Only one thing could coerce Mycroft Holmes to abandon Central London and the confines of the halls of power for the stultifying homogeneity of the - he winced at even being forced to think the word - suburbs.
He pressed the bell of the pseudo-Edwardian row home and waited impatiently. Not that he was eager to return to another pointless meeting with the Security Service, but his absence would be noted.
When the door opened, Mary Watson stood there wearing a smile and an apron, a smudge of flour on her nose. “Mycroft! You’re right on time.” She waited for him to come in, then closed the door and passed him, leading the way. “I just put the kettle on. Come on through.”
He followed, resisting the urge to tap his umbrella on the floor in irritation. “Sherlock implied it was a matter of some urgency,” he said, observing and immediately disregarding the details of their banal lounge.
“I don’t know if it’s urgent, but certainly time-sensitive.” She held the kitchen door for him.
“Where is he, then? I should have thought--”
There was a cake on the table. On the periphery, he was aware of the dirty mixing bowls and measuring cups in the sink, a lingering warmth coming off the oven (grill setting, now off), a faint cloud of flour motes drifting through the sunlight from the windows. All of that was secondary to the glass stand in the middle of the blue gingham table cloth. the cake stood about five inches high, sloping only slightly to the right, edges neatly squared off, enrobed in a slightly too thin chocolate glaze with white curlicues piped over the top.
“What is this?”
“Oh.” Her expectant face fell, uncharacteristic of the usually brash woman. “Um. It’s supposed to be a schichttorte.”
He drew in a deep breath, then regretted it as the smell of warm sponge embedded in his olfactory system. “Where is Sherlock? He said my expertise was required.”
“He’s home, I expect.” Obviously disappointed, she began organizing the dirty dishes. “John took Emma out for a play date, and I needed a taste tester. Sherlock said you were an expert on cakes, so…”
Mycroft tightened his grip convulsively on the neck of his umbrella. “Mrs. Watson, I’m afraid my brother has perpetrated a cruel hoax on both of us.”
“Yes, well, see if I bake anything for him again.”
It really was a beautiful cake.
“A schichttorte, you said?”
She looked over her shoulder at him in surprise.
It was tempting to sigh as he surrendered to his lesser angels. Tempting, but undignified. Instead, he hung the umbrella on the back of a chair and picked up the knife. “May I?”
She gestured to the cake, her bottom lip caught between her teeth.
Lining the blade up carefully, he cut a line for the middle of the pastry. Firm but still tender. A second cut created a perhaps oversized wedge that he carefully lifted out onto a waiting plate. Laid on its side, it was easy to see the thin, delicate layers of the cake, light and dark alternating, all neatly stacked like a sheaf of paper. His mouth watered.
She hurriedly handed him a fork.
Cutting off the tip, he lifted the piece to his mouth.
The delicate combination of sponge, glaze and chocolate all came together in a satisfying medley on his tongue. He savored the taste, categorizing the individual elements, before looking at her. “Try it.”
She took up a second fork and cut off her own bite. Chewing once, she let out the moan Mycroft had withheld. “God, that’s gorgeous!”
“I think that’s a fair assessment.” He cut a second bite. “I’ve had baumkuchen in Cologne that weren’t as good. You had the grill perhaps a touch too hot, and the chocolate could be a bit thicker, but for an amateur attempt, you did very well.”
“I did, didn’t I?” She grinned, putting her fork down. “Tea?”
“Mmm. Assam, if it’s not inconvenient.”
“It’s not. Have a seat. It will just take a mo’.”
When she turned her back to gather the tea service, he took up the knife again, drawing the tip line by line up the exposed strata of the remaining cake.
When she turned, she raised an eyebrow. “Mycroft Holmes, are you counting the layers of my cake?”
“As you should have expected, given your choice of recipe.”
“I think I might be offended by that.”
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Watson. A schichttorte? You hardly made that choice by coincidence. And pastry is not your preferred baking medium in the first place.” He continued as she sat down opposite him. “So why would a bread baker decide to make an obscure German cake with an unusual baking technique? Quite simple, really. You have been streaming older episodes of The Great British Bake Off while nursing your young daughter.”
“Well done, Mr. Holmes.” She poured out their tea. “But you’ve given yourself away as well.”
He took his cup from her. “How so?”
It took her a moment to answer as she added sugar and milk to her tea. Mycroft suspected the pause was for effect. “For you to know any of that says that you have watched the series as well.”
She was good. “As you say.” He cut two more, smaller pieces of the cake. “I find it a soothing distraction.”
“Is that the expertise Sherlock was talking about?”
He grimaced at the reminder of Sherlock’s prank. But there was no reason to prevaricate. “I like cake.”
They ate in genial silence for a few moments before he asked, “What other bakes are you considering?”
“I thought I’d try a frangipane tart next. And I would really like to make kouign amann.”
“I know of an excellent boulangerie in Westminster, should you want the professional version for comparison.”
“Are you offering to be my Paul Hollywood, Mr. Holmes?”
“I wouldn’t presume. I respect his skill and professionalism too much.”
“The silver hair and nice smile don’t hurt, either.” Her wicked grin was playful rather than malicious.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’m sure you don’t, Mr. Holmes.”
He thought briefly of a handsome DCI with a similar smile and decided that Mary Watson might just be more perceptive than her husband.
“Please.” He reached for his tea. “Call me Mycroft.”