian but couldn’t lift his arm above his waist.
“Careful, careful,” Ian murmured, dragging Sherlock to the bed. “Don’t worry. It won’t last very long. Atracurium besilate. You know it?”
Sherlock knew it. It was an intermediate-duration non-depolarizing neuromuscular-blocking agent, a muscle relaxant meant to render a subject temporarily paralysed.
“You’ll only be paralysed for ten minutes, fifteen at most,” Ian said, setting his bag next to Sherlock’s supine body and withdrawing neat coils of rope. “Just enough time for me to get things ready.” He leant down, picked the phone up, and set it on the nightstand. “Nice try, by the way.”
Well aware that he was utterly helpless for the moment, Sherlock tried to surge up. He could scarcely feel his hands, but he planted them as best he could on the bed and attempted to heave his body upwards with his elbows. He glared at Ian, but Ian was blithely unwinding one of the ropes, taking his time. Sherlock tried to turn toward the door.
That was what he wanted to say; unfortunately it emerged as a whispered “Juhh….” and trailed off into a dry croak.
Ian laid a finger against Sherlock’s lips. “Shh. Nobody can hear you, they’re all at Compline. John, too. Didn’t you send him to keep an eye on Brother Marcelo? Good job you did, too – not that he’s not lovely, but I’ve really been looking forward to this.” He bound one of Sherlock’s wrists to the thin iron slats of the headboard, then the other. He repeated the process with Sherlock’s ankles, binding them to the furthest slats so that Sherlock’s legs were spread apart. “There we are. That’s quite nice, isn’t it? Comfortable?”
“Nn!” Sherlock tried to struggle, but his limbs refused to obey. He felt sweat beading on his brow and gathering between his shoulder blades. He watched Ian’s face, which remained serene, even blithe. He met Sherlock’s eyes a few times and smiled. Sherlock’s mind raced in dizzying circles of bewilderment. Was this a rape in progress? He wouldn’t have guessed that Ian was the sort of man, his profession notwithstanding, to resort to violence…still, whatever this was, it was very much against Sherlock’s will and he’d throttle Ian with his bare hands if he got the chance. And then he’d get the bloody phone back. “Juhh….”
“Oh.” Ian reached into his little bag of tricks once more and produced a white silk scarf. “I have more effective means of keeping you quiet, Sherlock, but let’s just start with this. We might need the others later. This is just a tiny disciplinary measure, more about aesthetics than true silence.” He pushed the silk into Sherlock’s mouth, lifted his head, and tied it in a firm knot behind his neck. “You can communicate to some degree, but most people find it clumsy and embarrassing trying to talk through a mouthful of silk. You’d be surprised how well it works. Though maybe not for you. You do fancy your own powers of speech, don’t you?”
Sherlock tried to push his tongue against the silk, but he was clumsy, and it was bound too tightly to make any difference. He settled for glaring at Ian again. “Mnn!”
“Don’t worry, Sherlock. I’m not going to do anything you don’t want me to do.” Ian reached forward and slowly unbuttoned Sherlock’s shirt, laying it gently to each side, then drawing his fingertips down Sherlock’s chest to his navel, circling it gently. Sherlock gasped and tried to pull his stomach inward, away from Ian’s touch. “Don’t you like that?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Ian withdrew his hand, then unfastened Sherlock’s belt buckle.
“NNNnn!” Sherlock felt the feeling returning slowly to his limbs, though not his tongue – must have been eight minutes at most – and struggled as hard as he could.
“Relax. I don’t want to hurt you.” Ian laid the flat of his hand on Sherlock’s abdomen. “It’s easier, isn’t it, when the choice is taken from you?” He unbuttoned and unzipped Sherlock’s trousers, easing them down to his thighs, then stared at Sherlock’s underwear. “Navy silk. Tasteful.” He caressed Sherlock’s hip. “I’m just going to sit over there for a few minutes, until you regain full feeling in your limbs and so on. Just be calm, Sherlock.” Amazingly, Ian did just that. He picked up his phone and sat in the wooden chair. Ignoring Sherlock completely, he began to tap on his phone.
Outraged and – yes – humiliated, Sherlock thrashed frenziedly against the ropes, but only succeeded in chafing his skin to the point of rawness. Panting, he lay back, grinding his teeth against the soft silk in his mouth and drilled imaginary holes into Ian’s smiling face with his eyes. After a few minutes had passed, Ian dialed a number and waited, meeting Sherlock’s glare with another benign smile. “It’s Ian,” he said after a moment. “I have Sherlock with me.” He listened for a moment, then chuckled. “No, he can’t speak to you. Yes, I’m certain I will. He knows about Dzundza, though. You have a problem on your hands.”
Sherlock lifted his head, scanning Ian rapidly. He seemed tense now, and slightly unhappy. He crossed his legs and held his arms close to his sides. One hand brushed his thigh in what seemed a compulsive fashion – up and down, up and down, over and over.
“If that’s what you feel you have to do. I’ve done my part. No, of course I’ll stay. I told Father Trevor I would. Yes. No. Tell him to stay away from me, I told you –“ He was silent for a moment. “All right, then –“ Ian held the phone away, then put it against his ear. “Hello?” He shrugged and rang off.
Sherlock remained still, watching Ian. Ian was afraid of something. His employer. Oscar Dzundza’s employer.
Ian stared down at the phone for a moment, then lifted his head. His customary grin was a little less enthusiastic than before. “The monastery will be enjoying my company for a while more. I have some advice for you, Sherlock.” He set the phone down and moved to the bed, sitting beside Sherlock’s supine body. “I think you should leave. Immediately. The murders are out of your reach, and there’s nothing you can do about the sale of the abbey. If you stay, you’re in danger – you and Dr. Watson both.” He reached behind Sherlock’s head and unknotted the gag.
Sherlock spit it out and ran his tongue over his lips. “Moriarty.”
“You should both leave. Tomorrow morning at the latest.”
“Why should you care if I live or die? You didn’t care about the monks. You don’t care about destroying Brother Marcelo’s reputation.”
“Perhaps I think your intellect’s worth preserving.” Ian brushed Sherlock’s hair back from his forehead. “Or maybe I just like you.”
“You don’t, though. You haven’t got a friend in the world, have you? No one to help you if Moriarty decides to turn his assassin on you. The monks would probably say you’ve chosen poor companions, Ian. Maybe you should go to confession and mend your life.”
“Probably.” Ian picked up the damp silk and forced it between Sherlock’s teeth again. Sherlock twisted, trying to avoid the silk, trying to bite Ian’s hand, but to no avail – Ian fastened it more tightly than before. “And you have Dr. Watson. Lucky you – your own personal soldier, as well as a doctor. The papers love him, you know, almost as much as they love you. Such blind devotion. Jim calls him your dog. But I think you’d like him to be much more than a pet, wouldn’t you?”
“Leave John out of this,” Sherlock said, or attempted to – but the wet silk garbled his words to absurdity. It was humiliating, straining to talk and not being able to. He snarled and squirmed against the ropes and Ian’s long, cool hand, now travelling slowly from his neck to his chest. He inhaled sharply, involuntarily, as Ian’s fingers brushed against his nipple, then pinched it lightly.
“Tell me to stop,” Ian said. “I’ll understand you.” He bent and circled the cup of Sherlock’s navel with his tongue.
Sherlock’s breath came in trembling gasps. His cock stirred, swelling to life. He let his body sag into the soft mattress, telling himself that he needed the phone, to get Ian to reveal Moriarty’s plan in full – surely he knew it, surely – but the sensations quickening in his body made him dizzy, paralysing him more than the drug. His body twitched as Ian’s hand brushed over the front of his underwear, the touch faint, delicately probing. He arched forward. He wanted it to stop. He had a case to solve, he hadn’t time for Oh God, oh God – He heard someone moaning and felt a hot blush of shame as he realised it was his own voice, stifled but not entirely silenced by the silk.
Ian’s hand rubbed back and forth, gently, slowly, toying with him. “Tell me to stop, and I will.”
The touching went on for hours, it seemed, soft, stroking, caressing, interminable. He was fully hard now, totally helpless. Yes, it was easier like this; he could pretend it was all against his will. He’d never explored restraint like this, never wanted to, never cared. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend it wasn’t Ian stroking him so languorously. He looked at Ian’s hand, at his own cock trapped in dark blue silk, at the slightly darker patch of wetness on the expensive fabric. He closed his eyes, clenched his hands into tight fists, the nails digging into his skin. He was close, so close, oh Christ, John –
“Stop!” The plea was muffled, but Ian’s hand vanished at once. Sherlock sagged into the mattress, panting, the silken gag in his mouth soaked with saliva. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head, burying it into his outstretched arm.
Ian sighed deeply. “Sherlock,” he said in a soft voice, “how badly you need this. I’m sorry you decided to stop.” He pulled out Sherlock’s gag and left it hanging round his neck. Its sticky wetness was vaguely repulsive.
“Untie me, now.”
Ian shook his head. “You might try to take my phone again. And you might actually succeed, and I can’t have that. I’m sorry.” He withdrew another syringe from his bag. “This will actually knock you out, but you’ll only be out for an hour or so. Time enough for me to take some precautionary measures.” He pinched a fold of skin on Sherlock’s belly, then frowned. “Not enough. We’ll just have to use the arm again. I’ll use the other one. Hold still now.”
Sherlock complied, only because he didn’t want the needle breaking off. “You’re going to spend a long time in prison for helping Moriarty. You do realise that, don’t you? You’re an accessory to murder now, Ian.”
“Shhh. Don’t try to talk.”
“You –“ A wave of dizziness washed over Sherlock, and he blinked hard. “You’d better –“ The room spun crazily. He lay back on the pillow and saw Ian leaning over him.
Ian bent close and kissed Sherlock on the mouth. “Sleep well.”
Sherlock shook his head. “You –“ but his vision swirled into cloudy grey, then silent, enveloping black.
He awoke lying on his own bed. He recognised the rough burlap curtains at his window and the brochures scattered on the little desk. It was dark outside; probably Ian hadn’t lied about the duration of the drug. He blinked, raised his head, and gaped uncomprehendingly as he realised his was still tied hand and foot to the bed. Now, however, there was something that tasted unpleasantly like rubber fixed in his mouth and shaped like…
The phallus – complete with a bizarre fleshy texture and wrinkles – was uncomfortably thick, tasted dreadful, and was firmly secured in his mouth, attached to a wide piece of leather that covered his lips entirely and fastened behind his head. One of Ian’s more effective means of silencing, apparently. Sherlock hissed out an angry breath through his nose and tugged sharply at the ropes, which didn’t budge. Ian’s skill was everything he’d boasted.
At least he was dressed. God. Small favours.. He felt the weight of his phone in his pocket, but there was no way to reach it. Maybe if he twisted just the right way, it would fall out of his pocket, and he could urge it up toward his hand. He’d text John and prepare himself for a few scathing comments.
He twisted his body as far as he could, but the phone refused to leave the depths of his pocket. Angrily, he thrashed against the ropes, inadvertently slamming the headboard against the wall.
Enthusiastically, he shoved his arms back and forth, slamming the headboard loudly against the wall. Nobody came – were they all still in church? Wouldn’t Ian, at least, come in to keep him quiet? What the hell had happened to everybody?
After perhaps twenty minutes of steady banging, he heard footsteps, and the key turning in John’s lock. The door creaked open. Thank God, John. “John!” he tried to shout, but the horrible gag diminished his cry to a soft whimper.
“Sherlock? What are you – Jesus Christ!”
John, covered with dirt and black smudges that looked like coal, and an ugly, bloody cut decorating his forehead, gaped at Sherlock in horror.
I would like to thank everyone who left supportive messages for me as I was undergoing my cancer ordeal. I'm nearly done with treatment [two chemo doses and a bit of radiation therapy to go!] and your kindness meant, and means, more to me than I can possibly express. Thanks for your patience, too - it's much appreciated. Bless you!
John watched Sherlock grasp Ian’s arm to steer him out of the refectory and bit back an impatient sigh. He didn’t trust Ian Adler one little bit, and as the thought formed, Ian looked John’s way and offered him a grin that seemed to promise mayhem. John scowled openly – he didn’t give a toss what Ian thought of him, though it was pretty clear that Sherlock was impressed by him for some reason. Maybe there was a tall, skinny, clever, curly-haired blokes’ mutual admiration society John didn’t know about.
Sod it. John turned away and sidled close to the bins of dirty plates, cups, and utensils. Deftly, he plucked a knife from one of the bins and wiped it clean with a napkin, then slid it inside his jacket and tossed the napkin on a bin. Nobody noticed him; he was a slight, dark figure in a murmuring, swirling sea of black-and-white clad monks. He wasn’t as handy with a knife as he was with a gun; not handy with a knife at all, as it happened. He wished he had his Sig. He didn’t think Brother Marcelo would attack him, but there was no point in taking chances, was there? As he proceeded from the kitchen, Brother Edward and Brother Peter, strolling together, hailed him. “Dr. Watson.”
“Oh, hello. And please – it’s just John.” He shook hands with them, gratefully noting that neither man engaged in the traditional masculine game of crush-the-finger-bones as they shook. He liked them both – Brother Peter was a bit of a hippie, but all right for all that, and Brother Edward was a solid sort of guy. Both of them were friendly and approachable. “I’m going to go to the evening service, if that’s all right.”
“Certainly it’s all right,” Brother Peter said with a decisive nod. “Where’s your friend?”
“Ah, he’s doing some research at the moment,” John hedged.
“Probably better for us not to know,” Brother Edward said. “Have you ever been to Compline before, John?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t.”
“It’s our last service of the day for the entire monastery, and because we’re lucky enough to have a lovely choir, it’s sung. It’s also the precursor to the Great Silence, so you’ll forgive us if we don’t speak afterward.”
John smiled tentatively. “The Great Silence?”
“That’s right,” Brother Peter said. “The whole community observes silence until Prime – morning services the following day. That’s supposed to include guests, but we don’t enforce it very harshly. At all, to be honest.”
“So if I wanted to talk to someone – one of the other monks – afterward, he wouldn’t speak to me?”
“We’ve been instructed to aid you inasmuch as it’s possible in consideration of all that’s happened,” Brother Edward said. “But some of the older monks might not take too kindly to breaking silence at night. If you need to speak to someone, use your judgment, or just ask Father Simon. I’m sure he can arrange something for you. However, most of the monks retire just after Compline, so you’ll have to move quickly.”
The evening was cool, with a diffuse silver moon-haze fighting through the thick cover of clouds. They had drawn close to the library, and John saw Brother Marcelo open the main door and step inside. “The service starts at what time?” John asked.
“Nine,” Brother Edward replied. “Do come, it’s quite nice.”
John checked his watch. He had about forty-five minutes to kill before the service, and that time might be well-spent poking about the library. He nodded a farewell to the two monks and slipped inside. At once he saw that the library was all but deserted: two monks occupied the long tables, and Brother Marcelo was behind the large desk, gathering papers together with a decided air of day’s-end cleanup. The door banged shut, and all three monks glanced up and saw John. So much for stealthy observation. Good job.
“Hello.” John raised a hand, and the two monks nodded and went back to their reading. Brother Marcelo continued his sorting without any acknowledgment. John watched the young man’s hands – were they trembling? No…no, but he moved a bit more quickly than before, and there was a tightness in his full-lipped mouth that hadn’t been there before. Clearly there wasn’t going to be a solicitous inquiry about John’s literary needs, so he went to the desk. “Hi. Brother Marcelo, right?”
Brother Marcelo stared at him. He was quite handsome, and very young indeed, John saw now. Easy for someone like Ian Adler (sneaky bastard) to woo and then manipulate. Or the other way round. “Si,” he said, and swallowed audibly.
“Is it okay if I just look around a bit?”
Brother Marcelo frowned. Was he trying to work out what John was saying? “We close soon.” His English was heavily accented but perfectly comprehensible.
Sherlock was right about him understanding more than he let on. “I won’t be long. What time do you close?”
“Half past eight.” Apparently Brother Marcelo had given up his pretence of not speaking English. He’d had Brother Edward fooled, anyway.
John glanced at his watch. Eight-fifteen. Super. “Well, I’ll just have a wander about, then. Thanks.” Casting a brief yearning glance at the archway that held the staircase to the upper floors, he strolled into another room, this one looking like any ordinary library with shelves of books, and let out a short breath of impatience. Not enough time to do any serious searching, and no way to keep an eye on Brother Marcelo without being totally obvious about it. Shit. Well, I’ll have a poke around here, see if I find anything interesting.
The first room of books led into another, then another, then a narrow, windowless corridor that seemed to traverse the width of the building. He tried the door at the end of the corridor and found another book-filled chamber, commonplace in every way. John kept walking, his footsteps nearly silent on the worn stone flooring. He encountered another corridor, this time running lengthwise and lit by a single yellowish bulb. As he started forward, an interior door swung open with a noisy squeal of rusting hinges. John darted back into the book-lined room and peered through the crack in the doorjamb. Brother Marcelo emerged from behind the door and closed it carefully, but the hinges shrieked again, and he winced. As John watched, he glanced up and down the corridor, then started walking away.
If John’s bump of location was correct, Brother Marcelo was headed back to the front desk. John waited until Brother Marcelo had opened and closed another door behind him, this time without stealth, and then walked quickly to the door and eased it open, hoping it wouldn’t make noise. The hinges groaned, but not noisily, and John searched for a light switch close to hand.
Nothing. He pulled his torch from his pocket and aimed the beam through the door, seeing a narrow flight of stairs. He took a breath and descended the staircase, a narrow stone affair worn in the centre from centuries of sandaled feet. At the bottom he played the beam around the chamber and saw a few modern folding tables laden with boxes of books. Nothing terribly interesting. There was a door set in the interior wall, though; John went to it immediately and tried the handle. It opened onto blackness. John shone his light inside and let out a small, appreciative murmur as it illuminated what looked like a very long stone-walled tunnel. Interesting. Glancing at his watch with the aid of his torch, he realised there wouldn’t be time to investigate it fully, but he intended to come back. Possibly the reason for Brother Marcelo’s clear disquietude lay at the tunnel’s opposite end.
Swiftly, he ascended the stairs and trotted back through the corridors and rooms of books, glad that they were empty. Easier to avoid prying questions if nobody noticed his snooping. He strolled back into the main room just as Brother Marcelo pulled on a bell beside the desk. Closing time, then. Offering the young monk a smile that went unreturned, John left the library and breathed in the clear night air.
The church was lit by several candles that cast a dim glow in the cavernous space, haunting and quite lovely. John walked quietly up the main aisle, seeing several monks seated already, and more murmuring quietly in what must have been the space for the choir. Not wanting to upset an established order, John chose a pew well apart from them and sat, looking around the church and inhaling the fragrances of stone, old wood, wax, and incense. Slowly, the monks filed in and found seats, clustering together in the first few pews. John saw Brother Edward and Brother Peter come in together; they waved at him casually and smiled, then found their seats.
After a moment, a single voice echoed through the church, and the rest of the choir – about a dozen monks in all – took up the response. John listened, awed at the beauty of the chant. The voices resounded through the church, sweet and serene and slightly mournful, and John suddenly missed Sherlock, who would have appreciated the centuries-old music.
The service lasted about twenty minutes, and John didn’t so much as shift on the uncomfortable wooden pew, so entranced was he by the singing. Easy to see how one could be lulled into a sort of meditative state. He closed his eyes and listened, feeling the weight of time and tradition and the strange echoes that always seemed to linger round a holy place. It would be a shame if the monks were forced to abandon the abbey. They seemed like basically good people, most of them, anyway – in a short time John had come to admire their simple way of life and what seemed an essential lack of materialism. The celibacy bit was something else, but if what Sherlock had said about Brother Marcelo was true, apparently not all of them practised celibacy anyway. John couldn’t quite find it in his heart to blame Brother Marcelo for that, even if he had ended up on the wrong end of blackmail.
After Father Trevor ascended the few short steps to the bare altar to give what seemed like a blessing, the choir sang one last song and the service ended. The monks filed out, looking a bit ghostly in the dimness, and John rose and followed, but lingered near the door. He watched Brother Marcelo, who stayed behind with another monk to extinguish the candles and tidy up.
“Dr. Watson.” John turned and saw Simon Trevor. “Thank you for coming to our service. What did you think of it?” He pitched his voice low enough so that it wouldn’t carry through the church.
“Very lovely,” John said.
“I see Sherlock isn’t with you.”
“He’s doing what you requested.”
Clear relief spread across Simon’s narrow features. “Ah. Good. Very good.”
“I wonder if it would be okay if I stayed for a bit?” John tilted his head toward the altar, where Brother Marcelo and the other monk were cleaning.
Simon frowned. “I don’t –“ He focused on Brother Marcelo, then sighed heavily. “I suppose you think it necessary?”
“Very well. Please be respectful.” Simon nodded and left the church.
John stared after him, shaking his head in annoyance. Did Simon think he was planning to have a pee on the altar? Maybe Sherlock hadn’t been able to resist mentioning altar boys after all. He positioned himself behind a column and watched the two young monks snuff out candle after candle, until the church was dark except for the altar, illuminated only by a single candle in a red glass and hanging from an ornate sort of sconce. The two monks headed down the main aisle, and John silently shifted so they wouldn’t see him. If they were going to lock him in, he’d have a problem.
Halfway down the aisle, Brother Marcelo put his hand on the other monk’s arm and said something in voluble Italian. The other monk nodded, fished a ring of keys from a pocket, and handed it over to Brother Marcelo, saying something in reply and clapping him on the shoulder. As John watched, the other monk slipped out the door, closing it quietly. John bit his lip and waited.
Brother Marcelo stood in silence for a moment, staring anxiously at the door as if he expected the other monk to come charging through it again. Slowly, he exhaled, then turned and walked back up the aisle to the altar. What’s this, then? John wondered, slipping round the stone column to get a better look. Brother Marcelo moved purposefully to the apse where the altar stood, genuflected and crossed himself, and moved toward the altar, prostrating himself and spreading his hands on the bare stone.
Slowly, without so much as a scrape or a creak, the massive altar moved inward, toward the rear wall. Breathless, John watched Brother Marcelo rise to his feet, take a candle from the altar, and light it. He stepped into the gaping compartment beneath, descended a staircase, and disappeared.
“Shit,” John whispered, and stepped into the aisle, advancing slowly so that Brother Marcelo wouldn’t hear him, but poised to run in case the altar swung shut again. Nothing happened; the altar stayed where it was, so presumably Brother Marcelo needed to leave it open. John’s heart hammered with excitement as he reached the altar and gazed down into the dark hole. He heard distant footsteps, and Brother Marcelo’s voice.
John glanced over his shoulder, then carefully began to walk down the staircase. The steps were gritty stone, narrow and short. John clung to the wall as he moved into the darkness, afraid to turn his torch on. He felt something sticky against his face – cobweb, probably – and brushed it away. The passage was infrequently used, then. If Ian Adler had planned a meeting with Brother Marcelo – oh God, he hoped it wasn’t for some kinky sex thing. He wouldn’t be able to watch.
Not for the whole thing, anyhow.
“Ian! Dove sei?”
He couldn’t see Brother Marcelo’s candlelight, and the voice was somewhat distant, echoing through the passageway, but John froze nevertheless. He waited until he heard footfalls again, then kept moving. If Ian had arranged to meet the young monk, and if Sherlock hadn’t detained him, then he’d have to come from another direction, some other means of ingress. John thought about the passageway he’d seen in the library. Was the entire abbey connected underground? And if the codex was still in the abbey, as Sherlock had surmised, maybe it was in a below-ground chamber where few monks ventured. Wouldn’t it be a turn-up if he found the codex before Sherlock did?
John smiled at that. Then his smile faded as he thought of Sherlock questioning Ian. He’d never known Sherlock to succumb to any sort of flirtation; then again, he’d never heard Sherlock speak about anyone but Ian with admiration in his voice. Oh, Sherlock had tossed a couple of compliments John’s way, but they’d been offhand and brusque. Sherlock wouldn’t dazzle anyone with flattery or poetry. Bastard.
“Ian!” Brother Marcelo’s voice rang out again as John’s foot hit the welcome solidity of the floor. He groped forward, his hands extended, and stilled as he heard another voice, a harsh, rusty bass.
That’s not Ian.
Brother Marcelo spoke softly, and in Italian, but John heard the emotion in his voice – he was frightened. The owner of the other voice said something sharp, and Brother Marcelo responded, his answer rapid-fire and nearly shrill. The bass voice rumbled again. This time Brother Marcelo’s reply was a whisper, and then a short cry.
“No!” There was a metallic clatter, a thump, and another sharp cry, cut off abruptly.
That didn’t sound good, whatever it was. “Oh, shit,” John whispered, and ran forward, switching on his torch with one hand and groping for the kitchen knife in the other. He picked up speed in the unfamiliar dark, seeing low, thick stone columnar and niches in the wall.
Bones? Did I just see bones, for God’s sake?
No time. He heard the sounds of a struggle just ahead, and frantically played the beam over the walls. Where the hell –
There they were – Brother Marcelo, the white of his habit stark against the shadows, and holding him in what seemed a death-grip –
“Golem!” John shouted. Not again, Christ almighty! “Let him go!”
Oscar Dzundza gave him a smile – or a snarl, it was hard to tell – and continued to smother the life out of the young monk now struggling feebly in his arms.
John hesitated only an instant. Oh, fucking hell. He plunged forward, keeping his torch trained on Dzundza’s eyes to blind him. Then he swung out and up, cracking the torch against Dzundza’s nose with an extremely satisfying crunch. Dzundza let out a roar and stumbled, Brother Marcelo trapped against him. He swung, catching John in the temple and knocking him sideways.
John crashed against something hard, but righted himself quickly. Brother Marcelo made a pathetic mewling noise, and gestured weakly toward John. John shone the torch into Dzundza’s eyes again and brought his leg round in a savage kick against the long muscle of the Golem’s thigh. Dzundza let out a roar of pain.
“Let him go, you bastard.”
Dzundza flung Brother Marcelo aside like a rag-doll and charged at John like a maddened bull.
Shit. John braced himself and swung the torch again, cracking it against Dzundza’s chin, and then in one motion pulled the kitchen knife, sweeping it up in a clean arc and slicing the palm of the hand closest to him. Dzundza let out another roar and stumbled toward John, half-falling and catching the edge of John’s jacket. They tumbled to the stone floor in an untidy heap.
John struggled to extricate himself from the weight of the Golem’s body, and gasped as a hand clamped down over his mouth and nose. The sudden lack of air terrified and enraged him, but he kept his head. He’d managed to hold on to both the knife and the torch, thank God. Swiftly, he calculated, then sank the blade into flesh, between two costae spuriae, the eighth and ninth ribs. Dzundza shrieked, and his hand slipped away from John’s face, giving John just enough time to take a quick, much-needed breath and crack the torch against Dzundza’s skull. Dzundza let out a grunt and fell heavily against John.
“Oh, Christ,” John wheezed, and with a great effort rolled Dzundza’s limp form off his body. He got to his feet with a groan and saw Brother Marcelo standing a short distance away, staring at him open-mouthed. Thanks a lot, you were a big help. He sighed. “Are you okay?”
Brother Marcelo nodded silently.
“We’ve got to call the police. Come on.” John headed back toward the stairway, not waiting to see if the young monk would follow, then stopped. “Wait. We should tie him up. Give me your belt.” He gestured impatiently at Brother Marcelo, who stripped off his cloth rope belt and handed it to John. John went back to Dzundza’s limp body and bound his wrists and ankles with Brother Marcelo’s belt and his own. He drew the knife from the Golem’s ribs with more care than the bastard deserved and wiped the blade on Dzundza’s back. It wasn’t a very long blade and likely hadn’t pierced his spleen – but if it had, there were worse things that happened in the world. Being smothered to death, for instance.
The job finished, John trotted up the staircase and faced Brother Marcelo. “Show me how you opened that.” The young monk wetted his lips and stood pat. John let out an exasperated sigh. “Show me.”
Hesitantly, Brother Marcelo went to the front of the altar, knelt, and pressed two fingers inside the hollows of elaborately carved rosettes. “Like this. But in order to close it, you must be under.” He pointed down to the crypt.
“So it stays open until you close it down there. All right, let’s see it.” They went back down the stairs and Brother Marcelo pulled a lever protruding from the wall. The altar moved slowly, but smoothly, covering the narrow aperture and plunging them into darkness. John turned on his torch. “You’ve got to do some fast stepping to get out again.”
“Unless you go another way. Come.” Brother Marcelo pulled on John’s sleeve and urged him back down the tunnel. This time John shone his light this way and that and saw that they were in a crypt. There were stone tombs fetched up against the walls, tombs in the floors, and the skeleton that John thought he’d seen was indeed just that, except it was intricately carved of stone, and grotesquely perched atop a sarcophagus, its delicate hands folded over its rib cage. It was marvellous, really, in a creepy sort of way, and John admired it for a few seconds before Brother Marcelo gathered up his candle, lit it, and then gestured impatiently at him.
They went further down, past Dzundza’s still-prone body and turned left into a darker and narrower passage. “We’ve got to call the police,” John reminded the monk.
“No signal down here. Later.”
John pulled his phone out of his pocket and squinted at it. Brother Marcelo was right. “Well, bugger.” He stuffed the phone back in his pocket, noting with some distaste that he had blood on his hand. His head was starting to hurt, and he suspected he’d banged it against the ground in the struggle with Dzundza. On top of the lungful of smoke he’d inhaled (though admittedly not much thanks to Sherlock’s quick thinking, and his scarf) this place was getting to be a bit of a health hazard. John aimed the torch at the walls. More tombs; he wondered if every monk that had lived and died here was buried beneath the abbey. “How far do these tunnels extend?”
“All.” Brother Marcelo waved a hand. “All of the abbey.”
“Is it all tombs?”
“No. Only –“ The young monk groped for the word. “Only beneath the church.”
I’m turned around, then. Where the hell are we? John followed Brother Marcelo through the darkness for several long minutes, the silence broken only by their footsteps. Here, he saw, the floors and walls were no longer smooth stone, but irregularly shaped and uneven, like an old-fashioned rock wall. How long, how much work was it to hew out these passages? And why?
Presently they came to another flight of stairs, much steeper and narrower than the stairs at the crypt opening. They seemed to float up into nothing, but there was a door that Brother Marcelo opened with a key that he located with suspicious swiftness. Then another dark passage, though they must have been aboveground by now, and another set of stairs. Finally they emerged through a trapdoor into a tiny room with stone walls. It smelled smoky and there was a weird tangy odour in the air as well, strangely familiar. John let out a soft cry. “This is the closet where Sherlock and I got locked in! We’re in the library!”
Brother Marcelo said nothing, but glanced at John over his shoulder. He opened the door and ushered John out, closing the door behind them. He moved another lever on the inside of the outer door (John and Sherlock hadn’t noticed that the first time – at least John hadn’t) and they made their way down the staircase to the main room of the now-darkened library.
John exhaled, a deep sigh of relief that started in his toes and pushed most of the evening’s tension out of his body. “All right, then. That was different.”
“You saved my life.”
John faced the monk and let his mouth twist upward. “Damned right, and I think you owe me some answers. First, you call the police.”
“Father Simon should be the one to do so.”
“Your English is quite good. Why the pretence?”
Brother Marcelo shrugged.
“Dzundza killed Brother Adelmo, didn’t he?”
At this Brother Marcelo’s face fell, and his full lower lip trembled. “I begged him no. To spare him. He would not. Adelmo knew much.”
“Si. Ian told us that we would be rich if we helped him, that we might go anywhere, but Adelmo – he would not leave San Stefano. He was angry. I told Ian. And then…and then Signor Dzundza –" Brother Marcelo began to weep. “He waited for Adelmo one night in the baths. I could not stop him. But I think Adelmo knew. He suspected. That is why he left la carta - the, the paper.”
“You knew what it said?” John asked.
“Ian. He tells me, this afternoon before supper.”
“And now you’re implicated,” John remarked. “Looks bad for you.” He felt some pity for the young man, who’d quite clearly got in over his head, but the way things had happened, it looked as though Adelmo and Marcelo had been more than friends, at least Marcelo had seemed to intimate that, and what sort of heartless bastard stood by and did nothing when his lover was murdered in cold blood by an assassin? And what sort of heartless bastard engaged in kinky sex with a snake like Ian Adler mere days, maybe hours after his lover’s murder? The pity he’d felt started to dwindle. “So is it Ian who’s threatening you? Is that why you went down there tonight - to be blackmailed by him?”
“I did not wish for any of this to happen.” Brother Marcelo began to weep again.
“Oh, belt up for Christ’s sake,” John sighed. “The only way you can clear your name is to cooperate with us, and with the police. That man, Dzundza, is a dangerous assassin, as you found out. He won’t get far with his wound and being tied up, but we’ve got to move fast. You go to Father Simon and tell him what’s happened, and then stay in his office, and Sherlock and I will meet you there. Do you hear me? Do not go back to your room or try to look for Ian. He might not be a murderer, but he’s dangerous too.”
Brother Marcelo blinked tearfully, then nodded. He unlocked the library door, and they parted ways.
John hurried toward his room, eager to tell Sherlock what had happened. Opening his door, he shrugged out of his coat, hoping that he hadn’t got blood on it, and started at the sound of loud banging. “Sherlock?”
The banging continued. John hesitated as he put his hand on the doorknob of the connecting bath. Oh God. Hang on a minute. What if…oh God…unlikely as it was…what if Sherlock was engaged with Ian Adler in an act of…no, ridiculous. Sherlock wouldn’t.
The banging went on, and John heard a soft, muffled cry.
Had they heard him come in? Surely they had; the hinges were noisy. Maybe they didn’t care. The thought of Ian caressing Sherlock, both of them…naked, maybe, touching each other, or from the noises, fucking vigorously enough to slam the headboard against the wall…Jesus. Jesus Christ.
Hot blood filled John’s face and chest, and his hand shook with rage as he pulled away from the door to Sherlock’s room. Fuck you. Ruin it for you both, was his incoherent thought. They couldn’t be discreet, go to Ian’s room? Fuck them both.
They don’t need your help there.
John bit his lower lip hard enough to hurt and glanced in the mirror. Another muffled cry arose, sounding…pained? Desperately horny? Or something else?
With a painful rush of impulse, John threw open the door to Sherlock’s room. “Sherlock? What are you –” In a split second he saw that Sherlock was alone, that he was tied to the bed and gagged, and that he was the one who’d been doing all the banging. “Jesus Christ!” John ran to the bed and pulled the knife, and began to saw at the rope that secured one of Sherlock’s wrists to the heavy iron-slatted headboard. “What happened? Oh, my God –" As he hacked at the rope, he saw that the plaster wall behind the headboard had been badly scuffed and dented. “How long have you – Jesus. There.” The rope came free, and Sherlock, his eyes blazing with anger, struggled to unfasten the contraption strapped to his face.
“Hang on, hang on a second. Your circulation’s impaired, and you’ll never get it by yourself. Hold still and let me do it.”
Sherlock let out an indignant snort, but stilled his frantic and useless clawing and turned his face away from John to give him a better angle. John leant close and unbuckled the gag, then pulled it away, gaping at the thick phallus, remarkably anatomically correct and coated with saliva, that emerged from Sherlock’s mouth with a rather obscene slurp and pop.
“Nice,” John said drily, dropping the thing on the floor. He looked at Sherlock, who didn’t seem as if he’d been harmed. “Are you okay?” Guiltily, he felt his earlier anger draining away.
“Fine,” Sherlock replied through clenched teeth. “Untie me, please.”
“How long have you been like this?”
“I’m not certain. He drugged me.”
John, concentrating on freeing Sherlock’s other hand, halted with a scowl. “He drugged you? With what?”
“Atracurium besilate. Nothing drastic.”
“I take it this is Ian Adler’s work? I don’t recall you packing any leather and rubber contraptions at the flat. Or declaring them, at least.”
“Of course they’re Ian’s. Hurry up, John.” Sherlock glanced at him, then at the blade, which still bore a faint smear of blood. “What happened to you?”
“Had a little tussle with the Golem while you were in here playing bondage games. Did you get the phone?”
“No.” Sherlock slumped against the bed, then let out a hiss of pain as his other hand was freed. “That stings.” He massaged his hand. “No, but Ian’s working with Moriarty, John. I’m certain of it. That explains the connection to Dzundza as well. It’s all connected. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time.” He sat up and sighed in relief as John cut his feet loose, and drew his knees up to rub his sore ankles.
“Want some help with that?” John sat on the bed and grasped one of Sherlock’s ankles. Gently he began to rub, careful not to chafe the woollen sock against the tender flesh.
“Thank you.” Sherlock closed his eyes and lay back, then opened them and fixed his gaze on John. “He tried to kill you.”
“Don’t lie to me, I can see it. You have bruises on your face.” Sherlock indicated his mouth and nose. “Same place every time. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes. Brother Marcelo got it worse than I did. He’s okay too. We left Dzundza tied up in the crypt. Brother Marcelo’s going to get Father Trevor to ring the police.”
“Crypt?” Sherlock’s eyebrows had climbed toward his hairline.
“Yeah, under the altar. It’s amazing, the whole abbey is a warren of tunnels, Sherlock.” John wanted to show the passageways to Sherlock who, no matter how stoutly he’d deny it, had a kid’s enthusiasm for the secret, the hidden-away.
“Well,” Sherlock said with a shrug, “I probably could have told you that.”
“I knew that closet where we were trapped had a hidden door, John. It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that it’s not just the library that has that sort of exit or entrance.”
John set Sherlock’s foot on the bed. “Are you going to give me lip, or do you want to hear what happened? Or are you still smarting because you didn’t get the mobile from Adler?”
“Shut up.” Sherlock sat up and re-tied the laces of his shoes, then folded his arms tightly and stared off into space for a moment. “Oh, all right. Tell me.”
John related what had happened, pleased to see Sherlock nodding here and there in evident approval. “So I got a few answers out of him, but he knows more than he’s telling. Maybe a visit from the police will scare him into revealing a bit more. Ian, too.”
Sherlock sniffed. “Maybe. Of course the police here couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.”
“Just…stay low-key when they show up, all right? How are your hands?” Unable to stop himself and telling himself he wasn’t completely relieved that Sherlock had been alone, John touched the back of one of Sherlock’s hands. “They hurt?”
“A bit sore.”
“Do you want me to….” John coughed, sensing heat creeping up his neck and into his face.
“Please.” Sherlock graciously extended a hand, as if conferring a favour.
John rubbed briskly, trying not to linger over any single area. “They’re a bit cold, but I doubt the circulation was compromised. We’ll get some ointment on those rope burns.”
John found himself rubbing more slowly as warmth returned to Sherlock’s hand. He grasped Sherlock’s other hand and began to massage it, caressing it between his own. “Best to get both sides. Bring the veins down if they’ve popped.” He kept his head lowered, afraid that Sherlock was watching him with that inscrutable gaze he sometimes affected. Impossible to tell what he was thinking at times. This was all business.
Suddenly Sherlock squeezed one of his hands. “I –"
“Yeah?” John looked up quickly.
Sherlock offered him a tight-lipped smile. “I think that’ll do.”
“Right. Well, maybe we should head up to Father Trevor’s office, if you’re feeling up to it.”
“Yes.” Sherlock rose to his feet. “I’m rather eager to hear what Oscar Dzundza has to say about all this.”
“I don’t think he speaks English,” John said, staying seated until his burgeoning hard-on had a chance to subside a bit. “I heard him talking to Brother Marcelo. Sounded like German.”
One tweed-clad shoulder lifted nonchalantly. “That’s fine.”
Sherlock turned, wrapping his scarf round his neck. “Yes?”
“You sure you’re okay. Ian didn’t try to…hurt you or anything.”
“Of course not.” Sherlock turned toward the wall. “Just a little power struggle, that’s all. It amused him.” A hint of anger or resentment darkened Sherlock’s voice. “Shall we?”
John followed Sherlock out. He was still relieved, but there was an odd little ember of emotion in his chest that he couldn’t quite identify and couldn’t, despite his attempts, extinguish.
Father Trevor’s office was dark, and the door was locked. John cupped his hands against the window on the side of the building and strained to see in. “Maybe Brother Marcelo went to Simon’s room. He wouldn’t be here so late anyhow.”
“Or maybe he went to find Ian Adler after all.”
“Yeah, but I told him –"
“Well, clearly Brother Marcelo has a mind of his own.” Sherlock whirled away and began the short trek back to their rooms. “He’s too heavily implicated, so probably contacting the police was the last thing on his mind. Not that they’d help. You should have done it yourself, John.”
“Yeah, well – maybe you wouldn’t have minded being tied up for another hour or so,” John snapped. Perhaps he shouldn’t have trusted Brother Marcelo, but Jesus –
Sherlock hurried down the corridor and began to bang on a door. “Ian! Open up!” When there was no answer, he hammered again. “Ian!”
John folded his arms. “Maybe he’s tying Brother Marcelo up in the library and putting it on Youtube or something. Seems like he likes that.” Abruptly, he remembered the strange marks on Sherlock’s wrist, the one he’d seen that morning in the bathroom. But that was before…what the hell was going on?
“Ian!” Sherlock laid his hand on the doorknob and twisted. He pushed the door open violently, then stood perfectly still.
John looked at Sherlock’s gloved hand and wrist resting on the doorjamb. That mark was made the night before. Sherlock said he caught it in the door. He’s not that bloody clumsy. Sherlock had been out and about. With whom? And doing what, for fuck’s sake?
A sick anger twisted his insides.
“John.” Sherlock’s voice was subdued.
“What?” John couldn’t keep the bitterness from escaping.
John brushed past Sherlock and stopped, an odd choked noise emerging from his throat. He stepped back, leaning against the wall, and rubbed his eyes. "Christ."
Brother Marcelo's naked body leant haphazardly against the door of Ian's adjoining bath, his legs sprawled widely, his hands lying on either side of his thighs. A rope, wound several times about his throat, ran taut to the doorknob, where it was tied off in a simple clove hitch. Sherlock moved closer and crouched to examine the body. Bruises on his face, yes – Dzundza had attacked him earlier in the evening –
"I told him to go to Simon's office straightaway," John said hollowly.
"Looks as if it's meant to be autoerotic asphyxiation, but I doubt it." Sherlock whipped out his glass and held it close to the dead man's throat. "The rope's wound too high to see any significant bruising. Still, I don't think there's any doubt that he was murdered."
"You don't think he was playing kinky sex games with Ian Adler?"
The startling harshness in John's voice gave Sherlock pause. He turned and regarded John with mild curiosity. "What's wrong?" John's mouth was drawn tightly, and his hands were clenched into fists.
"What's wrong? Take a good fucking look, Sherlock. He's dead. I was with him not half an hour ago and I fucking told him to go to Simon and not to try to find Ian and he's dead. Is that enough, or do you want more?"
"All right…." Sherlock lifted his eyebrows and turned back to the body. He'd consciously tried to cater to what he considered John's excessively soft sensibilities regarding victims, but every once in a while, he misread signals and blurted out something that set John off. Apparently this was one of those times. "If Ian was responsible, you'd think he'd be smart enough not to wander off and leave a dead body in an exceedingly compromising position. No, I think this is our friend the Golem."
"We left him tied up and bleeding in the crypt."
"Presumably he escaped," Sherlock murmured. He was about to add a remark addressing John's ineptitude at knot-tying, but refrained, instead moving the glass over the rope. "Faint tracery of blood on the rope. Not, I suspect, Brother Marcelo's – I don't see any open cuts on the body. Besides…come and take a look at this."
Heaving an impatient-sounding sigh, John stepped closer. "Well?"
"Look at his hands."
John crouched beside Sherlock. "Clenched, and…what's that in his fist? Looks like plant roots. Dirt."
"Which indicates that….?"
"His last conscious action was to grab at something to get away from the Golem, the closest thing at hand. Under extreme duress, the muscles in his hands rigidified at once." John met Sherlock's gaze. "He was outside when he died."
"Very good, John," Sherlock replied with a nod.
John rose to his feet. "I'd better fetch Simon. And the police." He went to the door, then paused and turned. "Did Ian say where he was headed after he trussed you up?"
"He said he had to take some precautionary measures, but he didn't specify what that might mean," Sherlock said. "Shall I go with you to see Simon?"
For a brief instant, John hesitated, then shook his head. "No. I'm pretty sure Dzundza's fled the premises. It's safe enough. Just stay here and wait 'til I get back."
"I assure you that I'm perfectly capable of taking care of m –" The sharp bang as John slammed the door behind him cut off the end of Sherlock's sentence. "Myself!" he called, amplifying his voice with a cupped hand, but there was no indication that John had heard him. What, Sherlock wondered, was he so angry about? Even given past reactions to Sherlock's casual treatment of victims, this mood was a bit extreme.
Sherlock knelt closer to the corpse and began to examine it minutely, but his concentration was marred by John's abrupt departure and cold manner. Frustrated, he stopped for a moment and leant back on his heels. John couldn't possibly know the circumstances of what had transpired between him and Ian, but it was impossible to miss the snide little digs he'd sent Ian's way. And his manner…when John was angry he came out and said why. Just as he had about Brother Marcelo's body. Still, hadn't there been a note of…what was it? Mere exasperation, or irritation…certainly it wasn't possessiveness? Jealousy?
The faintest tinge of bitterness twisted Sherlock's smile into a sneer. That he'd come to a few vague conclusions about John that afternoon didn't mean that John reciprocated in any way. Sherlock might well have misinterpreted the signals he'd thought John had sent; emotions weren't and never had been in his purview. Unanchored, ephemeral. Ridiculous, really. He bent back to his work.
And what if John had known about Sherlock and Ian? How might he feel? And how might Sherlock feel if John had caught the pair of them in flagrante delicto?
"God!" Sherlock dashed the magnifying glass to the floor, where it bounced harmlessly off the rug upon which Brother Marcelo's corpse lay. "It's a distraction, every little bit of it," he muttered to the unresponsive body. "Might as well leave you alone and go and compose a few love sonnets. Maybe that would bring some focus back. Right – enough. Time to concentrate." With a sigh, he picked up the glass again and began to examine the body once more.
Half an hour later, Ian's room was jammed with police officers, forensics specialists, detectives, and a few monks – Simon, Brother Peter, who was there in his capacity as a doctor, and the young monk who had tidied up the church with Brother Marcelo at the end of the evening service. John was in the corridor, talking to the only detective who spoke fluent English. All significant parties were present except for Ian Adler, in fact, who caused a tremendous hue and cry when he arrived about twenty minutes after the police crowded into his room.
"What in God's name is going on?" If Ian was dissembling, he was a marvellous actor. His expression as he looked around was one of utter astonishment. He made brief eye contact with Sherlock, then looked at a young police officer, his eyes wide.
The detective inspector, whatever one was called in Italy, strode toward Ian and asked him if he spoke Italian. Ian answered in the affirmative, and they began a rapid conversation.
Simon made his way to Sherlock's side and swiftly ushered him into the corridor. John was still talking to the detective, who was earnestly scribbling in a notebook. John gave Sherlock a cool glance but said nothing. "Did you manage to get the phone?" Simon hissed, forcing Sherlock to wrench his gaze from John's face.
Sherlock met Simon's furious expression with equanimity. "No. I didn't. He surprised me."
"What does that mean?"
"It means I wasn't able to obtain the mobile, Simon. Aren't you following?"
In a gesture Sherlock found a trifle melodramatic, Simon placed his fingertips on either side of his head and massaged his temples. "You realise that means I'm – this abbey is still in his power? If he had anything to do with this, I can't say a word against him. I had to instruct Doctor Watson to say nothing about the blackmail. I'm breaking I don't know how many laws. God help me."
"You don't know that he had anything to do with this, Simon, so why would you say a word against him?" Sherlock folded his arms. "Besides, it wasn't Ian. It was Oscar Dzundza."
"Oscar Dzundza. The 'assassin.'" Simon made annoying air quotes with his fingers. "The police are searching the premises, Sherlock, and if they find him – let's just say I'd be quite surprised."
"You think I'm fabricating him? Even the local police, incompetent as they seem to be, know who he is. How do you manage to get through the day without tripping over your own stupidity?"
"That's rich coming from someone who can't even get his hands on a mobile phone. You get that mobile, Sherlock, or get out. I'm sorry Vicki sent you at all."
Sherlock offered Simon a thin, pointed smile. "Pity, especially as I'm so close to finding the codex and the real reason behind these murders. If you paid the slightest bit of attention to your surroundings you'd know it as well. Three days is too long to break this case open, Simon?"
Inside Ian's room, the forensic specialists were cutting the bathroom door handle away. Simon propelled Sherlock down the hall to escape the noise. "So help me, if you're pulling my leg –" He sighed. "All right. Fine. Stay. I only hope you're as good as your word." The outer door opened, and two paramedics bearing a wheeled stretcher entered the corridor, moving past Simon and Sherlock with polite murmurs. Simon stared at them, and his shoulders sagged. "Whatever Marcelo did, he didn't deserve to die, Sherlock. I don't want anyone else to die."
Sherlock scrutinised Simon's face. "I'll do my best to ensure that no-one else in the community dies as a result of this case."
Simon gazed bleakly at Sherlock, then nodded. He withdrew a metal ring laden with keys from beneath the scapular of his habit and handed it to Sherlock. "You have carte blanche, Sherlock. There's a key for every door in this abbey, above and underground. I only ask that you respect whatever property you deem necessary to visit." He sighed, then turned and walked back toward Ian's room.
The ring bore keys both modern and old-fashioned, and weighed about three kilos. Sherlock slipped it into his pocket, where it hung heavily against the lining. With a satisfied little smile, he rejoined the others in Simon's room, feeling John watching him and choosing not to respond.
Two could play at that game.
It was two o'clock in the morning before the police had departed, taking Brother Marcelo's body with them. Simon's assistant, Brother Wilhelm, had led a few officers on a search of the grounds and crypt, but no trace of the Golem's presence remained except for John and Brother Marcelo's bloodstained belts. Both were retained as evidence. Ian's room had been dusted and picked over; the police left with dozens of utterly pointless bits of evidence in little plastic bags, and Brother Marcelo in a much larger bag.
Whatever Ian had told the police must have been convincing, because they didn't take him into custody. The young monk who'd assisted Brother Marcelo in cleaning the church moved Ian's luggage into a room a few doors down the corridor. The police taped the door over and left, reassuring Simon that they would be back at the earliest possible convenience. Simon absorbed the move and the assurances grimly, then beckoned to Sherlock, leading him to Ian's new room and waiting outside until the young monk exited. Simon grasped the door handle and stepped inside, Sherlock on his heels.
Ian was sitting on a narrow wooden chair, smoking a cigarette. He looked at them without much surprise, but there were dark circles beneath his eyes, and he seemed fatigued. He exhaled a tidy ribbon of smoke and nodded pleasantly enough. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he inquired in a raspy and uneven voice.
Simon folded his arms. "I don't suppose it's worth asking you whether you had a hand in all this."
Ian shook his head wearily. "The last thing I wanted was for Marcelo to die."
"You fancy ambiguity, don't you?" Sherlock asked. "So much cleverer than a straightforward answer."
"Well, you would know all about that, wouldn’t you, Mr. Holmes?" Ian squinted through the smoke and gave Sherlock a little smile. "What about this: I didn't kill him and I didn't want him dead. Is that straightforward enough for you?"
"Why couldn't you prevent Dzundza from killing him?" Sherlock demanded.
"I haven't the vaguest idea of what you're going on about," Ian said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go to sleep. It's been a stressful evening."
"You told the police that you and Brother Marcelo had been embroiled in an affair," Simon said. "I heard you."
"That's right. I also informed them that we engaged in acts that may have been perceived by some as beyond the pale of ordinary sexual encounters. And that Marcelo was desperately eager to indulge in certain behaviours. I even corroborated it with video evidence."
"Why bother?" Sherlock snorted. "When they conduct their autopsy, they're going to discover finger-shaped bruises beneath the ligature marks on the throat, as well as compressions of the carotid artery that are distinctly different from the sort of compressions that arise from autoerotic asphyxiation."
"But they won't be my fingers," Ian replied calmly.
"Give me the mobile," Simon said, holding his hand out, like a schoolteacher absolutely certain of his authority. "Now."
Ian shook his head and took a drag from his cigarette. "No."
"We could force you," Simon growled.
Ian reached into his pocket, withdrew his phone, and pressed a few buttons. He showed the mobile to Simon. "I've already emailed the video of Marcelo to the police. But more importantly, I've emailed the videos of you and Signora Lorenzetti to a secure address. If the recipient doesn't hear from me in three days, that video will go viral. True, it won't be verifiable, but that doesn't matter much. Your faces are quite evident. You'll never live the scandal down." Ian thumbed the screen and tucked the mobile back inside his pocket. "You have those three days to decide whether or not you want to sell. After that…." Ian shrugged eloquently and extinguished his cigarette between two fingers. "It's up to you."
"I must go to Milan tomorrow for two days," Simon said. His face had become quite pale. "It can't be avoided. I need more time."
"Three days," Ian replied with implacable finality. "That's all."
"Go on, Simon," Sherlock said. "Go to bed. I'll handle this."
Simon took a few shallow breaths, nodded stiffly, wheeled, and left the room.
Ian crossed one leg over the other and folded his arms, peering at Sherlock. "How are you feeling?"
"I can still feel traces of the chemical you drugged me with in my bloodstream, and my arm is sore. Thanks for asking."
"I'm amazed that you threw away such a tantalizing opportunity, Sherlock."
"Must sting to be turned down."
"Well, my door is always open." Ian leant back in the chair. "Do consider it, at least. I'd make you beg for more."
"I don't beg. Never have."
"You would, with me," Ian said softly. "Think about it."
Sherlock turned on his heel and left the room. Had Ian told Simon the truth about the secure address? The email looked legitimate, but still….
He had three days to solve this case. Plenty of time. It was just a matter of bringing the principals together. First things first: exhumation. Simon would scream and rage, but it was necessary, and always easier to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Then, Ian and Moriarty's plan for the monastery exposed, to which Simon had given him the literal key. Pleased, Sherlock touched the ring in his pocket. He didn't need three days.
The air was damp and misty with shower-steam when Sherlock returned to his room. He shrugged out of his coat, tossed it over the chair, and went into the bathroom. "It's only me," he said, loud enough for John to hear even behind his closed door, but there was no reply.
Fine. Sherlock went to the sink and turned on the hot-water tap to wash his face and clean his teeth. When he finished, he knocked on John's door and opened it without waiting for a reply.
John was stripped down to a t-shirt and plaid boxers, and reading something on his phone. He didn't glance up as Sherlock entered the room. "Most people wait to be invited in."
"I'm not most people. Listen, John, we've got the opportunity to wrap this whole case up tonight. Get dressed and come along with me. We're going to start in the church, that's the most obvious place to look, but it's also the easiest as you've already gained that point of ingress to the tunnel system. I'm looking for one place in particular, and I've got a feeling –" Sherlock broke off and glared down at John. "Are you attending, John, or is that Mills & Boon you're reading more interesting than anything I've got to say?"
An eternity seemed to pass before John looked up at him. Sherlock's mouth tightened in annoyance as he recognised John's expression: I'm About To Tell You Some Hard Truths. He said nothing, though, waiting John out.
"Ian Adler, Sherlock? Really?"
Startled, Sherlock opened his mouth and shut it abruptly. Sudden and unwelcome guilt flooded him like adrenalin, and warmth crept up his chest and neck. "Sorry?"
"I guess I'm not surprised. Disappointed, maybe."
Ah, this was familiar ground at last. He'd Disappointed John. "John, I haven't got the least idea what you're going on about. Just get dressed and –"
"Please, Sherlock." John was eerily calm, not pacing the room as was his wont when he was angry at Sherlock, not using profanity, not throwing his hands around like the world's most flamboyant orchestra conductor. "I don't give a toss about your sex life. If you want to play kinky sex games, that's your own affair."
Sherlock couldn't quite get enough air to take the quick breath necessary before a really scorching riposte. "Kinky sex games," he repeated, sounding vaguely half-witted.
"Yeah. You didn't catch your wrist in the door. That's not even a good excuse." John directed his attention to his phone again and thumbed up another page of densely packed text. "Like I said, I don't give a toss. You don't have to lie to me, you…." John's mouth pulled downward. "Ian, though…even for you, that's playing both ends against the middle." He shrugged. "But if you want to complicate things, that's – like I said, that's your own affair."
Sherlock held perfectly still, watching John, being ignored by John, hot and cold shocks passing through his system with unnerving force. He could deliver the withering reply John deserved, something cold and cutting and sure to piss him off more, maybe infuriate him into yelling and pacing, which was familiar and even comfortable. Or he could tell John the truth, that he'd been manipulated – no, coerced into both situations. John hadn't been there and hadn't seen how close Sherlock had come to breaking. So it might take some persuading, but John would believe him, eventually. And maybe…just maybe, he'd close the rapprochement by putting his hand on John's naked thigh, taut and muscular even in the low light of these monk's cells. And maybe…
Sherlock shook himself furiously. Stop dreaming, for God's sake.
On the other hand, the state of his wrists wasn't a particle of John's business, and who the hell was he to tell Sherlock what to do, with whom he should or shouldn't engage in some of the more shadowy aspects of sexuality? Who the hell did John think he was to lecture Sherlock on anything?
"Are you coming with me, or not?" Sherlock finally asked.
"Nope," John replied. "I'm exhausted. I'm going to finish this article, then I'm going to shut the light out and get at least seven hours of sleep. If you're so close to cracking this open, it can probably wait until morning. I'll be happy to help you then. If not, please yourself. Like I said before, I'm pretty sure Dzundza isn't on the premises, so you're safe. Be careful, though."
Dismissed. Captain Watson hadn't said it aloud, but he'd certainly implied it. He was refusing to help. Flat-out refusing, and even when he'd been angry with Sherlock, Sherlock had always managed to persuade him into action, sometimes using a fairly heavy dose of charm and logic on him. But this – he hadn't any intention of assisting Sherlock, and really Sherlock hadn't a leg to stand on, because hadn't there been at least a part of him that had welcomed Ian's touch, no matter how much he'd protested? And so –
"Fine." Sherlock wheeled and strode through the bathroom to his own cell. He scooped up his coat and shrugged it on, drew on his gloves, smoothing the fingers, and left, slamming the door as he went. Childish, John would have said, but John wasn't there to say it, so who, in John's words, gave a toss?
He'll be sorry if I get killed tonight.
"Oh, shut up," Sherlock muttered, and went down the corridor until he came to Ian's room. He knocked twice and waited.
Ian opened the door and peered out warily. "Insomnia?"
"You might say that."
"Come in." Ian opened the door and stepped aside so that Sherlock could enter. He closed the door quietly and leant against it, staring at Sherlock without speaking. He looked tired; his hair was awry, and he'd unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a smooth expanse of chest and lean abdomen. Even tired, even standing still, he managed to convey a sort of quick and effortless grace and confidence. "I don't sleep much myself."
"I want answers."
Ian's mouth turned upward at the corners, but it wasn't his usual mischief-laden grin. "Do tell. This is getting to be a familiar tune."
"Why did Marcelo have to die? What did he know?"
"Too much, I think. He was beginning to fall apart."
Not waiting for an invitation, Sherlock sat on Ian's bed. "Go on."
"Ahh." Ian strolled to the bed and sat beside Sherlock. "It's not going to be that easy, Sherlock. Or rather, I've absolutely no intention of making it easy for you. Good information will cost you."
"You don't mind giving out information for a price?"
Ian shrugged. "Nothing that you can do will prevent my employer from getting his hands on this place. I intend to leave in a few days and I won't suffer personally, so…." He folded back one lapel of Sherlock's coat and let his fingers trail down its tightly seamed edge until they reached Sherlock's thighs. Ian rested his hand and stroked gently. "I want to play with you."
Sherlock's prick responded with astounding swiftness. "Play," he managed. God, he was on fire with the repartee this evening.
"And you want it too," Ian said, plucking at Sherlock's coat and gazing down at a fair-sized disruption of Hardy Amies merino. His eyebrows lifted for a fraction of a second, then he gazed at Sherlock, his eyes clear and direct, utterly without guile. "Don't you?"
Don't you? Sherlock's mouth was desert-dry, his cheeks were afire, and his cock ached. Scorning to wet his lips, he suppressed a shiver and returned Ian's stare insolently. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least a bit curious."
"Curious enough to let yourself go?"
John. Hadn't Sherlock reached some definitive conclusions about John just this afternoon? Some rubbish about intimate relationships? But then, John didn't give a toss. He'd said so, and he'd been calm and collected as he'd said it.
To hell with him, then. He nodded once.
Ian bit his lower lip. "All right. Ask."
"Why did Dzundza kill Brother Marcelo?"
"My employer –"
A genuinely amused smile spread over Ian's face. "You are persistent. Well, yes. Jim was prepared to reward Marcelo for facilitating access to the monastery. The previous offers of purchase had been turned down flat, and my - Jim was eager to acquire this parcel."
"Because of the uraninite."
"Yes. We're sitting on potentially billions of pounds. I didn't read science at university, but evidently the yield of uranium ore is crucial in creating U-235, which as you probably know can be used in fission reactors –"
"But I doubt Jim Moriarty is looking at fissile uranium to fuel reactors, is he? Even twenty percent of highly enriched uranium – weapons-grade uranium, if you didn't read science at university – is enough to make crudely effective nuclear arms. A lot of uranium to sell to the highest bidder, or a large number of low bidders."
Ian shrugged. "That," he said, "is not my concern. My task was simply to obtain the parcel."
"By fair means or foul," Sherlock said. He felt easier, more confident. His erection was subsiding. "Even if Brother Marcelo was among your victims. And now he's dead."
"He was the wrong man to help us, unfortunately," Ian said. "He was too young for the responsibility, nervous from the very first, and when his friend – Adelmo, that is, his particular friend – when Adelmo found out, he threatened to expose everything."
"So Adelmo died," Sherlock said. "He knew it was coming, though. He left that note slipped in between the copper and wood of one of the tubs."
"Yes, sharp of him to do that," Ian conceded. "The reference to San Stefano."
"So the codex is still in the abbey?"
Ian nodded. "But you'll never find it, Sherlock. Don't bother trying."
"I already know where it is."
An expression of surprise crossed Ian's face for a moment, then vanished. "Do you? Where?"
"Ask Father Bernard."
"We can't –" Ian shook his head. "He's dead. He died weeks ago."
"Yes, of kidney failure, or so they say. A lingering illness. And the codex was stolen during his funeral." Sherlock rose to his feet and went to the tiny desk against one wall. He took a pamphlet on the abbey and turned the pages until he found the photo he wanted, then sat beside Ian again. He showed him the photo and translated the Italian. "'The handsome and gracious –' Gracious? I don't think that's what they really meant – 'and famous Well of San Stefano. Located in the depths of the abbey, it is unfortunately not open to the public but remains a memento of the holy monks who were and sometimes still are nourished by its healthful waters.' A memento, certainly, but healthful? I think if we were to examine Father Bernard's remains we would discover that the kidney failure which killed him was only one symptom, if the strongest, of radiation poisoning, caused by drinking well water heavily tainted with uraninite."
Ian gaped. "How could you possibly know that? And what's that got to do with where the codex is hidden?"
"Radiation poisoning can be slow, and it gives one time to realise what's happening. When I looked at the library's registry earlier, I was looking for a match to Brother Adelmo's handwriting, but I found something much more interesting. Shortly before his death, Father Bernard had borrowed a fascinating and eclectic number of books: texts on human anatomy, medicine – makes sense, as he was ill – but then, as his illness progressed, and as his penmanship started to deteriorate, incidentally – books on cosmic radiation, mineralogy, nuclear science, and finally, books on the legacy of radium and radiation poisoning. The library here really is quite extensive; pity to break it up."
"So Father Bernard suspected that he was dying of radiation poisoning. Very clever, Sherlock. But that still doesn't explain –"
"When the codex was hidden, it was hidden in the very place where the discovery of the uraninite took place – a place where the monks seldom visit, and where Oscar Dzundza obtained the rock he used to weigh down the body of Brother Adelmo in the balneary. Adelmo knew – Marcelo must have told him in order to reassure his librarian's soul that the codex hadn't come to harm. Unfortunately, Brother Adelmo did, hence the note, written as cryptically as possible so that its meaning wouldn't be immediately obvious if Dzundza discovered it. The centre of Jim Moriarty's operations in this abbey – the chamber where the well of San Stefano is located."
"Jim's not here," Ian said patiently.
"Even so – and even if he hasn't set foot in the abbey – his compulsions, or his wit or his overweening hubris or God knows what else dictate that he needs must keep things tidy. Therefore the book is where it can be stored conveniently, and easily returned if need be, to mock Simon when it's all over. Sloppiness isn't his style, you see."
Ian simply stared at Sherlock for a long moment. "Very good."
"I hope you didn't linger overlong in that outdoor hot tub," Sherlock said, full of triumph. The location of the codex had been a guess, but a good one. "The water source isn't…healthful."
"Why haven't more monks died, then?" Ian demanded. "Surely there would be a rash of deaths, and San Stefano hasn't got a reputation for any sort of unusual deaths."
"'The holy monks who were and sometimes still are nourished by its healthful waters,'" Sherlock said. "It's not in frequent use now, and before medical science realised the myriad ways to die via radiation poisoning, those deaths were attributed to other illnesses. The bathwater won't kill you if you soak in it – clearly you don't understand facetiousness when you hear it – but ingesting large amounts of water steeped in uranium ore will, in time."
Ian seemed delighted. "You didn't come to ask questions. You already had the answers. You came here to show off."
Sherlock smirked a little. "Possibly. Still, I don't know how Dzundza was able to obtain such a precise sample. It was edged quite neatly. And I don't know how Jim found out about the uraninite in the first place. But I'll work it out."
"Some things will never be told," Ian said. "Or more precisely, I don't have all the answers. But I do have a few." He stood and pushed Sherlock's coat from his shoulders, trapping Sherlock's arms in the sleeves. He went to the corner of the room and retrieved the soft leather satchel that likely still held his…accoutrements. "I'm going to make you beg."
"I very much doubt it."
"Stand up." Ian gently hauled Sherlock to his feet. Sherlock's coat clung to him for a few precarious seconds, then slid resignedly down to the bed. Ian plucked the glove from Sherlock's left hand, then his right, and let both drop to the floor. Ian grasped the front of Sherlock's black shirt and unbuttoned it, taking his time. "You've seen me naked, but you've failed to return the favour. Naughty of you, Sherlock Holmes."
"I don't return favours. Too much like bribery for my taste." Sherlock's voice had become a rasping croak. He felt the distention of his trousers was once more imminent.
"But bribery can be very rewarding." Ian urged the shirt down until it fluttered to the bed, joining Sherlock's discarded coat. He traced one finger down the centre of Sherlock's chest, then scraped his nails upward and circled one nipple. He allowed his wandering fingers free rein over Sherlock's skin, from the cup of his navel to the hollow of his throat. At last he trailed his hand to Sherlock's nipple, and circled it over and over.
Sherlock sucked in a shallow breath and stood perfectly still. If he didn't move, if he failed to participate in any meaningful way…then what might that mean? Would it absolve him of all responsibility?
Ian rubbed the flat of his hand against the stiff bulge in Sherlock's trousers, eliciting an indrawn hiss of breath. "You owe me some penance, you know."
Stunned into immobility, Sherlock looked up at the ceiling, finding some refuge in the plain white plaster. "I don't owe you a – a thing." Ian was unfastening his trousers and sliding them and the blue silk boxers he'd so admired down Sherlock's hips. His erection sprang free, needy and aching. He allowed Ian to remove his shoes and socks, and then stepped out of his trousers. Now he stood naked, cool air moving over his skin. He wouldn't move. Not so much as a hair.
Ian delved into his bag and came up with the braided leather thong he hadn't been able to escape. "Turn." Sherlock turned obediently, and Ian bound his hands once more. "Did Dr. Watson have anything to say about the condition of your wrists?"
The mention of John's name was like a slap. Instantly Sherlock snapped to attention and glared at Ian over his shoulder. "All right – that's enough."
"Shh." Ian kissed Sherlock's shoulder. "I won't mention it again. Sore spot, I reckon." He turned Sherlock's head with his hand, urging him to stand straight. "I'm going to gag you again, so if something goes amiss –" He pressed something small, spherical, and metallic into Sherlock's hand. "Drop this."
"I don't need it."
Sherlock let it go, and the metal ball struck the stone floor with a loud, musical clatter. "I won't. Stupid, artificial construct."
"The very real illusion of powerlessness," Ian whispered. "Very well. It's your decision." He reached into his bag again and produced a familiar-looking white silk scarf. "Open your mouth." He insinuated the silk between Sherlock's teeth and pulled tightly, knotting it in the back. "Pretty," Ian murmured, and kissed the nape of Sherlock's neck.
Sherlock suppressed a groan as Ian turned him round and urged him down to the bed. Instinctively, he pulled against his bonds and pushed at the silk in his mouth with his tongue, but Ian knew his work; both restraints were secure. Sherlock clenched his fists in a strange admixture of relief and frustration and growled as Ian bound his ankles to the narrow iron bed frame, spreading his legs apart. His hard cock jutted upward, glistening at the tip. Sherlock focussed on it, thrust his hips forward, and couldn't prevent a stifled moan.
"Not yet." Ian – who hadn't removed so much as a stitch of clothing – took a little rectangular leather case from his bag and opened it. Slowly and with great deliberation, he removed small sections of taut, gleaming black leather adorned with brass ferrules and fitted it together until the whole came clear – it was a collapsible crop, quite unlike the utilitarian crop Sherlock's childhood riding instructor had used. He stroked it over Sherlock's thighs and hard cock, then brought it down with teasing force against Sherlock's inner thigh.
Sherlock jumped and glared at Ian. Did he want all this elaborate ritual? No – he only wanted – what had Ian called it? The very real illusion of helplessness. He wanted to fuck, or to be fucked, without having to – oh, God. Ian was striking the crop against Sherlock's prick – soft blows, but swift and skillful enough to wring a cry from Sherlock's gagged mouth. Sherlock arched up, his agonised and tortured cock seeking relief.
Ian smiled sweetly. "Like it?"
Sherlock moaned. Sweat blurred his vision as Ian brought the crop down on his inner thigh again. It hurt, not much but enough to startle his pain receptors, and he moaned again as Ian set the crop down, letting it rest on his belly.
"Be patient." Ian went into the satchel again – the thing was roomier than Mary Poppins' carpetbag – and this time extracted a tin of lubricant and a slim silver plastic dildo.
Voluptuous panic filled Sherlock's chest, and he struggled against the cord round his wrists. Ian only laughed and opened the tin, slicking the greasy stuff against the dildo's surface. He reached between Sherlock's legs and caressed his cock with a frustrating want of force.
"Such a show-off," Ian chided him. "Always so eager to display your prowess. All that pride." Ian slipped a hand beneath Sherlock's arse, raising him slightly.
Sherlock struggled and moaned, but quietly. If John should hear – but he wouldn't investigate again, would he? With leisurely care, Ian slipped the dildo inside Sherlock's body. Sherlock tensed, trying to refuse the object, but Ian pressed it in, and Sherlock finally allowed it with a gasp as his body enclosed it almost completely. He heard a click, and the dildo began to vibrate.
A whimper escaped Sherlock's mouth. He squirmed, but there was no expelling the thing. His prick was harder than ever, an aching column that he couldn't touch and quickly relieve under any circumstances, free only to use his pelvic muscles to clench and unclench his body. His hips twisted from side to side of their own volition as shudders travelled through him. He was entirely at Ian's mercy, and Ian didn't seem inclined to be generous.
Ian struck Sherlock lightly with the crop, against the thighs, his straining calves, the soles of his feet. His own erection bulged beneath his jeans, but he stayed fully dressed, concentrating wholly on Sherlock's torment. He reached between Sherlock's legs, pressing against the vibrator, moving it back and forth, smiling when Sherlock let out a whine. "I'm dying to fuck you."
Sherlock nodded his head frantically. Yes, oh God yes, just fuck me, do it, hard, you bastard….
But Ian took his time, teasing Sherlock with the vibrator, with the crop, sometimes causing him pain with a scratch or the sting of leather, now and then pressing his index finger into Sherlock's navel and making him moan loudly at the bizarre sensation that seemed to shoot from his spinal column to his cock. At last, at long last, Ian climbed onto the bed and unbuttoned his jeans. Unencumbered by undergarments, his cock sprang free, as hard, and bigger than Sherlock's.
Sherlock struggled in mingled apprehension and desperation as Ian withdrew the vibrator. He watched, his body trembling with impending exhaustion and cruel need, as Ian slid on a condom and then tilted forward as Ian dragged him closer, spreading his legs, bent at the knees, to each side, and lifted him slightly. Sharp pain flashed against Sherlock's skin as the leather cord abraded his ankles.
No, don't – He'd thrown the metallic ball away. And he wanted this; the rational, cognitive part of his mind knew that his rebellious body had wanted a good, hard fucking for the longest time.
Ian Adler, Sherlock? Really?
He bit down on the silk as Ian penetrated him in one slow, thorough stroke, burying himself as deep as his prick would go. Fucking him. Fucking him. He writhed as Ian pulled out nearly all the way, then pushed back in. His legs ached, his nipples were fine points of pain, his cock twitched in agony. Ian slid in, pulled out. In, out. In, out.
A keening cry, unhampered by wet silk, wrenched itself from Sherlock's mouth as he came, his back drawn into a taut bow, semen splattering on his stomach and chest. Ian never stopped his steady plowing and retreating; aftershocks passed through Sherlock's body as Ian suddenly stilled and gasped.
Sherlock lay passively, savouring the quivering of his sated body. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, feeling, but ignoring, Ian climbing off the bed, disposing of the condom, straightening his clothes. He drowsed a bit, and only opened his eyes when he felt a soft touch on his cheek. Snapping awake, he saw Ian sitting beside him, an expression that seemed…rueful, or unhappy, on his face.
"In time, we might have conquered the world together, you and I," Ian said softly.
With impatient expectation, Sherlock turned his head to one side so Ian could unknot the gag.
Sherlock turned back to Ian, knitting his brow in exaggerated annoyance.
"You are clever, Sherlock. Very clever indeed. I'm sorry I can't –" Ian shook his head. "Moriarty told you what would happen if you continued to interfere in his affairs." He bent over, fumbling in his bag for an irritatingly long time, and came up with a syringe filled with a cloudy pink liquid, a single fat drop at the tip of its needle.
Sherlock gaped at it for one uncomprehending second, then surged upward. But Ian was faster; he leapt up and then shoved Sherlock back against the bed, one long hand plastered against Sherlock's mouth.
"Shut up! Hold still, for Christ's sake!"
Screaming against the double restraint of silk and Ian's hand wouldn't help, but Sherlock tried nonetheless. He shouted for John, still twisting frenziedly, but Ian kept his hand on Sherlock's mouth, even when Sherlock tried to bite him. Sherlock cried out again. If John had heard Sherlock calling his name – assuming the muffled cries escaped the confines of this room – would he come?
John help I made a mistake so god-damned stupid please help I swear I won't –
"Shh. Got to get the air out –" Ian, still pinning Sherlock's face with one hand, ejected a small stream of fluid from the syringe with the other. "Shh." Swiftly, but still exercising some care, he plunged the needle into Sherlock's arm.
The drug worked fast. Sherlock's limbs became heavy and uncooperative. He still thrashed, but weakly, and the violent back and forth of his head-shaking had grown sluggish.
"I like you," Ian said quietly. "Maybe Jim and I can work something out. Sleep for now, Sherlock. I wish you weren't so bloody clever."
Sherlock's vision began to blur. His struggles got weaker and weaker. He couldn't breathe beneath the stifling weight of Ian's hand. Finally, unwillingly, he lost consciousness altogether, but not before he heard one last ominous sentence.
"Sorry about John."
He'd accused Sherlock, once, of having a heart, a distinct liability for any thinking person. It was so much easier, so much more pleasant, to do without. No heart, no sense of propriety, no social conscience…all that was for the sheep-like billions who took up breathing space on the planet. They didn't deserve the privileges in life that resulted from doing without. How many people right now, for example, were sitting in positively ducal luxury thirty thousand feet above sea level, eating delicately shaved asparagus spears dipped in butter and watching Seb Moran bum-fucking a flight attendant? Jim nibbled at the tip of one green stem and regarded the flight attendant's creamy-white arse, cupped between Seb's hands, such a startling contrast to his flushed face.
Wonder what the poor people are doing.
The flight attendant's nails dug into the soft leather of the sofa, and he let out a cry as Seb suddenly clutched his narrow hips and thrust once, twice, and a third time that paid for all. Sweat lent his face a liquid glittering sheen and cords stood out on his neck. Finally Seb collapsed against him and buried his nose in the young man's neck, like a horse searching for an elusive lump of sugar.
"All done?" Jim inquired softly.
"Yeah." Sebastian pulled out of the flight attendant and patted his arse. "Nice. Thank you, honey."
The flight attendant glanced over his shoulder, his face inscrutable. Nice. "Pleasure's mine," he said, not sounding as if he meant it. He rose to his feet, gathered up and zipped his trousers, and moved toward the galley.
"I don't think he was smitten by your charms, Seb."
"Who cares? He was nice and tight." Seb dragged himself up to one of the sofas and sprawled on it, re-ordering his clothes.
"You have such a wonderful lack of discernment," Jim replied in a low purr. "It's breathtaking, honestly."
"Oh, fuck you, Jim."
"Not tonight, you won't. And not until you get tested. Can you imagine how many cocks that dumb piece has had up his hole? Loaded dice, darling." Idly, he thought about cutting Seb loose. It wasn't just that the man's sexual tastes were louche…actually, scratch that. Seb courted danger with every anonymous fuck, and it was a pleasure to watch, if not to participate. Seb was a live wire, thrumming with tension, and if that made him occasionally delicate to handle, human nitroglycerine, it was worth it. You couldn't have everything predictable all the time, which was why he was thirty thousand feet above sea level. His little wild card had thrown a spanner into the works.
"You worry too much." Seb leant over and plucked an asparagus spear from Jim's plate. "How long 'til we get there?"
Jim shrugged. "Are you in a hurry?"
Seb returned the shrug. "Don't know why you needed me to come along if you've got other help already there."
"Let's not be bitchy. I might just need your skill set, darling." Jim's phone hummed – F minor seventh, B flat – and he glanced at the readout before answering. "Hi, sweetie. How's it going? You did? Oh, very nice. Looking forward to it. You did? No. You have proof, I assume. Well, I'm delighted for you, but Oscar's going to be awfully disappointed. You can break the news to him yourself. Of course! I'm dying to see his expression. No. No, I've got a car waiting. If you haven't got the stomach for it, Oscar can do it. Not really your line of expertise anyway, is it? You just sit tight and I'll see you shortly. 'Bye, now." He hung up and smiled at Seb. "We have a treat in store for us, Seb."
"You'll see. This is going to be fun."
A little unexpected bloodshed in an otherwise ordinary business transaction was always fun.
John's alarm beeped quietly at nine o'clock, and he fumbled for his phone and shut it off, simultaneously sitting up and rubbing sleep from his eyes. He blinked, yawned, stretched, and got up to use the toilet. The bathroom was empty and tidy, no residue of shower steam in the air, and John concluded that Sherlock had possibly 1) gone out very early, 2) not come back to the room at all, or 3) had decided to shower in Ian Adler's room. All three scenarios were totally acceptable. Sherlock could fuck off in each of them, in fact.
Let it go, he counselled himself as he took a quick shower. Sherlock had feigned ignorance last night, but for all his acting talent he was a piss-poor liar when one came right down to it. He'd blushed and hadn't come up with a quick and glibly scornful denial; he'd practically stammered. And so what? You've never promised each other anything. Maybe John had been the dry run, the practise alert; Ian Adler was tall, good-looking, a scholar, the obscure sort towards which Sherlock might naturally gravitate, and had the advantage of novelty and apparently a quick come-on. Sherlock's indignation when John had untied him had seemed very real, but knowing Sherlock, he'd probably just been pissed off that Ian had left him tied up. Could have been part of a game.
John realised he was clenching his fists hard enough to drive his nails into his palms, and his body was aching with rage. Something savage and violent inside him was howling for vengeance. Jesus. He uncurled his hands and stepped beneath the hot spray. He wanted to punch Sherlock in the nose. And beat the living shit out of Ian Adler while he was at it.
Sherlock could have said something. Anything. And with Ian Adler, for fuck's sake, a blackmailer and party to murder, if not a murderer himself.
Sherlock's private life is his own business. And he does more than flirt with danger; he opens his arms and beckons to it.
True, but still. "John, I'm spending the night with Ian. See you in the morning." How fucking difficult would that have been?
Oh, really? You would have been all right with hearing that?
Why not? He was in love with Sherlock. He admitted that now. But that didn't mean Sherlock was compelled to love him back. Wasn't it enough that they lived together, that Sherlock respected him more than any other person – more than his own brother, for God's sake? He didn't owe John love.
Christ, get over it! If you wanted him so badly you should have said something, done something instead of just mooning over him and doing fuck-all about it.
"I only just worked it out," John muttered, and leant his head against the wall, letting the spray wash down his back. "Oh, fuck."
He had to pull himself together. With luck, Sherlock would regard his outburst with his usual lack of emotional comprehension, and things would go on as normal. John would get through the day, this case, next month, the rest of his life as usual, and he'd never give Sherlock so much as a glimpse of the icy blade in his heart, and as time passed, his feelings would soften into friendship again, and everything would be the way it was before John had decided he was in love with his fucking flatmate.
John finished his shower, towelled off, and dressed. He checked his phone for messages and found a text from Harry: Where are you?! Stopped by & nobody home. Have news. Call me!! God, she was probably back with Clara. Again. Another text, from Sarah: Are you & S having fun in Italy? See you soon. Loads of fun, Sarah, thanks. A text from the Medical Society of London: Mem: meeting April 24 8:15 PM. Topic: TREATMENT OF HEAD WOUNDS – A NEW FRONTIER. He'd missed the last two meetings because he'd been busy with Sherlock's cases; he'd make a point of going to this one.
Nothing from Sherlock. What did you expect?
Impulsively, he texted Alice. I'll be home in a few days. Can we chat?
Two seconds after he sent it, he remembered that Alice was in Cornwall, likely with another man. Oh, you fuckwit. Well, it was worth a shot, anyhow. He was fairly good at persuading her out of bad moods.
He threw on his jacket and strolled toward the refectory. The path climbed imperceptibly but steadily, and John felt the welcome stretching of his calf muscles. It was cool, and a ragged grey fringe of fog clung to the ground. A soft drizzle of rain misted his cheeks. The drifting tendrils lent an otherworldly look to the surrounding stone buildings, and John shivered involuntarily. He'd never seen anything remotely supernatural nor had ever felt the passage of a soul at a death, though he'd witnessed his fair share, and he was inclined to skepticism in general, but something about this place, like the weight of time and faith in the church last night, felt peculiar to him, haunted and keeping secrets.
The refectory was nearly empty, as breakfast had been a few hours ago, but John heard activity in the kitchen and went in, hoping to beg a bowl of porridge or some toast and tea. He stopped just inside the threshold, unpleasantly surprised to see Ian Adler chatting with two monks. No Sherlock, though.
Conversation ceased as John entered, and the monks gave him friendly, questioning looks. Ian turned. "Dr. Watson. Good morning." He looked tired, drawn and pale.
Well, small wonder. He probably hadn't got much sleep last night. John nodded stiffly and brushed past Ian. "I was wondering if you had anything left over from breakfast," he said to the monks apologetically. "I'm afraid I slept right through it."
Happily, there were leftovers: John received a tray laden with a monster bowl of porridge, accompanied by a ripe pear and a mug of tea with generous lashings of milk. He took his tray to the refectory table and began to eat.
As he was finishing the pear, he saw Brother Wilhelm enter the refectory. He greeted the monk, who looked as tired as Ian. "Terribly sorry about Brother Marcelo."
Brother Wilhelm slumped into the chair next to John's. "There have been far too many deaths. I hope you and your friend can bring this terrible rash of killings to a stop. The community is devastated, and frightened, quite rightly."
"Sherlock's close to solving this," John assured him.
"So Mr. Holmes told Father Simon last night," Brother Wilhelm replied. "Father Simon has gone to Milan with Father Umberto, but he left a set of keys with Mr. Holmes and gave him free rein to do what was needed. I hope Mr. Holmes can come to a conclusion quickly."
Ah, that was it. Sherlock was likely opening every door on the premises. Of course he hadn't bothered to inform John as to his whereabouts, or his actions. Maybe he didn't need John at all. "I think he left quite early this morning," John explained, cloaking his irritation and disappointment. It was stupid, fucking petty revenge because John had dared to lecture Sherlock. Because God forbid that Sherlock Holmes would even entertain the notion that fucking a criminal was a little beyond moral ambiguity. Well, fuck him – John could do a little investigating of his own. "Brother Wilhelm, you haven't got a map of the abbey, have you? One showing the underground passages? It would be easier to navigate with a map."
"I don't know of one," Brother Wilhelm said, shaking his head. "And the librarians…."
"Yeah, I know," John murmured. "Do you think Simon would know of one?"
"He might," Brother Wilhelm admitted, "but he's in Milan, as I said."
"Hasn't he got a mobile?"
"I cannot recall the number."
"You must have it somewhere," John said. "For emergencies."
Brother Wilhelm nodded. "I must speak to the kitchen staff for a moment, but afterward I will look for it. Come to the offices when you've finished your breakfast and I will try to find it for you."
"Okay." He waved a glum good-bye to Brother Wilhelm and bit fiercely into the last of the pear. Might as well do something. Anything's better than just sitting around and brooding.
As John gathered his soiled breakfast dishes together, he saw Ian come out of the kitchen. He met Ian's gaze for an instant and quickly looked away, but it was too late. Ian moved toward him and without an invitation dropped into the chair Brother Wilhelm had vacated. "John," he said quietly. "A word."
What could Ian possibly want with him? "What?"
Ian glanced about. "You need to leave," he said. "Today. Now, if possible."
John frowned. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look, I'm not going to…you're in danger if you stay here."
"Right," John replied automatically. "From you?" He met Ian's gaze squarely now. "Are you warning Sherlock off too, or is he under your protection?"
Ian's mouth tightened. "He – I can't explain it, and I don't really expect you to believe me, but if you care at all about your own life, you need to leave immediately. And if you care about Sherlock –"
"You'll what?" John snapped. "Kill me? Listen to me, Adler. You don't frighten me one little bit. And as for Sherlock – if you hurt him, try to blackmail him the way you did Simon or Brother Marcelo, you'll have me to deal with. I don't care if you're a fucking legend in the kip – you fuck with him, you fuck with me. Do you understand me?"
Ian regarded John with surprise and said nothing for a long, silent moment. "I believe you, Dr. Watson. You're in love with him, aren't you?"
"He's my best friend, and he doesn't know fuck-all about –" John closed his mouth abruptly. Sherlock wasn't an innocent, he wasn't some shrinking virgin. He didn't need John to defend him, and he'd had more than his fair share of opportunities; John wasn't the only person to realise that Sherlock had some undefinable allure that went beyond his good looks. But Sherlock had never taken advantage of those opportunities, as far as John knew. Until Ian. Searing anger as raw and painful as an unhealed wound blazed in John's chest. What the fuck did Ian Adler have that nobody else did?
"You were saying?"
Ian was inspecting John's face, his eyes wide and speculating. John dug in and used the anger. It was better than the sick, lost feeling threatening to overwhelm it. "Get the hell away from me, and don't threaten me unless you're prepared to make good on it." Ian wasn't a fighter, that much was certain. He was just a cock that lacked remorse, the proverbial good time that was had by all.
Ian rose to his feet. "I'm not joking, Dr. Watson. The danger isn't from me."
"Who, then? Dzundza?"
Ian started. "I can't –"
"No, I'm sure you can't," John retorted, getting to his feet as well. He picked up his tray and walked off, ignoring Ian still standing at the table, looking a bit lost himself.
The abbey offices were locked. John peered in the single narrow window, but the place appeared to be deserted. Annoyed, he went to the library, but that door was locked as well. Creepy – had everyone just vanished? John went back toward his room and saw an older man in a ragged sweater and a rain hat outside the guest quarters. He recognised the man as being the other guest in the abbey, the one who was travelling from one monastery to the other. He raised a hand in greeting. "Hi. You're staying here too, aren't you?"
The man doffed his hat briefly and adjusted a knapsack on his shoulder. "Yes. I'm leaving today, though. I've had quite enough." The man's accent was Irish, western if John wasn't mistaken.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"I'm not. I might be next on the murder list. The police had me up until two o'clock this morning, asking me questions, as if I knew a thing." The man's seamed face contracted as he scrutinised John. "You'd better be careful, young fella. Even if you're not a monk, this place is a deathtrap."
"Well, that's a bit…have you seen Brother Wilhelm? I went by the office and it was dark and locked."
The man shook his head. "Not since breakfast. Everything's quiet now – the library is locked, the brewery, the balneary's closed up, everything. There's a mass at ten for the repose of Brother Marcelo's soul. I'm sure he'll be at that." He squinted out at the foggy pathway. "The rest are hiding. Can't blame them. Anyone could be next. Even the dead disappear here. Well – take care now." He nodded and trudged off into the mist.
John stared after the man until he vanished into the fog. His quota for adventure was filling up fast. Sighing, he went back to his room. He tossed his jacket on the bed, then went through the bathroom and knocked on Sherlock's door. "Sherlock? You back?"
Nothing. Maybe he was sleeping off his tryst with Ian. Carefully, John opened the door, half-expecting to see Sherlock sprawled out on his bed, but it was empty, and neatly made, and there was no evidence that Sherlock had been back at all. "Fine – fuck it," John muttered, and went back to his room.
His phone pinged with a text message. He picked it up and found a text from Alice: No, and don't call me or text me again.
Well, that was that. John sighed and erased the text, then paused, his finger hovering over the buttons. He scowled ferociously and then, against his better judgment, texted Sherlock. All right. Where the hell are you?
He waited a few minutes, but no reply came. Sherlock had his moods, but he usually replied promptly, especially when he had the opportunity to say something snippy and superior, and John had given him a wide in.
Fine. He doesn't want to answer? Fine, fuck you, Sherlock.
John sat on his bed, uncertain what to do next. He checked his watch: ten minutes to ten. He could go to the church and examine the passageways, but there probably wouldn't be time with the monks gathering for mass. He couldn't get into the library if it was locked, and that was the only other point of ingress to the tunnels that he knew of. He wasn't keen on going to the mass. There was nothing to do but wait.
Suddenly, he thought of Victoria Trevor. She'd given John and Sherlock her mobile number before they'd left for Italy; surely she'd have her brother's number. He paged through his contact list, found the number, and hit CALL.
She picked up on the second ring and greeted John with what sounded like genuine pleasure. "Dr. Watson, how are you?"
"I'm great, thanks." John put warmth in his tone; hers was the friendliest voice he'd heard in days. "Sherlock – we're very close to solving this case. There's been another murder, unfortunately."
"Simon told me. I spoke to him earlier this morning. Terribly sad. But I knew it wouldn't take long."
"Well, you know Sherlock." You might, Ms. Trevor. I certainly fucking don't.
"Yes. I expect he's been creating merry hell for Simon in the meantime."
"No more than usual. I don't know where the hell he is now, to be quite honest. I think he's wandering the tunnels. That was why I was calling, actually. I was hoping that Simon knew of a map or blueprints or something so we could find our way about more easily, but I don't have his mobile number. Could you give it to me?"
"Oh, of course. Have you got a pen?" Victoria Trevor gave him the number. "Pity Horst is in Cologne at the moment. He knows the layout of those tunnels like the back of his hand. I've only been in them two or three times, but Horst is fascinated with them."
"Oh, sorry – my husband." She gave a little laugh. "He doesn't see eye-to-eye with me about preserving the monastery, but he'd be devastated if it actually had to be sold. He loves the tunnels. Must be the small boy in him."
"Could be," John said politely. "Thanks very much for the number. I'll give Simon a call. You don't think I'll be disturbing him in the midst of something important?"
"He's taking Father Umberto to one of the hospitals, I believe. I doubt you'll bother him, Dr. Watson. You're very pleasant. I know Sherlock must think so too – I've never seen him as close to anyone. It's quite extraordinary, I can tell you."
Right. "Thanks, that's lovely. It was good to speak with you."
"Good luck, Dr. Watson."
"Thanks very much."
John rang off and phoned Simon, who answered in a tone of immense irritation. "I'm afraid I can't help you, Dr. Watson. I don't know of any map. The tunnels are extensive, but you won't get lost. I gave Sherlock keys and carte blanche to search as he saw fit." A doubtful note crept into his voice. "You're not lost, are you? I find it hard to believe that Sherlock actually needs help with anything – he seems so certain of himself."
"No, we're not lost. In fact, I'm certain Sherlock's searching the passageways now." Not that he'd tell me if he were.
"May I ask how you got this number?"
"From your sister, actually. I thought it would save time if we had a map, that's all." John paused. "She's lovely."
"Yes," Simon sighed. "I'm immensely relieved that she split up with Sherlock, quite frankly. He'd have sucked all the joie de vivre out of her."
"Split up?" John frowned. "You mean they were…an item?"
"So I gather. She wasn't keen to divulge intimate details of her relationship with him, not that I begged for any," Simon said. "At any rate, she found Horst and married him, thank God."
"Yeah," John said, a bit numb. Sherlock, you dark fucking horse. "She said he knew the tunnels quite well."
"Yes, he does. It's a busman's holiday sort of thing, though. He's the CTO of Deutsche Bergleute – it's simply what he does. Purely geological interest. Look here, Dr. Watson, I have to be going. If there's nothing else –"
"No," John said. "Sorry to have bothered you."
"I'm sorry I can't help you, but I'm sure that Sherlock will manage. He claims to be close to solving the whole thing. And if there's any way to stop Mr. Adler –" Simon sighed again. "It's all too much."
"We'll do our very best," John assured him. They traded farewells, and John sat staring at his phone.
He'd learned more about Sherlock's sex life in the last twelve hours than he had in the year that they'd lived together. Funny – he didn't begrudge Victoria Trevor a thing. It had been years ago, and she'd got married in the meantime. Ian Adler, though….
He wished he had Sherlock's gift for deletion. He'd delete the memory of Ian, his own stupid longing, the mental pictures he'd had just lately of Sherlock in his bed, and any hint of extraordinary emotion he'd misinterpreted. He'd chuck it into his mental recycle bin and empty it.
All right? Are you all right?
Sherlock's face as he'd torn the Semtex parka from John's body. That near-frantic questioning, as close as Sherlock had ever come to genuine panic. And afterward, his distracted pacing.
That thing that you, ah, did, that…you offered to do. That was…good. From Sherlock, that was a cornucopia of accolades.
You, ripping my clothes off in a darkened swimming pool. People might talk.
People do little else.
He'd delete the whole fucking thing.
Lacking anything else to do, he went to the mass after all, and stayed behind after the monks – and Ian Adler, that hypocritical bastard – had left. He worked the mechanism that opened the altar passageway, and descended into the darkness once more.
Turning on his torch, he walked through the passage, pausing now and then to look at the tombs that lined the corridor. He came to the place where he'd tangled with the Golem, and left him tied up, but there was no sign of him now. He wondered if Dzundza had actually fled – or were there throughways and chambers enough to hide anyone who wanted to disappear? John wished he had the kitchen knife that he'd stolen. He played the beam of the torch around and saw the candlestick that Brother Marcelo had dropped in his struggles to be free of the Golem. It was better than nothing; he'd brain Dzundza with it if he had to.
Dr. Watson, in the secret passage, with the candlestick.
He kept moving until he found the fork in the passage where Brother Marcelo had led him – the one that went to the library. Where did the other one go? He took the right tunnel, which was as narrow and dark as the left one, and carefully made his way down the corridor.
The floor here seemed to slope, and the air became cooler. John buttoned up his jacket and stepped carefully, shining his torch on the floor now and then in case the floor were to drop away suddenly. All he needed was to break his neck on a flight of stairs or even a riser. He became aware that he was moving slower. The passage curved one way, then another, and then there was another fork. Arbitrarily, he chose the one on the right. Further down, another, fork, and he went right again. Here the corridor was rougher, and there was a smell of damp earth. There was no sound save John's breathing. He slowed to a near-crawl, then stopped as he saw a low door set into the rock. It had an iron lever handle; John tried it, but it was locked. Impatiently, he rattled it, but it didn't give. And of course Sherlock has the keys. He –
John sucked in a quick breath and held still. He'd heard a noise behind that door, a faint, quick scrape. And – a human voice? Just a brief, almost negligible sound? He put his ear to the door, but the noise wasn't repeated. Your imagination.
Still, he rattled the handle again. "Is anyone there?" He clamped his mouth shut. That's good. Great. Could be Dzundza. Fantastic way to draw attention to yourself, idiot. He stepped back and held the candlestick at the ready. He felt his chest expanding to compensate for the air he wasn't getting, and tried to steady his breathing. He waited, heart thundering.
Nothing happened. The door stayed closed, and there was no noise. He bent to look through the large keyhole, then tried to shine his torch through it, but it was impossible to see anything. Sighing in mingled exasperation and relief, John moved further down the corridor, alert now for any unfamiliar noise. He shone his beam against the wall, and saw that the stone was speckled with the dark nodules that Sherlock had handled gingerly.
All at once the air felt too still, too damp – unhealthy, dangerous. He knew that one instance of casual contact wouldn't poison him, but he wanted to be away from this entombing stone just the same. What the hell are you doing down here anyhow? Just what do you think you'll find? More dead bodies of monks? The codex? Buried treasure?
He turned to go back, then decided to keep going ahead. The passage had to end somewhere. If it turned out to be a dead end, he'd go back the way he came. There had been…two forks? Three? Disorientation tugged at his limbs and made him dizzy. He'd kept right, he knew that much, but the passages had curved and twisted…. Christ, where the hell was he?
"Fucking hell," he muttered, and kept moving down the passageway. It sloped down once more, and he felt cobwebs brush against his face and hands. Once he trained his light on the wall and saw a spider half the size of his fist. "Jesus!" The still air and rock sucked his voice into nothingness. He moved faster now; he'd never been claustrophobic before, but there was a first time for everything, wasn't there? Faster and faster he walked until he was nearly running, colliding clumsily with the wall as the corridor twisted this way and that, and then nearly ran straight into a door.
"Oh, thank Christ," John whispered. If the fucking handle was locked, he'd break the damned door down. He yanked on the lever, and it refused to move.
"Come on, come on." John tugged on it again, and this time it moved a bit. Rusty, that's all. Get hold of yourself. He stopped, took a breath, and tried again. It yielded with a groan, and John found himself in a tiny chamber that held a staircase leading nowhere.
Can't go nowhere. There's got to be something…. He moved the beam of the torch upward and saw a sort of trapdoor at the top of the stairs. Good. There must be a handle, a lever, something. He climbed the stairs, keeping his torch aimed at the door, and saw nothing. Experimentally, he pushed against the wooden panel, and it popped up quite easily. Relief flooded John's chest, and he scrambled through the hole into another dark, nearly airless chamber.
As he hoisted himself through the hole, candlestick under one arm and the torch clenched in his teeth, he saw that the chamber was tiny, wood-walled, and littered with a jumble of items he couldn't identify immediately. There was a door, though, and he grasped the handle and pushed it open.
A sudden burst of light hurt his eyes, and he blinked and raised his arm instinctively to block the brightness. As his vision cleared, he stepped out of the chamber and saw that he was in the balneary, and the chamber he'd come from was in fact a cabinet, the wooden cabinet where Sherlock had found the hose and siphon for the baths.
"Wow," John whispered. Was there anywhere these tunnels didn't lead?
Now that he was out of the tunnels, he felt calmer and clear-headed again. He glanced at his watch: half twelve. Christ, had he really been down there almost an hour and a half? He must have been moving at a snail's pace. And still nothing from Sherlock. He hadn't really expected to bump into him down there, but still. He pulled out his phone and fired off another text: Stop sulking. Are you OK?
John waited; no reply came. He frowned. He and Sherlock had had their bouts of crankiness before, and he was still pissed off enough to think some fairly black thoughts, but…well, what did Sherlock have to be pissed off about? He was the one fucking the criminal, not John. It was taking petty revenge a bit far.
He resisted the impulse to send an even snottier text, and went off to the refectory in search of a snack.
Four hours later, he'd neither seen Sherlock nor heard from him, and he was starting to worry. He'd gone back to his room to read and wound up pacing, bending his copy of The Lancet back and forth and watching the rain fall outside. The day had darkened considerably, the rain pounded against the windows, and every moment he half-expected Sherlock to come in, drenched and irritable, and drag John outside to look at some totally obscure clue, but the door remained closed, Sherlock continued absent, and John was beginning to fret.
It wasn't the first time Sherlock had disappeared without telling anyone. Just this past January, he'd gone missing for three days – not a text, not a call – and when he'd finally come back, blithe as blithe could be, he'd been wide-eyed and stunned into at least three minutes of silence when John had subjected him to a tongue-lashing. I thought you were dead, you absolute arsehole, John had raged. And Sherlock had actually apologised – that had stunned John into silence. Since then, Sherlock had been a bit more conscientious about informing John of his whereabouts, and John had been a bit more laid back about Sherlock's habitual lack of sensible communication.
Idiot. A small, guilty part of John acknowledged that he wanted Sherlock to turn up so he could stop worrying and be pissed off again without impediment. It was a cheap, shit way to feel, but he couldn't quite help it. He sent another text: Not funny anymore. Where the hell are you?
John flung himself disconsolately across his bed. He could hunt down Brother Wilhelm, ask to talk to one of the monks who knew the place inside and out, get him to lead John through the tunnels and search for Sherlock. Maybe Brother Edward – he'd been at the abbey for nearly thirty years, he'd said. He could ask to borrow the car and have a look on the roads surrounding the place – though why Sherlock would venture beyond the monastery grounds was a mystery. He had to do something - he couldn't just sit around any longer. If Sherlock were as close to a conclusion as he'd claimed, surely he'd be bursting with information, dragging John along, oblivious of John's anger.
Buttoning himself into his jacket, John sighed as he left his room. Pain in the arse. He's going to be just fine, and I'll want to murder him. Well, it wouldn't be the first time.
Just outside the guest quarters, he saw Ian Adler walking toward him, uselessly ducking his head against the pouring rain. He wore that expensive motorbike jacket of his, and John felt a small, nasty satisfaction that the water was probably ruining the soft leather. Then he stopped and glared at Ian as he approached.
Ian stared at him as if dumbfounded. "Why the hell haven't you gone?" He shook his head. "I told you to leave."
"How should I know?" Ian shouldered past John and withdrew his wooden key tag from his pocket. He wiped water from his face. "Shit," he muttered.
John followed him back into the guest building and down the corridor. "You were the last one to see him. Nobody's seen him today."
"He's probably off investigating or deducing or whatever it is that he does," Ian replied. "I haven't seen him since last night."
Ian's response was smooth and cool, but John watched his hands. He was having trouble with the key; it wouldn't quite go into the lock. He's lying, John realised. Nervous. "Bollocks you haven't seen him," John said, moving closer to Ian. "Where is he?"
"I don't know," Ian snapped, then let out a low choked cry as John grasped his jacket and swung him round, pushing him against his door. The door swung open, and both men stumbled inside.
John kept his grip on Ian's jacket and shoved him down on his bed. "I'm not going to ask you again."
"Dr. Watson." Ian smiled up at him. "You think you frighten me? Please."
"I know he was with you last night."
"That's right." Ian drew his phone from a pocket and busied himself on it for a moment, then passed the phone to John. "Look."
John looked. He saw Sherlock tied up on Ian's bed, not fighting to get free, and Ian kneeling between his legs, grasping his knees and spreading his thighs open. He heard Sherlock's groans, and then –
John tossed the phone onto the bed; he'd have preferred to hurl it out the window, but he'd be damned if he'd give Ian the satisfaction of seeing his rage. "What makes you think I want to watch your homemade porn?"
Ian unzipped his jacket and draped it carefully over the iron slats at the foot of the bed. "Oh, come on, John. Give yourself just a little freedom." He reached up, took John's hand in his, and turned it over, tracing his fingertip over John's palm. "Do you know what I see when I look at you?"
"I don't give a rat's arse, thanks," John said, shaking his hand free of Ian's grasp.
"I see a man who's half alive, expending what energy he has into trying to keep up with Sherlock Holmes. I see a man who can't sustain a relationship because he's desperately in love and struggling even more desperately to keep that love hidden. You have girlfriends, don't you, John? One after the other?"
"Shut up," John said, but didn't move, half-hypnotised by Ian's words, his audacity, the soft sonorousness of his voice.
"One after the other, and they all leave, or you leave. You attract them, you hold them for a little while, and then you frustrate them because you're sweet and gentle with them…and distant. So distant, and when they finally figure it out, they're insulted. Enraged. Hurt. You hurt them without meaning to, but you can't stop, because you can't admit that you're in love with Sherlock. You're afraid nothing you say will ever pierce that thorny exterior of his, and even though you were a soldier –" Ian held up a forestalling hand as John opened his mouth. "I've done my homework on you both, John. Even though you were a soldier, you can't screw up the courage to say three little words. Tragic, really."
"Oh, you've got it all worked out, haven't you?" John sneered, but he heard the catch in his own voice and winced.
"It took me a little while." Ian unbuttoned the bottom of John's jacket and stood to unbutton the rest. "I was taken with Sherlock's glamour, but then I looked at you and thought – there's a man with secrets. If he's Sherlock Holmes' constant companion –"
"Give me a break –" Why wasn't he pulling away from Ian? Ian's hands were slowly undoing his jacket, and he brushed his fingers against John's throat, so why the fuck didn't he pull away? And why, oh Christ almighty, why was his cock starting to twitch?
"He's far too intelligent, too canny and sharp to be merely what he appears to be," Ian continued.
"Get the hell away from me," John whispered, but he didn't move. You don't want this. Not from Ian Adler. He didn't even move when Ian's fingers went to the button of John's trousers, not when they lowered the zipper. If it's Sherlock you want, then why are you still here? Ian's hand slipped inside and found John's stiff cock.
Ian looked down at John and smiled. "I thought so." He went to his knees in front of John. "Would you like to pretend that I'm Sherlock? I don't mind."
Get away. Leave now. Go! John grasped the back of Ian's head. His cock ached, and he conjured up the image of Sherlock writhing on Ian's bed. Bastard. Fucking bastard. "Go on, then," he whispered. "Do it."
Ian's mouth curled into a smile, and he reached up to tug down John's boxers. He leant forward, cupped John's balls in one hand, and nuzzled his lips against the underside of John's cock, moving upward until his mouth reached the head.
John steadied himself by grabbing at the iron footboard and closed his fingers on a handful of soft, wet leather. He threaded the fingers of his other hand in Ian's curls and pulled him closer. "Suck on it."
Obediently, Ian opened his mouth and traced the tip of his tongue over the head of John's cock. He enveloped the tip with his mouth and began a gentle, steady suction; his fingers moved over John's balls, stroking and caressing.
John closed his eyes and tilted his head back, concentrating on the licking and pulling sensation round his cock. He felt Ian's mouth open wider and pushed himself deep, deeper until he felt the delicious constriction of Ian's throat. He heard Ian gag slightly, and didn't give a fuck. He tightened his hand in Ian's curls and pushed. The suction was stronger now, almost desperate, and he abandoned himself to it, imagining Sherlock's mouth wrapped round his cock, Sherlock's lips sucking him off, Sherlock's hands toying with his balls. He tensed, then thrust forward savagely as he came in short, violent bursts, a low, guttural cry escaping his throat.
He stood still, panting, as Ian pulled back, swallowed, and wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You're welcome," Ian said hoarsely.
John blinked and stared down at Ian. "What?" He stepped back and quickly re-ordered his clothes. He'd regret this later…or sooner, maybe….
"I don't suppose you'd care to reciprocate." Ian rose to his feet, took John's hand, and rested it against the bulge in his rain-dampened jeans.
John looked up at Ian's face: flushed, his lips parted and wet, the tip of his tongue teasing at one corner of his mouth. His eyes fixed on John's, and he smiled with genuine warmth. John moved his hand from Ian's crotch. "What do I owe you?"
Ian's expression of warmth faltered for a split second, then he smiled. "On the house."
"Good." John's hand darted out and caught Ian's wrist. Quickly, deftly, he spun Ian round, pushed him to the bed, and dug a knee into his back. Ian cried out, and John twisted his arm upward. "Shut up. Shut up, or I'll break your arm."
"Get the fuck off me!" Ian cried, struggling uselessly. "Get - Ow!"
John still had one hand free. He reached down and grasped Ian's hair. "I will break it. Don't tempt me."
"All right, all right – ease up, for God's sake. You're hurting me."
"Not as badly as I will hurt you if you don't cooperate. You know where Sherlock is, don't you?"
"No." Ian glared up at him, then gasped as John wrenched his arm up. "All right! Stop!"
"You know where he is?"
"Yes." Ian winced as John let his grip relax a bit. "He's in the tunnels. The well."
John frowned. "Well." Vaguely, he remembered reading about a well in the abbey brochure. "You're going to take me there."
"Listen," Ian said. "If you've got any brain cells working, you'll leave now. I can help Sherlock – I won't be able to help you both, don't you –" His words disintegrated into a yelp as John twisted his arm again. "Don't be bloody stupid, John!"
"Is Dzundza down there with him?" John asked. When Ian didn't reply, John torqued his arm upward again. "Is he?"
"Yes!" Ian panted for breath. "Listen to me."
"No," John said. He looked around and saw a bag on the bed, resting near the pillow. He released Ian's hair and dragged it close, looking inside. Jackpot. He grabbed a braided leather cord and used it to tie Ian's hands behind his back. "You're going to show me where it is."
Ian rolled over onto his back and glared at John. "This is going to look a little awkward, isn't it? Whatever will the monks say?"
"I couldn't care less what they say," John replied. "Let's go." He dragged Ian up by his shirt, then took his jacket and arranged it over his shoulders. "Don't want you to catch cold."
The rain was falling harder, and nobody was about to make uncomfortable inquiries regarding Ian's predicament. Ian made a few half-hearted attempts to pull away from John, but John held his arm tightly and steered him implacably toward the church. The thought of Sherlock in Dzundza's hands superseded even the lurid imagery of Ian's little video. Sherlock, you miserable…I swear this is the last time I'm getting you out of a jam.
Ian's soft-spoken analysis reverberated in John's ears, each word taunting and certain. And right….how had Adler known? More importantly, why hadn't John realised what he was doing sooner? Ian was right, he hadn't intended to hurt anyone – some of the women he'd seen had made disparaging comments about Sherlock, but John always figured that was because Sherlock was so god-damned snotty to them.
"I wonder what Sherlock would say if he knew that you and I had a little assignation," Ian said pleasantly, breaking into John's thoughts.
"Oh, shut it, or I'll gag you," John snapped.
"I realise that I'm just a substitute, of course. Still, pity I didn't get to record it."
"That's how you get your jollies, isn't it?"
"That's how I make most of my money," Ian corrected him. "Though a few make for interesting viewing. Sherlock's film, for example. He's quite responsive when properly motivated."
"But that's what you really want to know, isn't it, John? How responsive Sherlock can be. And if he'd respond to you that way."
John pressed his lips together and said nothing. They were at the church now; John pushed the door open and dragged Ian up the central aisle, where the altarpiece still stood ajar, untouched since John had opened it this morning.
"I think he probably would," Ian went on, "but none of that matters now."
"Careful on the stairs," John muttered, clicking on his torch.
"You wouldn't rather I broke my neck?" Ian inquired, but he descended the stairs with caution, now and then leaning on John for support. "You know, this would be a lot easier if you untied me."
"Not a chance. And if the Golem's hurt Sherlock, I'm going to break both your legs." John's grip tightened on Ian's upper arm. And if that bastard's killed him, then…. He couldn't finish the thought. He felt cold and clammy and slightly ill.
Whatever Sherlock had done – whatever either of them had done, they were still friends. He'd given Sherlock no reason to suspect that he felt more than ordinary friendship for him. John wasn't the fucking Morals Squad, he hadn't any claim on Sherlock's actions, and if Sherlock wanted to get himself tied up and fucked, then that was his affair. John would just have to live with it, that was all.
If he's all right, I'll tell him. No more hiding, no more stalling. If they couldn't make a go of it – because he couldn't understand how to read Sherlock, he didn't know how to take the little touches, the flashes of what might have been affection, but might have just been Sherlock being weirdly good-natured – then maybe they could go back to the way things had been. Friends. That was okay, he could live with it, even if it hurt a little. Or a lot.
They moved through the corridors, Ian leading John down the same passages he'd traversed earlier – right, then right, then right again. At last they came to a familiar door. John started. The same door where he thought he'd heard a noise. Oh, Jesus Christ. He's been behind that door the whole time. Oh, Sherlock –
"Call to him," John whispered, and rapped on the door.
Ian cleared his throat. "Oscar! C'est moi – Ian Adler!"
There was a rattling, and the door swung open. John steered Ian in front of him as hostage and human shield.
The room was fairly small. A squat well stood in its centre, with a crudely hewn stone pillar beside it, to which a pulley was attached. At the far side of the chamber, he saw Oscar Dzundza leaning against the wall, huge and menacing even at rest, illuminated by a portable lantern. John looked around in panic and finally saw Sherlock – curled on his side on the stone floor, naked and tightly bound. The creepy leather cock gag prevented him from speaking, but as Sherlock focussed his gaze on John and Ian, he made a slight panicky noise and shook his head. John's heart contracted. That was Sherlock I heard earlier. Oh, God.
"Untie him, Dzundza," John said. "Now."
Sherlock shook his head frantically and tried to shout something. John frowned, and then blinding pain exploded in his head. He staggered and fell to his knees.
"Surprise!" trilled a voice behind him.
I know that voice, John thought, and another pain slammed into his head, and he tumbled into darkness.
Sherlock's senses re-established themselves one at a time, in disorderly fashion. He tasted something unpleasant, then felt something digging into his lower abdominal muscles, something hard that nevertheless flexed and jolted and made him feel slightly ill. He opened his eyes, but saw only darkness, so he closed them again. As he struggled to orient himself, he realised that the blood was pounding in his skull and giving him a terrible headache, then slowly, far too slowly, discovered that he was hanging upside down, and that he was being carried, that the pain in his stomach was owed to somebody's shoulder. It was like being hauled over a stone shelf. He felt an arm wrapped round his knees, holding him firmly in place.
His shoulders hurt because – he shifted experimentally – his wrists were still bound and gravity was dragging his hands between his shoulder blades. He was gagged, too, not with silk, but with rubber, horrible-tasting and stretching his jaws uncomfortably. The phallic thing that had plugged his mouth earlier: he felt the straps digging into the back of his head, and the wide strip of leather over his lips.
Damn it to hell. Ian….
The man who carried him (unmistakably a man, judging by the flat planes of the body against which his legs were tightly pressed, not to mention the width of the stone-hard shoulders) had a heavy tread, his footsteps thumping solidly on stone. Ian? The weight of another human being might make him graceless. Sherlock took a breath through his nose, the only sort he could manage, (and even that was effortful, slung over someone's shoulder like a sack of meal) and inhaled the fragrances of damp air and early-spring greenery and heard the faint, hesitant call of some nocturnal bird. He was naked, but something scratchy covered his body, keeping out the worst of the chill. His captor's gait, whilst clumsy because Sherlock's weight was unevenly distributed, was nonetheless fairly steady. Sherlock wasn't an overwhelming burden, not because his weight was exceptionally slight, but because whoever carried him was exceptionally strong. And the length of his stride was long. Very long. With a sinking heart, Sherlock suddenly understood who was transporting him with such ease.
Ian Adler had turned him over to Oscar Dzundza.
Panic seized him, and very unfamiliar and unwelcome fear. Then, a sliver of rationality punctured his hazy cogitation. Relax. If he'd wanted to kill you, you'd be dead already.
True enough, but any length of time spent in the Golem's presence was a bit too much. And since the man's principal raison d'etre was killing, best to be as far away as possible.
Sherlock opened his eyes again and now discerned a feeble illumination of moonlight shimmering off wet cobblestones. Dzundza wasn't aware that Sherlock had regained consciousness, or didn't care. Possible advantage. He forced his body to remain utterly limp
Another advantage: Sherlock's ankles were unbound. He could run. He tempered a cautious jubilation by envisioning the abbey layout and estimating the best hiding places, as well as the location of the monks' cells. Since he was likely being carried away from the guest quarters (uphill, toward the church), there was little or no chance of alerting John to his predicament, so the monks it would have to be. He'd kick the door, slam his head against a window, something, anything. He made an instant's calculation, and then heaved himself sideways.
Dzundza grunted in surprise as Sherlock flung his body off his shoulder. Sherlock landed on the ground, stifling a yell and biting hard on the rubber in his mouth as his bare knees collided with stone, one of them giving a stomach-heaving pop. He rolled sideways, kicking off the blanket that was draped over his body and, unable to use his hands for support, got unsteadily to his feet. Dzundza loomed over Sherlock, his features invisible in the cloudy moonlight. Sherlock stumbled backward, then turned to flee, but he'd miscalculated the distance between them; the Golem reached out and grasped Sherlock's hair, dragging him backward and pressing him close. Sherlock kicked frantically, but he might as well have kicked an Easter Island statue for all Dzundza seemed to feel it.
The Golem stilled Sherlock's struggles simply by pinching his nose shut. He put his mouth close to Sherlock's ear. "Shhh."
Sherlock got the message at once and forced himself to stop thrashing. Dzundza released his grasp, but held on to Sherlock's arm with one huge hand as he scooped up the fallen blanket, draped it over Sherlock's shoulders with ludicrous solicitude, and yanked Sherlock toward the dark church.
Sherlock dragged his feet against the wet cobble, but the Golem's grasp was inexorable, not to mention painful, and Sherlock had no choice but to walk – or limp, since his knee hurt like hell. The sky was beginning to lighten from black to deep violet, and morning birds began to stir in the trees, letting out a few sweetly liquid trills. His gaze darted back and forth, seeking some means of escape, some early-rising monk out and about who'd be startled at the sight of a more-than-two-meters-tall man towing one naked, bound, and gagged consulting detective in his wake. Wherever Dzundza was taking him, it probably wasn't to sit him down to a nice breakfast. And it wasn't to kill him, as Sherlock reminded himself – he could have strangled Sherlock as he lay unconscious – why all the effort to take him away from his room?
Probably so he can smother you slowly, in complete privacy, and enjoy watching you die.
The prospect of that made Sherlock fight with renewed frenzy. His heart twisted with frantic refusal as Dzundza tightened the grip on his arm and propelled him effortlessly toward the church. Sherlock tried one last violent wrench to free himself, but it did him no good at all. Dzundza looped an arm through his as he fitted a large key into the church door's lock and silently swung it open. He pulled Sherlock inside, then locked the door behind them and steered Sherlock to the altar, illuminated by a single red-glassed lamp.
Despite his steadily encroaching fear, Sherlock watched in fascination as Dzundza worked the mechanism to open the space beneath the altar. He stumbled down the narrow stone steps, losing his blanket in the process. Dzundza picked it up, retrieved an electric lantern that had been secreted beside the staircase, and then pushed down a lever set into the wall. The altar moved slowly back into place, and Dzundza activated the lantern seconds before the altar extinguished the dim light altogether.
Dzundza bent almost double as he hustled Sherlock through the narrow passageways. Sherlock noted their direction, the turns and forks they took, moving deeper and deeper until they came to a low door. Dzundza had a key for that, too – obtained from the faithless Brother Marcelo, most likely – and he pushed Sherlock inside and entered the room himself, closing the door with a thud.
Sherlock's eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness slowly. He stood still, gazing round, and realised that they'd come to the famous San Stefano well, cause of Father Bernard's death and studded liberally with the uraninite that Jim Moriarty coveted so deeply.
Dzundza spread the blanket on the ground and grasped Sherlock by the arm, forcing him to lie on the blanket. He pulled a cord from his pocket and tied Sherlock's ankles together, finishing them with a strong knot. Sherlock watched without protest and kept his muscles taut as the Golem bound him, on the slim chance that there would be an opportunity to escape. He hoped it wasn't simply a prelude to Dzundza dropping him down the well – its throat was fairly narrow, but it would probably accommodate Sherlock's body.
But Dzundza turned away from him after a gentle pat on his bare hip and a thoroughly unconvincing grimace that Sherlock supposed was a smile and took his lantern to the far corner of the room. Sherlock shifted to his side and propped himself up on one elbow to watch as Dzundza rummaged through a mélange of objects on the stony ground. Sherlock saw what looked like small-scale mining equipment – a hand-held drill, an air compressor, a chemical analysis set, and a Geiger counter. He also noted a bedroll, some tinned food, and a large inlaid wooden box. The codex. I knew it. Finally the Golem located the object of his search – a book – and flung himself on the bedroll and began to read, after a brief glance at Sherlock to ensure that his captive wasn't trying to escape.
Stealthily, Sherlock began to ply the ropes binding his wrists with tiny circular movements. Repetitive motion, applied patiently and persistently, might weaken the tough fibres, and it seemed he had time. Why had Dzundza brought him here? What were they waiting for? Why was he reading, for God's sake?
Sorry about John.
Sherlock's head snapped up as he remembered Ian's words. Had they already harmed John? If not, what were they planning? Would they bring him here as well, a place to carry out a couple of murders in relative silence? Unconsciously, he pulled harder at his bonds and then chided himself. Hurrying will get you nowhere fast, idiot. Sucking in air through his nose, he forced himself to move slowly, and sank down so that he was lying on his side.
Mistake. He'd made a mistake letting John Watson into his life; he should have paid attention to Mycroft, however galling it was to admit.
---I had a telephone call from Detective Inspector Lestrade today.
--- Really? Sherlock played a slow arpeggio in E flat; he'd observed that particular key was offensive to Mycroft's ear, judging from the frowns that he knew were quite unconscious. Mycroft himself didn't realise it.
---I wonder, Sherlock – do you intend to continue aiding New Scotland Yard in their…inquiries?
--- What do you care?
--- It's a matter of minor interest.
--- If it's so minor, then why ask? Sherlock drew an especially dissonant noise from the strings.
A narrow smile congealed on Mycroft's face.
--- I simply wanted to caution you, Sherlock. This is…what, the third? Fourth, perhaps…? The fourth criminal you've helped to place behind bars. I am no expert in determining how rogue meets rogue so inevitably, but the fact is that these people have associates who have thus far managed to remain out of prison. You may be in danger. And in order to strike at you, they may instead choose to strike at those close to you.
--- Ah, I see. Afraid for your own skin?
--- Certainly not.
Sherlock snorted in disbelief.
--- You're thinking of Mummy, then.
--- Mummy is quite safe, I assure you. She has been for years. No, I'm merely advising you to continue on your present trajectory, brother. Friends, lovers – Mycroft made a small moue to indicate his contempt – spouses: they're all vulnerable. Fortunately, you needn't worry over any of that.
Sherlock was silent a moment, then he smiled disdainfully, twisting a tuning peg.
---This from a man who belongs to a club composed entirely of misanthropes.
--- As I said, it's merely advice; do with it what you will. Of course, if by some truly remote chance you manage to find someone who doesn't mind the threat of danger, then so much the better, I suppose. Are you going to offer me tea, or must I go home hungry?
--- You can live a month off your fat, Mycroft.
And so on. But Mycroft had been right. If Sherlock hadn't made the colossally stupid mistake of befriending John, John wouldn't be in danger now. If the Golem decided to snatch John away and bring him here, and if Sherlock couldn't manage to free himself in time, then –
Sherlock froze. Suddenly he knew. He knew why he was being held down here, why Dzundza was whiling away his time with a book.
He was waiting for Jim Moriarty. Jim, who wouldn't be able to resist showing up and cawing with delight. Jim, whose plans Sherlock was about to spoil yet again. Jim, who had an axe to grind.
I'll burn you. I will burn the heart out of you.
Despite his nakedness and the chill of the underground room, Sherlock's body began to sweat. His heartbeat thudded in his ears as he lay on his side, staring at the short well cylinder in growing despair.
John. For the love of God, get out of here.
Sherlock slept, his body succumbing to exhaustion though he'd tried to stay alert and to continue working at the ropes encircling his wrists. He woke once to see Dzundza asleep too, his body splayed out on the bedroll. He looked like a corpse in the muted lamplight, and had Sherlock been free, he would have gladly strangled Dzundza himself. He sighed and kept making little circles with both wrists. He couldn't tell if his efforts were fruitful – his arms and hands were nearly numb and the ropes didn't feel slack at all, but it was something to do, better than simply lying still and helpless and waiting for whatever Jim had in store for them.
Time slowed to an agonising crawl. Sherlock distracted himself as much as possible, passing the time by imagining himself constructing a nuclear weapon in Baker Street before NSY found out. Would there be enough time? Natural uranium contained only 0.7% U-235, so he would need highly enriched uranium containing 90% U-235. Now where might he obtain that, were he at home now? Surely one or two of Mycroft's contacts would have some inside information on how one could get his hands on some of the highly enriched stuff. Americium oxide was a slightly greater problem, but not insurmountable, thanks to dear big brother and his access to military labs. The next move was to get John out of the house for the appropriate length of time. Some ruse involving Harry, most likely; she wasn't keen on Sherlock, but she was keen on attention, so it wouldn't be difficult to persuade her to treat John to some family dramatics for a week or two. It couldn't be a false gas leak or structural problem; John had to be distracted, or he'd follow Sherlock –
Sherlock winced. He doubted, if indeed they were to somehow escape from here, that John would be following him anywhere for some time. Without saying a word, he'd presented John with a fait accompli in Ian Adler, and John had told Sherlock in no uncertain terms what he thought about that. And whether or not John harboured any…romantic (oh, God, he hated that word. Meaningless sentiment) – or strong feelings for Sherlock, Sherlock suspected that this matter couldn't be undone by an offhand 'Sorry, John' or an offer to pick up groceries two or even three weeks running.
Bloody stupid emotions. Needless complications and boring besides, a bunch of sheep who didn't have the brain cells to realise –
I’ll burn you. I will burn the heart out of you.
I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one.
But we both know that’s not quite true.
Sherlock clenched his teeth on the foul rubber in his mouth and jerked hard at his bonds. He stared up at the low ceiling hopelessly, and then heard a rattling at the door.
Dzundza had heard it too; he sat up and looked over at Sherlock.
Three, perhaps four seconds of hesitation passed before Sherlock flung his body toward the door and let out a cry that seemed quite loud in his own ears, but was likely no more than a pathetic little whimper. And before he could cry out again, the Golem was atop him, wrapped round him like an octopus, one huge hand pressing on the leather strapped to Sherlock's face and shoving the rubber even further down Sherlock's throat.
"Is anyone there?"
John. JOHN! Sherlock writhed in the Golem's grip, but he couldn't dislodge the hand over his face, nor make a sound loud enough to attract John's attention. The rubber phallus in his mouth pushed against the back of his throat, and he gagged and implored his gorge to stay down so he wouldn't throw up. He forced his limbs to cease thrashing, and looked toward the door, praying that John had gone to get some sort of implement to pry the door open. Perhaps he was with another monk, who had a key. He waited, torn between a desperate hope that John would storm in and another hope, just as desperate, that he would leave. Eventually, it seemed the latter had won out. John didn't return. There were no more noises from the corridor.
Dzundza waited in silence, his limbs still locked around Sherlock's body. At last, when it seemed clear that John had gone for good, he loosened his grasp and bore Sherlock back to the blanket. He gazed down at Sherlock's supine form for a moment, and then his teeth showed in a menacing grin. Deliberately, he reached out and caressed Sherlock's naked chest, then moved his hand down, resting for a moment on Sherlock's belly, then drifting between his legs.
Sherlock stiffened in utter revulsion and glared at what he could see of the Golem's face. He kept still and ordered his body not to respond, not to struggle away, afraid that Dzundza was going to apply more pressure and arouse Sherlock against his will. For one endless moment both men were motionless, then Dzundza's hand began to move.
With a speed borne of mingled instinct and calculation, Sherlock lashed out with both feet, catching Dzundza squarely in the kidney. Dzundza let out a muffled snarl and struck Sherlock across the face, knocking him to the ground. Dzundza was atop Sherlock instantly, pressing the gag down again and covering his nose.
Sherlock's heels beat a muffled tattoo against the stone floor as he fought fruitlessly for air. No John this time. This time he's just going to kill me.
"What are you doing?"
The familiar voice scarcely pierced Sherlock's fading consciousness, but he saw hands descending on Dzundza's shoulders, pushing at him.
"Let him go! Arrêter, imbécile!"
The massive hands came away from Sherlock's face, and he sucked an uneven breath through his nose. Swimming in and out of his blurry vision, he saw a tall, slender figure silhouetted in the lamplight. Ordering himself not to pass out, he focused through his good eye (Dzundza's blow had swelled his left eye shut) and recognised Ian Adler.
Ian was talking in rapid French, and Dzundza answered in what sounded like grunts. Sherlock was woozy, but he discerned, eventually, that Ian was upbraiding him for assaulting Sherlock (Ian didn't know the half of it) and that per Jim's orders, Sherlock wasn't to be harmed.
Saving you for something particularly nasty, no doubt.
Dzundza muttered something unintelligible and showed Ian a blood-stained hand. Sherlock felt an instant of wild exultation. Reopened the wound that John made. Good. Good. He watched as Ian pointed to the bedroll and ordered Dzundza to lie down so he could look at the wound. Ian busied himself tending the wound for a few moments, using what looked like Dzundza's last clean shirt to bind it, and then moved to crouch beside Sherlock. He set a folded bundle on the ground – Sherlock's clothes and shoes. With gentle hands, he reached behind Sherlock's head and unbuckled the gag, carefully easing it from Sherlock's mouth. "I'm sorry about that. You did provoke him, though – you can't expect him to be happy with you. You're lucky I showed up when I did."
"Lucky," Sherlock rasped. "Yes, awfully lucky. Thank God you showed up. If it weren't for you I might be dead now. Oh, wait – you're the one who engineered all this. Thanks for nothing, Ian. Come see me next time you need a favour."
"Sherlock," Ian said, a chiding note in his voice, "come on now. I wouldn't have chosen this for you, but I'm afraid Jim is very exacting. When he found out you were involved in all this, he was…well, I wouldn't quite say he was happy, but he wasn't displeased, either. Delivering you to him means an extra bonus for me."
"Short on bondage gear, are you?"
Ian gingerly touched Sherlock's swollen eye. Sherlock jerked his head away. "Don't be so recalcitrant." He sighed. "I did try to help you. I told John to leave. He's proving to be just as stubborn as you are, though. Perhaps even more so."
A surge of pride swelled warmly in Sherlock's chest along with a brief piercing stab of fear. "What is Jim planning to do with him?"
"I don't know, but I suspect it won't be pretty, knowing Jim. I will try to warn him again, but I can't force him to leave."
Sherlock wet his lips. He was unbearably thirsty. He'd die before he asked for a drink, but for John….
For John, he'd beg. "Ian…please. Get him out. Tell him anything. Tell him…tell him that I'm going away with you for a while. That I've already left. Tell him I don't want to see him any longer, that I'm leaving Baker Street for good."
"He'd never believe that."
"He might, if you made it convincing enough. Untie me and I'll write him a note. Or text him. My phone's in my coat pocket." Sherlock listened to the words tumbling from his mouth and pressed his lips together tightly. "Please."
Ian, his face shadowed, gazed at Sherlock for a long, thoughtful moment. Finally, he shook his head. "I can't. You're not the only one who's got himself in over his head."
"You thought you could handle Jim Moriarty. You didn't know that he would wring you dry of every drop of usefulness before he tossed you aside like yesterday's rubbish. What's he got on you, Ian? How does one blackmail a blackmailer? If anyone knows, it's Jim." Sherlock lowered his voice. "Help me, and I'll help you. I promise."
A long, low sigh escaped Ian's chest. "I can't." He picked up the gag. "Sorry, Sherlock."
Sherlock compressed his lips and turned his head to one side, refusing to cooperate.
"If you don't open your mouth I'll call Oscar and ask him to help me. I don't think it would take much to persuade him, do you?" Ian grasped Sherlock's chin and turned his face upward.
"No, don't –" But Ian prised Sherlock's mouth open and shoved the thick phallus back inside his mouth, then fastened it behind Sherlock's head once more. Sherlock settled for a smouldering glare that communicated his anger and contempt.
Ian gave him a tilted smile, then bent close to Sherlock's ear. "For what it's worth, I don't regret a moment of time that we spent together. I'll do what I can to see that we're allowed to continue."
Allowed? Unless it courted James Moriarty's whims, it seemed highly unlikely, not that he would ever willingly touch Ian Adler again. It wasn't the first time his impulsivity had steered him wrong; he fervently hoped it wouldn't be the last.
Though the odds didn't seem to favour survival.
Things were quiet for some time after Ian left. Ignoring the chill that had seeped into his naked body, Sherlock persisted in working at the ropes, and they did seem to be loosening the slightest bit, to his gratification. Dzundza stayed on his bedroll beside the lantern. The kick Sherlock had administered seemed to have dampened his amorous proclivities, for which Sherlock was profoundly grateful.
As Sherlock toiled, he couldn't help but feel a small dart of jubilation and pride in John's stubbornness and courage. True, John owed him nothing (although, Sherlock acknowledged, he owed John a great deal, and if they both made it through this ordeal alive he'd…he'd try to pay John back, somehow), and it was heartening to know that John hadn't simply abandoned him – though he had no idea where Sherlock was, most likely. Sherlock had been careful, just lately, to be a bit more prompt about keeping John abreast of things. If he'd had his phone to hand, he'd have sent a text.
Dzundza's prisoner in well. Moriarty on his way. Obtain reinforcements. Hurry please.
He'd have smiled but for the rubber contraption in his mouth and the sudden scraping of the lock. Dzundza rose to his feet – slowly, Sherlock noted, as if he were in pain – and moved to the door as it swung open.
"Honey, I'm home!" Jim Moriarty stood silhouetted in the doorway. A man, much taller than Jim, stood behind him, and as both men entered the room, the tall man coolly sized up Dzundza, then gave him a brief nod. Moriarty strolled over to where Sherlock lay and crouched down, his hands dangling between his knees. "Aw, look at you, all wrapped up. And quiet, too! Bet that's a rarity – a silent Sherlock." Jim grinned and patted Sherlock's cheek.
Sherlock didn't blink as he returned Jim's steady stare. How had Jim and the other man got into the abbey without being noticed? Surely they hadn't taken a taxicab. Sherlock narrowed his gaze and inspected Jim's suit, difficult as it was in the dim light of the lantern: soil and moisture on one sleeve and trouser cuff, as if he'd brushed against something damp and dirty; mud on the soles of his shoes. Unless there's a tunnel entrance at the gatepost, outside the abbey. It wasn't completely impossible; John had said the tunnels seemed to go on for miles. Certain he was right, he glared triumphantly into Jim's face again.
"Ooh, look at him, Seb. He's furious. He'd throttle me if he could." Jim straightened up and sighed. "I admit he's not as much fun when he can't speak, but let's leave that in for the moment. One of Ian's little toys, am I right, Sherlock?" He turned away without waiting for a reply, not that Sherlock was in a position to give one, and spoke to the tall man again. "Sebastian Moran, meet Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, Seb. I'm a little disappointed that you got caught so easily, Sherlock. And with Ian, of all people. It's all so unexpected!" Jim clapped his hands together. The sound reverberated sharply off the walls. "But it's not altogether unpleasant. Now all we have to do is wait for the good doctor. You do think he'll come, don't you? I got all dressed up."
Sherlock turned away as if the topic held no interest for him. A few seconds later agony exploded in his right thigh.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you, sweetheart." Jim's voice was a low growl.
His eyes swimming with tears of pain, the sartorius muscle of his thigh throbbing where Jim had kicked him, Sherlock screwed his eyes shut to stop the tears and forced himself to meet Jim's gaze once more.
"Oh, that's better. Good boy. Anyway, if Ian can't get him here, I'll have to dispatch Oscar, although…." He gave Dzundza a dubious once-over. "Oscar doesn't look very well, does he? Is that your doing, Sherlock? Or Johnny-boy's?"
The man Jim had introduced as Sebastian Moran walked quietly to Dzundza and murmured a question. Dzundza answered in an equally low tone, too soft for Sherlock to make out. Sherlock saw the bulge of a shoulder holster under Moran's jacket and an irregular shape beneath the narrow cuff of his immaculately cut suit. Knife. Accessible at ground level.
"Well done, whoever it was." Jim sounded positively jovial now; jovial and utterly, utterly mad. "That's twice you've tangled with him and lived, and I expect he'll want to pay you back somehow. I'm a little surprised he hasn't been smothering you at intervals – that's his thing, you know," Jim said confidingly. "Personally, I think it's a little –" Jim twirled his finger next to his ear, "—but who am I to judge, right? I guess it's just nice that he enjoys his work so much. I think I'll let him take another crack at darling John. What do you say?"
Sherlock gave Jim a look that promised murder. If I get my hands on you – A sharp series of raps on the door startled his attention away from Moriarty. He strained to hear a voice, then recognised Ian Adler's. Perhaps he persuaded John to leave. Perhaps –
Jim Moriarty put a finger to his lips, his eyes dancing, and sank back into the shadows near the door. Dzundza rose to his feet with effort. Moran strode to the door, unlocked it, and pulled it slightly ajar, then stepped into the darkness as well.
Ian stepped over the threshold awkwardly, and John was directly behind him, glancing this way and that, but failed to notice Moriarty or Moran. He saw Sherlock, and his mouth dropped open, concern and apprehension etched in every line on his face.
Sherlock shook his head and jerked his chin toward Moran's hiding place. He tried to speak and knew full well that his words were completely unintelligible.
John kept a tight grip on Ian Adler's arm, and Sherlock saw that Ian's wrists were bound behind his back. Well done, John. He can't be trusted. "Untie him, Dzundza. Now." John's voice was steady, clear, and carried the weight of finality.
John, use your torch. Look behind you, for God's sake! Sherlock shook his head again and raised his voice, trying to warn John as best he could, but it was too late; John frowned and began to turn his head toward the spot where Moriarty concealed himself, but Moran detached himself from the darkness, his arm raised, and brought the butt of a gun down against the back of John's skull. John took two unsteady steps and crashed to his knees.
"Surprise!" Moriarty cried, and Moran brought the weapon down again. John slumped unconscious to the floor.
God damn it! Sherlock cried out in protest and struggled against his bonds.
"Shut up," Moran ordered, "or you'll get the same treatment."
"Now, Seb," Jim chided. "Let's not, shall we? Pick Dr. Watson up and put him next to his pal."
Moran didn't pick John up; instead he replaced his weapon, then grasped John's ankles and dragged him over the rough ground to lie beside Sherlock. He smiled at Sherlock, a smile full of even white teeth but lacking even the smallest bit of sympathy. "He's tough. Most people would have been knocked out instantly. Look, he's stirring already."
Sherlock moved closer to John, anxiously inspecting his face. John groaned, shifted, and was silent once more.
Ian's voice broke into Sherlock's scrutiny. "Can someone please untie me?"
"Honestly," Jim sighed. "Can't you slip a little knot? Thought that was your occupation. Seb, if you wouldn't mind?" He moved past Ian and placed his hands on his knees, leaning forward as if he were addressing a small child. "Now that the gang's all here, what shall we do?"
Sherlock dared to ignore Jim in favour of continuing to look John over, watching him shift like a man in the grip of a bad dream. Apropos. This can't get much worse. Sherlock glanced up as Jim, Moran, Ian (rubbing his wrists and looking indignant), and Dzundza gathered round, all looking down at John with interest. He would have loved to tell them to piss off; this muteness was beyond frustrating.
"It was Watson who injured Oscar," Moran said. He drew his weapon, a blunt, sensible semi-automatic Tokarev, and pointed it at John.
Sherlock smirked inwardly. Taking no chances, are we?
"Tiens!" Jim said, lifting his neat, dark brows. "Well done, Johnny. Search him, please, Seb."
"He's not armed," Ian said. "I'm fairly certain of that."
"Honey, it wouldn't take a weapon to subdue you." As Moran quickly checked John's pockets, Jim prodded John with his foot. "Up and at 'em, Johnny-boy! Rise and shine!"
John groaned and opened his eyes. He blinked, then looked at the four men gathered round him, one with weapon drawn, and tried to sit up. Moran pushed on John's shoulder with his foot, pressing him to the stone floor, and John raised his hands uncertainly. "What the hell?" he murmured.
"Hi again," Moriarty said, his voice spiraling upward.
"Moriarty," John whispered, then put a hand to the back of his head. "Ow."
"Sorry about that. Seb can get carried away. You feeling all right?" Jim smiled, all melting sympathy.
"Fuck you," John retorted, then realised Sherlock was lying next to him. He sat up, then regarded Sherlock anxiously. "Are you okay?" As Sherlock nodded, John brushed the tip of his finger over Sherlock's bruised eye, now swelled almost completely shut. "Who did that to you?" He glared up at Jim. "Did you do that, you fucking lunatic?"
"Shut up," snarled Moran.
"It's okay, Seb. You know, for a soldier, you have a really remarkable talent for getting yourself ambushed. How'd you ever make it out of Afghanistan?"
To his credit (and Sherlock admitted to himself that he wouldn't be able to resist a smart-arse remark) John turned away and directed his attention to Sherlock once more. "You sure you're okay?"
Sherlock held John's gaze with his one working eye and nodded again.
"You can take the gag out, Johnny," Moriarty offered. "Nobody's going to bother us down here. And Sherlock's boring when he's not talking."
John gave Moriarty a quick, chill glance, and reached behind Sherlock's head to unfasten the gag. "Second time," he muttered, and now his hostility fixed itself on Sherlock for a second. He succeeded in unbuckling the gag and pulling it out of Sherlock's mouth, tossing it aside with disgust.
Sherlock's cheeks felt warm. He worked his jaw to loosen it, and moistened his dry lips. "Thank you," he croaked.
"Yeah, don't mention it." John compressed his lips, then patted Sherlock briefly on his naked thigh before snatching his hand back. He turned to Moriarty again. "You couldn't give him his clothes, for Christ's sake?"
"Oh, come on, John," Jim sighed. "Don't you like looking at him naked? Even I think he's kind of pretty." He leant down. "Though not exactly…impressive. Still, not everyone is a size queen." He straightened again. "So. Down to business."
"It's over, Jim," Sherlock said. "You've overstepped, and there's no way you won't be caught. Too many people have been killed."
"But there's nothing to pin them on me." Jim strolled to the well, looked down into its depths, and turned back to Sherlock, his face an innocent boy's. "Nothing except for the mighty Sherlock Holmes, oh dear, oh me." His voice dropped into perfect RP. "Isn't he clever? Isn't he just the limit, that man? Except I can't have the dots connected. So that means I have to bottle up the source. Eenie, meenie, minie, you." He waggled a finger at Sherlock.
Sherlock snorted in pure disdain. He rotated his raw wrists and felt the rope give a little. He kept his movements almost imperceptible. If one of them saw, they'd make certain he couldn't move at all. "You're going to kill me?"
"Nah. What did I tell you last time? You remember, Sherlock?"
Sherlock lifted his chin. "You said you'd burn the heart out of me."
"What a good memory you have." Jim went to the folded pile of Sherlock's clothing and lifted his coat. He dug in the pockets until he found Sherlock's phone, held it triumphantly aloft, and then began thumbing through it. Sherlock watched in silent outrage as Jim tapped easily, as if Sherlock's mobile was his own. "Let's see now. If I wanted to tear you apart, what would I – oh, look at this. Some new messages." He began to read. "'Phone me at once. M.'" Jim pulled a face. "Big brother? My, he's bossy. What's this one…'All right. Where the hell are you?' That one's from John. Oh, another one from John. ' Stop sulking. Are you okay?' He's getting anxious. And one more. From John, of course. 'Not funny anymore. Where the hell are you?'" Jim shook his head, smiling. "Gosh, isn't that devotion for you. Not even your own brother is as concerned for you as Dr. Watson."
Sherlock felt the rope on his right wrist loosen enough to slip his hand free. "You wouldn't know genuine concern if you tripped over it." He kept his hands behind his back.
"Even without these messages, I can tell how much he cares about you," Jim replied, sounding disgusted. "He stares, Sherlock, with big cow eyes. He put his own life on the line to protect you – remember that, Johnny? He puts up with you day in and day out, and that, my dear Sherlock, has got to be a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes. But something tells me that you haven't…done the deed. Have you?"
Sherlock merely rolled his eyes and refused to look at John. He knew now what Moriarty intended to do; the key was to delay him somehow. Overpower…God. Two against four, and at least one of them was armed. Dzundza was wounded, but still powerful. Ian…Ian was an unknown variable. Sherlock peered at him, but Ian was studying the toes of his boots and looked oddly abashed.
Jim, of course, intercepted Sherlock's glance. "Oh, Ian." Ian's head jerked up. "Yeah, he told me. Sent me a little home movie, even. But it's not Ian you really care about. He can't be trusted."
"For once," Sherlock replied coldly, "we're in complete accord." Slowly, stealthily, he shifted, making sure his feet were in the shadows. Dzundza had done a sloppy job. He moved one foot back and forth, and found himself free. Free.
"So you'll bump uglies with Ian, but your love for Dr. Watson is chaste and pure," Jim purred. "That's so sweet. It would really hurt you if John died, wouldn't it? And right in front of you, as you lie tied up and helpless, maybe screaming his name."
Sherlock suppressed a shiver. "I'd kill you. You know that, don't you?"
"And not feel a shred of remorse." Jim laughed. "Oh, Sherlock. It's going to happen, but not here. We're going to take a little trip, the four of us, somewhere quite safe. And then I'll burn you, oh, so slowly. And when I come back, I'll give Johnny – or what's left of him, anyway – a special burial, in one of the crypts. Won't that be nice?"
John reached out and rested one hand on Sherlock's shoulder for a moment and, absurdly, Sherlock felt calmer. John rarely touched him except to tend to his injuries, and this unsolicited bit of affection was…lovely.
Jim noticed, too. "Aww." He mimed playing a violin.
Surreptitiously, Sherlock flexed his hands and feet. The sensation was back; pins and needles tingled in his extremities, but it meant he would be able to move when the time came.
"Four?" John said. "Which four?"
"Durrr," Jim mocked, pulling his mouth down into a parody of slack-jawed stupidity. "Who do you think? Me, Seb, you, and Sherlock. God."
"What about Ian?" John asked. "He –"
Jim blinked. "Oh. Yes. Oscar?"
Dzundza lurched forward and grabbed Ian's wrists, pinning them behind his back.
Ian cried out. "What – what the hell are you doing?" He struggled in the Golem's grip, but he was caught as surely as an ant in sap.
"Whoops!" Jim slipped Sherlock's phone into his pocket. "I lied. I decided to let Oscar have you after all. Don't worry, it'll be pretty fast, or so I understand. Good job none of the monks will be here for long. I don't think Eau de Adler is going to taste very nice."
Ian's eyes darted to the well, then back to Jim. "Jim, look – please, I can –"
"Oscar?" Jim nodded and perched on the edge of the well.
Dzundza reached up and clamped a massive hand over Ian's face. Ian let out a muffled cry and started to thrash madly in the Golem's arms.
Jim and Moran turned to watch Ian struggling in Dzundza's arms. Sherlock reached out and touched John's arm. John gave him a questioning frown, and Sherlock held up one hand, free of its fetters. "Moran," he whispered. "Ankle knife."
John glanced at Moran's legs and nodded slowly. He looked back at Sherlock, let his mouth turn up a bit, then disengaged his eyes and took a deep breath.
Sherlock ignored the struggle and watched Jim coolly. Head. Arms. Knees.
Above them, Ian fought frantically for air. Small, helpless whimpers filtered from behind Dzundza's hand, and he kicked out, but Dzundza only grinned and dragged Ian backward, forcing him off his feet.
"Go," Sherlock whispered. He crouched, sprang, and rugby-tackled Moriarty, slamming his head against the stone lip of the well. Only dimly registering that John had thrown himself at Moran's knees and brought him down with astonishing speed, Sherlock acted almost mechanically. He dragged a dazed Jim up by his collar, and reached for the long loop of rope hanging beside the well. He secured Jim's arms with one well-chosen jerk of the cord, and quickly wrapped more rope around Jim's knees.
He shoved Jim halfway into the mouth of the well. "Stop!" He looked at John, who had wrenched the knife from Moran's ankle sheath and was sitting on Moran's back, twisting his arm and holding the knife to his throat, one foot crushing the hand that held the Tokarev.
Dzundza, startled out of his murderous reverie, released Ian and charged at Sherlock. Sherlock moved with deft rapidity, putting Jim between them.
"Stop. I'll shove him down the well, Dzundza." Sherlock's breath came in rapid gasps, but he controlled his voice, lowering it to a threatening rumble.
Ian tore the Tokarev from Moran's hand and pointed it at the Golem. "Get against the fucking wall, or I'll shoot you," he rasped. His hands shook as he moved backward and picked up the hand-held drill. "Now, you bastard." Dzundza let out a snarl and charged, and Ian shot. Dzundza collapsed into a large, untidy heap, groaning in pain. Ian took a deep, shuddering breath, then fixed his attention on Sherlock. "Dump him."
Sherlock hesitated. He might be doing the world a favour. Jim Moriarty was a human missile, dangerous and certain to destroy those unlucky enough to fall beneath his deadly aim. All Sherlock had to do was push. How deep was the well, he wondered – fifty meters? More? Would the fall kill him?
Trapped and dangling halfway over the rim of the well, Jim giggled. "Go on, Sherlock. Dare you."
Sherlock turned to John. John moved his head in a simple gesture of negation: Don't.
"You'd have done it for me," Sherlock said softly. You have done it for me. And he wants to kill you, John, in case that minute, unimportant detail had slipped your mind.
John smiled. "I know, you idiot."
Sherlock pulled the rest of the rope from the rock pillar and bound Jim tightly, then pulled him out of the well and shoved him to the floor. John yanked down Moran's jacket, flipped up his shirt collar, and wrenched at Moran's tie, nearly choking him. He pulled it off with some difficulty, and tied his wrists together. Then he removed Moran's belt and bound his ankles.
"You're making a mistake," Ian said. "I should kill him myself." He set the drill on the lip of the well and pointed the Tokarev at Moriarty.
"Don't," John said sharply. "He'll get life in prison for this. Let him rot."
Ian hesitated, then moved toward the door. "I'm not going down with him."
"Go," Sherlock said wearily. "We won't stop you."
"Sherlock!" John gaped at him, outraged. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Go." He picked up the drill. "Before I change my mind."
Ian looked from Sherlock to John, then pivoted on his heel and vanished into the corridor.
Sherlock limped toward his clothes and began to dress. His knee was killing him, and his eye throbbed. He'd be lucky to see out of it at all for the next week or so. He moved back to where Jim and Moran were propped against the well cylinder. Moran glared silently; Jim's mouth was curled in an enigmatic little smile. A scrape from the side of the well decorated his face like a streak of dried crimson watercolour.
Sherlock crouched, ignoring the pop in his knee, and slid his hand into Jim's trouser pocket.
"Getting saucy, aren't you, Sherlock?"
"Just retrieving a bit of stolen property," Sherlock said, waving his phone in Jim's face. "All that untapped uraninite," he taunted. "Pity."
"This isn't over," Jim replied softly. "Not by far."
"Oh, I'd be disappointed if it were," Sherlock said, and stood up. His knee felt as if it were on fire. "Tell me – how did you find out about this place, anyhow? Who told you about it?"
Jim grinned. "Oh, come on, Sherlock. I'm not that easy."
Sherlock paused and calculated the possibility of Jim revealing his source under duress. A broken nose, perhaps, or cracked fingers.
Sherlock turned to John. "Say again?"
"Horst. Victoria Trevor's husband. Busman's holiday," John said. He stood with the drill in his hand, looking rather sweetly compact…and murderously efficient. "Ms. Trevor said her husband loved coming down here. Simon said the same thing. The codex was just a red herring."
Sherlock looked at Jim, who shrugged. "Trevor," he said softly. "She doesn't know, does she?"
Jim smiled. "Don't know who you're talking about."
Dzundza stirred and groaned quietly, and Sherlock's concentration wavered. "John," he said, "come on. Let's get above ground and call the police. And Interpol, too. And I think I'll return Mycroft's call as well."
John scooped up the ropes that had bound Sherlock and tied Dzundza up, this time securing his hands to his feet so he couldn't move. Dzundza groaned. Sherlock peered down at him, registering the bloody, torn hole in one thigh. Maybe we should kill them all and have done with it.
Meanwhile, John had scooped up the box that held the codex. "Let's go, Sherlock."
Taking the drill and the lantern, Sherlock and John left, carefully locking the door and securing the prisoners inside. They hurried through the dark corridors until they came to the crypt, and finally, to the stairwell leading to the altar. Without speaking, they made their way outside into waning daylight, and as Sherlock pulled out his phone, a quartet of police cars drove into the rain-washed central courtyard, lights flashing.
Sherlock traded a puzzled glance with John.
"Ian?" John ventured.
Sherlock shrugged. "I suppose so." He strode forward to meet the police, John close on his heels.
The good-byes were brief; Sherlock and John were to catch the early train. Brother Edward drove them to the station and shook their hands. "Father Simon asked me to thank you for him. He'll contact you later in the week."
"Not necessary," Sherlock replied. "I hope you can keep the abbey, Brother Edward. Once the word on the uraninite deposits gets out, you'll have a queue at the door."
"We'll do our best. Father Simon and his sister have a few tricks up their sleeve, I think. Maybe you'll come back to visit."
Sherlock smiled politely. "I rather doubt it."
"Well," John said, "there's our train. Thanks for everything, Brother Edward."
They exchanged farewells and Sherlock and John boarded, finding seats easily. The train moved sluggishly out of the station, then picked up speed. The mountainous landscape whizzed past their windows, stark snow-capped peaks jutting into a porcelain-perfect blue sky. Sherlock sent a few texts; John read a paperback spy novel. Two hours passed. Sherlock purchased coffee for them both from the trolley service, and they sipped in silence.
After another hour, Sherlock said, "I don't suppose you'd…want to discuss anything."
John didn't look up from his book. "No."
Sherlock nodded. "All right." He looked out the window at the passing scenery.
For a few moments he saw a reflection of John's face in the window, staring at Sherlock with an unreadable expression, but he elected to say nothing.
"How was your day?"
Mildly perplexed, John put down the shopping, retrieved the mail from his damp pocket, and peered at Sherlock closely. "You okay?"
Sherlock was sitting in his chair with his knees tucked under his chin. He rolled and unrolled the belt of his plaid dressing gown round his finger. "Fine. I asked how your day was."
"It was…fine, I guess. Had a bit of excitement in the afternoon, a fellow named Grunwald came in with the first case of Wissler-Fanconi Syndrome I've ever – did you clean?" John looked around the room. It wasn't actually clean by ordinary standards, but the dizzying stacks of books, magazines, and papers had been neatened – well, pushed toward the walls, anyway. "Looks nice."
"Trevor's coming over," Sherlock muttered. "Said she's bringing us something."
"Really?" Mrs. Hudson had reported the delivery of a cheque large enough to cover the next year and a half of their rent; Victoria Trevor had been as good as her word. "What time is she coming? I can start supper now, if she's –"
"I doubt she'll stay to eat. She lives on muesli and swordfish." Sherlock leapt to his feet and peered inside the shopping bags, then picked them up and carried them into the kitchen. As John watched, Sherlock began to unload the groceries and put them in their proper spots in the cupboards.
"Okay." John went to his chair, hung his wet coat over the back, and sat, leafing through the post. He separated Sherlock's mail from his own and listened to the sounds of Sherlock's sudden burst of domesticity.
They'd been home a week, and things had been…well, normal on the face of things, but decidedly weird underneath. John had decided to go back to work, electing to use the rest of his holiday leave some other time. Sherlock had gone to NSY and brought home a stack of cold cases that he'd claimed Lestrade had pressed on him – an obvious fiction, and John couldn't quite see why Sherlock was so anxious to preserve it since he didn't have anything else on at the moment. John came home to the usual jumble of Sherlock's work, and a few times he'd gone out with Sherlock – once to look at a Bromley flat, the site of a murder, once to chat up a fellow named Stick, one of Sherlock's homeless informants, and once to question an elderly lady who'd witnessed the aftermath of a strangling/robbing in which the victim didn't die. Sherlock was his ordinary hyperactive, quick-tongued, brainiac self, but there had been moments, in taxicabs or on the tube or walking, when Sherlock was a bit off. Quiet, hesitant, stealing glances at John when he thought John wasn't looking. And he'd been unusually polite and solicitous – just like now, putting stuff in the cupboards – it wasn't Sherlock's style.
Looking back, he probably should have talked to Sherlock on the train. John had had an inkling that Sherlock was going to explain his little liaison with Ian, and John hadn't quite been up to hearing explanations, which probably would have been perfectly logical and totally justified and completely reasonable, really – of course Sherlock had needs, he wasn't a god damned robot no matter what John thought, and oh, Christ, what a fucking mess it all was. Because John's feelings hadn't changed; oh, he was still jealous, no question about it. And he'd allowed himself to get caught up with Ian, too, all because he was jealous and pissed off about it.
Caught up. That's a nice way to put it.
Now it was too late to talk about it. What was he going to do – nudge Sherlock with an elbow in the back of a taxicab and say, "Hey, Sherlock, about you fucking Ian Adler – no worries, mate. He gave me the most mobile head I've ever had, so we're even." Yeah. Great. Or maybe, "Listen, Sherlock, I've spent the last year falling in love with you but I've only just sorted it out, so do you think maybe, you know – bedroom?" Sure. Fantastic. If Sherlock didn't die laughing, he'd be perfectly justified in telling John to fuck off. He hadn't even answered when Moriarty had made those cracks about the two of them; the thought of Sherlock and John being together hadn't merited so much as a smart remark.
I'd kill you. You know that, don't you?
Sherlock cared about him. As a friend. John knew that. And it meant the world.
Isn't that enough?
A knock at the door interrupted his trajectory of thought. "I'll get it." He opened the door to see a large man in a suit carrying an enormous cardboard box.
Victoria Trevor peeked over the man's shoulder. "Hello, Dr. Watson! May we come in?"
"Sure." Bemused, John stepped aside and let them pass.
"Just set it next to that chair, Patrick. Thank you so much. I'll be down in a few minutes." She smiled at John. "Are you quite recovered, Dr. Watson? That was more excitement than you bargained for, I'm sure."
"John," said John, taking her hand. She smelled of that nice perfume. "Won't you sit down?"
"Just for a moment. I have a dinner engagement." She sat and crossed her excellent legs and beamed at John, then at Sherlock as he emerged from the kitchen. "Hello, Sherlock."
"I wanted to bring you a little token of gratitude. Well, not so little." She nodded at the box. "Really it's from Simon. And the community of San Stefano, to thank you for your work. Simon's sorry he hasn't called –"
"Oh, I doubt that," Sherlock said loftily.
"Sherlock," Victoria chided. "Come on now. We've begun the process to get San Stefano listed as a World Heritage Site. I don't know if we'll be successful, but even if we're not, we'll tie the place up in red tape long enough for me to work out something else. Simon and I are not going to allow the abbey to fall into the hands of some heartless capitalist who'd tear it down as soon as look at it. Simon wanted you to know how very grateful he is."
Sherlock sat in John's chair. "You're not so grateful, are you, Trevor?"
"I am, though." She smiled at John. "To both of you."
"You're not wearing your wedding ring," Sherlock said. "And I've never seen you without it before."
"Sherlock –" John said.
"No, it's –" Victoria waved her hand. "It's fine, John." She shook her head. "You're right. I won't be writing any thank-you notes for that, Sherlock."
"I told you he was useless from the very first, Trevor," Sherlock said. "And surely it's not my fault he got greedy and started taking kickbacks. Probably called them scouting fees. Still, best that you gave him the heave-ho. He'd have done it again, as often as possible, and if he'd had more opportunities to undermine you, he would have done."
"How do you know I – oh, never mind. Yes, I sent him packing. What he did – go ahead and mock me if you want, but it was immoral of him. It was wrong. I don't know how he got mixed up with someone willing to stoop to blackmail and murder, but it was wrong of him, and he knew it. I couldn't abide it, but…he was my husband. I never thought…." She sighed. "I wouldn't have believed him capable of treachery."
"I'm sorry, Victoria," John said quietly.
"Thank you." Victoria was silent a moment, then she tapped the box briskly. "Well, are you going to open this? It's for both of you, so you'll simply have to live together forever – that is, there's no way to divide it up."
Sherlock made no comment, but knelt beside the box.
"Careful of your knee," John said.
"It's fine," Sherlock replied shortly. He pulled the packing tape from the parcel, then dove into a froth of polystyrene peanuts and withdrew a large, thickly carved wooden box. "Ah."
"That's not –" John frowned. "That's not the codex, is it?"
"It is," Victoria said, fishing in her handbag and retrieving a folded piece of paper. "I have a list of care instructions here, too."
"We're not morons, Trevor," Sherlock said. He rose to his feet, went to his desk, and shoved a stack of books aside to get to a drawer. The books slid to the ground in every direction, spoiling the relative tidiness of the room. Sherlock rummaged in the drawer and came up with a pair of cotton gloves which he donned, smoothing the fingers with unnecessary ceremony, then moved back to the box.
"I never got to see the thing," John said, coming to kneel beside Sherlock. "Let's have a look, then."
Sherlock lifted the lid and set it aside. The codex itself was large, nearly fitting the confines of the box, and though the blue cover was cracked and ancient, it was still handsome, with a stitched crest in its centre. Sherlock opened it, and they gazed at the beautifully executed lettering, the minuscule and detailed drawings in the margins. Sherlock turned a thick vellum page and John gave a quiet cry of appreciation at the picture of a man standing at the mouth of a cave, one hand raised in benediction. The colours were still vivid, the gold of halo and surrounding filigree still brilliant. "We can't take this," John said. "It's far too valuable."
"If not for you, the abbey would have fallen into Mr. Moriarty's hands," Victoria said. "Simon very much hopes that you'll accept it. I know…I know you both risked your lives. Please take it."
Sherlock nodded. "It's beautiful, Trevor. Tell Simon…tell him thank you. From both of us." Carefully, Sherlock replaced the lid, then got to his feet and placed the box on his desk.
"It really is gorgeous. Thank you," John said, but shook his head, and a frown furrowed his brow. "I still think it's too valuable to keep in the flat, though. Unprotected." And considering Sherlock's housekeeping habits, it might end its days propping up bowls of tongues or entrails.
"It's yours," Victoria said. "It's a gift. You can do whatever you like with it. I'm certain that whatever you decide, it'll be in good hands. Thank you both. You surpassed my expectations and found the murderers, and I'll always be grateful. And perhaps someday I'll have another mystery for you to solve."
"Give it a couple of weeks," John advised drily. "His knee's still playing up. Not as spry as he used to be."
Victoria smiled. "But you'll be there to support him when he needs it, John." She rose to her feet. "I must go." She walked to Sherlock, who got up, and while he didn't fling his arms round her, he did pat her shoulder as she embraced him and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, darling. Really."
"Take care of yourself, Trevor," Sherlock said softly.
John realised that he was staring and got to his feet. "I'll walk you down."
"How nice," Victoria said, and gave John her arm. They walked down the stairs without speaking, and into the rainy street where Victoria's driver waited with an umbrella. She turned to John and kissed his cheek, and he inhaled the pretty fragrance of her perfume, and felt the soft skin of her face against his. She straightened and smiled at him, and he realised that he couldn't ask what he'd fleetingly considered asking her – how long had she and Sherlock been together, what was he like as a partner, how they'd initiated the whole thing. Curious as he was, he couldn't pry at her with those questions. "Thank you, John. So very much. And thank you for…for taking such good care of Sherlock. I know he can be caustic, but he only wants a little tender prodding to bring him to understand...well, I can see it, at least I flatter myself that I can." Her cheeks had turned a bit pink. "What I'm trying to say is that you're very good for him. I hope he's good for you."
"It's a bit of a learning curve," John admitted. "I suppose you found that out too. Listen, thank you for the cheque. It was more than we agreed, though, and –"
"Never mind that. Perhaps you and Sherlock can go on a nice holiday somewhere."
Suddenly and quite unaccountably, John found himself angry. He managed a smile, though, and said, "I hope I haven't given you cause to misconstrue anything, Ms. Trevor." Oh, it's Ms. Trevor again, is it? "I've got a girlfriend –" Or at least he'd had one a few weeks ago. "—and I expect I'd be taking my holidays with her."
Victoria Trevor's face sagged for a moment. "Oh, I – oh my goodness, I'm so dreadfully sorry. I'm afraid I've made some rather sweeping assumptions. John, I hope you can forgive my clumsiness."
Embarrassed now, John waved a hand. "Please, don't worry about it. Happens more than you'd think. Um, maybe we can all have dinner one day, yeah?" He kept his eyes from dropping to her legs.
"I'm going back to Cologne at the end of the week. But I'm sure I'll be back before the end of summer, so yes, let's." She swooped down, kissed John's cheek again, and stepped into the car. He waved just before the door closed.
"I can escort you to the door, sir," said the man with the umbrella.
"No, that's fine. Thanks anyway." John dashed to the door and fumbled for the wet knob, but not before he'd looked up and saw the front window sliding shut.
Shaking off his cardigan, John trotted upstairs and saw Sherlock on the floor, paging through the codex. "Hang on, go back. I haven't seen the whole thing." He crouched to the ground as Sherlock obligingly went back a few pages. He shook his head and exclaimed softly at the lettering and illustrated marginalia, and here and there a blinding, beautiful full page illustration, full of swirling colour and delicate gilding.
Sherlock turned another page. "Have you heard from Emily since you've been back?"
"Oh, yes. Of course."
"And…yeah, I think she might want to patch things up." A lie, and a fairly large one at that.
"She hasn't been by."
"Well, I've been busy working, and going on those cases with you." John's face flamed as he realised he'd been caught out. She was never going to stop by again, and Sherlock had probably deduced that from John's actions and lack of calls and texts since they'd come home. Alice had been a dedicated and inveterate texter and caller as well as an impromptu visitor, much to Sherlock's annoyance (and to be honest, sometimes to John's annoyance too) and in the past week there hadn't been a single call except from Harry, who'd gleefully informed John that she and Clara had resumed their relationship. "I expect she'll pop round at some point."
"I see," Sherlock said, and turned another page.
Yeah, I'll just bet you do. God damn it anyhow. "Sherlock…we really can't keep this here. I doubt it's the right environment in terms of the damp, and if it's sitting round the flat I'm sure that something terrible's going to happen to it. We need to put it in a safety deposit box or something."
"Most banks are phasing out their boxes," Sherlock replied. He turned another page and steepled his fingers under his chin. "Anyway, we'd have to find one to accommodate the size of this thing, and that might be difficult. I do have an idea, though, if you're agreeable."
"Okay," John replied cautiously. Time to ease into a new existence, one where any notions you might have had are just…just a thing of the past. Something fleeting and meaningless. Something we'd both laugh about were anyone to bring it up. And it'll be okay. You can go through the motions, and eventually you'll be able to sleep through the night again, and at some point your heart will stop squeezing itself in your chest when you look at him. Things will be normal again.
"Okay," John said again. "Let's hear it."
"If you'll just initial there and there, Mr. Holmes – Dr. Watson. Splendid. Splendid. I think that's everything. Thank you so very much." The small committee assembled before them, composed of the director of the National Antiquities Museum, the Medieval Arts curator, their chief legal counsel, and the head of trustees, beamed ecstatically at John and Sherlock. "We haven't received a gift of this magnitude for quite some time," the director went on. "You can imagine how very excited we are."
Sherlock's expression was neutral; in fact he seemed faintly bored, no surprises there, but John managed an uneasy smile in return. "It's…we're glad to do it."
"And of course our archives are open to you day or night, as requested."
"Thank you. I think that's everything," Sherlock said, and stood to leave. John followed Sherlock's lead, and the suits came round the table to shake their hands.
"It's already mounted and displayed," the curator said eagerly. "If you'd like to see it, I'd be happy to –"
"I think we can find it on our own, don't you, John? Good afternoon," he said, walking out the door before waiting for the others to say goodbye.
"Thank you," John said, waving as he passed through the door. The museum people were all still grinning delightedly – it was a little bizarre. John wondered exactly how much the codex was worth. Quite a lot, if their smiles were any indication of its value. Surely the museum appraisers must have given it a thorough going-over.
Sherlock walked through the museum's halls with no particular urgency, and John caught up with him quickly. Sherlock glanced at him briefly as they fell into step, but remained quiet.
"I've never been here in the daytime," John commented. The last time he'd been, he and Sherlock were ducking Black Lotus gunfire. "Maybe when I was a kid," he amended.
"Family, or school trip?"
"School trip. My parents weren't much for museum excursions."
"And what did you like best?"
John wondered about this surge of curiosity, as well as Sherlock's leisurely pace. "Ancient Egypt, probably. Specifically the mummy cases. You know – dead bodies. Every kid wants to look at a millennium-old corpse. Even you, I'll bet."
One side of Sherlock's mouth turned up in acknowledgment of John's gentle barb. "Yes, I suppose I did. I came here quite a lot as a child. Mycroft and I both loved the place."
It was easy to picture a tiny Sherlock racing pell-mell to get to the exhibits he wanted to see, tugging on his mother's coat to urge her into increasing her speed, chattering to Mycroft, being scolded by guards. John smiled and loosened the knot of his tie a bit. "Ever try to steal anything?"
Sherlock chuckled. "Where do you think the skull came from?"
"No," John breathed.
"No, not really. I did try to pinch the Janssen microscope once, however, but unfortunately I got caught. The guard didn't seem to believe that I was only planning to borrow it. Idiot."
"Uh-huh. And how old were you?"
"Nine." This time Sherlock bestowed a full, mischievous grin upon John.
"Sneaky little git," John said, and then his smile faded. He paused to look at an Etruscan cup, squat, double-handled, with a scarcely readable inscription on its surface. The small typed card next to it described it, and translated the inscription: I belong to Avile Repesuna.
If you really want to get over this, you're going to have to forgive him. Without reservation, and without looking back. You can't keep nurturing a grudge, especially when Sherlock didn't do anything you didn't do yourself.
That wasn't altogether true. He hadn't actually been fucked; it was just a blow job.
Brilliant. Because blow jobs don't count, right?
It was backward thinking, and John damn well knew it. But there was a part of him that simmered and cried out the age-old plaintive and futile protest: it's not fair! Well, who the fuck said life was fair? John wasn't a kid; he'd learned that a long time ago. But still the resentment lingered, and John realised, quite suddenly, that he was afraid – of the answer Sherlock might give if John asked about Ian, that they couldn't go back to the way things had been, that they'd either part in anger, or worse – indifference, that one day, maybe soon, Sherlock would be out of his life, as if he'd never been in John's life at all.
A hand fell on his shoulder. "Are you ready to move on?" Sherlock, at John's elbow, spoke quietly, as if not to disturb other patrons – except they were alone in the room. It was a Wednesday afternoon, too late for the caterpillar-parade of kiddies, walking with linked hands, for the rise-and-shine-and-beat-the-crowd museum-goers, for sketchbook-wielding art students, for romantic young couples; it was a day for irregularly-employed consulting detectives and locum-work doctors.
John heaved an involuntary sigh. "Yeah. We'd better shift it or they'll kick us out."
"They won't kick us out. Not after that donation."
"What do you suppose it's worth?" John inquired, moving down the hall toward the Medieval Gallery.
"The solicitor's paperwork said four and a half million."
Of course Sherlock had read the solicitor's paperwork. Upside down, no less. "Jesus."
"Yes. So being booted out is highly unlikely."
"Despite you nicking a centuries-old microscope."
"Trying to nick it." Sherlock corrected him. "Different personnel at the time, otherwise I wouldn't be so sure."
John laughed a little, and his heart, in the space of two breaths, thumped unevenly. Forgive him. Forgive him and then forget. You'd miss this.
And he would. All those experiences, the camaraderie, the adventure, the danger, the unexpected moments of hilarity that he now understood he cherished deeply. He imagined living with Alice, or with Sarah, or Maisie, or Lucy, or Jeannette. Would he be content? Or would he be bored and scarcely aware of it, believing that was what life was supposed to be? He couldn't imagine wanting to watch Jeanette mixing up a batch of biscuits, as opposed to watching Sherlock whip up an acid bath for a human eyeball. He'd never had a friend like Sherlock – did he really want to lose it over one meaningless fuck?
He didn't want that. That was the long and short of it. He smiled up at Sherlock, and Sherlock, seeming to sense that John was looking at him, returned the smile.
Silently, they made their way to the medieval wing and meandered a bit, stopping to gaze at a carved-gold reliquary, a chain-mail hauberk and gorget, an intricate alabaster panel, a silver chalice speckled with gems. Then they saw a glass cube atop a rectangular marble pedestal bearing a placard, on which was written New Acquisition. They moved closer, and there it was beside its carved wooden box, softly lit, open to an illustration of some fantastical animal, all crimson, black, and heavy gilt opposite a page of text.
The card inside the cube read Codex, c. AD 900. Leather, wood, and vellum, containing a portion of the works of St. Jerome. San Stefano Abbey, Bolzano, Italy. And below that: Gift of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.
They gazed at it without speaking for a long time. Finally, John said, "They did a nice job."
"Yes." Almost reverently, Sherlock touched the glass. He pressed his lips together. "John –"
"They chose to highlight an interesting passage."
John jumped and whirled at the unexpected voice, and his stomach clenched in dismay. Oh, fucking hell.
Sherlock, meanwhile, hadn't budged a bit, didn't so much as glance over his shoulder. "Have they?"
"Yes." Ian Adler stepped out of the shadows and glided closer to the display pedestal. He traced a fingertip over the glass and read aloud. "'Often I would find myself entering those crypts, deep dug in the earth, with their walls on either side lined with the bodies of the dead, where everything was so dark that almost it seemed as though the Psalmist's words were fulfilled, Let them go down quick into Hell. Here and there the light, not entering in through windows, but filtering down from above through shafts, relieved the horror of the darkness. But again, as soon as you found yourself cautiously moving forward, the black night closed around and there came to my mind the line of Virgil: Everywhere horror seizes the soul, and the very silence is dreadful.'"
Nobody spoke for a moment. At last Sherlock remarked, "Apt."
A small smile curled Ian's mouth. "Yes. I thought so too."
John stood to one side, mute and churning inside. He saw Ian and Sherlock glance at each other, and he fancied he actually saw a spark leap between them. He longed to turn tail and flee, but he was rooted to the spot. If he spoke, he'd betray himself – all the anger and hurt would pour out and he wouldn't be able to stop it.
Ian turned his gaze to John, and John couldn't help but look back. Ian's eyes were bright in the dim room, his expression nearly tender. "It's a very generous gift," Ian said. "And generous of the abbey to give it to you."
"Yes," Sherlock said. "Luckily, there were a few monks left alive to give it."
"I suppose I deserve that." Ian moved his gaze from John to Sherlock.
Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back. "You deserve much more than that."
"Maybe," Ian said. "Are you going to phone the police? You could have done that in Italy, you know." He folded his arms, and the leather of his motorbike jacket creaked ever so slightly. "Both of you could have subdued me if you'd tried." He looked back at John and smiled. "In fact, Dr. Watson had no difficulty subduing me all by himself."
"Naturally. He's quite strong and quick-witted. And he recognises dubious character when he sees it," Sherlock said.
Distantly, John perceived the compliment, but Ian's presence trampled whatever gratitude he might have felt. He was as still as stone, flushed with anger and guilt and a sick, frightened uncertainty. Ian was dazzling even in the hushed atmosphere of the museum, and John watched Sherlock watching Ian and all but felt Sherlock drawing toward him, away from John.
"Oh, but you like dubious character, don't you? Admit it, Sherlock – there's nothing subtle or interesting about pure black and white."
"I don't need lessons in subtlety from you." Sherlock gave John a sidelong glance. "Thanks all the same. How did you know we'd be here?"
"I have my ways. And your little donation hasn't exactly been kept under wraps, you know – I read about it on Twitter." Ian's eyes tracked Sherlock, then slid to John. "I'd like to thank you for saving my skin – and not turning me over to Interpol. Both of you."
John found his voice at last. "Why would we? You're just a Latin scholar." And a sexual athlete. And taller than I am, and better-looking, and more exciting. Oh, fucking hell.
Ian's eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. "Would you…would both of you like to come to dinner with me? That is…if you're both hungry. I have an engagement, but I'd be happy to break it."
Sherlock gave John another sidelong glance. John contained the deep sigh he wanted to heave and simply shook his head. He'll say yes. And it's…fine. If that's what he wants.
"I'm afraid we already have plans," Sherlock said smoothly. "Kind of you to ask."
"It's a standing invitation. For both of you." Ian consulted his watch. "It's getting late and I suppose I'll keep my previous rendezvous after all. Perhaps I'll see you again sometime. I must say at least some of our acquaintance has been absolutely delightful." He flashed a smile. "Mr. Holmes. Dr. Watson." He nodded to each in turn, then walked away, his footsteps echoing away to silence in the empty corridors.
John rested a hand on the cool marble pedestal, unable to meet Sherlock's eyes, and an audible breath shuddered its way out of his throat. His phone pinged with a text, and after a few seconds had passed, he heard Sherlock's phone ping as well. They both retrieved their mobiles; John, still carefully not looking at Sherlock, read his text.
Sine amore, nihil est vita.
Thoughtfully, Sherlock slid his mobile into his pocket. John stared at the words a moment more. They were small and he realised he should have been able to discern the meaning, but he couldn't gather a coherent thought. "What does it mean?" he asked.
Sherlock turned away. "Without love, life is pointless." He stared down at the codex for a long moment, then pivoted on his heel to face John again. "I'm famished. Shall we go out for a bite?"
John blinked. "I think we have a lot of leftover pasta back at the flat."
"It's always better the second day."
"Yeah." John could scarcely breathe around the knot in his chest. "It is."
Sherlock gently steered John away from the codex. "Let's go home, then."
Sherlock's domestic fit seemed to be continuing apace; he actually cleared the table without having to be asked. Clearing, in this case, being gathering up the stuff on it (all his, naturally) and redistributing it to various flat surfaces in the kitchen, including the worktop where John was chopping a salad. John looked down at the tray of mold slides and puckered his mouth.
"No?" Sherlock asked.
"Maybe over there," John indicated a free space further down. Sherlock obligingly moved the tray, wiped off the table, and set it while John got the food together. They sat down to plates of salad and steaming-hot heaps of pasta and set to with a will.
John twirled long strands of vermicelli round his fork, not quite able to look Sherlock full in the face. He couldn't propel his thoughts out of the single track they'd occupied all through the nearly silent walk home and the preparation of dinner.
Sherlock had rejected Ian. But it didn't mean that he'd chosen John in Ian's stead. John was the flatmate, the tag-along, and Sherlock's casual dismissal could have meant nothing at all and if he didn't stop thinking about it he was going to drive himself right round the fucking twist. John wasn't cut out for obsession, or guessing games. If Sherlock wanted him – fine. If not – well, if not, it was time to move on. He had to get it out. Sherlock might be uncomfortable, embarrassed, contemptuous, but it didn't matter.
John screwed up his courage. Fuck you, Ian. "Sherlock –"
"You're still angry with me."
Startled, John simply gaped for a few seconds. "What?"
"You're still angry with me because I spent the night with Ian." As John opened his mouth to reply, Sherlock held up a hand. "No, you don't have to bother denying it, I know it's true. I acknowledge that it mightn't have been the wisest sort of behaviour, under the circumstances."
"Or any circumstances," John muttered. "Sherlock, look. You don't owe me any explanations. I wanted to say –"
"John, please. I've had a great deal of time to think the whole thing over, and it would be ridiculously easy to slide under the providential cloaking of ease and proximity and hormonal overload into some semblance of an explanation that might satisfy you, but I'm afraid it wouldn't do any good in the end. I've always sought out the truth, you see, and just lately I've arrived at one that's quite basic and simple at its core and that I probably should have realised some time ago, but I suppose I was afr – that I was hesitant to really understand it."
John blinked. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Sherlock shook his head and scowled thunderously. "Ian. Well. I admit that he was a rather misguided impulse, though not without its compensations."
Some of the pasta seemed to be stuck in John's throat. He took a sip of wine. "You mean you liked fucking him."
Slowly, but steadily, Sherlock's face turned pink. He picked up his glass and drained off the rest of his wine. "Yes. Yes, I did, but the pleasure was purely physical and fleeting."
"It usually is."
"That's probably true when both parties aren't emotionally entangled with each other." Sherlock heaved a deep breath.
An odd, almost tender amusement blossomed in John's heart despite his own trepidation. "That's not always a bad thing, Sherlock," he replied gently.
"No, of course not. But that's just it, don't you see? I always knew that any sort of – er, satisfaction I might have derived from Ian's company would be fleeting, and the reason for that is –" Sherlock stared at John, almost daring him to look away. "I already am emotionally entangled."
A frisson of terror worked its way into John's body. He wet his lips and searched Sherlock's face. "Is that right? Can I ask who it is?"
Sherlock looked down at his plate. Slowly, he reached out and touched the back of John's hand and then timidly withdrew it. When he spoke, his voice was softer than John had ever heard it. "Do you need to ask?"
John dared a breath, then another. "Me?"
Still staring at his plate, Sherlock said, "You should know that I harbour absolutely zero expectation, John, especially in light of the fact that you've repeatedly asserted your heterosexuality, not to mention the dozens of women who've been –"
"Sherlock." John waited until Sherlock met his gaze. His heart gave a strange little larrup at the sight of Sherlock's face, the tiny pulse below his jaw, the lean body held unnaturally rigid, waiting.
"What took you so bloody long?"
Sherlock's eyes widened, and he pressed his lips together tightly. John felt a silly grin breaking out on his face. God, isn't he something.
A shaky smile appeared on Sherlock's face. "I didn't know."
"You? Go on."
Sherlock laughed softly in appreciation of John's teasing. "I'm not perfect." He glanced downward, crossing his arms. "Not completely, anyhow."
"Neither am I," John said, suddenly remembering. "Sherlock, about Ian. I –"
"You were with him, too."
"How the hell did you guess that?"
"Simple enough. When you brought him to the well, I had a look at his knees. Ian's meticulous about his clothes, but there was mud on his knees, a faint tread pattern that matches the pair of shoes you were wearing that day. So he was on his knees in a room where you'd recently come out of the rain. Wasn't much of a leap from there."
A flush crawled up John's neck. "I was jealous. And angry. He showed me the video of you two, and I just – I wanted revenge, I guess." It was out. Everything he'd been holding back for months – all the longing and turbulence that he'd stored up inside and allowed to fester. He felt as though he'd been blasted by an icy, cleansing wind. "I'm sorry." He met Sherlock's intent gaze. "Are you upset with me?"
"I was. Momentarily. But –" Sherlock lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Sauce for the goose, I suppose." He rose to his feet and walked round the table to John's chair. Taking John's hand in his, he tugged gently, and John got up. They looked at each other for a moment, and then Sherlock enfolded John in his arms, and John kissed, for the first time and at long last, the lips he knew as well as his own, the plush, yielding softness he'd never hoped would be his. He lingered, savouring the feel of Sherlock's mouth, and when Sherlock's tongue tentatively probed at John's lips, he opened with eagerness, deepening the kiss and boldly sliding his hands down to cup Sherlock's arse.
Sherlock pulled away slightly. "Shall we save the rest of dinner for later?"
Hands locked firmly together, they made their way to Sherlock's room and peered inside. "Your room, I think," Sherlock said.
John looked at the gigantic pile of clothes and odd, assorted objects on Sherlock's bed. "Yeah. I think so."
John's bed was narrow, but it didn't matter in the least. He yanked the blankets aside and pulled Sherlock down and they clung together, eagerly exploring each other as piece by piece, their clothes were discarded and tossed to the floor. Naked, Sherlock was startlingly pale, his eyes alchemised into brilliant spots of colour in the waning sunlight. John stuck his fingers in Sherlock's hair, disarraying the dark curls, something he'd wanted to do for a while. Sherlock suckled John's earlobe, traced his tongue around the contours of his ear, and whispered, "I want to do filthy things to your body."
That almost undid John completely, but he held it together. "Like what?"
"Like this." Sherlock's fingers slid between John's legs, but didn't touch his already rigid cock; instead, they briefly caressed his balls, slipped along John's perineum, and pushed inside him. John gasped. "Does it hurt?"
"No," John croaked. Oh, Christ. "No, don't stop." He curled his fingers round Sherlock's prick and tugged gently, provoking an answering moan. "Do you like that?"
"Yes. Yes." Sherlock kissed John, pushing his tongue possessively into John's mouth, and his fingers probed more deeply. He broke the kiss and buried his face in John's neck, tasting him, suckling, sometimes nipping at his collarbone. He hooked a leg over John's and drew him in tightly.
"Sherlock…Sherlock, fuck me."
"There's time for that." Sherlock circled John's nipple with his tongue. "Are you in a hurry?"
"I don't know, I don't…ah, God –" Sherlock had moved down John's chest and belly and was tracing his tongue round the head of John's cock, and never stopped the steady thrusting of his fingers. "I want to – ah, fuck –"
Wordlessly, Sherlock turned and swung atop John, straddling his body, his cock and balls close to John's mouth. It was too tempting an invitation. John grasped Sherlock's thigh, drew him closer, and teased at the soft skin, his free hand wrapping round Sherlock's prick and pulling. Sherlock's ministrations stuttered to a stop, but he began again with renewed energy until the wet, hot suction of his mouth and the persistent prodding of those long, strong fingers sent John over the edge. He cried out and came, bucking deep into Sherlock's mouth and tightening his grasp on Sherlock's cock. Frantically, he pulled, Sherlock's prick hot and rigid in his hand, until Sherlock gasped and warm wetness spilled over John's hand.
They stayed still for a moment, breathing hard, then John let Sherlock go and rested his hands on Sherlock's hips, gently urging him to turn. "Come here. Come on." Sherlock obeyed, falling beside John, pulling him close, and flinging one long leg over John's hip so that he was trapped. John smiled at the sight of Sherlock's flushed and sweating face. "Kiss me." Sherlock leant close and kissed John deeply and thoroughly. John tasted his own semen, slightly bitter, and inhaled the exciting tang of Sherlock's body, fresh sweat, salt, and a faint lingering odour of some expensive cologne. "Nice," John murmured, and slipped his hands down to fondle Sherlock's arse.
"Yeah – it was lovely. You're lovely." John caressed Sherlock's hip. "Fantastic."
"I've never –" Sherlock took a shuddering breath. "That was different for me."
"Different from Ian?"
"Yes." Sherlock's fingertips smoothed over John's brow.
"Different from Victoria?"
Sherlock smiled. "Trevor? Oh yes. Quite different from Trevor. How did you know about her?"
"Wouldn't have thought he'd be a gossip." Sherlock moved close and kissed John's mouth again. "That was a long time ago. A blip in the context of the years we've known one another."
It wasn't a particle of John's business, but he felt strangely relieved. He nestled closer to Sherlock's damp, aromatic body and breathed in his scent, full of a peculiar, fragile wonderment. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Later, they showered together, getting water all over the bathroom floor as Sherlock knelt, spread John's legs apart, and demonstrated the facility of a tongue adept at far more than scathing witticisms and icily pointed observations. John had had to stuff his hand in his mouth to stop himself from roaring aloud. Afterward they wrapped up in their bathrobes and microwaved their cold dinners, eating on the couch, huddled together and talking desultorily as a fire crackled on the hearth. The last of the spring chill hadn't quite ended.
"What about Alice?" Sherlock wanted to know.
An uncomfortable half-smile tilted John's mouth. "She told me to fuck off. But you probably knew that."
"I guessed." Sherlock plucked a slightly wilted plum tomato from John's plate and popped it in his mouth. "You do realise, don't you, that Ian invited us both out to dinner."
John paused, his fork halfway to his lips, and then put the fork down. "He…do you mean that he…both of us?"
"I think so. Don't you?"
John considered the possibility, and it wasn't altogether unpleasant. "I don't think I'm quite ready for that yet."
"I don't think I'm willing to share you."
John smiled a bit bashfully and caressed Sherlock's thigh. A lot had changed, and yet…it wouldn't be entirely paved with roses, John knew. Their essential natures hadn't changed. They were two people who fumbled along the long-way-round path of affection. They were impatient and hasty and impulsive, and it wasn't the end of bumping heads and misunderstandings and bad timing. But maybe if they felt their way carefully, they could find their way to the heart of things, and stay awhile. "Neither do I."
"I wonder if we've seen the last of him."
"I suspect not. Funny that he seemed to find us so easily." John wasn't completely settled on the matter of Ian Adler, but the uneasiness that accompanied the sound of his name had dwindled. After all, he was emotionally entangled now. "Twitter, I guess."
"Ah. Yes." Sherlock bent and kissed John's neck. "Are you sorry we donated the codex now that you know its value?"
"No. I'd have been nervous having it here in the flat. It was a good idea."
"A tiny scrap of immortality." When John looked at him questioningly, Sherlock shrugged and smiled. "I'm not completely immune to vanity."
John grinned. "No?" He put his plate on the table, took Sherlock's plate and did the same, and kissed him, rubbing his hand up and down the gloriously soft silk of Sherlock's dressing gown, caressing the long, taut muscles beneath.
Immortality. Maybe that was true. The codex, in the museum, would always link them together, no matter what happened. Not that he needed a tangible reminder; Sherlock was enough, his crackling presence, his lightning-fast brains, his sharp tongue, his mad vitality, his inexplicable preoccupations – John knew now that he couldn't do without them. But there was an odd little pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, people would stop to admire the codex, and see their names, and maybe indulge in a bit of speculation about the pair.
Gift of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.
It had a ring to it.
That it does, John thought, and kissed Sherlock again.
For the first twenty-four hours he'd received neither food nor water, but he'd been thirsty and hungry before, and so it was less of a hardship than his captors believed. When they'd chosen to feed him, it was dry bread, a tiny cup of water, twice a day. Then three times a day. Now he was getting sandwiches, institutional luncheon meat and plastic cheese on dry bread, and a cup of coffee in the morning. The lap of luxury, really.
Yesterday, three men had entered his windowless room. Two burly men in cheap grey suits and another man, balding, with deceptively mild eyes and a voice like cut glass. Jim had suppressed a smile at the sight of the third man, who wasn't nearly the mysterious figure he'd hoped himself to be. In fact, Jim knew very well who he was. Very well indeed.
The two burly men had handcuffed him to his bed and had struck him, over and over, until his eyes were puffed nearly shut and his mouth was bleeding and short two teeth. He'd remained silent, smiling a little smile, memorising their faces.
The inmate who brought his food had slipped him a note this morning. Dzundza was gone, extradited to Prague. Jim had flushed the note with little more than a shrug. Dzundza had become entirely unreliable, and if he'd been hoping that Jim's influence would help to free him, he was in for serious disappointment.
At least Seb was free. Not that Seb's liberty was paramount, but it was important to have someone on the outside whom he could trust, someone who knew how to terrorise the right people so that Jim could resume his normal life. The prison uniform was cheap and stiff and scratched his skin; he missed appetising food and access to the outside world and the pleasure of choosing his own music. They piped canned, easy-listening muzak into his cell, and the first thing he was going to do when he was out was find the person responsible for that and have each finger cut off and stuffed into every orifice of his or her head.
Meanwhile, he had to do something to pass the time. Honestly, what a drag this was.
He reached beneath his cot and found the screw he'd worked from the cot leg. Its absence made the thing a bit wobbly, but that wasn't the worst thing about the concrete box that encased him. He bounced the screw in his hand and let out a little giggle. "Screwed. I'm screwed, and soon you'll be screwed, sweetheart. I owe you one."
He stood and faced the one-way mirror, smiling for the benefit of whoever happened to be watching him through the glass.
He knelt, and scratched a curve into the concrete, the first faint shape of a name.
Thank you so very much for reading, and your patience while this fic was on hiatus.