June 4, 1955
Metropolitan Police Headquarters
3 Broadway, City of Westminster
‘Are you literally insane?’ Johnnie said, at the same moment the rumpled man behind the desk kneaded his forehead with his fingertips and said ‘No. Just—no. Absolutely not.’
Sherlock sighed, deep and put-upon. Against her will, Johnnie felt the edge of her lip twitch up.
‘Look,’ Sherlock said, ‘shall we go over the facts again? I have single-handedly gathered—’
‘Oi,’ Johnnie said, moving suddenly in her seat so that her new leg-cast clacked against the floor of DI Lestrade’s office. Sherlock rolled her eyes, but, with a look at the cast, fidgeted in her seat.
‘Yes, all right,’ she said. ‘My partner and I—’
‘Not just me,’ Johnnie interrupted. ‘We wouldn’t have any of these papers if it weren’t for Chester Davis, don’t forget.’
Sherlock drummed her fingers peevishly on the arm of her chair, pursing her lips. Her leg bounced, too, where it was crossed over the other knee under the grey tweed of her straight skirt. The DI looked out from between his fingers at the pair of them, half-disbelieving, half-amused. Johnnie, unrepentant, shuffled her cast-plaster against the floor again; Sherlock’s eyes flicked over to it, and the hard line of her mouth relaxed just a bit.
‘All right, yes,’ she said, at last. ‘But the fact remains that due to the diligent efforts of myself, my partner, and Mr. Davis, the Met now has enough evidence to convict Mr. Townsend-Farquhar of wartime collaboration and dealing in the black market. This is all material of whose existence the Met would otherwise remain ignorant, never mind having it in your possession. There are strong—'
‘Now wait just a—,’ the DI began, but Sherlock talked over him.
‘—there are strong circumstantial indications that Townsend-Farquhar was also responsible for the death of Sylvia Cohen, previously known as Ellen Erins, a week ago Saturday, at the Gateways Club in King’s Road. All I—’
‘Indications we have every intention of pursuing,’ Lestrade interrupted again, but Sherlock was not to be dissuaded.
‘—all I am requesting,’ she continued, ‘is the opportunity to complete the investigation Miss Watson and I began, and with regard to which we have delivered remarkable progress in a short span of time.’
‘You’re a pair of unqualified civilians,’ Lestrade said, the trace of a smile on his mouth, sitting back in his office chair. ‘You think I’m—what? I’m going to deputise a couple of—of girls off the street?’
‘I have no desire whatsoever to be…deputised,’ Sherlock said, with a dramatic little shudder. ‘I’ve as much experience as any private investigator in the city. References upon request, should you desire them, although I have it on good authority that such requests are not part of the normal procedure.’
Lestrade steepled his hands in front of his face, and stared out at them both, not speaking. Sherlock looked back at him, chin up.
Johnnie, despite her own reservations about Sherlock’s plan, let her good knee jiggle slightly. It moved Davis’s manila file of copied-out records, which she’d been holding it on her lap. She saw Lestrade’s eyes dart to it, briefly; she emphatically didn’t smile.
‘You said yourself,’ Lestrade said at last, slow and would-be patient, ‘that we’ve already got him dead to rights on treason, and as soon as this supposed...newspaper story goes to print, we’ll have him on libel as well. We’ll bring him in, question him here. You can’t seriously think you’ll have better luck getting the truth out of him, than trained police investigators.’
‘He’s got a point,’ said Johnnie.
Sherlock’s look spoke of praying for patience. Johnnie bit the inside of her mouth to keep her expression stern. Sherlock was manifestly impossible to talk out of anything, but she reckoned she’d be remiss not to try.
‘The evidence against him on the murder charge,’ Sherlock snapped, ‘is currently nothing more than a series of suspicious coincidences. And he knows it. If he’s already been dragged in by one of your lot, he’ll simply deny all accusations; there’s no possible way you can convict on the evidence.’
‘He’s up for life in prison, anyway,’ Lestrade said. ‘Treason.’
Johnnie cleared her throat. ‘That won’t clear our client’s name,’ she said.
‘Your—client,’ said Lestrade. Deadpan and disbelieving. ‘This—club owner, this,’ he checked his notepad. ‘Gina Ware?’
‘Mrs. Ware,’ said Sherlock, ‘as you well know, has hired us to clear her employee. Mabel Smith.’
Johnnie started; she couldn’t help it. Mabel. Jesus. She’d forgotten.
‘Well,’ Lestrade said. ‘Assuming your client isn’t guilty, how exactly will it be to, er, her advantage, if we send you two into the lion’s den?’
Sherlock stifled a sigh; Johnnie still heard it.
‘You wouldn’t be sending us anywhere, Detective Inspector,’ she said. ‘The idea is simply to present Mr. Townsend-Farquhar with a resource ripe for exploitation, someone unlikely to be believed and easily silenced in the event, and to give him enough rope.’
‘Then we’ll—we’ll send someone in undercover,’ Lestrade said, gesturing with his hand, exasperated. ‘You’re not some kind of—of magical disappearing girl; it’s not as if you invented disguise, you—why are you giving me that look?’
Johnnie didn’t need to glance over, to know the look in question. She would have put money on Sherlock in fact believing, somehow, that she had invented disguise.
‘I believe we bring certain advantages to the table,’ Sherlock said, incongruously prim.
She said nothing more.
When Lestrade looked over at Johnnie in surprise, Johnnie jiggled her knee again, and drummed her fingers casually on the cover of Chester’s manila folder.
Comprehension dawned on Lestrade’s face. It was gradual, and unwelcome, like a bad aftertaste to an accustomed dish. There was a silence in the room.
‘I can have a court subpoena those, you know,’ he said at last.
Sherlock hummed, noncommittally.
‘No,’ he repeated, then. ‘Absolutely not.’
But he sounded a very great deal less certain. Sherlock smiled.
June 5, 1955
Offices of the Daily Chronicle
16 Francis Street, Westminster
Which is how Johnnie Watson came to be packed into a storage cupboard, her cast propped up on some boxes of cleaning supplies, peering into Harold Townsend-Farquhar’s office through the slats of the louvred doors while Sally Donovan breathed in her ear. At their feet one tape reel bled into another, and a little red light blinked and blinked.
The timing had been of the utmost importance. Both Sherlock and Lestrade had known it, and so the argument, such as it was, had been shorter than it might have been. According to a source of Lestrade’s at the Chronicle, Cohen’s carefully-seeded story was going to press that afternoon; after that, there would be no stopping the dominoes from tumbling. Somebody needed to get to Townsend-Farquhar while his defences were still relaxed, before the counter-exposés and the Met’s rebuttals came down upon his head. And that someone, on pain of making Lestrade’s life a good deal more difficult vis-a-vis Chester Davis’s file, was Sherlock.
Or, more accurately, thought Johnnie: that someone was Livvy.
She was seated already as his 1:30 staff meeting was wrapping up: perched in the spindly chair in front of his massive desk, exuding fragility, and defiance, with a duffel bag at her feet.
There was a symmetry about it, Johnnie thought, staring at Sherlock’s—Livvy’s—face, in profile from behind the slatted door.
Johnnie’s commanding officer at Margate had been a bullish, bullying woman, a Major Bertha Fox. She’d harrumphed, and tugged at the bottom of her jacket like braces, and smoked a fag from her hoard every time a new recruit had cried in front of her. And Major Fox had dug a pit in the dirt in order to achieve this same exact placement of furniture in her field tent: the large, high desk, looking down on the supplicant beneath her. Johnnie felt she understood, in the face of that looming mahogany, what kind of man they were dealing with. And here was Livvy, tiny in her oversized dress, perching on the edge of the chair with her trembling chin in the air and her hair braided crooked like she hadn’t a proper mirror at home. Major Fox would have almost purred at the chance to take a girl like that apart.
Johnnie shifted at the thought, uncomfortable. Her cast scraped against the cardboard supporting it, and Sally shot her a warning glance. Neither Sherlock nor Livvy looked round. Johnnie apologised with her eyes; Sally rolled hers.
There were shufflings just outside; then the door opened. Johnnie, still thinking of Bertha Fox, was surprised at what she could see of Harold Townsend-Farquhar: he was slight, and spry, with a rosy nose and a cloud of unruly white hair, like an elf that had grown old in the service of Father Christmas. He looked like someone’s favourite grandfather. He had a pencil between his teeth, and was looking down at a pile of papers, and it took him a minute to register the presence of another person in his office. When he did, he stopped short, his hand still on the latch of the door. Livvy had risen to her feet, squared her shoulders. Johnnie held her breath.
‘Can I…help you?’ Townsend-Farquhar said. He’d reached up to take the pencil from his mouth, but otherwise didn’t move from the doorway.
‘I know some things,’ Livvy said. Voice determined but shaky.
‘Do you,’ he said. Johnnie could practically hear him categorising the encounter. Shutters were slipping down over his face; but his voice, too, was full of recognition. Ah yes, it said, one of you, and Johnnie let out her held breath, slowly and carefully. He thought she was a blackmailer. He thought he knew all about her.
He thought she hadn’t a chance.
‘I know—know about what you did,’ said Livvy. Johnnie saw through the slats how hard she swallowed, like she could barely believe her own daring.
Townsend-Farquhar’s face was considering.
He sat; gestured for her to sit. She visibly thought about it; stayed standing a moment too long before sitting again on the very edge of the seat. It was painful to watch.
‘And what exactly is it,’ Townsend-Farquhar inquired, settling himself further into his overstuffed chair while Livvy squirmed on her straight-backed wooden one, ‘that you think you know, my dear?’
‘I could tell the p—police,’ Livvy stuttered. Townsend-Farquhar’s smile grew wider. ‘I knew her, you know, I knew Miss—Miss Cohen.’
‘Miss Cohen!’ he exclaimed. ‘My, my. You make her sound like quite the virtuous maid.’
‘She was vird—virt—,’ Livvy said. ‘She was good to me.’
‘It’s better than the cinema,’ he said, under his breath, so that Johnnie could barely make it out. Then, louder, he said: ‘Good to you, was she? Kindly took you home from the pub? Generously allowed you to sleep in her bed?’
Livvy blushed scarlet. Johnnie slid her eyes sideways, and caught Sally, for the briefest moment, with an open look of admiration on her face for Sherlock’s ability to flush on command.
‘She—she was always—,’ Livvy was saying, as the flush spread.
‘Look, child,’ said Townsend-Farquhar, leaning forward. ‘Sylvia Cohen had a way with words and a strong right hook, but let’s be frank with one another, you and I. She wasn’t winning any awards for humanitarianism, now was she?’
His smile was overdone, ugly. Johnnie strongly suspected him of using the word ‘humanitarianism’ solely because Livvy was unlikely to know it. Sure enough, she squirmed uncertainly in her seat, and Johnnie took a deep breath and reminded herself of Sherlock in Lestrade’s office, saying give him enough rope.
‘I saw her, you know,’ Livvy went on. ‘The night before she died.’
‘Oh, pray, tell me all about it,’ Townsend-Farquhar said, with a wave of his hand.
‘She knew,’ Livvy said. ‘She—she knew something was about to happen, and she knew it would be you.’
‘Oh?’ Townsend-Farquhar said. ‘And that’s what you plan to take to the police, do you? “Oh I swear, sir, the victim had a vague feeling of animosity the night before the murder, toward a man she’d scarcely met. She told me all about it when she was sodomising me on her filthy flea-market sofa.” Yes, I’m sure they’ll be flocking over here on the double.’
Livvy’s chin trembled.
‘She’d met you,’ she said. ‘She’d been playing you false for years.’
‘Not that I’d put it past her,’ he said, drily. ‘But I happen to know I had the best going rate.’
Livvy made a sound like a petulant child being denied a biscuit. Her hands were shaking. She let out a breath, and reached down into the duffel bag at her feet, bending her head over so Townsend-Farquhar could see her crooked braid. When she straightened up, she had Chester Davis’s manila folder in her hand.
‘Needed help with your school essay, did you?’ he said.
Livvy reached out a trembling arm, and set the folder on the edge of his desk. Her lips were pursed like she was holding her breath. She shook her head.
‘No,’ he said, musingly, dragging the folder to him over the desk. ‘I suppose it’s been a good long while since you left school.’
Livvy got a look like a dog used to being kicked. She held it steady even after Townsend-Farquhar opened the folder, when the smirk faded from his face.
He leaned forward, thumbing from paper to paper. His expression, for the first time since she’d entered the room, was held carefully neutral. His eyes flicked sideways once, toward the open office door; but his head didn’t move.
At last he closed the folder and pushed it back at her.
‘Five hundred pounds and I’ll leave,’ Livvy said, her head high and challenging, as if she were naming the price of a Swiss villa instead of a few months’ rent at 221b.
Townsend-Farquhar laughed out loud.
‘Oh, very ambitious. And very loyal, aren’t we?’ His mouth twisted. ‘About what Sylvia Cohen could expect, if I’m honest.’
Livvy raised her head higher.
‘I know you’ve got it,’ she said, her voice trembling, starting to cry. ‘And you can’t talk, you b-b-betrayed her.’
‘Oh come now,’ said Townsend-Farquhar, losing patience at last and rising halfway out of his chair as Johnnie tried hard to keep still. ‘You ridiculous little girl, who let you in here? I could tell you things about Sylvia Cohen that would give you nightmares for a month.’
‘She was the best woman I’ve ever met,’ Livvy said, sobbing into her hands.
Townsend-Farquhar threw up his hands, eyes raised to the heavens. Then he sank back into his chair. He watched Livvy crying.
‘She was a third-rate copper,’ he said at last, exasperated, ‘and an execrable person. Look, we both know I’m giving you nothing, and no one will believe your story. But Sylvia Cohen, she’s—mourning for a woman like that, it’s absurd. Did you know it was her suggestion? All of this, all this—this pilfering of dirty goods, she came into my office and laid out the whole plan, ready-made. All I had to do was go along with it.’
Livvy whimpered; shook her head hard.
‘Well, all right,’ he said. ‘She had a few stipulations, but it was all in the service of making herself look good to me, don’t you see? Listen, she probably sold you some sob story about her family, but the truth is she couldn’t have cared less. Did you know she sold out her oldest friend, when I asked her to? Did you know she lied every day just by showing up to work? Pledges and oaths, my god. A feral dog has more honour than that grasping bulldagger.’
‘She h-h-hated you,’ sobbed Livvy, her breathing getting thready. Townsend-Farquhar laughed again, gently.
‘My girl,’ he said, ‘I doubt there was a soul alive she didn’t hate. You should have heard the things she told me, before the war. Practically begging to sell her virtue cheap.’
‘So you—you did,’ Livvy choked out. ‘You could have helped her, but you used her and then you k-k-killed her.’
‘It’s not my job to assist troubled young harpies regain the path of virtue,’ Townsend-Farquhar spat. No denial; Johnnie’s breath stopped in her lungs. ‘And Ellen Erins,’ he went on, ‘was beyond the reach of any help of mine.’
Livvy just cried harder. Johnnie’s stomach flopped like a fish in her throat.
Townsend-Farquhar sighed, and glanced out the door at the deserted corridor.
‘Isn’t your, your job,’ Livvy said into her hands, after a minute, ‘to spread knowledge and, and make people better, how could—’
‘My job is to sell my wares,’ he snapped. ‘As, I believe, is yours. Don’t take a high line with me, child; you understand me better than you want to admit. Cry all you want, but ask yourself: what would you have done? For a long time Ellen Erins was my shining star. Then she was an unpleasant, but sometimes convenient, member of my staff. Eventually she turned to dead weight, and still I kept her on, but—look, she got herself seen, didn’t she? She got herself seen, in a place she definitely shouldn’t have been, when she could have been linked to me. And then there were people talking about it in public, just as we at the paper were courting potential buyers. Take my word, my dear, you would have cut her loose long before I did. I can tell just by the look of you.’
Johnnie expected him to lick his lips. He was leaning forward, smiling, watching Livvy dissolve into hysterics.
‘I was—was there that night, you know,’ Livvy said, raising her tear-streaked face from her hands. ‘At the—the club. Sylvia had asked me to meet her there so I did, and then I—got a little sick so I. Went out for some fresh air. And when I came, came back—.’
She was crying too hard to keep talking. There was a long silence. Johnnie kept glancing obsessively at the blinking red light of the reel-to-reel.
Townsend-Farquhar rose at last. He went to the door, and closed it, then came around to the front of his desk, looming over Livvy, who was gasping wetly into her own hands.
‘When you came back, she was dead,’ he murmured down at her. She nodded, helplessly, without raising her head. 'Mmm,' he confirmed. ‘She was in great pain while you were outside vomiting into the rubbish bins, but that was all over long before you had a chance to notice. Cyanide poisoning is awful, you know. I wouldn’t take it personally that she never mentioned you. She wasn’t one to linger over her cocktails, and the dosage was strong.’
Johnnie dug her nails into the palms of her hands. Livvy kept on crying.
The movement of Livvy's thin shoulders was shaking her hair looser, and looser. Johnnie wondered if she would be able to pin-point, later, the moment when Sherlock had freed it from its fastener. Townsend-Farquhar took a step forward. Then another. Livvy cringed into herself when he brushed a dark curl from the side of her cheek; he gave Bertha Fox’s vulpine smile and grabbed her unraveling plait, yanking her head back. She made a shocked, pathetic noise.
‘Unlike you, of course,’ he went on, sounding conversational as he wrenched at her hair, twisting her neck around, ‘I was there the whole time. So I can assure you that there were no touching deathbed confessions, no professions of love or regret. I—,’ and Johnnie’s chest was expanding and contracting at once, ‘I had to step back into the shadows, after I fixed her drink, and broke that glass to distract the bartender. But I—,’ and Livvy was looking up at him with wide, terrified eyes, and he was smiling, ‘I stayed close. I watched her the whole time, took her with me into the storage cupboard while she frothed and convulsed. Then to the ladies’ when it was safe to do it. She moaned about her tedious Polish family, and that old battle-axe Allen. Not a gasp of your name, at all.’
Johnnie was sure she would pass out, but she didn’t. Sally had her cuffs out. When she kicked the door open Townsend-Farquhar seemed to freeze in place, his smile a shocked grimace, his arms gone limp.
‘Well,’ said Sherlock, straightening up, and slipping otterlike out from under his hand to face him where he stood, her limbs steady, her face stony, her smiling mouth set. ‘That’s very interesting, Mr. Townsend-Farquhar.’
June 7, 1955
The Gateways Club, 239 King’s Road, Chelsea
A person would have had to know the usual schedule of open nights at the Gates, to realise anything was different. Ted had suggested, and Gina had agreed, to put up a notice: Club closed for private event. But Sherlock had pointed out that the only people not welcome at a party celebrating Smithy’s exoneration, would be anyone who hadn’t met her. So all Gateways members were invited, and the club opened specially on the Tuesday after Harold Townsend-Farquhar was taken into custody on a triple charge of treason, libel, and murder.
And Johnnie, surveying the club from her place of honour at the bar, could swear she had never seen the place so full.
The press of bodies would have seemed overwhelming, had not the high spirits been tangible. Private, mid-week events were generally casual, like a Wednesday or a Sunday; but tonight couples had outdone themselves. From down in the pit of smoke haze on the dance floor, the roar of rough female voices almost eclipsed Chester Davis’s hell-for-leather ragtime. Bess Taylor, pressed against her bass in an orange dress with a boned bodice, was visibly sweating to keep up with him. Earlier the drummer had broken a stick, flipped it about, and kept right on playing.
Johnnie felt Sherlock stir behind her, her arm moving from around Johnnie’s waist to wave at someone just arrived. Johnnie turned round herself in time to spot Cass Thorssen’s tender-pale face emerging from the press of bodies, followed by Haley Murray and Lou McGuire. Cass and Haley were holding hands.
‘Oh look at this,’ Johnnie shouted, when they were near enough to hear. ‘You three bloody well went shopping!’
Haley dimpled up; Johnnie thought she might have even blushed. Her freckles got less prominent, anyway. She was draped in something very fluid and very pink, with no back and extremely little front, and she bullied past Johnnie to wrap Sherlock in a bear hug that went on and on and on.
‘Couldn’t arrive at an event like this underdressed,’ said Lou, to Johnnie. ‘I took them both to my tailor. As you’ve no doubt guessed.’
‘Oi,’ said Cass, tearing her eyes off Haley and Sherlock to mock-glare at Lou. ‘And whose money did we spend at your tailor, anyway?’
Lou grinned. She put up her hands, conceding the point, and Cass grinned too. Cass was in black-tie; one of only two or three full-formal butches present. Johnnie had never seen Cass in clothes that played to her lankiness, rather than trying to hide it. Her legs went on forever, Johnnie thought: she was nipped seams and angles to Haley’s ludicrous curves. Improbably, they put Lou in the shade.
Haley drew back from Sherlock at last. If Johnnie hadn’t been watching with unwavering attention, she would have missed the split-second as Haley pulled away, before Sherlock wrenched her eyes back up to Haley’s face.
Johnnie almost laughed aloud. Someone, she thought, should stand Haley Murray a few rounds: a décolletage capable of distracting Sherlock Holmes was remarkable indeed.
Sherlock cleared her throat, flushed but defiant. ‘Cass,’ she said, putting out a hand. ‘Lou.’
Johnnie’s chest tightened the smallest bit when Lou took Sherlock’s hand and lowered her lips to kiss it. She was halfway braced for a seduction attempt, or a comment about Sherlock mixing trousers and lace. But Lou only gave a chaste bow of her head and a murmur of ‘Miss Holmes,’ and let her go.
It was, Johnnie realised, the first time she’d set eyes on Lou since the night of the alley fight and the murder. The past week seemed a month, she thought; so much had happened. Sherlock, and the case; Gina and Smithy and Sherlock and Townsend-Farquhar. The day of their argument on the pavement seemed simply ages ago. And Lou, after one bland brush of her lips to Sherlock’s knuckles, was now carefully avoiding dwelling on her face longer than dictated by the basic rules of politeness.
Johnnie looked so long at Lou out of the corner of her eye, trying to work out just how to feel about her, that she almost missed Sherlock twisting behind her to motion to Smithy. When Haley put a hand to her hip, though, and scowled hard at someone over the bar, Johnnie turned round as well.
‘Smithy,’ Haley said, very stern. ‘Why on earth are you working? It’s your night!’
And Smithy, who must have been asked that exact question a hundred times already this evening, had the grace to smile, and take it in her stride. She grinned, standing behind the bar with her shirt-tails untucked and her blazer askew.
‘No rest for the wicked,’ Smithy said. ‘What can I get for you, Haley?’
‘I refuse to let you,’ Haley said, making an elaborate show of a pout. ‘I’ll come back there myself and get my gin and tonic. You should be out on the dance floor, celebrating.’
‘I reckon the Wares told her exactly that,’ said Johnnie, who was in fact not reckoning at all but had been present for the conversation herself.
‘Gin and tonic, is it,’ said Smithy, moving away, but Cass leapt halfway over the bar and grabbed her wrist.
‘Really, Smith,’ she said. ‘Any of us could tend bar. Go on, have a dance or two. You’re a hero now, you know; any femme in the place would dance with you.’
‘Nah,’ Smithy said. She tugged her wrist free, gentle but firm. ‘The lady of the manor is hard at work; I guess I can be, too.’
‘The lady of the manor,’ came a voice from behind Smithy’s shoulder, ‘is no such thing.’
Smithy jerked back, startled. She twisted to the side, and behind her, red mouth quirked at the corner, arms crossed over her breasts and red-lacquered nails drumming on one arm, stood Gina Ware. Her posture was hard, but her face was oddly soft. Smithy’s mouth fell open.
‘I was simply overwhelmed with volunteers to man the door,’ Gina said. ‘They seemed to think I ought to be dancing.’
‘Yeah?’ Smithy said. ‘You got that too?’
It was something to see, thought Johnnie, the way their eyes met. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen them together for more than a minute or so without one or the other rushing off somewhere, in all the years she’d been coming to the Gateways. Still. When one of their looks lasted longer than a few seconds, however stony Gina’s expression, however harried Smithy’s, it was like they would lock together, and grow. Their smirks turned to smiles and bubbled up into grins, and the air turned joyful between them. Just at her left ear, Johnnie heard Lou whistle, long and low.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake,’ said Gina, eyes rolling to the heavens and arms un-crossing. ‘Dance with me.’
So Smithy raised her eyebrows and put out her hand, and Cass whooped, and vaulted the rest of the way over the bar though there was a perfectly serviceable swinging door entrance, and Johnnie felt herself grinning from ear to ear as the crowd parted to let Gina Ware drag Smithy onto the dance floor.
Gina had danced before in her own club. Johnnie had seen her: once with Smithy and once with Ted, and once with Gina’s Milanese cousin. But that was three times in ten years; and during one of them the club had been almost empty. Johnnie heard the hush descend. Couples were clearing off to the sides of the floor, to let them onto it. Over on the bandstand, Bess’s fingers were held silent over the fingerboard of her bass; even Chester’s piano faltered, and quieted.
Such a concentrated stare Johnnie had never felt. Smithy and Gina came to rest together in the centre of the floor. Smithy splayed her hand at the small of Gina’s back. She cleared her throat. Feet shuffled, around the room.
‘Chester,’ called Smithy, gesturing with her head, not taking her eyes off Gina’s face. ‘Taint Nobody’s Business, all right?’
‘Yes indeed,’ Chester said, almost under his breath, and ran an arpeggio up and down the keys, but Bess, with one hand, signalled to him to wait. She signalled with the other to a tiny blonde femme to her right, who nodded, and made her way up and behind Bess’s bass. The blonde looked so small she’d barely be able to hold the thing up, but she somehow managed to get her arms around it. Bess stepped out in front. Chester grinned, and ran his fingers up and down the keyboard again. Johnnie looked back at Smithy and Gina, to find them still staring into each others’ eyes, faces still, waiting.
Bess counted them down extra slow. On four the tiny blonde started up a steady line. Chester’s arpeggios settled into an even stride just as Bess opened her mouth.
There ain’t nothing, she sang, I can do, or nothin’ I can say, and Smithy tightened her arm around Gina’s waist, and they moved in synchrony. That folks don’t criticise me, growled Bess, drawing out the long notes.
The song was slower than Johnnie had ever heard it, but fiercer, too. Not gentle at all. There was no microphone, but Bess filled the club with her voice, custom-fit it to the room, and wrapped it round all the tables and the chairs, and the still and moving breathing bodies. But I’m gonna do just what I want to, anyway, she sang. Over by the entrance, Ted Ware stood propped against the dividing wall, smiling to himself. Johnnie felt Sherlock’s arm snake back around her waist; she put her hand over Sherlock’s hand on her stomach, and squeezed.
If I should take a notion, sang Bess, as the hi-hat rattled and Chester’s stride lengthened, to jump into the ocean, as Gina pressed closer against Smithy's chest, ain’t nobody’s business, if I do.
There was sweat pouring in rivulets down Bess’s face and her neck by the time she’d got halfway through. Nobody joined Smithy and Gina on the dance floor, but couples all around the periphery were touching each other, were swaying with the rhythm. Cigarettes burnt out in peoples’ hands; condensation trickled down glasses and pooled on tables. Ain't nobody’s business, sang Bess, if I do.
As the song neared its end, Chester forced the rhythm even slower. The tendons stood out in Bess’s neck as she ground out the last low phrases. When Chester’s rhythm broke up, cascading haphazard into the lower registers, and the little blonde let her fingers creep upward to hit the resolve, the air was so thick with feeling that everyone in the place breathed heavy.
There was absolute quiet, for a long moment. Gina and Smithy stood in the middle of the floor, panting, still touching, seeming to converse without words. Nobody so much as shuffled a foot.
And then Chester cleared his throat, and dove full-bore into a raunchy, determined stomp of a number, and Bess laughed aloud, and sang out. A collective breath released. Gina and Smithy moved further apart, looking down at their feet as they fumbled over the old-fashioned moves.
Around the room, other couples were offering each other their hands, relaxing into it. A few butches near the piano, Leslie Matthews among them, even shouted out along with Bess the first time the chorus came around, Give me a pigfoot, and Bess pointed over at them and winked.
The joy, the relief of the thing were contagious. People were laughing, and jitterbugging; Gina left Smithy doing a stumbling Charleston with Ted, and headed back toward the bar.
And made straight for Sherlock and Johnnie. Johnnie took her hand off Sherlock’s hand to shake Gina’s; she expected another round of gratitude, perhaps a few minutes in which Gina would allow herself to slide onto a barstool, take the weight off her feet.
What Gina actually did, though, was to shake Johnnie’s hand, and then Sherlock’s, and then stand back on her heels and clear her throat, leaving her hand outstretched and turning up her palm.
‘Miss Holmes,’ she said, unexpectedly formal. ‘Would you do me the honour?’
Johnnie gaped at her. Then she turned awkwardly on her barstool, lowering her cast from its propped-up position on the next stool over, to gape instead at Sherlock.
‘I,’ Sherlock said. ‘You’ve already—I’m not—.’
Which was all true, thought Johnny. Gina Ware had danced three dances in Johnnie’s presence, in the ten years previous: none of them on the same night, and none with anyone other than men or butches. But Gina just stood there, holding out her hand. Johnnie squeezed Sherlock’s side through her blouse. Sherlock took a deep breath, and smiled, and reached out for Gina’s hand.
Johnnie watched them go: one glamourous and polished in her black sheath dress with her red lips and her red stilettos, and one windswept and boyish-looking, tonight, in khaki capris and ballet flats and an oversized black button-down blouse, with her face bare and her hair piled up on her head. Sherlock looked back over her shoulder at Johnnie as Gina pulled her away, raising her eyebrows comically. Johnnie remembered that second night at the Gates: Sherlock in her off-the-shoulder purple silk, breathing false seductive pleasantries against Gina’s skin. Now, out on the dance floor, Gina leant over to speak into Sherlock’s ear, and Sherlock laughed, sudden, with that goofy little shake of her shoulders that she did when she was genuinely amused and not thinking about how she looked.
Johnnie felt dizzy with gratitude.
The song had ended. Ted had stepped back, was laughing with Smithy. Chester was playing a tinkling little bridge piece, to allow Bess the time to take her bass back from the tiny blonde. Then Bess swung her instrument into place and let her fingers start walking, and Chester broke into a mid-tempo country and western number. The couples around the floor were pulling each other closer, and starting to lean and rub up against each other, when the ones nearest the bar started noticing Gina and Sherlock.
Then people were pulling back, whispering among themselves. Johnnie balled up her hands. Sherlock pulled her chin up in that prideful, nervous way she had. But Bess and Chester kept right on playing, and Gina smiled at Sherlock, and Sherlock, in her cropped trousers and her lace-trimmed blouse, smiled back.
And then, for the second time that night, Gina Ware and her partner were dancing alone on the floor of the Gateways, this time to a tougher crowd. Gone was the reverent silence of earler; in its place was whispering and fidgeting, and glancing sidelong. Johnnie couldn’t be sure, but from somewhere in the back of the room she thought she heard a low hiss.
Gina seemed to care not a whit. Sherlock spun her, and Gina did a complicated little double-time flounce at the end of the spin, and came back to centre looking lovely and at ease, and only the tiniest bit defiant. From off to the other side of the room, Johnnie recognised Smithy’s giddy laugh.
And soon it was more than her laugh: Smithy had golden Diana Dors by the hand, and was pulling her out onto the floor, smiling. A murmur went up. Then, from the other side of the room, Haley and Cass twirled out of the crowd. They were already so far into a spin when they caught Johnnie’s eye, that she couldn’t tell who had started it; but she did see it, a minute later, when Cass caught Lou’s attention over the top of Haley’s head. Lou rolled her eyes, and put out her hand to the tiny blonde femme who had taken over from Bess on bass, and they sidled together onto the floor too.
Chester started in on a Vera Lynn number. Sherlock transitioned Gina into waltz time. The floor wasn’t empty but it wasn’t full. Johnnie bit the inside of her mouth.
Over by the piano, Leslie Matthews and Andie Levinson were staring, their pints forgotten in their hands, but behind the bass Bess was glaring at them. She took her hands off the strings completely for a measure; Leslie’s head whipped around, and Bess widened her eyes, and Leslie toasted her with her pint and put it down on the piano. Then she put out a hand to Mireille, standing nearby.
And then—Johnnie felt her eyebrows approach her hairline—Sally Donovan, of all people, took Andie Levinson by the hand and led her out onto the floor, too. Sally gave Johnnie an arch look as she passed, but she moved closer to Andie and ground against her, and Johnnie found she could forgive her an awful lot.
After Sally and Andie, Johnnie couldn't keep track. Couples were sliding onto the floor from all sides; there were people Johnnie didn't even know. Chester launched into another number, medley-style, after Vera Lynn, and then into another. He sped things up a bit as more and more couples stepped out, and soon the floor was thick with grinding bodies, Gina and Sherlock unnoticed among them. It was, thought Johnnie, like any night of any week of any year, at the Gates.
June 7, 1955
The Gateways Club, 239 King’s Road, Chelsea
It seemed like ages. Ages of shaking hands, and smiling; ages of laughing at peoples’ increasingly-drunken jokes; ages of accepting a surprising amount of gratitude—before Sherlock was able to corner Johnnie by the door to the ladies’, and lean down to whisper in her ear.
The party was—it wasn’t terrible, Sherlock thought, with some shock. Especially after the dances with Gina. Sherlock’s whole body had seized up stiff when Gina had taken her hand; but Gina had pulled Sherlock out on the floor and planted her own hand firmly on Sherlock’s shoulder, and leaned over to whisper in her ear ‘Johnnie tells me I ought to let you lead.’ Sherlock had been surprised into laughter, glancing over her shoulder to where Johnnie sat at the bar. It had been easier, after that. And once the floor had filled back up, and Gina had returned to her post by the door, Sherlock had danced with Cass; and then Haley; and then a butch Sherlock had never met before; and then, to her great astonishment, the same femme Astrid (or was it Sam?) who had been so horrible to Sherlock on her first night here, and who tonight had made her laugh despite herself with her hand on Sherlock’s hip, teaching her a new dance she called the cha-cha-cha.
Sherlock had been too exhausted to dance anymore, after that. Two more butches and another femme had asked her, on her way back over to the bar, but she’d had an image in her mind of sitting back down on the stool behind Johnnie; of putting her arms around Johnnie’s waist and nuzzling behind her ear and inviting her—.
But when she’d arrived back at the bar, Johnnie had been gone.
Which made Sherlock cross. She’d wanted to go find her at once. But when she’d asked Smithy, Smithy had just smiled and held up a finger, and started making Sherlock something she called a ‘Corpse Reviver,’ so Sherlock had felt obligated to wait for her to finish. And in the meantime, as the group was on a set break, Chester Davis had come by and shook her hand, and then Bess Taylor had buttonholed her, and thanked her, and asked if it were true what she’d heard from Cass about Sherlock detaining a thief in a neighbour’s sitting room with only the contents of the victim’s knitting basket, which Sherlock had had to admit was true, actually, after which Bess had asked such surprisingly astute questions about the probable fibre content of the available materials, and how Sherlock had accommodated for the elasticity of the wool, that it was a good half an hour before she had made her escape.
And then Leslie had found her, and shaken her hand, and neither of them had said anything much at all. But they'd taken long enough about it that Sherlock was still standing about when Ted came up holding the hand of a tiny black-haired girl in a blue cotton nightie, who thanked Sherlock, sleepily but very earnestly, for saving her auntie Smithy from prison. Sherlock had shaken the girl’s hand, smiling awkwardly. She had spotted Johnnie leaning up against the wall in the corridor just as Ted picked up his daughter and started up the stairs, with her looking back at Sherlock over his shoulder.
Infuriatingly, Sherlock almost missed Johnnie again after that; because by the time she made her way through the crush of bodies around the far end of the bar, Johnnie was leaning up on her crutches, easing out of her conversation with Lou by the ladies’. Johnnie had her hand on Lou’s arm. It looked, thought Sherlock, coming up behind Johnnie and wrapping an arm around her waist, as if they were patching things up.
‘Oh, hullo,’ Johnnie said, a little blurrily, nuzzling her head back against Sherlock’s shoulder.
Lou tipped her hat, and went into the washroom. Sherlock bent her head to Johnnie’s ear-at last, at last-and murmured ‘Come out back with me.’
‘Out back,’ Johnnie said, eyebrows up. ‘You want Smithy to barge in on us again while we’re half-naked, do you?’
‘Actually,’ Sherlock said, pretending to consider; so that Johnnie laughed, and shuffled herself around in Sherlock’s arms to punch her awkwardly on the side. Johnnie really was a little tipsy, Sherlock thought. She smelled of Armignac, which to Sherlock’s knowledge wasn’t officially for sale at the Gateways. Sherlock suspected that Smithy was slipping them both liquor from her private store.
‘Might be a little awkward, with these damned things,’ Johnnie said, into the crook of Sherlock’s neck.
‘No, really,’ Sherlock said, as Johnnie leaned up to nibble at her neck—distracting. ‘Come out with me. There’s something I—Johnnie. There’s something I want you to see.’
That got Johnnie’s attention, at last. She pulled her head back from nuzzling at Sherlock’s collarbone through her blouse, and hobbled a half-step back, a questioning look on her face. But Sherlock wasn’t giving anything away.
‘Lead on,’ Johnnie said at last. ‘By all means.’
So they slipped out the back way, together this time, and Sherlock couldn’t help feeling—as she walked backward up the stairs in front of Johnnie, up and up the narrow wooden staircase, and stopped them both on the landing because she was giddy and tipsy and she wanted to ease Johnnie up against the concrete wall and kiss the brandy off her tongue—she couldn’t help feeling that this way was a thousand times better than the last time they’d come, even accounting for Johnnie’s broken leg.
The kiss went on—went on longer, a bit longer than Sherlock had planned. It was just that Johnnie was so—god, delicious, and her shirt was all rumpled and her skin was warm and her hands were in Sherlock’s hair.
But Sherlock was too wrought up to linger long in the back stairwell of the Gates. Her brain felt waterlogged with talk and alcohol, but her skin was vibrating on her bones, and she kept thinking of what was waiting, what was—
‘Hurry up,’ she said, drawing back from Johnnie without letting go of Johnnie’s pinned shoulders. Johnnie laughed. She didn’t point out who had been holding them up.
‘What’s the hurry, then?’ she asked instead. Sherlock tugged at her untucked shirt, since both Johnnie's hands were occupied: up and up and up. Johnnie grumbled in a laughing way. Sherlock held the door open with her foot, and grabbed Johnnie’s lapels to shuffle her around and more or less lift her through it backwards, and then drag her around side-to-side with Sherlock so that Sherlock could see her face when she—
‘Sherlock,’ Johnnie whispered.
Darkness had fallen, almost completely. But Smithy had helped Sherlock earlier with setting up extra lighting in the alleyway, and clearing away the detritus, and putting an extra padlock on the wire-topped gate so that there was very little danger, really, of anyone succumbing to temptation and attempting to steal the motorcycle that stood illuminated there, gleaming silver-blue against the red alley brick.
‘How did you—,’ Johnnie said, swallowing, her hand clenching and unclenching on the grip of her crutch. Sherlock may have bounced on her toes, a little. ‘Did you have to go to your brother for this? Because after what you told me I don’t want his—’
‘No,’ Sherlock said. Her voice came out higher than usual, almost a squeak. ‘No, nothing like that. Go on then, look it over.’
Johnnie swung forward, tentative, crutches and then leg. She reached out a hand to touch the lacquer of the petrol tank, but she still looked hesitant.
‘Then how—Sherlock, this bike is brand new, it’s a brand-new Triumph, you don’t even have money for food down the shops, how did you—’
‘I called in a few favours,’ Sherlock said. Johnnie just looked at her.
‘Well,’ Sherlock amended, feeling oddly nervous all of a sudden. ‘Rather a large number, actually. We’ll need to be careful not to break anything important for the next, er, year or two, really. And we may be dining on tinned beans even more than usual, although from the way Gina was talking I won’t be surprised if she shows up at Baker Street with hot meals; the woman seems to think we starve. Smithy was good, though, she and I talked the bloke down to quite a fair price in the end. And Mickey, of course, she helped me to assess the condition, since I have to admit it’s not really my area of exper—’
But she couldn’t finish about Mickey; or about bartering goods into pounds sterling across the length and breadth of Marylebone at odd hours of the morning; or the vast array of conflicting advice bestowed upon her by Lee and Pat and Cass and Smithy; because Johnnie had shifted forward on her good leg, and let her crutches fall away from the Triumph, and was wrapped around Sherlock, electric, kissing the words from her lips.