“Let’s not leave it for so long next time,” Greg replied.
John picked it up. Such a small thing. Thin. Light. A perfect circle waiting inside.
He flipped it over, watched the sunlight bounce off the silver surface. Like a mirror.
He opened the case, slid the shining disc into the dark.
A window opened.
“…Right. I just…I need a moment to figure out what I’m going to do,” the shadow of Sherlock said on the screen.
“I can tell you what you can do. You can stop being dead.” John half turned away, the whiskey hot on his tongue.
The doorbell rang.
There was a quick rap at the door.
John put the entry phone back in its cradle and opened the door partway.
“I was running an errand round the corner and thought I’d come by and say hello,” she said.
John glanced below her right shoulder. She usually wore the name tag there.
“I’m sorry, how…”
“Your neighbour let me in,” she interjected. “I think he might have been a little high.” She leaned forward, made a small sniffing sound and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a drink. Invite me in?”
John held up a finger. “Let’s go out,” he said and reached behind the door for his jacket.
“There,” she said, pointing at a round table nestled in a corner beneath an arbour of wisteria.
“Nice place,” John said as they slipped onto the cushioned bench.
“One of my neighbours recommended it,” she replied.
“Nice neighbours,” John said.
John felt her phone vibrate in her pocket.
“I’ll only be a moment,” she promised, sliding away. She looked over her shoulder as she walked towards the ladies. She smiled when she saw he was watching.
“Martha…Molly…,” John murmured, shaking his head.
The server arrived with cutlery and menus. She lit the candle on the table before John could stop her.
The flame flickered in its little glass pot.
“Sherlock…” John drew back. His drink sat unfinished at home; there was no reason to be hallucinating. He leaned forward.
The centre of the flame resembled a hooded figure. It wavered as the flame flickered in the draught. Its face was in shadow until a long-fingered hand reached up and pushed the red hood back. The face grew larger then, like a camera was zooming in on it.
Eyes dilating, John thought. He let out a long, slow breath.
The face was Sherlock’s, just as it had been in the video.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have watched it,” John whispered. He licked his thumb and forefinger and extinguished the flame.
Suddenly, a server was at his elbow. “Oh, I’m sorry that’s gone out,” he said. “Let me fix that.”
The rekindled flame burned tall and bright.
“I hope you feel better,” she said.
John opened the car door before she could lean closer. “Need an early night is all,” he said. “Sorry about dinner.”
“A drink was fine,” she said. “Thank you.”
“See you Monday, then,” John said and shut the door.
John set the bag of peas on the counter, got out a sauce pan and struck a match to light the hob.
He dropped it when the flame reached his fingers.
The silver disc shone in his hands. He would not have to press very hard to break it.
The hallway was quiet, Mrs Hudson’s door dark.
John looked up the stairs, patted the matchbox in his pocket.
Orange-tinged shadows flickered over the walls.
Mrs Hudson’s grip tightened on the frying pan. She took a step into the dusty room. “Sherlock?” she whispered.
“I suppose it had to be one of you,” she said and lowered the pan.
John set down his tea, picked up the disc and held it out. “Do you want to watch it?”
She took it in both her hands, turned it over once. “Perhaps later.”
“It’s been so quiet without either of you here,” she said. “And not even a phone call after everything we’ve been through.”
“I am sorry,” John said. “Maybe I should have stayed.”
“You’re welcome back, you know,” she said.
John looked around the room. “Last time something was taken from me I was sent away from everything else I knew. This time, I did it to myself.”
“Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, sometimes it’s not. Offer still stands,” Mrs Hudson said and smiled at him.
He turned back to her. “I’ve got a full time job now,” he said. “Even so, the rent would be a stretch on my own.”
“You don’t need to. I tried to tell you that before you left, but you…”
“I couldn’t impose like that,” John interrupted.
“Maybe this time, John, you should let me finish what I’m trying to say,” she said.
“Right, okay,” he replied and pressed his lips into a thin, closed line.
“About a month before…you know…Sherlock paid two years’ worth of rent in advance...all of it…not only his share,” she said.
John’s eyebrows shot up.
“He said he’d been paid for some big case and if he gave it to me then he wouldn’t have to waste time thinking about rent every month. I was pretty delighted, I can tell you, but afterwards…well. That’s why I tried to give you your rent money back,” she said.
“Why two-years’ worth?” John murmured.
Mrs Hudson shrugged. “I’d assumed that was how much he’d been paid for the case.”
“There was no case that I knew about. ‘Course, I obviously didn’t know everything he was doing,” John said.
“How could any of us know what went on in that funny old head of his?” She sighed. “I’ve been glad I haven’t had to look for other tenants. I don’t really want anyone else up here.” She glanced over her shoulder. “You know those things I boxed up? I never had anyone collect them. They’re all still sitting in the kitchen covered in dust.”
“Can I stay tonight?” John asked.
Mrs Hudson nodded. “Come down and have dinner. We’ll open the windows in here and find you some clean sheets.”
John pecked out the email to his landlord by firelight. He pushed send and stretched, phone still in hand, back arched against the front of Sherlock’s chair, feet touching his own.
The fire hissed.
John opened his eyes.
The flames were licking at the fire bricks, shooting up the flue. They framed the face in the red hood.
At this size, the lips were easy to read.
“Soon,” they mouthed.
Sherlock was stood on the coffee table, deducing at breakneck speed, hands waving, dressing gown swirling, all the light in the room converging on him in a tall, bright column.
John couldn’t distinguish the words, but he knew that rapid-fire cadence.
Sherlock stopped speaking and turned, his face aglow. “I’m going to be with you again, very soon.”
John sat bolt upright in the bed, the words echoing in his head.
He went out to the sitting room, fell back to sleep by the hearth.
In the morning, the fire was still burning.
“Oh God, I need a cup of tea,” John said passing the receptionist on his way into the staff room.
“There’s fresh-baked gingerbread,” she replied, gesturing with her head, hands full of tea and biscuits.
John re-filled the kettle, switched it on and studied the plate of sweets in the middle of the table. They were decorated with either blue eyes and red buttons or red eyes and blue buttons.
The kettle clicked off.
John turned to find…Mary…thank God for name tags…holding out his mug to him.
“Heard you’d moved,” she said. “I liked that location.”
A bit of tea sloshed over the side as he took the cup.
John winced. “Want me to put in a good word with the landlord?” he asked, switching hands and pressing the scalded one against his lab coat.
“Maybe,” she said, walking towards the table.
He stepped around her, set the mug down and turned on the cold tap. He poured the tea down the drain and refilled the mug with water.
When he turned round again, Mary was holding out the platter. “I baked these this morning,” she said. “Try one.”
“Love to,” he said, “but gluten intolerance.” He watched her brow furrow just a little.
“I didn’t re..alise,” she said.
“They smell lovely though,” he replied and headed towards the door. “They’ll be a big hit with the staff.”
John lifted the cover of the tin on the mantelpiece in the hallway and took a deep breath.
“Oh, John, I’m glad you’re home,” Mrs Hudson said, coming out her door, a wave of ginger and cinnamon following her. “Have you told many people that you’ve moved back?”
John stopped, ginger snap halfway to his mouth. “Not really. Mike and Greg. The Royal Mail. I’ve done a forwarding order for first-class post. Why?”
“A woman came by this morning, just after you left. She said you’d forgotten something at her house.”
John put the biscuit back in the tin. “These?” he asked.
“No, I put those out here just a minute ago. I hadn’t even made it to the kitchen when I heard you coming in.”
John put the cover on the tin.
“She didn’t leave anything in the end. Said she thought it would be better to give it to you in person after all.”
“Did she ask any questions?”
Mrs Hudson tilted her chin up. “No, but she said things about you, like how forgetful you are and short-tempered then waited as though she thought I’d say something back one way or the other.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t satisfy her curiosity,” John said.
“Well, if seeing my hair in curlers was what she was curious about, then she went away satisfied. Otherwise, no,” Mrs Hudson said. “I had reporters, you know, lurking around here for months. They tried all sorts of things to get information from me. I thought it odd that one would pop up after all this time, but she seemed like one of them.”
John took out his phone, swiped the screen a few times. “Her?”
“Oh,” Mrs Hudson said, looking at the photo of the woman and John at a cosy table with a lit candle on it. “If you are seeing her…”
“No! No. She’s new at the surgery. The night I came by here, she’d stopped by my flat. Got one of my neighbours to let her into the building and tried inviting herself in for a drink. I took her out for one instead,” John explained. “I’d been watching the video Greg left. It was still on the screen.”
“Oh,” Mrs Hudson said, her hand plucking at her collar.
“She wanted a selfie, but her phone had no more space on it or something, so she asked me to use mine and email it to her.”
“Did you?” Mrs Hudson asked.
“Not exactly. She offered to put her address in my phone, but I emailed it to my work address and said I’d get her a copy on the Monday,” John said. “I’ve become rather picky about who touches my phone.”
“You were wary of her,” Mrs Hudson said.
John shrugged. “If Greg hadn’t brought that video over, maybe I wouldn’t have been.”
“So did you send her the photo from your work email?”
“I was going to print out a copy and give it to her, but I keep forgetting,” John said.
“She hasn’t reminded you?”
John shook his head.
“Maybe she’s already got at it somehow.”
John did not contradict her.
“Well, if it shows up in The Sun with who knows what story about you, neither of us will be surprised,” Mrs Hudson said.
“I hope that’s the worst that will happen.”
The hearth was cold. Scattered over the pyramid of logs were the charred remnants of matches that had blown out, twists of paper that had turned to ash without producing a flame.
John set the poker aside, picked up his mobile and punched at the keys.
“Mike, is that teaching position you told me about already filled?”
He walked to the desk and sat.
“Opening my email now. Just a second.” John tapped at the keyboard. “Got it. Yes. I’ll forward you a copy. Let’s hope for the best.” He nodded and sighed. “Yeah, you were right. The surgery wasn’t what I wanted.”
There was a crackling behind him. John turned and watched the fire dance.
“John, you haven’t taken up smoking, have you?” Mrs Hudson asked.
John looked over the top of the newspaper. “No, why?”
“There are a lot of cigarette butts around the front steps and along the pavement. Mr Chatterjee said they’ve been sweeping them up every morning and Mrs Turner said they’ve been falling down the grate over the windows of her basement flat.”
“Sounds like more than one person,” John said, “but I haven’t heard anyone out there.”
“I should have known it wasn’t you,” Mrs Hudson said, sitting down. “There’re ones out back by the bins, too.”
John lit a candle and stared into it.
“What are you doing?”
He caught only a glimpse, but he knew the shape of those lips.
“Can’t be soon enough,” John murmured.
It was more like patrolling than walking. John brought his gun with him more often than was perhaps wise, took the bus rather than the Tube, left work before or after rush hour whenever he could. If he had told anyone, they would have thought him paranoid. He did not care. He could feel it.
The footpath was nearly empty. The man bumping into him set off alarum bells.
“Excuse you,” he called after the man and spun around, elbows out, the second word still on his lips.
The man screamed before John’s elbow dug into his abdomen. He fell back smacking at his clothes. A syringe fell from his hand.
John snatched it off the ground.
A yell rose up from the corner. John spared a glance in that direction. There was a crowd gathering near the kerb. A flame shot up and the crowd fell back.
“Jesus Christ, help me,” the syringe-wielder screamed, his voice rising higher with each syllable.
His clothes were smouldering.
John banged on the window of Speedy’s and dashed behind the counter as soon as Mr Chatterjee unlocked the door.
The man on the pavement whimpered, covered in foam.
John set the fire extinguisher aside. He could hear the sirens. He took the syringe out of his pocket. “Shall I give you some of this while we wait?” he asked.
“Yes,” the man cried as he rolled on the ground. “God, yes.”
John held it up in one gloved hand. “So what was supposed to happen after you put me to sleep?” he asked.
“Give it to me!” the man yelled.
“Answer my question,” John replied quietly, switching the syringe to his other hand.
The man’s lips drew back from his teeth. “You was to be the Guy, mate,” he said.
John sat by the hearth.
“Is this why you came to me in fire?” he asked.
The logs only smoked.
“I appreciate the heads-up.”
The stone was cold beneath his feet. The skin on his back was on fire.
John woke, panting.
“Where are you?” John shouted at the mound of ashes.
His head whipped around. He had heard it.
“Are you closer? What can I do?”
“Give me fire.”
“The wood won’t burn,” John hissed. "I've used all the matches."
It was a plea.
“Right. Fire,” John ran to the kitchen.
He flung stuff out of drawers, found a lighter. He cupped the flame and turned towards the hearth. The flame blew out. He tried again. The flint split and fell on the floor.
His eyes darted around the kitchen.
He ran up the stairs.
John took aim at the logs and fired.
The whiskey burst into flame. Blue jets shot from the centre of the rolled newspapers. The logs began to crackle.
The whole room seemed to sigh, “Soon.”
“It is good to see you, John. It has been too long,” Angelo said, patting John’s shoulder. “Anything you like. On the house.” Angelo drew his hand away and pressed it to his heart. “Do not wound me by saying no.”
John shook his head. “I won’t say no, Angelo.”
“Good, good,” Angelo replied, his eyes bright. “Whatever you want, I will make it myself.”
John took a deep breath. “I would like Sherlock’s favourites,” he said and closed the menu. “I think you know what they are better than I do.”
“Ah,” Angelo said, looking upwards. “A good choice, a beautiful choice.” He picked up the menu. “I will bring you a candle.”
John took a sip of water and put the glass down. He pulled off a piece of bread, drew it back and forth through the golden oil in the little dish.
Angelo set the candle on the table. “First course coming soon,” he said and hurried away.
John stared at the flame in its small glass chamber. “When, Sherlock? When?” he whispered.
“Now,” Sherlock said.
The voice sounded deeper than John remembered. He scowled, looked up slowly from beneath his furrowed brows.
The shirtfront he saw was white, the chest within it broader than he recalled.
“Are you real?” John breathed.
“Check,” Sherlock said and the fine, deep voice had a quaver to it.
John raised an arm, curved it cautiously around the fine, dark jacket. He could feel the warmth beneath the fabric, the solidness of the hips. A hand settled over his, the thumb stroking back and forth.
John tilted his head further back. He could see the pinkness around Sherlock’s eyes. “We should go home,” he said.
John closed his eyes for a moment. “Angelo will be upset.”
“No,” Sherlock said. “I asked him to send it round later.”
The laugh came out a bit strangled. “Should we bring the candle?”
“I think Angelo would be pleased.”