"Funny old thing, isn't he?"
Molly startled and turned toward the voice, behind and below her. As she turned, Sherlock veered out of sight into the emergency stairwell. He'd get what he wanted without her. Probably more than he'd get otherwise.
The speaker slouched at the edge of one of the grey-green lobby seats – indistinguishable from the ones they'd replaced last year – with her elbows on her knees, fingers interlaced, their nails shimmering with pointy intent. Her eyes were fixed on the corner where Sherlock had disappeared.
She had a jaw like a barracuda, thought Molly. Her outsized eyeballs floated in their orbits as if suspended by magnets. Glaucous, bulging a little with vitreous malice. Molly blinked a few too many times as she catalogued the effect of bone and cartilage shaved just the right side of too-fine. This person's entire face revolved around the taut mechanics of her eyelids and the edges of her lips. Perfect poreless skin. One line etched carefully around one end of her smile, one line delicate between her delicate eyebrows. Her mouth was a careful razor slash scarred over, pink and smooth. It was not too small.
Molly warmed to her, for her delicate bony convexities and her not-too-small mouth. She looked like a cruel little girl who didn't intend to be cruel but kept it up because it was working.
"Seems to think a lot of himself, Mister Holmes."
Molly unwarmed. "Those aren't your clothes," she said.
"No," replied the woman. She picked at the terry cloth midsection of her lumpy green hoodie. "Mine draw too much attention." She looked up. "Oh, you like him. That's nice, someone ought to."
"Okay, well, um." Molly pulled the door closed on the conversation containing Sherlock Holmes and squirmed in the spotlight. "It isn't my job, really, but maybe we could find you something to wear that doesn't belong to someone on a slab."
The woman angled her foot into the doorway, like a very nosy neighbour with a slate-blue stare. "It's fine, I know all about him – I've seen the news. I also talked with Jim. In IT. He mentioned you."
"Oh. God." A flare of shame in her gut. She hadn't heard from Jim in weeks. Her pride had healed, it always did, but she wondered about his. "Is he okay? Jim? I mean, Jim seemed to be very interested, and Sherlock's not, really." She sighed and eased the conversation open again. "I mean, Sherlock's not really a good person to be interested in."
The woman pulled her ponytail from under her collar and casually shook it out before bundling it back up into its scrunchie. "Jim is fine. Those two entirely deserve each other."
She put out her hand. It was warm and hard.
"Irene. I work in administration. And you'll be Molly Hooper."
"I'll be Molly. Yes, all right."
It annoyed her to be spoken of as "shy." Shy meant afraid, and she wasn't afraid. She was awkward, which made other people awkward, which made her a bit angry, which was hard to explain. She didn't stay angry – it wasn't her style – but she did spend a lot of time alone.
"Dinner?" came the text. She had just come home from the lab. "We can talk about work. Or not."
"It isn't as if I don't have the time," she said to the cat. He meowed and meowed as she closed the door.
Social exchanges have a disproportionate impact on a person who spends a lot of time alone. The man who sold Molly a blueberry yogurt in the canteen – she didn't even know his name, but his smile kept her on edge for hours. It wasn't that she didn't like him, she only wished he wouldn't pay so much attention.
Dead people, though. They did their job, she did hers. Everyone comes to a point in their lives when they can simply work with others in quiet productive company. Almost everyone she dealt with in the morgue had reached that point.
Some people were further gone than others, of course; some were still with her in spirit, some were long-dead flesh. There was something melancholy about days she worked entirely alone, but the privacy was pleasant.
One day she looked a woman in the face, straight into her sunken eyes and said "I like you a lot, Laura Fine. I really do." She gave Laura's hand a brisk pat, glancing at the tag on her left big toe to make sure she had the name right. It didn't change their working relationship at all. It helped that Laura didn't look back, and didn't touch her.
The difference between Sherlock and dead people was that his company wasn't quiet. Was rarely quiet. That was nice, actually, it was fun. The difference between Sherlock and not-dead people was that he paid no mind to what she did or said. He let her work and didn't pry or try to draw her out. He simply wanted her service and attention. A lot like a dead person, only more energetic.
Irene was like Sherlock in one sense: Molly was less her guest than her audience.
No, that wasn't quite right, she thought, as the woman prowled with half-self-conscious grace from the door to the coat tree to the kitchen, shedding her black furs and acquiring two tall and narrow glasses in the process. Irene wasn't treating the fourth wall quite the way Sherlock did. She called for an assistant. But then she watched.
It was miserable to be watched. Almost literally a nightmare. Molly had shown up half-dressed for a play she hadn't rehearsed. Thai, she'd thought. Maybe Italian. Out. A menu and a cab.
"Nothing so mundane. Kate is an admirable chef. Are you allergic to eggs?"
Molly was not. She sat, yellow and pink, on a white, white sofa.
"So, um. You're an ... administrator." She eyed a crystal vase. She had a peripheral sense of luxuriously empty space bracketed by deep crown mouldings.
"Administratrix, I like to say." Irene poured from a bottle labeled "fino," no capitals, under gold and inscrutable script.
Molly blinked. She'd forgotten her line. Very rarely, trailing after Sherlock, she took an abortive step toward the stage he occupied. Lipstick, coffee. A speaking part. But twenty minutes in a scented black sedan had sapped her talent and made her hair go frizzy. She was probably hyperventilating. She thought about dead people. They were nice, helping out behind the scenes. They'd be there when she got away.
"Are you still with me, dear?"
Molly grinned, stupid. Irene floated in front of her, a hard red mouth on monochrome. Then she loomed close and softened into flesh. The transformation was unsubtle. Irene became the girl at the desk two rows back, the unexpected friend loitering after class, radiant with mischief. She plumped down beside Molly and sagged emphatically against the unforgiving cushion, with no regard for the fine grey worsted of her suit.
"You look tired," she said.
Freckles showed across the bridge of her nose, where the powder had worn, and a wisp of hair had become snarled in its filigreed antique clip.
"Let's put on a DVD and eat in front of the telly. You can rub my feet – they're killing me."
"Oh my lord," she said. "You definitely know what I like. Now do my calves." She sighed and sat up a little. "Would you like some more wine?"
Kate was a puzzle.
"Of course I don't pay her. Don't worry, she's not as dumb as she looks. She volunteers a lot. She has her own … things going on. Have you heard of roller derby?"
Kate, thought Molly, was a sort of John Watson. Which would make Irene Sherlock. And Molly … Molly. She was her own understudy. She was a stage hand.
Molly didn't mind being alone, and hadn't needed Sherlock, really. But he had pushed out the borders of the space she lived in, quite a lot, simply by being another person like Molly. He was better, and faster, and harder, and certainly ruder, but not fundamentally different. That made him easier to bear.
When she'd realized that Dr Watson was not going to change Sherlock, she'd stopped resenting him. Not that she resented him. They didn't like each other, but he was like the nicer dead people. Human. Fairly safe. It was as if Sherlock had acquired a sort of plug-and-play social interface. John interacted but didn't intrude. Sherlock was less inclined to look directly at her, now, and more inclined to let her work beside him.
She should get her own John Watson. Someone who understood and did the shopping and went to parties for her. She would need a big swoopy lab coat. She laughed and the syringe wobbled. She didn't really want a Watson.
Irene laid a cold hand on Molly's arm.
"Watch where you put that needle, miss. Don't use too much – I'm taking notes. The last batch was thrilling. I'll have to keep a supply on hand."
She laughed her charming laugh. "Slap me afterward. I'm sure I can make you want to."
Irene was encouraging. Like John, but less mushy. Better. Harder.
"He said what?" she'd asked Molly. "You need to speak up for yourself." It was all right, Molly had tried to explain, but apparently it wasn't.
"Brainy," she'd called Molly, and kissed her against the walk-in cooler door. "Amazing."
It was one thing to be watched, or looked at, it was another to be courted. Only once every couple of weeks, but it was more than she'd seen Sherlock in months. She didn't rate this, she didn't even rate a John Watson. It didn't make any sense. Some of it was a bit risky, some a bit shocking. That was exciting.
She was neglectful of the people at work, and inattentive. They would sit in silent judgment until she looked away. The cat cried and she shut the door. She went with Irene when Irene called, and tried not to think about what "administration" might mean.
Perhaps this was part of it: an unusual late-afternoon call, a request for supplies. A big dark hotel suite.
"You make delicious noises, my dear. Oh no, that's a good thing. You could do me a favour."
"I don't understand this." Molly was half-dressed and she didn't know her lines. The looming pillows, the sudden intimacy, the weirdly familiar and arousing scent in Irene's hair.
"I have mischief in mind. I want this to sound real, and it can't sound like me." A muffled laugh. "You'll be in on the joke eventually."
She nuzzled in closer. Her eyelashes were a miracle of persuasion.
"You shouldn't trust me," Irene said later. She turned onto her front and rested her chin on the backs of her interlaced fingers."I'm a sadist, you know. I hurt people for fun."
"You can be kind."
Irene rolled over, sliding off the rumpled sheets and into the hotel's complimentary satin robe. "I doubt I'll be seeing Kate again. That should tell you something."
The piece concluded in a slightly grubby flat Irene was watching for a friend. Molly had finished shopping, and happened on Irene who had paused in the street, intent on her phone.
They spent twenty minutes inside. It was a small place. Molly stood in the doorway to the kitchen.
"Don't skip the party. It's been lovely seeing you, but I have to pack. I'm leaving town for the holidays." Irene was dressed down, in curvy blue jeans and a silky black cowl neck top. She adjusted an earring, then turned.
"Wait, I have something for you." A pile of probably-faux diamonds sparkled in her outstretched hand. "Do take them, you'll be the star of the evening. A bit of armour for the ego."
"Do you think the …?" Molly pulled the little box from her handbag.
Irene took off the lid and her big eyes went soft, then hard, then soft again. "This is perfect. Molly, this is perfect. Let me wrap it for you. There's some paper in the cupboard that will match your lipstick exactly."
At the door Irene leaned in close, expensively perfumed and without a freckle showing. She caught Molly's fingers where they fidgeted at the bangle on her wrist, and stroked her collarbone with sparkling pink nails. They were rough at the edges, clipped but not filed.
"You look amazing, Molly Hooper. Break a leg."
Molly never saw her again, but at least she was in on the joke.
Afterward, she stopped by her own place. She changed and discarded her useless armour. She was still feeling the effects of Dr Watson's cheap wine. She fed the cat and teased him with his feather toy, thinking about taking him along to Barts. He would only slink and cringe in his harness, looking for a place to hide. "I'll be back by midnight, sweetie." She meant it this time.
At the morgue she met a tall, grim man and waited with him for Sherlock. The man was horrifying. Standing near him was like being crowded by scores of people, all of them long deceased. Not the nice kind of dead people. They surveyed the carnage beneath the sheet with indifferent scorn, shut off their cold grey eyes with a condescending grimace, and pursued Sherlock through the swinging door. Molly wanted to shout a warning, but assumed Sherlock must already know about him.
Whoever he is, she thought with residual bitterness, they deserve each other.
It was good that Sherlock could identify the woman. Too late for Christmas, but if the family hadn't missed her yet it would be a mercy to wait until afterward. Someone wept in the hallway, eerie and cold.
Molly touched the body on the table. She ran her fingers along its wrist and smoothed her palm over its collarbone, its shoulder, its cool slack skin. She wondered what colour its eyes had been, and if there had been freckles on its nose. Probably – there were freckles on its shoulders.
She turned its hand over and examined the smooth red nails. She gently touched the edge of the ruin of its face. Sans teeth, sans taste. It wouldn't be making much conversation tonight.
"I'm going to get some dinner," she told it. "I don't suppose you're hungry."
Molly waited a moment, then replaced the sheet. Curtain down. She gathered up her coat and bag and made her exit.