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“Why does it have to be me?” John demanded.

“I'm busy,” Sherlock replied, adjusting the collar of his shirt as he watched in the mirror.

“Yeah, I can see that.”

John was glad to see Sherlock was at least paying enough attention to catch the obvious sarcasm. Sherlock turned slowly to face him. “All right, then. MacKinnon is more likely to let his guard down with you.”

“So you're using me as your Lewis.”

“What?”

“Sergeant Lewis? Morse?” At Sherlock's incomprehension, John snickered. “Seriously? Of course, Morse is probably too high-brow for you. And here I've alway thought you based yourself on him.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about.” Sherlock drew on his jacket, patted his pockets, then headed out the door. “MacKinnon should be here about one o'clock,” he called out as he skipped down the stairs.

“Great,” John muttered, then began counting off the things he could be doing that afternoon instead of waiting for one of Sherlock's clients/suspects.

At two minutes to one, a slight, bespectacled man appeared in the doorway to 221B. Before John could figure out how to get rid of him before the client appeared, the man cleared his throat almost apologetically and introduced himself as Hamish MacKinnon's secretary, Neil Fraser.

“Mr MacKinnon sends his most abject apologies, of course,” Fraser continued in a falsely obsequious, oleaginous tone that John took an instant dislike to as he wondered to himself, Who calls themselves a secretary these days?.

“Let me assures you that I have Mr MacKinnon's full authority to—discuss matters—on his behalf,” Fraser continued, before giving John a brief, scrunched-up smile.

“Yeah, okay. Sherlock—er, Mr Holmes has asked me to—discuss matters—on his behalf, too.”

“Wonderful. Mr MacKinnon has asked me to advise Mr Holmes that he will no longer require his services.”

“Oh, okay. I can tell him. So—his daughter's reappeared, er, he's found her, I guess? Did she come home?”

“Miss MacKinnon is no longer yours or Mr Holmes' concern.” Fraser reached into his jacket and pulled out an envelope. “Mr MacKinnon of course will recompense Mr Holmes for the time he has already invested in the matter.”

John reached for the heavy cream envelope. “Okay. Thanks. I'll pass it along to him.”

Fraser pulled back slightly, keeping the envelope just out of John's reach. “Mr MacKinnon will, of course, require all Mr Holmes' notes and other material gathered in the course of his aborted investigation.”

“I can't do that.”

“I thought you had the authority to—”

“I don't know where they are, for a start.”

“Ah, yes, I imagine your employer is a secretive man. Geniuses often are.”

“Sherlock—Mr Holmes—isn't my employer.”

Fraser took another, smaller, envelope out of his pocket. “Please pass this along to Mr Holmes at your convenience. I'm sure he will be very interested in the contents.”

With a slightly hitching gait, Fraser departed, leaving John holding a small, squarish envelope that felt like it contained a single sheet of heavy paper or thin card stock. He propped it up against the skull and left to go pick up groceries before collecting Rosie from daycare.

Two hours later, John received a call from Sherlock.

“Hi. Why are—what's up?”

“Did you leave an envelope with a photograph on the mantel?”

“Next to the skull, yeah. MacKinnon didn't come earlier, he sent his 'secretary', some guy named Fraser. He left that for you. From MacKinnon. Why, what is it?”

“Come by now. You should probably bring Rosie.” Then Sherlock hung up and left John standing at the bus stop, Rosie wedged onto his hip, wondering what the hell was going on. Forty minutes later he was standing in the middle of 221B watching Sherlock peer at the screen of his laptop and ignoring him.

“Down!” Rosie shouted and John put her on her feet, to tear around the flat looking for any toys she might have left there.

“You called, Sherlock.” John insured there was enough warning in his tone to draw his friend's attention. Sherlock only retrieved a small photograph from under his laptop and silently handed it to John.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen an actual photo print; he was surprised anyone still made them. But judging by the subject it wasn't an old photo, either. A woman quite obviously Irene Adler was stepping out of a car in front of what appeared to be a posh hotel in India or some other south Asian country, judging by the staff flocked around the car. The photo was likely taken from across the street, and the woman was easily recognisable as The Woman.

“Why did MacKinnon give you a photo of Irene Adler?”

“It's a threat.”

“How could a—oh, he's threatening her. Why? Oh, I forgot to tell you, he's fired you from the case.” At Sherlock look, John added, “Yeah, sorry. I hope you didn't spend the afternoon working on—what?”

Sherlock clapped his hands together and leapt to his feet. “I knew I was getting close!” He whirled to face John, nimbly stepping aside as Rosie barrelled across the room. “You know I've always suspected his daughter isn't actually missing.”

“Yeah.”

“This just proves it, John. He's got her hidden away.”

“Why?”

“He's embezzling her inheritance.”

“How?”

“Not sure. That's why I'm going to ignore this.” Sherlock picked up the photo of Irene and brandished it in front of John's nose, before sliding it back into its envelope and showily stabbing it onto the mantel. “That'll bring MacKinnon back. He wants me off the trail before I have the final bit of data to prove—ah.” Sherlock stopped. “You think—don't worry, I've already warned her to keep her head down for the next few days.”

“All right. What's next?”

“I've contacted MacKinnon, told him I have new evidence in the case. He'll come again tomorrow with another threat.”

“Who'll he—” John followed Sherlock's gaze to Rosie, who was sitting on the carpet playing with a purple plastic Tyrannosaurus. “What—”

“Perhaps the two of you should stay here tonight.”

“Yeah, okay.” He held up his bag. “Good thing I brought supplies.”

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, John read the paper, watched telly, put Rosie to bed in his old room upstairs, and tried not to worry. Sherlock spent those hours peering at web sites full of tiny text and numbers. When John asked what he was looking at, he only muttered, “Companies register,” so John assumed he was trying to untangle exactly how Hamish MacKinnon had been embezzling the inheritance his late wife had left to their daughter. Sherlock was still at it when John curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.

The next day was pretty much a repeat of the previous: Sherlock took Rosie to the Natural History Museum to visit the leafcutter ant colony; reading between the lines, John suspected that one of Mycroft's minions would be accompanying them as security, but John didn't see anyone else with them when they left.

Just before one o'clock, MacKinnon's creepy “secretary” arrived.

“Mr MacKinnon would like to commend Mr Holmes on his dedication, though he would like to reiterate that it's now entirely unnecessary.” Fraser had progressed to a kind of bowed simpering that was making John's skin crawl. He wondered if that was the man's intention: to make the person he was talking to so uncomfortable that they told or gave him what he wanted just so they could get away from him.

“Well, I passed on your message yesterday. But, you know, if he's interested in something he'll just keep at it until he finds the solution, even if he isn't being paid.”

“Isn't that wonderfully public-spirited of him. However, Mr MacKinnon is quite insistent that Mr Holmes provide him with his case notes.”

John shrugged. “Sorry; can't help you there. For all I know he just has everything in his head. I certainly haven't seen any notes laying around.” John made a stagey look around the room that rivalled Fraser's manners for fakery.

“Mr MacKinnon will be so disappointed. But he did ask me to give you this for Mr Holmes.” Fraser drew another squarish envelope out of his pocket and placed it on John's knee with a faintly proprietary pat; John barely restrained himself from recoiling, but Fraser saw his discomfort.

Once the nauseating weirdo was gone, John texted Sherlock: Have another env for you

What is it? SH

John pulled the photo from the envelope. Even though he was expecting it, seeing a photo of Rosie in the playground at her daycare caused his stomach to plunge and his protective instincts to ramp up into the red zone. What we discussed. You two okay?

Fine. Well taken care of. SH

R wants to spend more time watching the ants. Home soon after. SH

Okay John replied, then stared at the photo in his hand for a few seconds before walking over to the mantel and viciously stabbing it on top of the photo of Irene.

The next day, Sherlock stayed in. “Things are going to get interesting today.”

“You think MacKinnon will come himself?”

“I know he will.”

“Why?”

“Because I made sure he knows that I've figured out what's going on.”

“Okay. You sure that's wise?”

“Oh, it's essential,” was all John could get out of Sherlock on the matter.

For security's sake, just before they expected MacKinnon to arrive, John took Rosie down to Mrs Hudson. He wasn't surprised to see an immaculately-dressed forty-ish man sitting at her kitchen table having custard tarts forced on him, and that Mrs H had already been briefed.

“Hello there, petal,” she said as she took Rosie out of his arms. “We're going to have tea with Mr Plummer and have a lovely time while daddy and Uncle Sherlock tell the horrible man they know all about his crimes, aren't we?”

John exchanged nods with Plummer, then headed back upstairs. Three minutes later MacKinnon arrived.

“I'd have brought Fraser if I'd known the good doctor would be here; he could have a friend to play with.”

MacKinnon's manner was hardly less annoying than that of his secretary, John noted, even if the cloying obsequiousness was missing.

As he expected, the conversation was little more than sparring: Sherlock accusing and MacKinnon denying, interwoven with more than a little fatuous posturing on both their parts. It took a surprisingly long time for Sherlock to finally get to the point and John wondered if he'd just been toying with the man for fun, like a cat with a mouse.

“You needed to get her out of the way because her 25th birthday is coming up and according to the terms of the trust, she gets more control over the money then. But the last thing you needed was her finding out you've spent the last decade embezzling more than half her money, so you hid her away and spread false stories about how she was seriously ill. The plan, of course, was to kill her off and find someone to pretend to be her until most of the money had been siphoned off to the various companies you own that have been providing “financial management services” to the trust, making dodgy “investments” into various other companies that you control through other offshore registered companies and which so often mysteriously disappear.” Sherlock waved at the wall, with its dozens of post-it notes in various colours, each (presumably) representing a company MacKinnon had created in order to steal his daughter's money bit by bit, dispersed across his shadow empire of fraudulent enterprise. “But in the end you didn't have the heart or nerve to kill your own child—your only child, to date, so the plan began to spin out of control.”

Sherlock stepped on the sofa right next to MacKinnon and proceeded to tear down the post-its, scraping them onto MacKinnon's head. “Fraser said you wanted my notes. There you go. Free of charge.”

John was surprised at MacKinnon's equanimity—almost amusement—as he batted them away. “So you don't actually have anything, then? Just as I suspected: all bluster.” He stood. “It's been an musing afternoon, gentlemen. Most amusing.”

“I don't need to 'have anything', MacKinnon; I just need to know things.”

“No, Mr Holmes, what you need is proof.”

“No, Mr MacKinnon, all I need is to have enough to get the police and FICOM interested in you. The rest will come out all on its own.”

“Balderdash!” MacKinnon chortled. “I have to admit, you spin a fine tale, Mr Holmes, very fine. I see now where Doctor Watson gets his excellent tales.”

John walked over to the mantel and carefully removed the two envelopes at the top of the stab pile. “I'm sure the police would be interested in this particular proof.”

“Proof of what? The Met have no views as to who Miss Adler is or might be, or any significance attached to her. And the other picture, Doctor—taken in a public place, of seven children and two adults in a playground.” MacKinnon gave an exaggerated shrug that John had to admit was an excellent mimicry of nonchalance.

But John could tell from Sherlock's expression that he saw something MacKinnon didn't want them to see.

“You're making a common mistake, MacKinnon,” Sherlock said as he strode across the room and plucked the photos out of John's hand, then brandished them under their former client's nose. “You're forgetting the context. You are correct on one point: on their own, these are nothing. But they're not on their own. They're part of a narrative, a story, and while it's not as fanciful as some of John's, its rather sordid ordinariness possesses some features of interest.”

Sherlock wafted the envelopes in the air again before pressing them back into John's hand, then throwing himself back onto the sofa. “Not that any of this matters.” Sherlock waved his hand between himself and MacKinnon and John braced himself for the big reveal, preparing for MacKinnon's expected response. “Because as we speak the Met are crashing your house. It's entirely possible that your daughter's already on her way to Scotland Yard. All because you couldn't be bothered to take a meeting yourself.”

John knew he could get to his gun (currently hidden in the pile of paper on the desk) in just under one second. He knew that Sherlock had deduced MacKinnon would come unarmed, but John preferred to be over- rather than under-armed in these sorts of situations. But MacKinnon just stood in the middle of the room, silent and still, as if he were waiting for something or someone to intervene.

“Very clever, Mr Holmes.”

“Of course it's clever; I'm always clever.”

Except when you're not, John rebutted in his mind. He could tell from Sherlock's smirk that he'd read the words in John's head.

“It's a pity you're too late,” MacKinnon added as he picked up his coat and turned to the door. “Ah, I almost forgot.” MacKinnon turned, the movement as overly dramatic as one of Sherlock's, John noted. MacKinnon drew another squarish envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket and handed it to Sherlock with a slight bow. “My daughter would be most pleased if you and the good doctor would attend. As would I.” And with a smiling nod to John, MacKinnon was out the door and down the stairs.

“Another photo?” John asked as Sherlock turned the envelope around in his hands.

“No. Wedding invitation.”

“You haven't opened it yet.”

“Size, type and weight of paper.” Sherlock tossed it to John, who barely managed to catch it before it hit the carpet.

John opened the envelope and drew out the card inside, which did indeed turn out to be a wedding invitation. Apparently, Miss Elyse Florence MacKinnon would be marrying Mr Neil Gregory Fraser the following Saturday. “Ew.”

“What?”

“He's making her marry the weirdo.”

“Of course it's not his real dau—ha!” Sherlock pulled out his phone and made a call. “Lestrade. The girl you pulled out of MacKinnon's house—yes, yes, I know—she's not the daughter. He's already disposed of her. You have the actress. No, listen. He's having her marry his secretary.” There was a pause as Sherlock let Lestrade talk for a few seconds. “No, you don't see—yes, yes, very funny. She's marrying the secretary as Elyse MacKinnon. That should be adequate leverage for a confession for her role in this charade.”

Sherlock tucked his phone away and one of his more smug expressions appeared. John gave him the questioning look that he knew Sherlock would expect.

“Marriage fraud,” Sherlock eventually said.

“Ah. So, MacKinnon murders his daughter and you're getting him on a technicality.”

Sherlock shrugged. “I've lately learnt to take my victories as they come.”

John snorted. “Chance would be a fine thing.” He placed the photos and invitation on the mantel, propped up behind the skull. “You think it's over and done?”

“Yes.”

“Doctor Watson?” John turned to see Plummer standing in the doorway, holding Rosie in a manner that evidenced a more than passing familiarity with toddlers. “I understand MacKinnon has left.”

“Yes. Thanks for—” John reached out and took Rosie, who said “Bye bye” to Plummer as John braced her on his hip.

For a moment, there was a hint of a crack in the man's Mycroftian reserve. He took Rosie's outstretched hand between two of his thick fingers and gently shook it. “It was a pleasure, Miss Watson.” He then took his leave of John and Sherlock and departed.

“I think you might have a new candidate for the pool of baby-sitters,” Sherlock noted as he sprawled on the sofa.

“Yeah, I think he probably has one at home already.” When Sherlock didn't respond or begin his usual minute elaboration on how he'd solved the case, John asked, “Is that it?”

“What?”

“MacKinnon?”

“Yes, done, boring.”

“Dead girl.”

“Probably dead before MacKinnon even came to see me.”

John paused while something emerged from the murk at the back of his mind. “How did you know the daughter was already dead?”

“'It's a pity you're too late'. There's nothing like a culprit who thinks he's a clever as me. They never are.”

“Except when they actually are.”

“Well, they're all dead, aren't they? And yet here I am.”

John gave Sherlock a thin smile and took Rosie to the kitchen to make them a sandwich. As he cut the bread, he began to think of all the culprits cleverer than Sherlock who were still alive. It was a short list and all of them were Holmeses, so maybe he was making too much of it.

But all things considered, maybe not.