Rumors of snipers along Park Avenue again, but Holmes doesn’t hear the tell-tale sirens; snipers are one of the few things that still reliably motivate the NYPD into action. These days, rumor is more prevalent than gunfire. The worst of the mania has died down for the time being. He considers it safe to walk.
It would probably be faster to take the subway, which has been running more or less normally the past few months. Yet Holmes wants to take the temperature of the city, so to speak, and travel on foot is the best way to do that.
New York almost seems like itself again. Yes, loose rubbish clumps against the kerbs and half the stores are closed – but half of them aren’t, and people are walking around in crowds nearly as thick as before, albeit with a few worried glances upward. Holmes notes that shoppers are carrying bags from the grocery or the drugstore, spending their money on what’s useful. For a while, everyone’s parcels bore labels from Cartier or Bulgari; they wore tailored suits and Italian shoes and even ballgowns as they walked along the streets. A lavish orgy of spending, and to what end? Holmes has never particularly cared for opulence, but it seems more ridiculous to him now than ever.
Then again, it’s a coping mechanism, isn’t it? His own methods of self-medication – well, he’s in no position to judge anyone else’s.
Most of the headlines that stream along the electronic billboards or blare from tabloid kiosks are not so different than they were before. Politicians continue to argue. Weather continues to disappoint. Kardashians continue to breed.
But on every front page, on every television screen, there is a small box in one corner, sometimes festooned with an artist’s rendering of the asteroid. Each of these boxes reads 111 DAYS. Holmes finds the countdown morbid, not to mention useless. Not likely anyone would forget the date.
All in all, Holmes would say that the city is settling into a state of – resignation? No. Numbness. A numbness has set in. It can only last for so long, but probably it’s for the best. The earlier anarchy, breathtaking though it was to behold, was both dangerous and wearying. This way, he can get something done.
And there is, at last, something to be done.
He reaches the lower 80s, a chic apartment building – one so well-appointed their doorman is still on duty, and the lift still works. Good thing, too, as her family lives on the 32nd floor.
By the time he steps out of the lift, Watson is already standing in her parents’ doorway, waiting for him.
They haven’t seen each other in several weeks now. She went back to medical duty in those earlier, more chaotic days, when injuries from fights and random terrorist events clogged the hospitals and nobody was being too fussy about expired licenses. She went to heal the wounded, left in the morning before he awoke, and she never came back. Many of her things remain at the brownstone. Holmes has cataloged them, memorized them: the white scarf, the hoop earrings, the Mets hat, a paperback biography of Catherine the Great. He has willed them to bring her back again, a rare lapse into magical thinking. Even he is not immune to the strange moods now haunting the last days of the world.
Watson has lost weight, and she had none to lose. She says nothing, only nods as though she has expected this. Has she been waiting for him the same way he’s been waiting for her? Well. Time to discuss that later.
“Good news, Watson,” Holmes says by way of greeting, and he smiles. “There’s been a murder.”
One hour ago, Joan had been reviewing her family’s packing lists for Beijing. These days, violating weight requirements or packing a banned substance can get your bag destroyed, no warning, no compensation; it’s not as though the Better Business Bureau is following up on complaints any longer. So they’ll have to be careful. She’d asked herself whether it was worth it to triple- and quadruple-check every list, whether she wouldn’t rather go take her last walk in Central Park. But she’d decided against it. The New York City out there now isn’t the New York she remembers and loves; that city is gone, as surely as it will be after the Strike.
Now she’s walking through the financial district, working a case alongside Sherlock, as if nothing had happened and nothing would. As if it were an ordinary day.
“Looks like a ghost town around here,” she mutters. Things are different now, but New York is still crowded, mostly. Not here. The streets are bare.
“Not that the financial district was ever the liveliest of Manhattan’s neighborhoods. But you’re quite right, Watson. This part of the city only existed to support the gluttony of the financial vampires who no longer have a global economy to feed upon. The Wall Street overlords were the first to fall. Some small justice in that, don’t you think?” Sherlock smiles.
Joan doesn’t. “I refuse to call that thing hurtling toward us ‘justice.’”
It doesn’t faze him, of course. “Call it poetry, then.”
Poetry can be terrible. If Dante were writing today, he might have come up with something like the Strike. Joan decides the metaphor fits.
They walk in through the front doors of the stock exchange without any difficulty; there are no guards any longer, and the metal detectors are collecting cobwebs. Joan never took one of the tours, so she remembers this place as the wild melee they always showed on TV – brokers running around in brightly colored blazers, waving their hands in the air, bits of paper flying around everywhere.
Some scraps of paper remain on the floor, but the exchange is now a cavern, dank and dark. Probably the main power was shut off a while ago, but the emergency backup system has been activated. Instead of an illuminated room, a few spotlights shine down, which means the crime scene is revealed in chiaroscuro: a crumpled body on the ground, blood puddled deep maroon beneath the man’s head, and standing above it all, Detective Marcus Bell.
He looks up at them with enough surprise that she knows Sherlock wasn’t called in by the NYPD. “You’re still listening to the police scanner?” he says to Sherlock, then has a smile for her. “Ms. Watson. Long time no see.”
She smiles back. Joan is pretending not to notice the weariness in his expression, the way his once-dapper clothes are now rumpled. In return, she knows, Bell is pretending not to notice how thin and drawn she looks. This is one of the final courtesies, greeting someone only as the person they used to be when the world was young and alive.
For his part, Sherlock is circling the scene, as avidly as ever. He looks just the same. “I hear the brokers and analysts were committing suicide here in droves a few months back,” Sherlock says with too much relish. “What made you conclude this was a homicide instead?”
“Very few people commit suicide by hitting themselves in the head with a rock,” Bell replies.
“Ungainly, that.” Sherlock goes to his knees beside the dead body. “Do you have an ID?”
“Dennis Lilliard. Age 44. Driver’s license says he lived on the Lower East Side. Married. No kids, thank God.”
The children are the hardest ones to look at, these days.
Joan kneels beside the dead man’s head, careful not to contaminate the scene. The shattered remnants of the zygomatic arch jut from torn flesh, and the temporal bone appears to be crushed. The victim didn’t have time to bruise before he died, but afterward his blood has pooled within his body closer to the floor; the cut hangs open, slightly dried, and with what she suspects are insect eggs in the tissue.
At least they got here before the maggots. Joan possesses a strong stomach, but maggots get to her every time.
“This would have been very quick and very angry. The blows would have had to have been delivered with considerable strength.” She braces her hands against her thighs as she rises. “How long has he been here?”
“Two days, we think,” Bell says. “Nobody keeps much track around here any longer. People are free to come get their stuff whenever. Apparently Mr. Lilliard left word he was going to stop by on Monday. Don’t know if he got in an argument with somebody he found here, encountered somebody mentally unstable, or what. But somehow a fight got started, and Lilliard got the worst of it.”
Joan wonders how they’re supposed to find a mentally unstable vagrant in a city where at least two million people are wandering around in a depressed daze every single day.
But then Sherlock says, as he snaps on latex gloves, “This was no random encounter gone wrong. This was premeditated murder.”
“Premeditated?” Joan frowns. “The killer smashed this guy’s face in with a rock. Sounds pretty impulsive to me.”
“Not just any rock, Watson. This rock.” Sherlock lifts a gore-stained shape, rounded and irregular, not any different from any other rock Joan has ever seen.
However, as he moves it into the light, Joan can see that the stone is a geode. Half of it has been cleanly sliced away to reveal the treasure within. The lumpy brown outside encases glittery, spiky crystals in a pale shade of pink, flecked with darker red – no. Those flecks are the bloodstains.
“This didn’t just appear on the floor of the stock exchange,” Sherlock says.
Bell puts his hands on his hips. “No rocks magically appear on the floor of the stock exchange. Not pretty ones, not ugly ones, nothing. We are about as far from nature as it gets. Probably somebody was using that as a paperweight on their desk, something like that.”
That sounds reasonable to Joan, but Sherlock shakes his head. “As you say, Detective, no one has regularly come into the stock exchange for some months now. Accordingly, our surroundings are fairly thickly layered with dust. Had this rock been removed from a neighboring desk, there would be a clean space left behind. None such exists.”
This is true, Joan realizes. “And there’s no dust on the rock,” she adds. “Not even down in the crevices of the crystals.”
“Precisely, Watson.” Sherlock smiles, proud of himself like a too-bright child who wants to show off for his parents’ friends instead of going to bed. “Someone would have had to clean it rather thoroughly to remove so much dust, and had someone gone to that much trouble, I daresay that individual would also have wiped away the blood. As this was not done, we must conclude that the rock was brought to the stock exchange for a reason – and that reason appears to be murder.”
“Why the hell would somebody do that? Easier ways to kill a guy.” Bell shrugs and fishes in his pocket for an evidence bag. Then he stops. “Old habits,” he says.
Sherlock stares. “Do you not intend to preserve the evidence?”
“Holmes. Come on. Nobody’s prosecuting individual homicides any more.” Bell shakes his head. “We concentrate on crowd control, these days – talking down suicides, snipers, that kind of thing. Besides, you read about the prison release program, right? They just got those guys out. Nobody wants to start putting people back in.”
As soon as the Strike was confirmed, there were movements to release nonviolent offenders from prison. Law-and-order types raged against it; bleeding hearts said it was only compassionate, now that all of humanity is under a likely sentence of death. Neither of these arguments won, in the end. It came down to the simple pragmatic fact that nobody wants to spend his final days of life as a prison guard, and even fewer wish to serve as death-row executioners. By now only the most vicious offenders remain behind bars.
Like, for instance, Moriarty.
“But this is a murder,” Sherlock protests. “Premeditated! In the first degree!”
Joan says to Bell, “If you don’t prosecute homicides any longer, why did you come?”
“To shut down the facility for good.” Bell pauses, as if struck by the finality of it anew. When his eyes meet Joan’s again, they understand each other, and smile slightly. She always meant to get to know Bell better. One more lost opportunity, one more thing she didn’t do. He says, “We’ll lock it down. Keep anybody else from coming inside. That way, our killer won’t get any more crazy ideas about murdering people with special rocks, or whatever else.”
“You can’t just let a killer go free.” By now Sherlock’s mood is taking a darker turn. Joan knows well the edge in his voice, the glint in his eyes. It will always mean trouble, and it will always call on the part of her that functioned so well as a sober companion.
She simply says, to Bell, “I don’t suppose you’ll conduct an autopsy.”
“You could do it, Watson,” Sherlock says, rounding on her with new hope.
“Not much point. It’s not like we don’t know what killed him. Sometimes an autopsy turns up new information – but I can’t imagine what would help us here.” Joan turns to Sherlock. “Other avenues of investigation would be more useful.”
“Investigation?” Bell looks from one to the other, then shrugs. “Have at it.”
Sherlock’s quicksilver mood has taken a turn for the better. “You’ll arrest the murderer when we find him?”
“House arrest, maybe. Face it, Holmes. We’re not gonna be around long enough to bring anyone to trial.” Ruefully Bell shakes his head. “And forget getting anybody to show up for jury duty.”
“House arrest,” Joan repeats in a low voice. “That works, right?”
“It’s a place to start.” When Sherlock juts out one elbow, she loops her arm through it. “Come along, Watson. Let us begin.”
She’s not doing this for the late Dennis Lilliard, sorry though she feels for him. Humanity only has three months or so remaining; seems like the poor guy should at least have gotten that.
No, Joan is doing this for Sherlock. As his former sober companion, his former protégé and still, always, his friend – she is going to humor him. He must have wanted one last case so very badly. Now he has one. Let it fill some of the hours that would otherwise only have been spent waiting. Knowing.
“Mr. Lilliard was born in 1970,” Holmes says as he checks the dead man’s wallet. They are seated side-by-side on the mostly empty 6 train. “His wife seems likely to be eight to ten years younger than he.”
Watson glances over. “Did you find a photo of her?”
“No. But her given name is Farrah.”
“That one wasn’t popular long,” Watson agrees, with a small smile. She is not yet fully immersed in the thrill of the chase, but give it time. They’ve made a beginning, and that is his primary concern.
The mood on the subway – never buoyant – is glum to the point of sullenness these days. In some ways, this is easier to manage than before, when crowds were dense, room scarce and tempers occasionally volatile; now half-filled cars are too quiet, and dirtier than they’ve been since the 1970s. (Though, Holmes notes, graffiti has not made a comeback. Nobody is interested in painting names that will never be read.) In this particular train car, he and Watson are two of only a dozen or so occupants – tired commuters coming home from jobs they’ve kept out of habit, and an elderly woman knitting something that will never be used. He watches Watson looking at the old woman, her eyes focused on the rhythmic, meaningless motion of the needles. Watson’s melancholy weariness reminds him of the time they talked about the delusions of palmistry – the way he held her hand in both of his and traced his finger along her skin, mapping accidents, incidents, fate.
Best to get back to work.
“Extraordinary that anyone should choose to kill anyone, this close to an apocalyptic event,” Holmes says.
“Plenty of people do.” Watson straightens, back to herself again. When she turns toward him, her long black hair falls over her shoulder like a curtain. “The snipers, for instance. The bombers out west. It’s only been three weeks since Rockefeller Rink. You saw that, right? You haven’t given up your wall of televisions?”
He relies on that less, these days, but he can go over this detail with her later. “I’m not talking about spree killings by malcontents who are somehow convinced they can scar the Earth so deeply the asteroid won’t obliterate the mark.”
One of the businessmen glares at them. Speaking about the Strike in public is considered impolite, by some.
Holmes continues on. “The killing at hand, Watson, is premeditated. Planned. In cold blood. Why do people murder other people in cold blood?”
“For – insurance money. Or to avoid losing cash in a divorce. To improve their position in the world, somehow.” They share a look, and she continues, “Nobody’s going to be able to collect on insurance any longer. Or get a divorce, or a promotion. None of the old motives apply.”
“There are, of course, the basic primal human emotions to contend with, yet then we would be looking at a crime of passion. So what we have here is a mystery on many different levels.” Holmes smiles with real relish. “Good to have a proper case, isn’t it?”
Watson shakes her head slightly – not disagreeing, more disbelieving. She does this from time to time, when she finds herself falling into his worldview. Eventually, Holmes thinks, she’ll stop shaking him off. “It’s not good that someone got his head smashed in, Sherlock. But – having an investigation – it’s a change of pace. Let’s put it that way.”
“Let’s.” The train car shudders back and forth as it begins braking for their station. “Come along, Watson. Time to meet Farrah.”
“I was born in 1979,” Farrah Lilliard says. Unlike her namesake, she has brown hair, trimmed short, and wears glasses. “Why?”
“Just double-checking our information,” Watson replies quickly, shooting Holmes a look as though he’d asked an irrelevant question. Proving the veracity of his deductions is never irrelevant, and besides – he thinks, uncharitably – the woman looks older.
He continues, “When did you last see your husband?”
“Dennis left the house Monday morning. He was going to play handball with an old college friend – Keith, his name’s Keith Sewell, but he’s Dennis’ best friend, so it wasn’t him. Those two are thick as thieves. Anyway, Dennis was going to play a match with Keith to kill time, you know?” Farrah’s smile is brief and tight. It doesn’t reach her eyes as she wrings her hands together, as though they were sore. “Then he said he was going to drop back by the office. See if he’d forgotten anything he wanted. There were a couple of books he’d wanted to reread – but he never took books to the office, probably he bundled them off to the Strand before our last move – ”
Her voice chokes off. This happens frequently, these days, when people say the words the last.
“Were you not concerned when he failed to return home?” Holmes asks as he paces the length of the room, cataloguing its contents. (The Lilliards are well-off but not truly wealthy, possessed of mundane taste in décor and entertainment – really, what is the point of buying an entire roomful of furniture from a two-page spread of the Restoration Hardware catalogue? Of owning the whole run of “Friends” on DVD? – and they do not display photographs of themselves, either separately or together.)
Farrah cracks her knuckles, then shrugs. “These days – we’re all acting strangely, you know? I thought he and Keith might have decided to head upstate. Go camping up in the Catskills, maybe. They used to do that all the time, when they were younger. No cell coverage up there.”
Normally that answer would be unpersuasive in the extreme, but these days, people are indeed deviating from their normal habits in dramatic ways. Deductions are harder to come by. Holmes finds it frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.
Watson leans forward, bending her body toward Farrah’s ever so slightly. She’s good at this – the gentler approach that is nonetheless not cloying, that allows the other person to retain dignity. “Mrs. Lilliard, your hands seem to be hurting you.”
“I have arthritis,” Farrah explains. “Early onset, I guess? I used to fret over what it would be like when I got older.” Her laugh is bitter. “One less thing to worry about.”
“You also have bruises on your arm.” Watson’s voice becomes firmer; the gentleness is all in her eyes, now. “These marks, this pattern – it suggests a very specific injury. Namely, someone wringing your shoulder and forearm in different directions.”
Farrah Lilliard shifts backward, as though she could burrow between the sofa cushions. She hugs herself so that her hand covers the bruises, but she doesn’t look away from Watson.
Holmes sees it now too, but he says nothing. He has at last learnt when to let Watson take the reins.
Watson continues, “You’ve also broken your nose before. Not once, but a few times, and I don’t believe you ever had it properly set afterward. I’m a doctor, and there are certain signs they reach us to look for. Arthritis in frequently bruised and broken fingers, repeated injuries to the face, marks like the ones on your arm: They’re all signs of battering.”
A long silence fills the room, lengthy enough for Holmes to repent of looking at this woman’s face and only judging her as older than her years. Then Farrah says, “Dennis had a temper.”
“That’s why you weren’t concerned when he didn’t come home,” Holmes says. “You were relieved. More time away meant less time you had to fear him.”
She doesn’t argue, but she says, “He hadn’t been as bad, since we learned about, you know. The Strike.” Farrah says those two words in a whisper, as though repeating an obscenity. “Last week was almost the only time he – he wasn’t that bad. You didn’t know him.”
It sets Holmes’ nerves on edge to hear this woman defending her abuser. So many people do, but he never finds it any easier to bear. Fortunately Watson speaks before he can. “Do you need any medical treatment now?”
“I’m fine. Absolutely fine, except for the fact that someone killed my husband.” Glaring at them angrily, Farrah adds, “I guess you’ll say I did it. Because he lost his temper once in a while.”
“You didn’t do it,” Holmes says.
Watson gives him a look; she hadn’t made it that far yet, though he feels confident she would have done.
So Holmes continues, “Mrs. Lilliard, had you been going to take up arms against your husband, you’d hardly have lured him out of the house to do it. You would have committed the act in your home, where you are most comfortable and he was more likely to be off his guard. These days, a claim of self-defense would provide a handy excuse for an already overburdened police force to close the case with a bare minimum of investigation, if any. You would have killed him here, used your own evident injuries to support your case, and been troubled no further.”
Farrah Lilliard doesn’t seem to know what to do with that. She glances over at Watson as if to say, Is he for real? Holmes has noticed that Watson gets this look a lot.
Finally Farrah says, “I loved Dennis. We had our problems, like all couples do. But I loved him. I’d never have hurt him.”
Her eyes well with tears, but Watson cuts in with a question designed to distract as much as to glean information. “Mrs. Lilliard, can you tell us if your husband had an interest in rock collecting? Mineralogy?”
It works; Farrah pulls herself back together. “Yeah, he was. Do you want to see his collection?” She rises from the couch and goes to a nearby armoire; when she opens the doors, she reveals a few shelves of gleaming jasper and quartz, as well as a few geodes.
But as he and Watson stand in front of the collection, it’s obvious that no pieces are missing – there are no gaps in the formation, and there’s enough dust inside to make it clear nobody’s straightened these in a few weeks at least.
“Why do you ask?” Farrah says.
“The murder weapon was a rock.” Holmes could perhaps have delivered that news more gently, but to what end? Moving on. “Do you have contact information for Keith Sewell? It sounds as though we’ll need to speak to him to understand more about your late husband’s final hours.”
Watson holds her tongue until they’re in the stairwell, headed down. “Why not say, the murder weapon was a rock to your husband’s skull? Or if you really wanted to be sensitive, you could have used the phrase ‘bashed in.’”
“If Farrah Lilliard wants to worship the memory of a man who spent his life brutalizing her, I cannot prevent it. I can, however, refuse to abet her mourning.”
Although Watson isn’t entirely satisfied with his reply, she focuses on the case with admirable discipline. “So, Keith Sewell. His wife seemed pretty sure it wouldn’t be him – but people are wrong about that all the time.”
“Too early to predict,” Holmes says. “Now, while we take a few moments to track down Mr. Sewell, why not head back to the brownstone? I’ve managed to procure some of that chamomile citrus tea you so favor.”
He doesn’t drink it himself. She will know he bought it in hopes of her return, that he waited for her. Holmes does not blame Watson for her departure – he understands fully – but he wants her to know that her absence was felt.
Watson hesitates only a moment. “Sure,” she says. “Let’s go home.” And with that one word, home, Holmes is happier than he’s been in quite some time.
To Joan it seems obvious that Sherlock is carrying on as usual, which is why it’s so surprising to walk into the brownstone and find everything changed. The Wall of Crazy is as bare as the bookshelves; the absent books, she suspects, are the contents of the many shipping crates stacked in the center of what had been the living room. Each crate is brand-new, so much that the wood still smells alive, and stamped with the words PROPERTY OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.
She steps forward to see a piece of pale pink stationery atop the nearest crate. Written on it, in a flowing and elegant hand, is this: Given the uncertainty of shipping, I decided to organize the books into ‘pods,’ combining in equal measure reference materials with critical information, reference materials with noncritical information, classic literature and nonessential literature. This way, even if we lose one or more crates en route, we can be assured that whatever books we retain will represent a meaningful cross-section of your collection. Books on the Spanish language and the care/feeding/travel needs of pet turtles have been left out for you to pack with your personal belongings. I’ll come back after the weekend.
The note is unsigned, though a signature is completely unnecessary; Mrs. Hudson’s touch could not be more obvious if she’d airbrushed her own portrait on the sides of the crates. Joan turns to Sherlock. “You’re running.”
“It’s the smart move,” he says as he walks past her into the kitchen. “Toast? Or we’ve scones, if you’d like one. Freezer scones, ‘ready bake,’ but not as odious as that description would suggest.”
Joan nods, not because she wants a scone but out of pure surprise. Sherlock had seemed, to her, to be carrying on as usual, refusing to acknowledge the Strike. This is how most people are behaving, because nobody knows for sure what else to do. Joan’s family has chosen to return to China, to reunite with her mother’s family there before the end; there are others living out similar ambitions, bringing family or friends closer together, or crossing off “bucket list” items in a frenzy. (They report record crowds at Victoria Falls, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat. Skydiving companies and bungee-jump operators have more customers than ever before – though a high number of people simply ignore the safety warnings and use the activity as a quicker and flashier end.)
But some people are running.
That’s the thing about the Strike: It will end most life on Earth, but not all. Something will survive. As yet, theories vary as to how this is likely to work. Humanity can make it if even a few thousand people endure past the first few years, when atmospheric disturbance will turn the world cold and destroy most plant life. Civilization as it is now known – that’s done for. What might lie after … well, whenever Joan tries to picture it, she winds up with a mish-mash of images mostly inspired by “Mad Max.”
Most people would opt for even a post-apocalyptic existence before certain death, but the problem is that nobody knows where on Earth survival will be most likely. Scientists attempt to pinpoint the exact area of the Strike, but the reality of the globe’s rotation means that even very minor differences in their calculations result in wildly varying predictions. Those who are running are running to all different areas – northern India, the American Midwest and sub-Saharan Africa are each popular. Guess right, and you have a chance to struggle through the cataclysm; guess wrong, and you join the approximately 85% of humanity destined to die within twenty-four hours of the Strike. Everywhere people are sliding their chips onto the board, choosing different squares as the ball bounces upon the roulette wheel for the biggest bet of all.
Most people – like Joan and her family – are sitting the bet out. Yet she ought to have known Sherlock wouldn’t, Joan muses, as he busies himself in the kitchen making tea and scones.
“You’re taking Mrs. Hudson with you,” she says. “And Clyde?”
“Turtles will need to repopulate the Earth too.” Sherlock stands in front of the oven, as though he could bake the scones faster by force of will. “Mrs. Hudson’s combination of intellect, strong will and creativity should make her an asset in the days going forward, as will Alfredo’s sharp mind and understanding of machinery. As for you, well, obviously a trained physician will be eminently helpful. I feel I will have to demonstrate what I have to contribute as we go, but it should be obvious to all and sundry within short order.”
Sherlock glances over his shoulder and smiles. “We’re departing in three weeks – after the first rush of runners, but well before the final panic. I’d have come to you in a week or so regardless, but isn’t it pleasant to have one more case before we go?” The timer dings, and he slides his hands into oven mitts.
As he gets the scones out of the oven, Joan walks into the kitchen. “I told you, I’m traveling to Beijing with my family.”
“That was your original plan,” he says, as though they’re in agreement, while he takes the baking sheet from the oven.
“Where are you going? Mexico?”
“South America. Specifically, northern Argentina.”
“Nobody knows whether that’s likely to be any better a place than China,” Joan says, before realizing that if anybody would, it’s Sherlock. “You did your own calculations about a likely safe zone, didn’t you?”
“Yes. They were confirmed by an independent source whose acumen I trust even above my own.”
It hits her. “You mean Moriarty.”
“Do you doubt she’d be able to master the calculations?”
“… no.” Running halfway across the world on Moriarty’s say-so sounds like a bad, bad plan to Joan; under the older rules, it certainly would be. But do the old rules apply? Moriarty’s proved herself a master of many variables – and psychopathic as she surely is, she’s demonstrated beyond any doubt that she prefers Sherlock Holmes alive.
As they sit together at the kitchen table, scones and tea at hand, Joan reminds herself that Moriarty’s part in this doesn’t matter. She made her choices a few weeks ago. “I appreciate that you want to include me. It means a lot. But I’m not running. I’ve chosen to stay with my family.”
“You mean that you wish to be with them when they die,” he says, which is blunt even for him. “Natural, I suppose. I shouldn’t know myself, of course, as my father has not so much as rung me since the Strike was announced. But in most families, yes, the instinct to come together would be very strong indeed. However, in this case, Watson, choosing to be with your family when they die means choosing to die yourself. Ultimately I don’t think you will choose to die. You’ll choose to fight. To try. To do anything else is against your nature.”
Joan feels her desire to live tugging at her – as insistent as a small willful child, and as ignorant of the limitations of reality. “Normally, yes. That’s exactly what I’d do. But this isn’t a normal situation, to put it lightly. No matter where we went, we’d only have a minimal chance of survival, and what kind of life would we have after? Have you seriously thought about that?”
Sherlock gestures at the packing crates. “I am building a storehouse of knowledge for the more rugged world to come.”
“We’d probably die no matter what,” she says. “I can choose to die quickly, with people I love all around me. Or I can choose to die a lingering death by starvation, or tribal warfare, or radiation sickness – and you know, forget it. Forget it.”
For the first time, his serene confidence falters; instead, he’s beginning to look put out. “Can you truly brush off your best chance to live? Your only chance?”
“Life is more than not dying.” Joan meets his eyes evenly. “I’m a doctor, Sherlock. I’ve seen patients whose family members resorted to ‘extreme measures’ to keep their hearts beating, or their lungs breathing. They tell themselves it’s an act of love, but after a point, really, it’s an act of cowardice. They tell themselves they’re prolonging life, but all they’re doing is prolonging death. Please trust me when I tell you that you want your death to be as fast as possible when it comes. I’m not interested in prolonging my own.”
“We can do better than that,” Sherlock insists. His eyes are alight now with that fine edge of anger he so rarely allows himself to show. “If I couldn’t offer you more than a lottery-ticket’s chance, I wouldn’t bother. I’d hardly bother myself. This opportunity is real.”
“But it’s still not much of an opportunity—”
“I need you with me.”
The words fall between them as though weighted, as though their impact makes the room shudder. It’s less what he’s said and more how he said it. Now the fire within him has nothing to do with anger, and Joan can’t find any reply.
“I need you with me,” he repeats, and it’s hardly more than a whisper. “I need to know that there’s a chance you will survive. Even if I fell, I could bear it, knowing that you might go on.”
They sit in silence for a few seconds. Joan breaks their gaze first, unable to answer him in any way. Sherlock is the one who goes for the butter, so she follows his lead and nibbles on her scone.
“Not bad for ready-bake, is it?” Sherlock says.
“Not bad at all.”
In this way they mutually table the discussion for later. Now, pastry. Then, murder. Afterward, their ultimate fate. That’s more or less how it usually goes.
Watson stays in the brownstone that night, supposedly only because they are scheduled to speak with Keith Sewell first thing in the morning. However, Holmes dares to hope that she is reluctant to leave. Certainly she feels comfortable here, which she well might not, considering … considering. Perhaps now that she’s been reminded of the pleasures of their mutual investigations, she will fall back into familiar patterns. Once they are walking side by side once more, surely Watson will realize they should continue on this way.
As he goes through the mundane grooming rituals that presage sleep, Holmes replays in his head their entire conversation over scones. What strikes him most upon review is how smoothly Watson accepted the idea of his taking advice from Moriarty.
Only appropriate, he thinks. He finds the idea rather striking himself.
There had been many earlier messages from the prison where she is held. Holmes ignored them one and all.
(He puts it to himself this way, as though the decisions were automatic and easy, a triumph of righteousness. As though he had not sat up at night staring down at an unopened envelope with all the fervor he’d once dedicated to a waiting line of heroin. No, he never responded, but the victories were like those over drugs – something unwinnable in the permanent sense, something only capable of being claimed hour by hour.)
After the news, however, Holmes had known he was not strong enough to decline any final farewell. So he had traveled to the prison before she could invite him again, only weeks after the announcement of the Strike. By choosing the moment, and coming far in advance of any last-minute sentimentalities, he had hoped to assert some form of control.
Yet for this, too, Moriarty had been prepared.
“South America,” she had said, instead of hello. They sat on either side of an inch-thick sheet of shatterproof glass, clutching cheap plastic phone receivers in each hand.
“I beg your pardon?”
“South America. Farther south than Brazil, but above Patagonia, obviously.” Moriarty’s face is paler now, denied luxurious cosmetics and unguents, but in some ways the starkness only enhances her beauty. It is a power in her that can’t be destroyed, like so many others. “That’s where you need to go, to survive the Strike.”
He had made his own calculations only the week before, but had not felt wholly certain of them he heard the words spoken in her voice. How galling. “You think such a journey would be worthwhile?”
“The odds are better than anyone realizes.” Moriarty smiled. “That’s where I’m going, anyway.”
“You’re not going anywhere. You must have heard that compassionate release only goes so far.”
Her smile only widened. “We’ll see.”
How can she pay henchmen or bribe officials in a global economy where money has largely lost meaning, where any hopes for the future are remote at best? It’s possible that Moriarty is only fooling herself. Yet if anyone could pull off an escape from a maximum-security prison at the dusk of the world, it would be she.
“Meet me there, Sherlock.” Her voice had been low, intent. “Or don’t. But you must go. You have to survive.”
“Am I so vital to your plans? Surely you plan to rule in the coming hell.”
“Someone must. That’s irrelevant now, of course. Join me or don’t. But live.”
“Whyever should it matter to you?” he’d said, and instantly hated himself for it, because it could not have been more obvious that he needed to hear her answer.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time surrounded by works of art. The restoration – that wasn’t merely for show, you must realize. I have my hobbies and my passions, like anyone else,” she says, as though anyone else kept an authentic O’Keefe in her flat. “Goya’s shadows, Leonardo’s subtleties, Bernini’s sensuality, Kahlo’s fury, Pollock’s order within chaos: at moments I’ve seen them all reflected in you. Usually mere glimpses and glimmers, but sometimes … sometimes you shine very brightly indeed. What caliber of masterpiece might you yet become?” When her eyes meet his again, he could almost believe her to be Irene. “Don’t be your own Savonarola. Walk away from the fires.”
Such extravagant and yet exquisite flattery. Holmes would like to think himself too sensible to be moved by such words. Instead he found himself mute. Moriarty had even stolen his words.
(Now, thinking upon it, he wishes he had such a fine speech with which to entreat Watson to stay. But he can hardly think of the right artists to describe her. Perhaps the angular, self-contained grace of a Modigliani – but no. Winning Watson with Moriarty’s words would be perversion.)
To Moriarty he said only, “I thought I came here to say goodbye to you. Now I realize I wanted to say goodbye to Irene.”
Moriarty doesn’t mock him; nor does she claim Irene as a part of her real self, like the art restoration. Instead she nods. “She was a beautiful creation.”
Holmes feels a moment of terrible longing for the illusion that was his true love. “If you see her, give her a message. Tell her I shan’t seek her again. She is only safe in my memory. Therefore that is where Irene must stay, forever. In my memory alone.”
Moriarty pressed one hand against the glass, fingers splayed wide, inviting him to do the same. Instead Holmes hung up and walked out.
The memory has stayed with him from that moment to this – as he stands in his loo, flossing his teeth, relishing the sounds of Watson’s feet as she pads about in her own room. Holmes expects that will remain strongly in his thoughts until he sees Moriarty again – as he fully expects to do.
But their reunion won’t go the way Moriarty has planned.
In the aftermath he will be one of the only ones who knows the evil of which she is capable. He will have to stand between her and an inevitable grab for power and resources, and he relishes the coming fight.
Watson will too, once they go over that bit. He’ll get to it eventually.
In the morning, Holmes makes some more of the ready-bake scones for them to breakfast upon as they go to meet Keith Sewell. They really are rather tasty. Pity he only found the market that sold them just before the apocalypse.
“Coffee from the cart or to go?” Watson calls as she comes downstairs, wet hair tucked up with a green plastic clip.
“To go.” He nods his head toward the percolator, which is already at work. “The usual coffee fellow committed suicide a couple of months back.”
Watson sucks in a breath, but says nothing. How ghastly, the things they must make routine.
They ready themselves, pour the coffee into travel mugs, and head out onto the street. Once Holmes disdained the American habit of eating and drinking coffee while walking on the street, but like so many others before him, he has been corrupted by New York City. He has to admit, the practice saves time.
“I’m about to ask you a question that might disquiet you.” Watson looks at him sidelong.
“If I can be sanguine at the prospect of the fall of civilization, I doubt any mere question is going to prove damaging.”
“You’ve handled the news of the Strike more smoothly than anyone else I know.” She does not say it as praise. “In fact, you’re so unchanged that I wonder whether you’re truly facing it.”
Holmes is annoyed but refuses to prove Watson’s point by showing any sign. “I have determined the most probable course of my future, made the appropriate plans and taken every step to ensure that they come to pass. Hardly sounds like denial, don’t you think?”
Should he mention the one time his courage nearly broke – their shared hours at the brink – the last night before Watson left him to live at her parents? The memory looms large for them both, surely, but neither of them speaks of it.
Watson never hesitates in her stride, her platform boots thumping out the rapid rhythm to which they walk. “The question I was going to ask you is – why are we investigating a murder?”
“… because there has been one.”
She raises an eyebrow.
Fair point: He’s turned down cases before. So he adds, “An interesting one.”
“The worst thing that’s going to happen to this guy when we catch him is three and a half months of house arrest. He sits around, watches TV and eats Cheetohs as long as they’re still being manufactured, until the day he dies – which is the exact same day the rest of us die. Does that sound like justice to you?”
Although Watson has touched upon this before, as did Bell, this third repetition proves to be the one he cannot bear. “If the rest of you wish to give up, then give up. Surrender to whatever bleak fate you desire for yourselves. But I remain standing, Watson. I am still here. And as long as Sherlock Holmes walks this Earth, no murderer should rest easy. I will not stop. I will not stop.”
She looks taken aback, as well she might. But her steps remain steady; if anything, they quicken as they draw closer to the subway stop.
Maybe she wishes she could get away from him. Maybe that was a foolish thing to say in the midst of his campaign to recruit her. But Holmes can’t take the words back now, and there’s not enough time remaining to waste on regret.
Joan trusts her own deductive powers well enough by now to know that Keith Sewell isn’t a guilty man.
Well. Scratch that. He doesn’t feel guilty. So either Keith’s innocent of Dennis Lilliard’s murder, or he’s one cold-blooded son of a bitch.
Yet as she and Sherlock sit together on a sofa in Keith’s cozy Chelsea pre-war apartment, with ferns on the windowsills and two shih tzus napping contentedly in the center of the room, she has a lot of trouble believing in the “cold-blooded” theory.
“We played handball like usual,” he confirms, brushing his thick gold hair back from his face. His smile is rueful. “Dennis and I had been keeping a tally ever since college.”
“You were competitive, then,” Sherlock says, with all the subtlety of a Mack truck.
(It’s not that Sherlock can’t be subtle – not that at all, Joan thinks – but he likes bluntness, and indulges from time to time.)
Keith is immune to that dart. “It was a joke, more than anything. Mostly me being a little OCD, and him teasing me about being OCD. We were usually tied or close to it. But lately we’d been talking about the score more than usual – you know, we said, one day soon, we’ll have a winner. Because the games would have to end.” He leans back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his blandly handsome face. “Turns out the final tally was 5083 to 5075. Dennis won. He would’ve liked that.”
“Five thousand?” Joan raises an eyebrow, then catches herself. “These matches took place over 20 years. Of course.”
Sherlock rises from the sofa, pacing deliberately through the apartment. “I see the two of you engaged in other athletic pursuits. Hiking, mostly, from the looks of it.”
“Oh, yeah.” Keith gets up to stand with Sherlock in front of one of the framed photographs on the wall. “That one is in the Canadian Rockies – just a couple years ago.”
Joan joins them by the photos. Dennis and Keith are standing on a high ridge somewhere, each of them wearing North Face parkas and enormous grins.
“That was four years ago,” Keith says. He points to another image of them sitting by a stream, bare feet dunked in rushing water. “And this is just last summer, right before the news – before anyone found out. Just up in the Catskills. I think we would have gone further afield if we’d known we’d never get to – you know.” With a heavy sigh, he glances away.
“What about this one?” Sherlock taps another picture, one with a white frame. Three people are pictured there instead of two, and they’re younger, hardly more than kids.
Keith smiles sadly. “The Ozarks. One of our first big trips. You know college students – we drove there for spring break. Took shifts driving while other people slept in the back seat. I can’t believe I used to be able to sleep in the back seat of a car.”
“Our circadian rhythms weaken as we age,” Joan says, never looking away from the photo. The woman sitting next to Dennis is someone other than the woman he married, yet there is something similar in her face: the guarded quality. She says, “Did you know that Dennis abused women?”
Joan turns in time to see Keith flinch. He doesn’t answer right away, but she can’t read his expression. She is very aware of Sherlock’s silence, his wordless evaluation of her decision to challenge Keith in this way.
At last Keith says, “I knew he’d … behaved badly, when we were younger. At the time I thought it was an aberration. Farrah and I were never close friends, and usually Dennis and I socialized without her, so I never realized that he – well. I never realized. I’d assumed he wouldn’t, you know, mess up again. But there were a couple of incidents in the past year that made me realize he was, uh, back at it.”
“You never spoke to him about it, of course,” Sherlock says. “Confronting a man about his mistreatment of women would be rude.”
Keith’s face flushes. “I don’t condone battering.”
“And yet you never interrupted your games of handball.”
“Do you approve of everything your friends do, Mr. Holmes? I’d bet not.” Keith lifts his chin.
This argument is fake, of course, Sherlock’s attempt to goad Keith into saying something intemperate. Yet she is surprised to see Sherlock nod as though Keith has scored a point.
They leave soon thereafter. While they walk down the narrow stairs, Joan whispers, “What was that about?”
“Your meaning, Watson?”
“You totally backed down when Keith Sewell confronted you. That’s not like you, to put it lightly.”
“It is entirely like me when prolonging a combative interview is only keeping me from more pressing investigative concerns.” Sherlock pauses on the last step, adjusts his scarf. “What do you know about the Ozarks, Watson?”
As little as possible, she thinks. “Um, it’s a mountain range in the southern United States. Arkansas, I think.”
“And parts of Missouri. Which, interestingly, are the main places where one is likely to find mozarkite, the pink mineral at the center of the geode that served as a murder weapon.”
“The murder weapon. You think it was someone on that trip. And if it wasn’t Keith Sewell – ”
“—I shall be very interested to learn who the woman in the photograph is. If we were to ask Mr. Sewell about her, he might well warn an old friend, so I elected not to ask, at present. Given that she attended their same small liberal arts university and was wearing a hat proclaiming her membership in the Tri-Delta sorority, we should be able to track her down easily enough.”
Joan smiles as they exit the building together. “So, this is where I learn which libraries in New York would keep old college yearbooks?” Already she’s anticipating the hunt and the lesson – digging through old-fashioned stacks, breathing in the comfortingly musty smell of books, winding her way through the maze of an archive as she learns its twists and turns –
Only then does she ask herself, What’s the point of learning anything?
I’ll never use the information again. I won’t have time.
Her steps falter. Joan puts one hand to her chest as she feels the familiar constriction of panic – and no matter how much time she’s had to get used to it, no matter how deeply she’s accepted it, it is universally, physically impossible to contemplate imminent death without a jolt of fear.
By her side, Sherlock looks over at her. She expects him to attempt to sweep past the moment as blithely as he seems to be doing himself. Instead his gaze is so compassionate, so understanding, that it makes everything worse and Joan has to turn away.
That’s when she hears the first gunshot.
Even as she ducks toward Sherlock, trying to shield his body with hers, his arm hooks around her waist as he tows her down. They fall together onto the pavement, hard, as new shots echo along the street along with the screams.
“The bodega,” Joan gasps. He’s already seen it, crawling toward the metal trapdoor in the sidewalk that allows the corner store to load its wares into basement storage. Once these were locked when not in use, but now owners are required to leave them open for events like these.
Sherlock pries the metal doors open but doesn’t descend. He’s waiting for her, the stupid ass; he’s an ego tsunami except when he’s not. Joan dives through legs first, catching herself on the metal ladder, ignoring the hot slice of pain across her calf. Bullets slam into the building, and sharp fragments of brick pop against her arm, her forehead. She reaches out to pull Sherlock after her – he’s already following but she can’t help herself. Her hand is wrapped around his forearm as she tugs, which is why she feels the impact almost the moment he does.
His muscles tense. He exhales sharply. Sherlock has been hit.
Joan’s back up through the doors – halfway, at least – in an instant, so she can pull him down to safety. They’d fall to the floor if the ladder weren’t in the way; as it is it’s a miracle neither of them breaks a leg on the way down.
“Oh, shit,” she breathes as she rolls him away from the ladder. Gunfire rings above their head, metallic and distant. “Sherlock – ”
“A mere scratch,” he pants, though he tugs at his jacket sleeve to be sure. Sure enough, it looks as though the bullet merely grazed his shoulder, doing more damage to his sweater than to his arm. There’s blood, and she’ll need to disinfect the cut, but Joan doubts he’ll even need stitches.
Relief sweeps through her, more overwhelming than it should be while they’re still under fire. Stupid to be so glad someone’s alive when they’re going to die in three months’ time anyway. Insane to feel herself shaking when she looks down at an insignificant flesh wound, when she’s cracked open human chests while wondering idly what to have for lunch after.
Sherlock looks up at her. Studying her. Sometimes Joan hates his all-seeing gaze.
But together they shunt themselves out of the way; chances are other people will use this escape, if they can. He lies on the concrete floor next to pallets stacked high with cans of Goya products, and Joan stretches out by his side. When he holds out his good arm to her, she rests her head on his shoulder.
They both know the last time they lay together like this. This repetition, this conscious mirroring of the position of their bodies, is their first acknowledgement of it.
Sherlock offers the second as they wait for safety. “I wondered where you had gone, the next day.”
As bullets smash into the building above them, and sirens wail, Joan returns his honesty with her own: “I didn’t want to say goodbye to you. I had to leave, but I couldn’t say it.”
He nods. They lie side by side in the cold and dark, illuminated only by their view into the screaming world above.
“I still can’t,” she says.
Sherlock does her the courtesy of leaving it there.
Despite all appearances, Holmes understands boundaries. He simply refuses to acknowledge them most of the time. They are made of social niceties and hypocrisies he does not require, intended for purposes that rarely serve him.
For instance, during Watson’s months in his brownstone, he often went into her bedroom of a morning to awaken her. Why wait more time to tell her something important, or stand in her doorway in maidenly propriety? Although Watson professed exasperation with this habit of his a time or two, she never forbade it; on those occasions when he picked out clothes for her during her waking, she even wore them. So obviously she too saw the utility of this practice.
Yet that last night – he didn’t wait until morning.
Nor did he immediately awaken her.
Instead Holmes sat there in her dark room, in the hour after midnight, watching Watson sleep. No. Watching her breathe.
It was six weeks after the news leaked about the Strike. (Apparently the UN had hoped to keep it quiet a bit longer, believing a few hundred people could keep a secret – delusional to the end.) Mass panics had flooded and then emptied the streets; snipers had begun to appear, still new and horrifying. Holmes recalls that it was four days after the Staten Island Ferry bombing – enough time for the initial shock to have worn off, yet also for the realization to sink in that this was the way the world ends. Forget whimpering: It will be a bang after all.
Watson wore her usual sports jersey. But normally she sleeps splayed out, in an abandon she rarely allows herself when awake. That night she was curled in upon herself, clutching the pillow to her as though to muffle a scream.
Holmes was sharply aware of the difference in her, and in himself.
He did not awaken her. Instead she stirred, very suddenly, perhaps escaping a nightmare. When Watson saw him, she said nothing at first; they watched each other, as if taking each other’s measure for the first time.
After long moments, she said, “Once – years and years ago, at a bachelorette party – I let a fortune-teller read my palm.” Holmes exaggerated the roll of his eyes, which did the trick and made her smile. “Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt.”
“What fantasies did this basement-shop Nostradamus have to offer?”
“That’s the thing, though.” Watson sat up, hair falling across her cheek. “She was right about a lot of stuff. A lot. For instance, she said I’d have a successful career – I was in med school then, she knew that, so whatever – but then she also said I’d change my path in the way I least expected.”
“Fairly ordinary turn of phrase. And yet.”
“And yet. Also, this was a bachelorette party, so she made tons of predictions about love and marriage and babies, all of that. With me, though, she said I wouldn’t marry. She said I wouldn’t have kids. I was okay with that – I always have been – but it’s not the usual pre-wedding party spiel, right?”
Mercifully this was not an area in which Holmes had any direct experience, but he nodded.
Watson held out her hand, looking into it. “She did say I’d have love, though. Also in the way I least expected. Everyone made jokes about that – you know, I’d become pen pals with a convict, or start stalking a celebrity – we’d had a few cosmos by then. You know. But the thing is, as more and more of my life started lining up with those predictions, I let myself believe in them a little. Not really. Just – well.” She laughed, a sound too close to tears. “And do you know what else she predicted? Long life. I was supposed to have a very long life. So much for palmistry.”
“A very inexact art,” Holmes agreed. “We ought all to have had the same scar somewhere, oughtn’t we? One universal mark to reveal what was coming.”
And then, without planning to or seemingly even choosing to, he had moved from his chair to her bed, sitting close enough to her to take her hand in both of his.
“Here, perhaps.” Holmes traced along one of the deeper lines of her palm. His thumb brushed along her skin, very slowly, and they both stared down at it rather than lift their faces to meet each other’s eyes.
It wasn’t a move. Truly, honestly, it was not: Holmes was sure of that then and remains sure of it now. He has of course felt moments of desire for Watson, and more than moments at times. As a man given to observations of the most minute phenomena, the most obscure and hidden secrets, he could hardly fail to notice that he was living with a woman of astonishing depth, compassion and beauty. To admire her lithe grace. To occasionally imagine what it would be like to wind the black silk of her hair around his wrists, his throat.
And yet that was not how he needed her. Desire is easy. Whatever he felt and feels for Watson is not easy at all.
The simple, shameful truth about that night is that he needed comfort. He needed it so badly that he allowed himself to pretend she didn’t need it too.
That, Holmes knows, is why he took her hand that night. Why he pressed it against his chest until she leaned close to him, upon him, an embrace that was not an embrace. Why he burrowed down into her bed, sheltering himself beneath her covers and her body. Although it was Watson who rested her head against his shoulder, who was folded into his arms, Holmes was the one who clung to her tightly. He buried his face in her shoulder and shut his eyes and let her murmur soft, meaningless sounds of reassurance. When his breaths came too fast and began to catch in his throat, when their mutual destruction hung over her bed like a canopy of black, she was the one who bound him to life.
They didn’t make love. They didn’t even kiss. But during the long hours of that night, Holmes never ceased to be aware of Watson’s bare legs intertwined with his or the warm sliver of her exposed belly. He never got fully hard but – surely Watson realized, and she never pulled back. As he fell asleep next to her, Holmes assumed that in the morning either they’d have one of her vaguely medicinal talks about honesty and appropriateness, or they’d fuck each other senseless.
Instead he awoke to find her gone.
Her note spoke only of injured people in need. Still, he had known she would not return at day’s end, or anytime soon. Holmes had meant to go after her once he thought she might listen to him, and once he knew precisely what it was he meant to say. But it took a murder to make him find her.
It took this shooting to force them to acknowledge – even wordlessly – that night. The mirroring of their postures is conscious for them both; of that Holmes is certain. Apparently this is what they do in the face of death. They lie down side by side, to stare it down together.
The police shut down the sniper after approximately a half-hour. Holmes and Watson emerge from their subterranean refuge to find Gregson among the task force.
At first he is glad to see the man; while Gregson is not precisely a friend, he comes closer than most people of Holmes’ acquaintance. But within moments Holmes wishes the encounter had never taken place.
“Look at this,” Gregson says without energy. His face is puffy. Normally dapper for a police officer, he now is unshaven, his shoes beat-up. “Bell told me the dynamic duo was still in action.”
“Which one of us is Batman in this scenario?” Watson says. Which is ridiculous, as obviously Holmes is Batman, but he doesn’t pursue this line of discussion.
“Captain Gregson. A pleasure to see you again.” This is a lie, given how downtrodden Gregson looks, but Holmes is determined to remain focused. “We’re on the trail of the killer of Dennis Lilliard. Interestingly, the solution seems likely to be found at the cross-section of mineralogy and sorority row.”
Gregson never even looks directly at Holmes. “He was thirteen.”
Understanding dawns. Watson sucks in a breath before she says, “The sniper?”
“A thirteen-year-old boy named Henry. He still had his Little League trophies. The SWAT team found ‘em in his room.” Gregson’s hands are balled into fists in his pockets. “See, Henry left a note. His dad was the one who bought the guns. Planned it out. But the mom caught on. She didn’t call us – she just took one of his guns and shot her husband between the eyes. Apparently she asked Henry if he wanted her to do him too. Kid said no. So she goes back to her room and shoots herself. The little boy sat alone in his room for a day and decided – he decided to finish what his father had started. Because it’s what his dad would’ve wanted.”
They stand there in silence, looking up at the shattered window of Henry’s room. Impossible to know whether the glass was broken by bullets coming out or in. Holmes could discern the difference were he to inspect the room in person, but there is nothing he would less want to do.
“Fuck this fuckin’ world,” Gregson says.
The phrasing is inelegant, but Holmes thinks the man has more or less summed up the mood.
For a few moments the sirens are the only sound. Then Watson says, “Can we still call on department resources?”
“The Lilliard case.” Gregson’s smile is grim. “You two never know when to stop, do you?”
“Have we ever?” Holmes says.
Gregson laughs, apparently despite himself. “If you want to break any more bad habits, you might want to go ahead and get started.”
Then Watson steps forward in that way she has where there’s no turning away from her, where she is both compassionate and fierce in the same instant. “You still believe in the job. Even when it’s as bad as this, you believe in it. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to stand here now.” She smiles, and it’s not the false, hollow expression it would be on anyone else’s face in this moment. Instead it is as if she has seen something in Gregson that is familiar enough for comfort. “Just let us get to work, same as always. That’s all we’re asking.”
“All right, already.” But there’s no anger in Gregson’s growl. “You want to come in tomorrow morning, the database is yours.”
“Thanks.” Watson grins up at Gregson, and somehow he manages to grin back down at her, in a way that reminds Holmes that these two have conversations and secrets and a relationship that may be centered around him but can also exclude him. Even this shattered version of Gregson still wants to rise to the challenge, when Watson is the one presenting it.
Holmes understands this very well.
Sherlock’s wound proves to be so minor that it only requires a couple of stitches. She does this while he sits in his armchair, shirtless. Out of the corner of her vision, Joan can see the furling ribbons of his tattoos – more of them, now, than there were even when she left. All this time, and still she doesn’t know what his tattoos say. Nor does she read them now. Her focus is required for the stitches.
After she finishes, Sherlock doesn’t thank her. Sometimes he forgets. But tonight, she realizes, it’s because something else is on his mind.
“Sherlock?” she prompts. “Are you okay?”
“Before I retire for the evening, I wanted to say – to make clear – ”
He struggles for words for a moment longer, until Joan says, “Sherlock?”
“When I asked you to join our small party – to come with me to South America, perhaps I failed to be clear about the terms of the invitation. Which is to say that there are none. If you felt that I asked you anticipating … expecting a change in our relationship, from the platonic to the erotic, let us say, please know that I have no such expectations. Though also no objections – never would I cast aspersions upon your charms, while – oh, bollocks. I’m making a mess of this, aren’t I?”
Not really, Joan thinks but does not say. “It’s okay, Sherlock. I understand.”
He plows on. “I should hate for you to believe that I’d pressure you in any sense whatsoever, or that I would not welcome your presence for its own sake alone.”
Joan is mostly embarrassed that she made him be the one to actually bring up the subject. Sober companions are supposed to be good communicators. Ruthlessly honest. At least she can answer him well. “I never believed you were pressuring me for something I wasn’t comfortable with. You would never do that, ever, with me or with anyone.”
“Indeed not.” He claps his hands together briskly. “Having established that, I leave you to contemplate my proposition – unfortunate turn of phrase, perhaps. Well. Consider it at your leisure.” Sherlock is halfway to his room before he calls, “Thank you for the medical assistance. Handy having you about.”
That’s what all the boys say, Joan thinks. But jokes like that are weighted, now, so she simply nods.
Only when she’s certain Sherlock is definitely not coming back down does she turn to her own wound, the one on her calf. It’s a nasty scrape – but only a scrape, so there’s no need in worrying Sherlock about it.
Joan doesn’t know whether she’s afraid Sherlock would bend closer to her, wash the scrape with gentle fingers, smooth the bandage over her skin before looking up into her eyes – or whether she wants him to. His words tonight were consciously intended to reassure her, but Joan wonders whether Sherlock realizes the subtext. The wordless question she doesn’t know how to answer.
That’s not how we need each other, she thinks as she lies in her bed later that night. Not how we love each other.
Lines are blurrier now, though. Certainties rarer. And Joan cannot escape the memory of what it was like to sleep next to Sherlock in this same bed.
She falls asleep with her head turned toward the place where he had been.
The next morning they pay a visit to the precinct. To Joan’s surprise, the place is almost completely unchanged. Noise and frenetic activity and bad coffee: These are all comfortingly familiar.
“Okay,” Joan says as she and Sherlock commandeer an available terminal. “We’re going to figure out who this woman in the picture is – ”
“Which we should be able to do through the power of the Internet alone,” Sherlock adds. “Astonishing that, this close to the abyss, people should still be spending so much time updating Facebook.”
“They still play Farmville.”
Sherlock looks skyward, petitioning a being he doesn’t believe in to stop this madness, and Joan can’t resist a smile. “So, Google shall be our guide, and we shall identify this woman. If she did indeed bear some sort of grudge against Dennis Lilliard – ”
“He probably abused her too,” Joan says. “Abusive men usually learn that pattern in childhood and repeat it throughout their lives, unless and until they get extensive psychological help. So she could still be angry.”
Sherlock gives her the look meaning I was artfully implying that. “In that case, we may find that Mr. Lilliard was charged with assault while in university, or that this woman had previously attempted to take some lesser revenge – property damage, perhaps.”
“Let’s start digging.”
The small college in question didn’t have a very big Tri-Delta chapter – fewer than a dozen girls admitted each year – so they don’t have to comb through many photos. They must rely only on their memories for the woman’s face, but her looks were distinctive: a long jaw, wide-set dark eyes, and an athletic quality to her prettiness. Joan doesn’t even have to draw upon Sherlock’s near-photographic recall before pointing to one image in a grainy old photo uploaded to Facebook. “Her. That’s her.”
“She’s not ‘tagged,’” Sherlock points out. “Yet we have her name here in the caption.”
Joan jots down the information even as she speaks it. “Stacy Gunning. Is she not on Facebook?”
Sherlock frowns as he leans closer to the computer. The monitor’s glow illuminates his narrowed eyes. “Either Ms. Gunning is one of those rare individuals with the sense to avoid such a waste of time, or this case has taken a darker turn.”
They learn the rest of what they need to know that afternoon and evening. Normally this would be their cue to call in Gregson and Bell, but Joan knows they’re not going to get police action on this quickly, if ever. So they head back to the brownstone on foot, walking through shadowed streets.
As Joan folds her scarlet scarf more tightly around her neck – the last winter of the world is coming – she thinks again about taking that last stroll through Central Park. A few days ago, in her parents’ apartment, she told herself that the New York City she had known and loved was no more. Yet now she sees that’s not true. Yes, the mood is different, but so much lingers: the hum of activity on the streets, the wildly disparate people and shops she passes every few feet, the taxicabs hurtling by too fast on the streets, the light-muted night sky barely visible from the canyons between tall buildings. And Sherlock by her side, talking fast about minutiae that doesn’t solve the case but nonetheless is so perfectly, inimitably him that it makes her smile.
The things she loves still exist. She should take advantage of them while she can.
They return home. After a quick scouring of the pantry to take stock of the possibilities, Joan offers to make them some vegetable soup for dinner. Sherlock agrees to this without much conversation on his part, but sometimes he gets like this at the close of a case – introspective and quiet – so she thinks little of it.
When his silence lasts through dinner, though, Joan decides it’s time to raise a question that’s been on her mind. “With everything that’s been going on … have you been tempted to use again?”
He raises one eyebrow. “Circumstances put an addict into a situation where his actions truly may not have consequences ever again, and you ask whether that provides any temptation?”
“Okay, let me amend that. How badly have you been tempted to use?”
“Are you so sure I haven’t already?”
“You’re not the only one who can deduct certain things by looking at someone. If you were using again, I’d know.”
Sherlock sighs. “Correct as usual, Watson. Despite the temptation, I have not given in. I intend to live through the coming apocalypse, after all. If I am addled by drugs, my chances of survival are greatly diminished.”
Even Sherlock’s delusions are sometimes helpful, Joan thinks.
Then he looks at her more intently at her. “Besides. If I used again – it would be no credit to your considerable skills as a sober companion. I should hate to reflect poorly on you.”
This is, in its guarded way, one of the nicest compliments he’s ever given her. Joan smiles at him without words, trusting him to understand.
For dessert there is ice cream. This close to the apocalypse, Joan doesn’t intend to skip ice cream ever again. Yet she hasn’t had any in weeks. Months? This is butter pecan, not her usual favorite, but tonight she revels in the richness of the flavor, the cool sweet simple pleasure of feeling it dissolve against her tongue.
“What happens tomorrow?” Joan asks.
“What do you mean? We confront someone I suspect to be a killer. We take along what we need to defend ourselves – though I doubt that will be necessary – then alert the authorities.” Sherlock sighs. “Then we hope they take action.”
They won’t; surely he knows that by now. “If the police aren’t jailing people – aren’t even arresting them – then what drives you to do this? At first I thought it was just something to do, to occupy our time, but it’s more than that for you.”
“You were the one who told Gregson that life still has value.”
“Of course it does. But I can’t give Dennis Lilliard’s life back to him.”
Sherlock puts down his empty bowl. This is when he’d like to pace around the main room, she realizes, but the packing crates make that difficult. He begins winding his way through that maze, though, and she sets her own ice cream down to follow him.
“We are not resurrectionists, but then, we never were,” Sherlock says. “Despite my own … vengeful longings, justice is not always a matter of retribution. Justice can be a matter of accountability. Not everything can be punished. But everything can be known. Every killer can be forced to face the impact of his actions. That is, at least, a reckoning.”
A reckoning. A knowing. That’s worth something, Joan thinks. But she’s caught more by the light in Sherlock’s eyes as he speaks, the energy in the way he moves as he walks the maze of his own books. The spark in him now is what she hasn’t seen in anyone else in months. It’s the spark flickering within her again ever since he appeared at her parents’ door.
Sherlock’s hands are behind his back, kneading each other. “We must do what we can, as long as we can. To cease fulfilling our duties to one another, to cease doing that which we feel is right and good – that is a death surer than any stilling of the heart. You said to me a few days ago that a swift death is preferable to a prolonged one, and I entirely agree. I will not give in. I will not surrender.”
Joan’s first thought is that nobody has said those words in far too long. Her second thought is that they’ve been echoing within her, unspoken for the belief that no one else would understand.
“If we are to die – and I know well that we may die, Watson, no matter how far and fast we run – if we are to die, let us die as we have lived.” He turns and faces her, there in the small space within the crates, the two of them together in the shadows. Sherlock raises one hand in front of him, closing it into a fist as though taking hold of something unseen. “Let us defend what we valued. Let our last act be one that stands for something, even the value of one human life this close to the end.”
The value of one life, one heartbeat. The value of the life Joan still has, the one they share – that’s what he gives back to her. That’s the only thing that matters.
Joan takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
When their lips touch, she knows her only moment of doubt – if this isn’t good, it’s going to be awkward – but the kiss is better than good. Better than great. Lightning in a bottle. He brushes back her hair, pulls her close and kisses her so fiercely that the rest of the world falls away. It’s gone already. Only they endure.
Neither of them speaks once. Not when she backs him against the crates. Not when he pulls her head to one side and bites down gently on her throat. Not when her tongue slides inside his mouth, and they test each other, sucking and licking at different tempos and depths until they find the rhythm that’s equal parts her and him.
His damned buttoned-up collar is a nuisance. So are the laces of her Keds. They stumble, lean against the crates, go their knees, and don’t get each other totally naked until they’re on the floor, Turkish carpet rough against her back. The bedroom is a thousand miles away.
Joan closes her eyes so she can breathe Sherlock in. She needs to feel his pulse – here, along his neck, as she licks him there. Here, pounding beneath her palm as she pushes him down onto the carpet beneath her. Here in his wrists as he cups his hands around her head, while she kisses her way lower. Here in her mouth, all along the hot thick length of him while she makes him groan. Joan works herself with one hand the whole time, so her heartbeat will be as quick as his.
By the time he returns the favor, she’s already on the brink – but oh Christ he’s good at this, and Joan actually fights the urge to come, fights it hard, because this needs to keep happening forever and ever. She keeps wriggling back from him, scratching at her own flesh to keep the climax back. Finally Sherlock climbs atop her, pulls her hands above her head and holds them there with one arm – gently enough that she could pull away, firmly enough to remind her that she doesn’t really want to – then uses his fingers to bring her off.
Joan’s not a screamer. Not even now. But this is the one time she’s ever come close.
Sherlock parts her thighs wider, positions himself; she tilts her hips up for him, and he smiles. Then he’s pushing inside her, and it’s been too long – another delight she’s denied herself for no reason – and Joan can only relish the burn. When he starts to move, she moves with him, urging him to go harder, faster, all of it.
He hooks his elbow beneath her knee, brings her leg up almost to her shoulder. Joan thinks of the joints, the bones, the tendons and muscles and blood that hold them together, the countless delicate elements making up whatever it is that remains unbreakable within us. For the first time in months, she is not scared of being fragile and mortal. Instead she finds it beautiful.
Then Sherlock pumps into her harder, slower, and his breath chokes in his throat as he shudders and goes still. Joan closes her arms around his back as he lies atop her, his temple against her neck.
“Ah, Jo,” he whispers, and then falls silent again in their mutual contentment.
Afterward, when they’ve tugged on T-shirts and underwear again, they feed Clyde a lettuce leaf. As they sit on the floor, watching Clyde’s funny neck stretch out for yet another bite, she says, “Do you have carpet burn too?”
“Only slightly.” Sherlock regards his reddened knees. “Your back?”
Joan shrugs. “I’m all right.” Then she smiles slightly at him. “It’s easier to talk about it, now.”
“Why was it so difficult to talk about it before?” he says. “We’re not usually the bashful sort, either of us, though I would say that of the two of us, you possess greater tact.”
Not exactly a high bar to clear, Joan thinks fondly. “I guess I thought of sleeping with you as – giving up.”
Nobody speaks for a moment.
Then she says, “That came out wrong.”
But Sherlock is smiling. “My dear Watson, I am quite overcome by your ardor.”
“Stop it.” She laughs. “You know what I mean! Sleeping with you would mean admitting that everything had changed forever. But everything has changed. Before, I think this would have been a mistake, a huge mistake. Now it … fits.”
“It does. Why do you think that is?” This isn’t one of his testing, teasing questions, meant to elicit an answer he already anticipates. Sherlock genuinely wants to know.
Joan considers it for a few moments before answering. “I don’t think it matters any longer how you love someone. I think it only matters that you do.”
After a pause, Sherlock nods, accepting that. He lifts her hand to his lips and kisses it, then lets go easily.
Maybe they’ll sleep together again; maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter anymore, because from now on they’re by each other’s side no matter what.
Vanilla planifolia. In modern society vanilla is the base note for drugstore perfumes, the flavor of ice cream meant only to serve as a vehicle for something else, like cookie dough or a chocolate shell. So it’s easy to forget that vanilla is delicious, fragrant, sensual – as delightful a scent and flavor as exists. Once, long ago, when spices were worth more than their weight in gold, the cargo that drove ships to circumnavigate the globe, people recognized the irreplaceable, delicate perfection of vanilla and valued it appropriately.
Holmes feels he has reconnected with this older, more sensible frame of mind. While he still delights in the more arcane delights of his sex life, the many kinks he has explored to their very depths, it’s been far too long since he appreciated how spectacular vanilla can be.
He and Watson are walking through Chelsea, side by side, comfortable in their new status – which is, of course, no status at all. They are beyond the need for definitions, a very pleasant place to be.
Far more pleasant than the place he is about to send someone else.
“You’re sure he won’t cause trouble?” Watson says, squinting at the building’s intercom system.
“Certain, no. Reasonably certain, yes.”
She frowns, no doubt remembering some of the more unfortunate incidents that have fallen between those two poles.
So Holmes adds, “You haven’t forgotten your self-defense techniques already, I hope.”
“Of course not. That doesn’t mean I’m chomping at the bit to use them again.” But Watson punches the intercom button, and they are buzzed up in due course.
Once again, they enter the home of Keith Sewell. He greets them as easily as he did last time. “Are you guys making any progress?”
“You could say that.” Watson walks to the wall of photographs and points to the woman in the Tri-Delta hat. “For instance, we learned a lot about Stacy Gunning.”
Sewell’s face blanches, but he stands his ground. “What made you pick her out?”
“A geode, Mr. Sewell. Mozarkite, the product of that particular area of Missouri. The late Mr. Lilliard collected mineralogical samples, but he wasn’t the only one, was he? Either you took that geode from the area as a souvenir, or he presented it to you as a gift. A remembrance of a fine spring trip taken by three college friends, a trip you would always remember.”
Watson folds her arms. “But Stacy Gunning didn’t get to remember it very long, did she? Ten days before her college graduation, she was found dead in an alley behind sorority row.”
“The official police report lists it as a likely attempted robbery or sexual assault gone wrong. An assailant or assailants unknown struck Ms. Gunning so hard that she fell, shattered her skull and quickly died. The murderer fled, never to be apprehended. Or so reads the case file.” Holmes steps closer to Sewell, who holds his ground. “I suspect the record needs to be amended. Would you be so kind as to provide the details? Though I should warn you, I believe my associate and I are aware of them already.”
Sewell lets out a breath, and he looks more relaxed than ever before. “Dennis told me it was an accident.”
“Stacy’s death,” Watson says, prompting him.
“Just an accident,” Sewell says as he sits in the nearby armchair. One of his shih tzus comes up, wagging its tail; Sewell pulls it into his lap and absently pets its head. “He said they were horsing around, tussling, the way people do. She climbed on his back for a piggyback ride, and he pretended to dip her back – but she fell off. Her head hit the corner of the table. And that was it, she was dead.”
Holmes had not expected him to tell the story so easily. “You believed him?”
“Why wouldn’t I? Dennis was so scared. He was my best friend. What had happened to Stacy was just a tragic accident. So why should he have to be questioned by police? Maybe lose his place in grad school, or even be tried for murder? I told myself that – that covering it up was the right thing to do. That Stacy would have wanted it that way.” Sewell shakes his head ruefully. “You know, he was the one in love with her, but Stacy was my friend too. When I took her body from Dennis’ apartment and dumped it in the alley, I really, truly thought I was doing something for her just as much as for him.”
Watson glances back at the portrait of three happy kids in the mountains, arms around each other’s shoulders. “Then you learned that Dennis abused his wife.”
“I didn’t want to believe it,” Sewell whispers. “Mostly because he was my friend – or I thought he was – but as it sank in, what he was doing to Farrah, so did the rest.”
Holmes supplies it. “Stacy Gunning’s death was not the result of innocent horseplay. Dennis Lilliard killed her, perhaps unintentionally, but during a very deliberate beating.”
Sewell’s eyes are wet with unshed tears. “I dumped Stacy’s body in an alley – behind the fucking trash – because Dennis made me think I was doing something for her.”
“When did you realize what Dennis had done?” Watson says.
“No one moment. It’s the kind of thing that – that creeps into your mind – like shadows getting longer in the afternoon.” By now Sewell’s voice is trembling. “I was sure before I realized I was sure, if that makes sense.”
“And you confronted him,” Holmes says. “You wanted to make him pay.”
Sewell shakes his head no. “I wanted Dennis to feel what Stacy must have felt. I wanted him to know that he was going to die, and that someone he loved was going to make him die. Someone who loved him was going to make him die. That’s worse than dying along with the rest of the world. It must be the worst thing of all. But Dennis deserved to know how Stacy felt. It made me think she – she wouldn’t be so alone, once someone else knew how she felt. Is that crazy?”
“Not crazy.” Watson looks at Holmes, clearly unsure what to do.
He had been so sure that this was a murder committed out of hatred. That however justified Keith Sewell’s hate might have been, it was the force that drove him to put this rock in his athletic bag, keep it during their final handball game, then carry it as he went to Dennis Lilliard’s old workplace with him, the better to bash his head in. Now, Holmes sees, this was Keith Sewell’s way of saying that one life mattered – even this close to the brink, even years after Stacy Gunning’s death. Someone remembered Stacy. Someone loved her. Someone avenged her while he still could.
Once Holmes could have looked down upon a vigilante. Now, with the memory of Sebastian Moran’s blood oozing over his fingers, he has no such moral authority. He and Sewell are more alike than he could have guessed.
How he had hoped to bring another killer to justice! But it’s impossible. This situation has gone past justice; it did so decades before, when Stacy Gunning’s young life was cut short.
“The police no longer prosecute murders,” Holmes says quietly. “Dangers to society are still seen to, but I do not think you represent one, Mr. Sewell.”
Sewell doesn’t even seem relieved. He just hugs his dog closer, and he does not rise as Holmes and Watson show themselves out.
They’re two blocks away before Joan speaks. “Are you all right?”
Sherlock shrugs. “We solved the case, did we not?”
“I know you were hoping for a more – resounding victory, I guess.”
“There’s no victory in the death of a young woman.”
She confesses, “I sized Keith Sewell up completely wrong. I thought either he hadn’t done it, or he was cold-blooded – but he was guilty, and the last thing from cold-blooded.” Sewell even made sure to act while Lilliard was ahead in their ongoing handball tournament. He let his friend win before he killed him.
“Patterns are harder to read, these days. I shouldn’t let it worry me, were I you. Your deductive prowess remains extraordinary.” He stops and considers her, hands in his pockets. “What next?”
“Well, we should at least tell Gregson and Bell what happened. You’re right, they won’t take action, but still.” Joan realizes she needs the closure nearly as much as Sherlock did.
“Not what I meant. Are you coming back to the brownstone? If so, may I ask for how long?”
She understands him now. “You want an answer.”
“It need not be immediate, but before long I must finalize travel arrangements with the freighter captain.” Then Sherlock seems to think better of it. “I’m rushing you. I said I would not do that. Forgive me.”
Joan knows what she wants. She just doesn’t know if that’s what she’s going to do.
Would her mother and father come with her, if she asked? Would Sherlock welcome the entire Watson family along for the journey? Joan suspects he would, and yet she is certain it will never come up. Her brother is already with his wife’s family in Seattle, and her parents definitely want to go to Beijing. They’ve repeatedly turned down other offers of places to run. I’ve had my life, her mother keeps saying. I’m one of the lucky ones.
What would Mom do if Joan said she wasn’t coming? That she was going to run with Sherlock, chasing survival until the very last moment?
Joan imagines it … and she sees her mother smile.
She says, “Right now I’m headed back to my parents’ place. I should talk with them for a while, pack up some things.”
His face lights up as if the world was new. “Pack?”
“I’m going to need some warm clothes if we’re headed to Mt. Aconcagua.”
Really, Joan doubts the warm clothes will ever be necessary. Like as not, when the Strike happens, she and Sherlock will be consumed along with everything else in the world. But it’s worth pretending, at least out loud, just to see him smile like that again.
“Then let me see you to your subway stop.” He juts out his elbow; she takes his arm. “Delighted to hear you’ll be along for the adventure, Watson.”
She’s going to run. She’s going to fight. She’s going to live every moment she has left. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”