It is the night of December 24th, and Sherlock is far from home. Hair clipped short and bleached, his good coat abandoned and replaced with an army-green nylon parka, he feels scarcely even like himself, much less in a festive mood. His search for Moriarty’s associates has taken him to America, to New York, a vast, crass, dirty city that wears its Christmas rags like an aged-out music hall starlet. He has a room here, a basement hole in a cranny of Harlem, where he lies low, tonight of all nights.
He doesn’t sleep, of course. There’s a Catholic church in the neighborhood, and he hears the bells of the midnight mass. That’s when the ghost appears to him: Jefferson Hope, the serial-killer cabbie. He is bound at the wrists by a great ludicrous chain that drags and dribbles on the floor. He manifests abruptly in the center of the room.
“Oh, what is this bollocks?” Sherlock says.
“What’s it look like, then?” Hope sniffs. “I’m a ghost, here to haunt you, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Sherlock lights another cigarette. “Let me guess,” he says. “You’re going to deliver some wretched homily about my afterlife.”
“Well, don’t worry. It’ll be quick. It’s about regret, Sherlock. You’ve heard the word, I assume?”
Sherlock smokes, saying nothing. Hope gives a put-upon sigh.
“Well anyway. I’m really just here to introduce the other three.” He offers a wistful smile. “Merry Christmas, Sherlock.” And he’s gone.
Sherlock waits a while, tasting smoke, hearing the utter quiet of the wee hours ticking past. He’s not at all startled by the gentle knock that comes on his closed bathroom door. Opening it, he finds a young boy, dripping wet, clad only in swimming shorts. The skin of his fingers is scaly and red, painful looking. Eczema.
“Hi, Sherlock,” says Carl. “Remember me?”
“Of course.” But this boy is completely different from the Carl of Sherlock’s past. Carl Powers, at the time of his death, was older than Sherlock; he loomed large in Sherlock’s vision. This is the same boy, but he looks small and fragile now, from a distance of years.
“Put that thing out,” says Carl. “We’re going.”
Then they are in Sherlock’s house. His real house, his first house, and it’s Christmas morning. Sherlock sees his eight year old self slide down the banister, Mycroft trotting not far behind, and the two boys fling themselves into the sitting room. Sherlock remembers this scene.
“Must we?” he asks.
“Hush now,” replies the spirit.
Young Sherlock clambers over wrapped packages to plug in the fairy lights that adorn the tree, an important part of the ritual. Meanwhile, Mycroft starts sorting through the presents.
“Mine,” he says. “Mine, yours, yours. Yours again. Ugh, that one’s clothes.”
“Obviously,” says boy-Sherlock, not even touching the flat box. He picks up another. “But I think this one’s a chemistry set.”
“I’ve got bloody Legos,” Mycroft moans. “Who do they think I am?”
Sherlock lays his hand next on a flat, heavy brick of a gift. A book. Couldn’t be anything else. He looks up and sees that Mycroft is holding a book as well, and Sherlock knows what it is because he wrapped it. The package in his hand is from Mycroft; he can tell by the fastidious creases in the paper. Their eyes meet.
“Shall we open them?” says Mycroft.
“We’re not supposed to until mum and dad come down.” He is tempted, though. Very tempted.
“It’s just between us,” Mycroft says. “They won’t even know.”
“All right then,” says Sherlock. “You go first.”
Mycroft tears the wrapping off his book. It’s a very nice one: Machiavelli, annotated. The bookshop man had given Sherlock such a look when he bought it. But he was used to that.
Mycroft’s eyes go soft when he sees it, and he holds back a smile as he runs his fingers down the binding. Grown-up Sherlock knows that Mycroft hid that book from his parents until he went away to school and took it with him, one of a very few volumes afforded that honor.
“You next, then,” Mycroft says.
The book Sherlock unwraps is old, delightfully old, bound in dark green leather with stamped gold decorations. He opens it to the frontispiece to find a lavish engraving of a frigate in full sail, flying the jolly roger. His breath catches in his throat. The book is Treasure Island, already a favorite, but his flimsy paperback copy is falling apart. This book looks like something a pirate might own.
“Thank you,” he says. He is breathlessly happy. The brothers share a look, each feeling in that moment as if the other is the only one who will ever understand him. Grown-up Sherlock turns away. “Can we go now?”
Carl looks at him sidelong. “All right,” he says. “Just turn around.”
When Sherlock does so, he finds himself face to face with Jennifer Wilson. It’s early evening. They are in London.
“Come on then,” she says. She begins walking briskly down the street, wheeling her pink suitcase behind her, scarcely looking up from her pink mobile. Sherlock has to jog to catch up.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
“Restaurant,” she says. “Just there, actually. Table by the window.”
Sherlock peers through the glass. He means to turn away again, but stops when he sees that John is inside, sitting at a table with three other people. Two of the people are women. One of the women is holding John’s hand under the table.
“That’s Mary Morstan,” the spirit says. “They’re going to get engaged.”
“When?” Sherlock asks.
“New Year’s day. He has the ring in his pocket right now.”
“I’m happy for him,” Sherlock says quickly. “Why are you showing me this?”
“Wait,” she answers. “Wait and see.”
When the diners finish their meal, they spill out into the street, talking and laughing. They say goodnight and “merry Christmas,” and John kisses Mary goodbye.
“Sure you won’t come over?” she says.
“Later maybe,” John says. “Got some last minute shopping.”
They part ways. Sherlock follows John, the pink lady trailing behind.
John goes to Baker Street.
“I don’t understand,” Sherlock says. “I thought he’d moved out.” The spirit only shrugs in answer.
They go upstairs. The flat looks just as it did when Sherlock left, not a skull nor a slipper out of place. Only John’s things are missing. The season has made no inroads here: no lights, no cards on the mantel. John sits down in his armchair for a minute, then stands again to rummage in a kitchen drawer. It’s not clear what he’s looking for until he brings it back to the sitting room: a red candle, one of several they’d picked up during a power outage. John lights the candle and drips wax onto a saucer, then sticks the candle in it. He sets the single candle on the mantelpiece, turns out the lights, then sits back down in the chair. The lone flame makes a flickering glow, projecting wild shadows around the room. John sits watching it. Sherlock watches John watching it.
“He’ll be here until morning,” Jennifer says, making Sherlock jump. “We should go.”
And just like that, he’s standing in the dark of the St. Bart’s morgue.
“Wait,” he says. “Wait!”
“Sorry.” The word is an insincere drawl that sets Sherlock’s teeth on edge: James Moriarty. Sherlock turns to glare at him.
“Surprise,” the ghost sing-songs, wiggling his fingers in greeting. “Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”
“What is this?” Sherlock spits, but Moriarty only smiles.
“I’m here to show you the future, of course. Surely you’ve recognized the pattern.”
“Just get it over with.”
“Fine.” Ever the showman, Moriarty snaps his fingers, and the lights of the Morgue turn on. Molly walks in with John trailing behind her. They don’t look any older, and Sherlock frowns.
“I thought you said this was the future.”
“I never said it was the far future, Sherlock. Oh no. This is only next year. Three hundred and sixty five days from today. Look your fill.”
John is speaking. Moriarty falls silent so that Sherlock can listen. He can’t not listen.
“I don’t understand,” John is saying. “What do you need to tell me that requires a visit to the morgue?”
“Here,” Molly says, her voice clipped tight with restrained emotion. “He’s here.”
She pulls back the sheet from a body on one of the tables. John’s mouth clicks shut when he sees the dead man’s face. His eyes go flat.
“He wasn’t really dead,” Molly says, and now she’s very close to tears. “He faked it, and I helped him. He had to go after Moriarty’s network. They were going to kill you.”
“No,” says Sherlock--the living Sherlock. “Oh, no, no.” Not like this, he thinks. Not like this.
Molly goes on. “He meant to come back. He meant to tell you, once it was over, once you were safe.”
“Safe,” John says, and his voice is filled with contempt. He turns his furious gaze on her. “Why are you showing me this? What is this supposed to do?”
“I just thought--I thought you should know.” She’s crying now, but John doesn’t see it.
“Sherlock Holmes is dead,” he says, and his voice is as cold as the grave. “He was dead, and he is dead. It makes no difference.”
John turns on his heel and marches out, limping only a little. Molly watches him go, then dries her tears and covers up Sherlock’s body.
“It can’t be true,” Sherlock says. “I refuse.”
“Denial is more than a river in Egypt.” Moriarty’s smile is sweet, mocking him. “This is your future, like it or not.”
“The future can be changed.”
“Destiny is a garden of twisting paths, Sherlock. This is the one you’re on. This is where it ends.”
“Then I’ll get off it,” Sherlock says. “I’ll do something different, something I would never do.”
“Feel free to try,” says Moriarty, condescending, his eyebrows projecting extreme skepticism. “Oh, there’s the bell. I’d better be off. Happy Christmas, Sherlock.”
Sherlock wakes with a cry in his basement room, his heart pounding. It’s morning, and he can tell by the color and angle of the light that snow has fallen overnight. What time is it? He must get up, must do something he would never do, never in a million years. Something that will fix this. He springs up from his cot, dresses all in a rush, and runs out into the street with his boots untied. He’s halfway up the block when he realizes that his vile parka is on upside-down. Frustrated, he tears it off, drawing an odd look from a passer-by.
Sherlock is looking for something; he’s not sure what. Most of the shops are closed for Christmas, of course, but on a corner he spots a convenience store, Muslim owned, not celebrating. He goes in, looks around. Phone cards? No, he can’t risk a call, not yet. (He thinks of John’s voice on the line: anger, shock. Too much.) But there: his eye falls on a wire rack of postcards, a couple of cheap Christmas cards mixed in. He picks one out, a simple green wreath and the words Happy Holidays. Something he would never do. Yes. It will arrive late, of course, but not too late, he thinks. He hopes.
Sherlock takes the card back to his room. It is blank inside, and he ponders the white emptiness of it. What to say? He puts pen to paper.
I hope this finds you well.
A ridiculous start. He wants to start over, but he only has the one card.
Though you may be surprised to hear it, I am also faring tolerably. This card will serve to disabuse you of any notions to the contrary. I hope to return to you as soon as my business allows.
He rereads the note. “Return to you” sounds rather histrionic, but it’s too late now. He hesitates a moment, then adds:
P.S. A belated Merry Christmas.
He carries the card in his breast pocket until the post office opens the following day. He pays to have it sent express, an extravagant expense, but necessary.
The letter travels across the Atlantic by plane. It passes through sorting and distribution and into the hands of a uniformed man who, on the morning of December the 28th, brings it to a certain doorstep in London. He rings the bell and waits, looking over the envelope in his hand: a late Christmas Card, it looks to be. People ought to plan ahead, he thinks, not wait until the last minute and pay express rates only to have their bland sentiments turn up three days late. “Best wishes, let’s get together soon!” What’s the point, anyway?
The man who answers the door is a smallish, sandy-haired fellow, a little care-worn and tired-looking, as though he were missing something.
“John Watson?” says the letter-carrier.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Letter for you, sir.”
“Oh?” says John. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”
“Just sign here for the delivery, please.”
“Right.” He signs and takes the envelope.
“Have a nice day, sir,” says the carrier, touching his cap.
John Watson stands on the doorstep to open his card, maybe enjoying the brightness of the winter sun. The letter-carrier watches him idly as he starts his van; it’s interesting to see how people react to the things they get, sometimes happy, sometimes annoyed, often with no feeling at all. He doesn’t expect to see any reaction in particular, but this man surprises him: John Watson’s eyes go wide and his mouth falls open, an expression of the deepest shock. His hand rises to cover his mouth, and he looks as though he’s not sure whether to laugh or cry. He stares at nothing for a moment, as though trying to absorb some momentous news, and then visibly stills himself, clamping his composure back together with an iron will. He looks like a completely different man, the letter-carrier thinks. Not lost or tired at all. Like he found whatever he was missing.
The man looks up to find the letter-carrier watching him, surprise flickering over his features. Caught, the letter-carrier can’t resist leaning out the window of his van.
“What was it, then? Musta been something.”
John Watson smiles, and there, he’s like a completely different man again, smiling like that.
“Just a Christmas card,” he says. “But an unexpected one. A good one.”
“Well then,” the letter carrier falters, trying and failing to understand that smile. “A merry Christmas to you, sir.”
“Thank you,” says John Watson. “And to you as well.”