Blue and orange were supposedly ‘complimentary’ colours, but Sherlock could not find it in himself to agree. The big striped tent in front of him was garish, plain and simple, and that, mixed with the strong stench of artificial butter product and burnt sugar, was making him queasy. The unidentifiable music box melody floating through the air wasn’t too unpleasant though, and John’s confused expression beside him was enough to tip the balance back to favourable.
With a quick adjustment of his collar, he stepped into the circus.
“Mr. Padmore?” he intoned upon seeing a ferret-faced, round sort of man who was wearing a wine-coloured three-piece suit and making a show of helping carry a large crate, while obviously not burdening himself at all.
“Uh yes,” the man grunted. “Who are you?”
“A friend of your wife’s,” Sherlock replied. John snorted, but that was easy to ignore.
“My… wife’s?” the man considered. “Oh! Oh yes, of course! Right this way.” Mr. Padmore then strolled off, forgetting the crate he wasn’t helping with.
“What’s going on here, Sherlock?” John muttered. He was struggling to stay close to his friend following the burgundy blimp, and struggling even harder to figure out why on earth they were at a circus. His detective just raised both eyebrows in answer, the ‘in due time’ quite heavily implied.
“Delilah?” Mr. Padmore called, and the office door swung open, revealing a tiny blonde woman with a huge handful of pens.
“Yes darling? Oh! This must be the boffin I sent for!”
Sherlock squirmed at the title. “Holmes, thank you. Mrs. Delilah Padmore, I presume?”
“Yes, that’s me! Co-manager of Bluebottle Circus along with my husband Thomas here.” She pulled him into the office and made room for the other men to enter. Sherlock had to dip his head to get through the door, and then had to remain hunched seeing as the ceiling was decorated with a variety of dried flowers, paper chains, and colourful lanterns. John poked curiously at a bouquet of cornflowers which shattered abruptly, raining him with dry petals. He then resolved to stay perfectly still. “I don’t suppose you’ve figured it all out already, have you?” Delilah laughed.
“Not yet, but then I haven’t seen the evidence, suspects, or crime scene.”
“Ah,” Delilah responded, still smiling, “No crime scene yet.”
“Uh, should we show him the letters then?” Thomas offered. He had begun to reach towards the desk before Sherlock stopped him.
“You two can go see to your business. I’ll just be a moment with them.” Sherlock could see out of the corner of his eye John already reading them upside down from afar, looking rather put off.
“Oh no, I don’t think so. Can’t just leave you alone in the office!” Delilah was still smiling eerily wide, but her determination was clear.
“Clearly,” Sherlock mumbled, pushing past her to assess the letters laid carefully across the desk, surrounded by receipts, candy wrappers, and a pile of scribbles. “None of those pens will match, by the way.”
“Oh?” She looked a little guilty, caught in some of her own detective work.
“Delilah! You don’t think the villain used one of our pens, do you?”
“Well they had to use something!”
“Custom stamps it would appear.” Sherlock had pulled out his magnifying glass and was looking slightly impressed, if a little bemused.
“Custom stamps?!” the Padmores gaped in unison.
“Precisely carved, but you can see that this was pressed,” he copied the motion, “from left to right. Repeatedly.”
Thomas muttered to Delilah, “Couldn’t be Jerry the knife-man, could it?”
“No no darling, he’s good at throwing but rubbish at carving.”
“Strange, that.” They both stood there thinking for a moment.
“Is there anyone you two have ruled out?” Sherlock cut in.
“Well, us obviously. But outside that…” They shared a glance. “Well, you know. It’s a circus.”
“We’re going to have to infiltrate the circus.” Sherlock’s expression was entirely blank while John looked at him like a startled fish.
Thomas was similarly surprised. “Infiltrate?”
“Yes, we’ll have to assume the identity of performers so as to adequately gather information.” Sherlock could see John mouthing the word ‘we?’ at him, but elected to continue ignoring his flatmate. “It shouldn’t take too long.”
“Uh, yes I suppose that makes sense…”
Mr. Padmore’s wife was a bit more practical. “What sort of performer could you pretend as?”
“A contortionist,” he put, simply. He looked awkward still hunching to avoid the ceiling draperies, but there was a confidence there they didn’t want to challenge.
“And him?” she asked, gesturing to John.
“A mime,” Sherlock smiled.
John rolled his eyes.
“Sherlock, this is outrageous.” John was chasing after Sherlock who had taken off in the direction of the costumes tent.
“You read the letters, John, you know what sort of mind we’re dealing with.” Sherlock was sweeping the blue scarf from his neck and jamming it in his pocket while pushing open the tent flap.
“A creepy stalker?”
“Those letters were written to several different people, John.”
“An ambitious one, then.” John had entered the tent and was immediately overwhelmed by colours and patterns. He attempted to find Sherlock behind a waterfall of feather boas with little luck. “And what’s the deal with the stamps?”
“I know!” Sherlock gushed, popping up from behind a shoe rack. “Isn’t that delightfully curious?”
“I’d tell you to look less enthused, but I suppose nobody’s died yet.”
“Yet…” Sherlock tapped his nails along a plastic boot, and squinted into the distance.
John did not like that expression. “So what are we looking for?”
Bouncing to attention, Sherlock swung his arms around in display. “Outfits, John! We’re undercover now; must look the part.” He snatched something black and white and thrust it at his companion. “Dashing.”
“You must be joking.”
“Try it on!”
John stared at the striped get up and then back at Sherlock, blinking deliberately.
“Ah, see. I knew you’d fit the part.”
“And how come I don’t get a nice dressing gown to cover up with?”
“Because your outfit is not so dreadfully tight,” Sherlock grimaced.
“Uh huh. And how come we’re having to wear outfits at all?”
“Circus-folk are a wary bunch. They don’t easily open up to outsiders, so we’ll have to appear as ‘one of them’.” John didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. “We’ll pick out persons of interest at the post-performance party to interview.”
“Pied piper invited?”
“Nothing.” John smiled. “So if we can’t do anything until after the show, what are we doing now?”
“Not being able to interview people is hardly an obstacle to investigation. We’ll search their belongings.”
“Is that legal?”
“Would that stop you?”
“Why did we start with the magician?” John was struggling to find a bottom to the endless string of handkerchiefs.
“Don’t touch those, he’ll be using them tonight!”
“Are you serious?” John groaned, and began stuffing them down again. He didn’t want to be here much longer; the room had a heady, musky scent from incense and there were mountains of things left to search.
“Shh!” Sherlock put a finger to his lips. There was definitely some movement outside. “The magician and his assistant!” he whispered. “Hide! Quickly!”
John immediately threw down the handkerchiefs and nicked inside the Disappearing Closet, but before he could close the door Sherlock squeezed in after him. “Get your own bloody hiding spot!” he complained, but Sherlock pressed his hand over John’s mouth and brought the door closed, casting them in darkness.
“She doesn’t really think it’s you!” came a nasally female voice as she entered the magicians’ quarters.
“But I think she did, Marsha,” came the man’s smoky response. “Before Louisa got her letter and then the others… the way Anna looked at me…” There were a few too many names at once for John to handle, but he knew Sherlock could work it out later.
“You told me yourself Anna had been acting distant towards you before the letters. The whole business with Gerrard-“
“Don’t say his name in here!” he scolded. John thought he could detect a bit of hurt.
“Sorry, sorry. But that juggling idiot can’t be ignored. You’ve heard what Louisa’s been saying; he’s been more than just flirting with Anna.”
“But Anna wouldn’t do that to me. At least I thought so…” the man paused. “But if she thinks I’d ever write a letter like that to her, maybe I don’t know her as well as I thought.”
She sighed. “C’mon big brother, we’ve got a show to do. Let’s leave mysteries and girl problems for later.”
“Okay, Marsha. It’s just- If she left me for him… I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Yeah yeah” she comforted, “Let’s get ready for the show.” Some music started playing, and the room filled with shuffling sounds.
“Damn,” Sherlock whispered.
“Didn’t get enough information?” John asked, muffled against Sherlock’s hand.
“More than enough, but if we don’t get out before they go on stage, we’ll miss our performance.”
“What a tragedy,” John deadpanned.
“It’ll blow our cover!” Sherlock returned sternly. He started wriggling a little, twisting inside the box. “Maybe I can reach my phone…”
“I, uh- Sherlock, I don’t think…” John was being pressed from all angles.
“John, this is no time to get aroused.”
“What!? No! That’s my phone, Sherlock!”
“Ah! Maybe I can reach yours,” Sherlock dropped his other hand from John’s mouth and slid it down the space between them.
“Sherlock- that’s not…”
“Ah yes, left pocket.” He pulled the phone from John’s pocket and started texting one-handed; the tiny screen lighting up awkward swatches of their bodies. “Mrs. Padmore should be here momentarily,” he whispered again, sliding the phone back in place. John stifled a groan.
They stayed cramped there, breathing each other’s breaths in the black, stifling box.
It took a minute or so before the blessed nasally voice called out over the music, “Oh, Mrs. Padmore! What is it?”
“Just need you and Marlowe in the office for a tick.”
“Right now?” the man replied.
“Apparently so,” their saviour said pointedly. Moments later the music was off and the box burst open, releasing John onto the floor and Sherlock into an elegant spin.
“Perfect!” Sherlock crowed, before bending to help John to his feet.
“What is?” John grunted, rubbing at his sore shoulder.
“It’s coming together beautifully! Just three interviews and we’ll have all the confirmation we need!”
“That all…” John muttered patting down his mime suit.
“Don’t pretend you know who did it, John. You obviously didn’t notice the break in pattern of the letters.”
John started, but was broken off by Mr. Padmore’s voice calling “Five minutes to showtime, everyone!” and the unexpected roar of a lion.
All in all, it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing John had done. He got some helpful advice from a clown backstage: get an audience volunteer to make a fool of themselves to help fill time. Actually it was kind of fun. And though he was loath to be grateful to Sherlock, not having to speak at all while performing was a huge relief. That and he couldn’t stay mad when he saw just how tight a contortionist’s outfit was as Sherlock paraded past him backstage.
Still sniggering, he decided to make himself useful and see if he could find any of the people who’s names he’d heard mentioned. It wasn’t as challenging as one might have thought.
“Oh Louisa, shut up!”
“But it’s true! Everyone knows it.” John saw the tightrope walker listening raptly to the fire breather, and attempted to discreetly slide his way nearer. “The best acts are the ones getting the letters. There’s a reason I got one first. It must be some fan of the circus doing it.”
“You, me, and Anna, maybe. But not that clown… I don’t even know what this name is.”
The fire breather laughed, “You know, I don’t think I do either! And I know everything.”
“Of course you do,” the tightrope walker teased.
“Louisa!” came another voice, and John turned to see a scrawny redheaded man wearing a terribly clashing vest. “Have you seen Anna anywhere?”
“No Gerrard, sorry. I think after her act she went to talk to Marlowe.”
“H-how did she look?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Normal?” Louisa did not seem terribly interested. “Are you going up soon? Where’s your gear?”
Gerrard exhaled slowly. “Just the pins tonight. With these new acts I don’t need to fill as much time.”
“Mm, yes, the new acts…” The fire breather turned towards John, looking him up and down. He smiled nervously, and silently shuffled away. Guess she had noticed him listening in.
He nearly bumped into Sherlock, who was donning a dressing gown.
“Ah! Sherlock! How was the show?”
A monotone “Uncomfortable,” was all he got. “Did you find Louisa?”
“I did. Wait, how did you know?”
“She’s the circus gossip, can’t be too difficult to locate. Now lets go search the juggler’s room.”
“The juggler’s- But I thought you said we needed three interviews! The show’s still on!”
Sherlock sighed. “Don’t be tedious, John.”
There weren’t a lot of people walking about amongst the performer’s quarters, but enough that John and Sherlock didn’t seem too out of place. John was nervous again, and wished he knew what Sherlock was thinking. He took a breath to ask, but all of the sudden a woman slammed open the door of the magician’s, shouting over her shoulder, “Then you shouldn’t have been such a possessive creep, Marlowe!”
“Anna, don’t do this! You don’t know him like I do! You can’t trust him!”
“Leave me alone!” She screamed, and stalked right past John, who had to keep Sherlock from interjecting.
“Let her go, Sherlock.”
“But she’s integral to the-“
“Let her go.” John was firm. It was his job to keep Sherlock away from the emotionally vulnerable.
Sherlock sighed petulantly, but they continued walking and his spirits lightened up when it came time to lock-pick their way into the juggler’s rooms. It was an awful lot less crowded and cluttered than the magician’s had been (still smelled very similar, like incense), but John still didn’t see how they could search the room adequately before Gerrard got back.
“So where do we start?”
Sherlock peered at the room for a moment, sliding his gaze around before settling on a box under the bed. He wriggled it out and set it on the downy quilt with an exceptionally smug look. “Here,” he answered.
John’s brows pulled together, and grateful for his gloved hands, he opened the wooden box. Inside were 6 divots in velvet, 5 occupied with balls.
“Balls,” John said.
“Rubber balls,” Sherlock added. He grasped one and tossed it in the air, revealing that it was not a perfect sphere. He caught it and chuckled to himself as she showed John. “See? He carved them to make his stamps! No wonder he was using pins tonight, despite his obvious preference for these.”
”If you leave…” John read from the ball.
“Mm, yes. Did you notice the pattern of the threats, John?” He was pacing now, punctuating himself with choppy movements. “He rearranged the phrases to make each one unique. ‘If you leave / the circus / you die.’ ‘The circus / will fall / if you leave / you die.’ He didn’t need too many ball-stamps to create variety. But still, one stood out from the others.”
“How? Which one?”
“Anna’s, John. The first one. It never mentioned the circus. Simply ‘you die / if you leave’.”
“But Louisa got her’s first!”
“No, Louisa was just the first one to tell everyone about it. And that was very important.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Keep up with me, John!” Sherlock grasped him by the shoulders and spoke very quickly. “Gerrard and Marlowe are both involved with Anna. With Louisa gossiping, everyone knew about it. So Gerrard sent Anna a threatening letter, but who did Anna think it was from?”
“She thought… From Marlowe!”
“Exactly John! So here was Gerrard, having Anna confiding in him about how she couldn’t stand Marlowe’s possessiveness. Suddenly she was all his! But of course he knew it couldn’t be proved that Marlowe had made the letter, so he had to move suspicion off of either of them. That’s why the other letters mention the circus, they’re trying to depersonalize the threat. And that’s why Louisa was the second recipient; she could be trusted to tell everyone about it.”
“That’s pretty clever actually.”
“I meant the scheme.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes and disengaged, putting the ball back into the box. He sighed loudly. “Pity there was no crime scene…”
His morbid wish was answered almost immediately with a wailing scream.
“Oh Sherlock,” John moaned.
There was a stench of blood and butter hanging around the nervous crowd. Sherlock and John expertly pushed their way through to the center. There they found a popcorn machine, still popping, and the bottom half a clown wearing big blue shoes. John shuddered.
“Everyone back!” Sherlock called, and after looking over what could be seen from above the fluffy kernels, he pulled the clown out of the popcorn and flopped the body onto the ground. “Ah, of course. Very fresh.”
John was occupied shepherding people away from the scene, and with the help of the Padmores most of them were leaving. Rather a lot were put off by the fact John was talking, but he figured his cover was nearly blown any way. Then from the crowd came a smoky voice shouted “Whoever wrote those letters! They’ve done this!” and everyone erupted in chattering theories.
“Is that true?” John whispered, returning to Sherlock. “Did Gerrard follow through?”
Sherlock pulled a rubber ball out from the clown’s mouth, and grinned up at him. “What do you think?”
“What do I think? Sherlock…” But John found he did have to think a little. Sherlock watched him like a cat.
“If you have a theory, just spit it out, oh incredible folding detective!” Delilah Padmore was a wee bit furious and entirely impatient.
“Shut up!” Sherlock countered. “He’s thinking.” He was staring at John expectantly. “C’mon now,” he coaxed. “The purpose of the multiple letters, the rivalry, the incense, the timing…”
“Marlowe!” John announced. “He’s framing Gerrard!”
“Clever John!” Sherlock exclaimed, planting a big kiss square on his cheek. With some of the white make-up now rubbed off on Sherlock’s mouth, it was harder for John to conceal his blush. “We are very nearly there. And you know how we’ll catch our killer?”
“Not quite that clever,” John admitted sheepishly.
Sherlock tapped his nose. “The incense. And the popcorn, of course.” There was a faint trail of stomped on popcorn bits that led away from the crime scene. John didn’t even have to say anything before they were running off after it.
“We have to replace that popcorn machine now, don’t we?” Thomas Padmore looked to his wife.
“I think so,” she answered.
The trail had ended, and although the scent of incense may have been enough to follow in an ordinary street or some council flat, in the middle of a busy circus there were too many competing smells. Sherlock reflected on his hatred for these sorts of sensory-intense spectacles. And that was before he spied Marlowe entering the Hall of Mirrors.
“We’re not alone in here,” Sherlock whispered.
John was following closely. “You think?”
All around them were… them. Repeated in a thousand angles, slinking from corners and disappearing into edges, dividing and merging endlessly. But John knew he wasn’t talking about their reflections. It was hard to place the origin of the echoes, but there were definitely two voices in heated discussion. As they twisted through the labyrinth of glass the voices got louder. One nasally, one smoky.
“Everything will be fine! Gerrard will get what’s coming to him.”
“There are detectives here! In the circus!”
“I know. Someone was going through our stuff. But the evidence all points to Gerrard.”
“What made you do this?”
“Ah, sibling affection. Such a strange thing.” Sherlock had arrived at the center of the maze, with John flanking the other exit.
Marsha turned around in horror, searching for the right Sherlock.
“That’d be the one in three dimensions,” he drawled. His eye rolling was cut short by a silenced bullet splintering a nearby mirror into shards with a deafening crash.
“Sherlock!” John shouted. He tackled Marsha and twisted Marlowe down to the ground by his cape.
“I’m alright!” came the muffled response, Sherlock shaking out glassy shards from his dressing gown.
“And for my next trick…” John uttered under his breath, pulling the same chain of handkerchiefs that had vexed him earlier out of Marlowe’s pocket and twisting it around the siblings. Once they were tightly bound he lept over to Sherlock and helped remove tiny bits of glass from his face. “Oh god, you are not alright.”
“This outfit… offers little… protection,” Sherlock groaned. Behind them Marsha had started crying.
“I’m so sorry, brother. I thought they’d send Gerrard away and then you and Anna could be happy again. I only did it for you.”
Sherlock scoffed, ego already obscuring his pain. “Ha, you hardly gave him a decent alibi.” (John immediately shushed him.)
Marsha looked confused. “But you were talking with Anna, weren’t you?”
“She… left me early,” he confessed.
Any quiet moment dissipated as the Padmores came rushing in with the police. “You are a bloody hard man to find, Mr. Holmes!”
“Mm, and now that your case is over-” Sherlock paused to wince as John pulled out a final shining splinter, “You can find me at 221b Baker St.”
“Is that all? What about the evidence?”
“That’s what these blokes are for,” John said, gesturing to the men in uniform. “Now I’m a doctor, and this man needs some medical attention. Excuse us.” With that, he walked Sherlock through a path the bullet had made through the maze, out into the night.
“You can stop coddling, John. I really am alright.”
“Mm,” John mused. “When I said it was Marlowe, you knew that the timing was off.”
“Yes…” Sherlock wagered.
“So why did you say I was clever and kiss me?”
Sherlock smiled, ignoring the little cuts that made such an expression difficult. His outfit was outrageously tight, the smells of the circus were all overwhelming, the crime scene had been such a long time in coming, but John’s confused expression beside him was enough to tip the balance back to favourable.