It was nearly three years. John had moved back into the flat in Baker Street. Things had not gone well with Maria. Solicitors’ letters had started arriving. Mrs Hudson shook her head sadly when she brought them up the stairs. John was surprised to find he felt nothing when he read them. He had been a fool to even consider getting married. He had been cruel to Maria to get her hopes up like that – it was never going to work. Her words barked in his head every time he saw the envelopes:
‘I feel like Princess bloody Diana! There are three people in our marriage! The only difference is that one of us is dead!’
He should have known better, he told himself. She was young and beautiful and a lovely person. She deserved better. And she was right.
He was still in love with a dead man. And now, sitting through the long nights in the lounge he had shared with the man who had never been his lover, he knew with absolute certainty that he always would be.
Thursday afternoon. It was John’s day off from the surgery. He had pulled three 16 hour shifts, doing call-outs as well as clinics, and he lay in the armchair, unable to do anything except stare at the ceiling. He had found that it was better to stare at the ceiling than it was to stare at the leather chair that had always been his.
The phone rang. John’s mobile – he didn’t keep a landline in the flat.
Peep Peep. Peep Peep.
It rang for a while, then stilled. Then started again.
He reached out for it, fumbled, managed to answer.
Familiar voice. It took him a moment to place it, though.
‘Mate, are you busy?’
‘Only, I - well. There’s something you ought to see.’
The words were like a bolt of electricity down his spine. John sat up in his chair. ‘What?’
There was a pause at the other end. Lestrade marshalling his thoughts carefully. He always did that – used to drive Sherlock crazy:
‘Just bloody say it, can’t you? God, you people! Why does it take you so long to say anything at all?’
‘Because we think before we speak, Sherlock.’
‘I sincerely doubt that!’
‘The river plods pulled a bloke out of the Thames this morning. In a bad way. It’s probably nothing, but it would be a real help if you could come and identify him.’
‘Who is it, Greg? Don’t fuck me about.’
‘Just come, okay?’
Greg gave him a ward number and hung up. John sat there for a moment, staring into nothingness, aware that his teeth were suddenly clenched. Then he whispered under his breath.
Greg was waiting for him in the corridor outside a private room. His face was serious, slightly grey.
They said nothing as they greeted one another. John nodded soberly.
‘Okay. You wouldn’t drag me out here for nothing. It’s him, isn’t it? It’s Moriarty.’
Greg bit his upper lip, and his eyes sought the glass panel in the door beside them. ‘You’d better have a look for yourself.’
The room was sparsely decorated with the usual hospital pastels. There was a bed, and a vital signs monitor and an oxygen canister on a trolley. John had seen the scene a million times. He had been the one in the bed all too often.
He didn’t want to look at the man under the waffle blanket. Didn’t want to see that objectionable sneer. But he wanted it to be him. Wanted to know they had finally caught the man who had killed Sherlock. Because he was as sure of that as he ever had been of anything. Sherlock would not have jumped otherwise. Moriarty had used some means to make him.
After it had all happened, after John had seen him fall, after he had identified the body, everything had fallen into place. Moriarty was nowhere to be found. The actor who was supposed to have been hired by Sherlock was missing too. It didn’t take the Met long to put the pieces together. There was a scandal. The reporter and the chief editor of the paper that had broken the story of Sherlock as a fraud were both sacked. Holmes’s name was cleared. John’s campaign, conducted in a blur of numbed grief, had been successful. But it meant nothing to him if Moriarty, the architect of it all, remained free.
So John peered through the glass with the thin wire mesh set into it, squinted at the figure lying prone in the bed, and held his breath. Because he so wanted it to be him.
Another man, a weaker man, might have been broken in that moment.
The face of the man in the bed was bruised and swollen, but there was no mistaking that profile, those preposterously heavy cheekbones, those lavish lips, however misshapen.
The cry escaped John’s mouth before his brain had caught up with the recognition.
And then he turned to Greg, knowing how wild he must look, how desperate. ‘It can’t be!’
Tears were gathering in the inspector’s eyes.
‘I don’t know how,’ he said, gruff with emotion. ‘I don’t know, John. But it is. It’s him.’
John’s hand rested on the door. He looked at the wood under his fingers, felt its grain. It was as if the hand that touched it was something separate from himself, a distant thing. His head swam a little.
The world had turned upside down.
‘But I identified the body. It was him, Greg. I swear it. It’s not possible.’
‘I know, mate.’
‘People don’t come back from the dead.’
‘But then people don’t have arch enemies either. Not real people.’ He turned to Lestrade, smiled through his tears. ‘I told him that. You wouldn’t remember. The night of Lauriston Gardens.’
‘Your first case together.’ Greg nodded, brushed the tears from his own eyes with the back of his hand.
‘The cabbie,’ John went on. ‘Mycroft had kidnapped me and spirited me away. He said he was Sherlock’s arch enemy. I said to Sherlock that real people, normal people, don’t have arch enemies.’
‘Yes. He did.’ John wiped his hand over his eyes. ‘He’s back.’
Greg nodded again. John shifted his head on the fulcrum of his neck, threw back his shoulders, stiffened his resolve. Became himself again.
There was a brief clearing of a throat behind them, and they turned to see a stocky man in a white coat.
‘Toby Manville,’ he said, holding out his hand to John. ‘I’m our John Doe’s physician. You must be Doctor Watson.’
John shook his hand briskly. ‘Just John is fine. And his name is Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes. What are his chances?’
Manville didn’t react when John mentioned the name. Perhaps he didn’t know it.
‘Looks good. He must have the constitution of an ox. A lesser man wouldn’t have survived.’
John could feel his eyebrows bouncing up to his hairline. ‘Give me a précis, would you?’
‘Currently, hypothermia from being in the water is the main issue. And the pneumonia-‘
‘Pneumonia? But that’s-‘
‘Yes, underlying infection. I would say the pneumonia was well advanced before he went into the water.’
Manville shook his head. ‘Well, it’s hard to be precise. He’s been badly beaten on several occasions, judging from the ages of the bruises. And tortured as well – electrical burns on various parts of his body, whipping, and the marks on his shoulders would suggest waterboarding.’
John suddenly found himself feeling queasy.
‘Waterboarding? How do you know how to spot that?’ Greg asked him with a note of disbelief.
Manville and John shared a knowing glance.
‘It’s more common than you’d think,’ John told him. ‘Especially in domestic violence cases. GPs see it a lot too.’
While Greg shook his head in disgust, Manville went on.
‘The malnutrition is also advanced. I should say he’s been incarcerated somewhere cold and damp, with very little or no food, for at least three weeks. As I say, a lesser man would have died in the water, even if he had managed to escape. He must have had a very strong motivation to get out.’
John couldn’t look at either of them. His heart was writhing in his chest.
‘The malnutrition could be self-inflicted,’ he managed to say. ‘He has a tendency towards anorexia, so it may predate the abduction.’
‘Really? Well, in that case, we’ll up his nutrient dose and get him onto solids gently. We’re pumping him full of antibiotics right now to get on top of the infection first, plus the moist oxygen mix.’
‘Yes, excellent. Is he sedated?’
‘No, just drifting in and out of consciousness on his own. We’ve given him an analgesic, that’s all.’
‘The nurse said he kept asking for you,’ Greg added.
John looked again through the glass, and blinked hard. It was almost too much to hope for.
‘Do you mind if I go in?’
‘Please do,’ Manville said. ‘I’ll get the nurse to adjust his dosage, and I’ll check back with you in a couple of hours, if you can stay that long?’
‘Oh yes,’ John said without hesitation. ‘I’ll be here for the duration.’
The only movement from the man in the bed was the slight rise and fall of his ribs. John stood beside him and watched the tiny shift. He had never been so glad to see that reassuring motion.
The oxygen hissed as it passed into the mask over the patient’s face. The readout on the monitor blipped with green light. Various tubes dangled, feeding vital fluids and medicines into cannulas anchored in venous arms, blotched blue, and wasted. The figure was emaciated, reminiscent of a blurry monotone photograph of the inmates of Belsen, all protruding bones, bruised and misshapen features and shadowed grey flesh. It was horrible to see him this way. But it was also an almost unbearable joy. Frail and broken he may be, but he was alive.
Sherlock was alive.
Eventually, John couldn’t help himself. He reached out and brushed his fingers over the crown of dark curls, shorn but still unmistakable. His lips ghosted over Sherlock’s forehead.
‘I leave you alone for five minutes, and look at the mess you get yourself into,’ he whispered, fond smile breaking through the tears.
Eyelids fluttered, then cracked open, crusted and swollen. Grey eyes struggled to focus, then locked on with that familiar preternatural incisiveness.
‘Am I dead?’ A rasping croak from under the mask.
John smiled. ‘No.’
‘I must be. You’re here.’ Almond-shaped eyes crinkled up into a weak smile. ‘You’re heaven.’
And then the light faded, and the connection was lost as Sherlock drifted away again, eyelids fluttering shut once more.
And John realised that somehow one emaciated hand had found his, and folded it jealously against labouring ribs.