John sighed and shifted the plastic bags into one hand to fumble for his keys. “Thank you for going to the shops, John,” he said, loud and pointed, to the street door of 221 Baker Street. “We were nearly out of tea and getting dangerously low on loo paper. I don’t know what I’d do without — ”
The door opened abruptly, a stone-faced man in a black suit holding it ajar with one shiny shoe to let John and his groceries into the foyer. John’s irritated grimace melted into amused curiosity. He nodded at the bodyguard, who leaned out the doorway to scan the pavement before nodding back and letting the door swing shut.
“Hello, Mycroft,” John called up the staircase to the open door of his flat. “I take it this is a business call?”
Sherlock appeared in the doorway, rolling his eyes at John as he climbed. “Only if you define ‘business’ very loosely indeed. He insults me by suggesting this is a suitable use for my skills.” He spun away again, ignoring the bag John held out, and stalked back across the sitting room to where Mycroft sat, stiff-backed and proper, in John’s armchair.
Mycroft spared a moment to acknowledge John’s presence with a nod and a murmured “Dr. Watson” before addressing his brother again. “If this weren’t a suitable use for your skills, I wouldn’t dream of bothering you.”
Sherlock groaned. “You’re asking me to track down a con man. An exceptionally talented one, to be sure, but still, I can’t imagine why it would be your purview. Has he persuaded the Prime Minister to sink his life savings into real estate in the former colonies?”
Mycroft’s exasperated sigh carried into the kitchen. Opting to deal with the groceries later, John tucked them into the refrigerator, bags and all, and returned to the sitting room. Sherlock had folded himself into his own armchair and was leaning forward, elbows on knees. Mycroft, sitting in the chair opposite, mirrored his pose. “‘Con man’ is a woefully inadequate and inaccurate description. I promise you, Sherlock, this is not like any other case you’ve taken on for me. I would go so far as to say it’s entirely unique in your experience.”
John pulled over a desk chair and swung it around to lean his elbows on the back. “Now there’s a phrase I never expected to hear,” he said, ignoring Sherlock’s warning glare. “Go on then, tell us about it.”
It was impossible to translate the expression on Mycroft’s face as anything other than smug satisfaction. “I’m glad to see that one of you, at least, has some sense as well as some curiosity,” he said. Dipping two fingers into a pocket of his waistcoat, he extracted a tiny USB drive and held it up. His lips twitched in amusement as Sherlock visibly restrained himself from reaching for it. “Background files. Dr. Watson, if you would?”
Mycroft dropped the memory stick into John’s offered palm, then reached into the leather case at his feet and pulled out a file folder. This he handed to Sherlock, who hesitated only long enough for show before accepting it and flipping it open to reveal half a dozen photographs.
“So that’s what he looks like,” he murmured, handing two of the photos to John.
In the first photo, a clean-shaven man with a boyish face stood on the pavement with his hands on his hips, tawny hair slicked back, grin and nose both slightly crooked, shoulders and biceps straining the seams and buttons of a shirt in an eye-searing pumpkin and gold stripe that still flattered him somehow. The second photo caught the same man climbing out of a car, a black knit cap pulled down almost to his eyebrows, full mouth now half-hidden by an overgrown beard, brown corduroy trousers pulling tight across his thighs. He could have passed for the kind of man who makes his living leveraging his sheer bulk, but something canny in his eyes suggested there was far more to him than muscle.
“He’s well fit, isn’t he,” John said, eyebrows climbing. “Looks like he’s more than able to take care of himself. But you say he’s missing?”
“He was last seen a week ago. Given his — ahem — special talents, he’s experienced at dropping off the radar, but the circumstances of this particular disappearance have struck his colleagues as unusual. One of them contacted me this morning.”
John glanced at his watch. It was barely past noon; Mycroft had wasted no time asking for his brother’s help. “And these special talents are…?”
“Please, I’ve heard of this Eames before,” Sherlock huffed. “As I said, he’s a con man. Long con, mostly, and specializing in the art world. Separating the wealthy and credulous from their pounds, dollars, and yen by playing on their desire to think of themselves as patrons of culture. Apparently he’s also a forger of no small talent. The Diebenkorn that went up for auction two years ago was supposedly his work, though no one’s been able to prove it. I’ve also heard rumors that at least one of the Hockneys currently on the market is his, too.” He closed the file folder with a slap. “Still, that’s not a matter for you, Mycroft, and neither is a missing persons case.”
“It is possible that Mr. Eames has simply fallen afoul of one of his criminal colleagues,” Mycroft acknowledged. “However, there are alternative explanations for his disappearance that could have national or even international significance.”
Sherlock sprang from his chair and paced the length of the room. “Mycroft, get to the point before you bore me into a coma. Why didn’t his colleagues call Scotland Yard? Why did they call you? Why should I give even the slightest of damns about your Mr. Eames?”
“Because of what he can do with one of these,” said a voice from the hallway.
Two of the three men in the sitting room froze and stared at the slim young man standing just within the flat. Straight-backed and sharp-eyed, he was holding a case of brushed steel slightly larger than a briefcase. John began to reach for the gun in his desk drawer before spotting Mycroft’s nod of welcome, followed by the flick of Sherlock’s hand that meant “stand down.” A moment later, he had assessed the situation with a soldier’s eye and concurred with Sherlock's unspoken evaluation: known to Mycroft, bodyguard in the front hallway let him pass, hands are both visible, waistcoat too snug to conceal a gun — not a threat, in fact, expected to be here. Still, John stood up and settled into parade rest as Sherlock took one slow step forward.
“And what is that?”
“That, Sherlock, is the reason this case is nothing you’ve ever seen before.” Mycroft smiled without amusement as the newcomer twisted his wrist slightly to show that the briefcase was handcuffed to it. “And this is Arthur.”
“Just Arthur,” the man said in a generic American accent, offering up a flash of teeth that was no more a smile than Mycroft’s had been. He fiddled with the handcuff, detached it, and stepped into the room to set the silver case carefully on the coffee table. Only then did he turn, tug his waistcoat to straighten it, and extend a hand to Mycroft. “Thank you, sir,” he murmured. He repeated the gesture for Sherlock with a respectful “Mr. Holmes,” which Sherlock answered with “Sherlock, please.” When he turned to John, though, he threw a sloppy salute and broke into an unfeigned grin. “What’s up, Doc?”
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
“Never.” Arthur dimpled further as John blinked in confusion. “But you stitched up Eames’s leg once, and he’s never forgotten you.”
John frowned. “It’s not like I remember everyone I ever worked on, but you’d think I’d remember someone built like a Humvee.”
“He’s bulked up a lot since then, and besides, you probably never saw his face, since — well, technically, he was shot in the ass.” Somewhere just beyond John’s peripheral vision, Sherlock made an amused sound. “But you must have made one hell of an impression, because I’d recognize you anywhere. You show up in his dreams whenever he needs a doctor.”
“In his dreams?” Sherlock had stepped closer, face intent and curious. “What do you mean?”
Mycroft stood and gestured to the sofa. “Have a seat, Arthur. I was just about to start explaining your, ah, line of business, but I think you can probably do it more justice than I.”
Arthur called it “dreamsharing.” It sounded like science fiction — slipping into people’s subconscious minds in their sleep — but it was real. Military scientists in the US and UK had worked together in the early 2000s to develop a drug to allow trained dreamers to create lucid dreamscapes. Next they had invented the Portable Automated Somnacin IntraVenous Device, or PASIV — a machine that controlled the delivery of the drug and let multiple dreamers share a single dream, as long as they were all connected to the same PASIV. Then, naturally, they had recruited a group of British and American soldiers to test the technology.
The military’s goals for dreamsharing initially involved brute force, Arthur said. (“What a surprise,” Sherlock said under his breath.) With five minutes of dreamtime roughly equivalent to an hour awake, soldiers could complete an entire week’s worth of combat training in a single session with the PASIV. More to the point, they could learn from their mistakes in a way never before possible. They could be killed in a dream, analyze what they did wrong, then return to the dream to kill or be killed again — all without manifesting so much as a bruise in the waking world.
“Unfortunately, it’s long been known that the human mind is unable to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined,” Mycroft interjected. “The vast majority of the test subjects were profoundly traumatized by the experience of dying over and over, even though it was all only in their dreams. Some of them became unable to tell whether or not they were dreaming.”
“What happened?” Sherlock’s expression was a combination of fascination and distaste.
“You wake up automatically when the Somnacin wears off, but other than that, there are only two ways to abort a shared dream.” Arthur held up a finger. “One is to have someone outside the dream wake you up with what’s called a ‘kick,’ either a physical shock like falling out of a chair, or something more subtle like a familiar song being played near your ear. The other — “ He stuck out his thumb, transforming his finger into the barrel of an imaginary gun and pressing it to the underside of his chin. “Bang. If you die in a dream, the dream ends.”
“Oh god.” John clapped his hand to his mouth. “So they tried to kill themselves, thinking it would just wake them up.”
Arthur nodded, a single terse lift of his chin. “Four of the soldiers in the test cohort attempted suicide, one successfully. Another dozen developed at least some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, five of them severely enough that they had to be hospitalized for some period of time. And the rest — ”
“ — included you and Eames,” Sherlock interrupted. “The special ones who didn’t mind dying over and over.”
“It was more than that. We could do things. Build dreams so they behaved the way we wanted. Get into the dreams of other people who were hooked up to a PASIV with us. Manipulate their dreams so they would reveal things to us in their sleep that they would never give away while they were alert and aware. You can imagine how excited this made the top brass.”
Sherlock dropped onto the coffee table, as awestruck as John had ever seen him. “All the world’s geopolitical intelligence at their fingertips, if they could just get one of you and a PASIV in a room with a sleeping target. It makes current intelligence activities look like a Christmas panto by comparison. And yet you're clearly a civilian now. I'm surprised the military let you go.”
“Well.” For the first time since he arrived, Arthur looked uncomfortable. He frowned at Mycroft as he said, “Let’s just say the word got out, and those of us who were good at dreamsharing found ourselves getting — job offers. So we basically went independent. A lot of people who have a lot of money are willing to pay well to find out what secrets are being kept from them. ”
“Ahhhh. Is my lover planning to leave me? Is my business partner planning to sell me out? What’s my competitor’s new product? That sort of thing?” Arthur's chin jerked upward again in agreement. Sherlock stroked the brushed steel case with one fingertip. “And how did you acquire a PASIV?”
Mycroft cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows.
Sherlock hummed with interest. "Possession being nine-tenths of the law and so forth. I see. And I can't imagine the wealthy and powerful are happy about finding out their mental pockets have been picked. Your Mr. Eames seems to be no stranger to criminal activity of various kinds. Are you sure he hasn't just decided to lie low for a while?"
Arthur bristled. "I may not be as brilliant as you, but I'm not an idiot. It's my job to keep track of my team, and Eames isn't just any team member. I always know where he is."
"Except that you don't," Sherlock said smoothly.
"Which is exactly how I know there's a problem." Arthur glared, narrow-eyed. "Assume I know my job and I'll assume you know yours."
"Fine. If you don't know where he is, tell me what you do know."
Arthur reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small black notebook, not unlike the one Sherlock habitually carried. Sherlock held out a hand for it, but Arthur frowned and shook his head. "The dreamsharing community is still small enough that everyone knows almost everyone else in it," he said as he flipped through the pages, "but everyone is looking out for number one, you know what I mean? The only way to survive is to know who gets along and who doesn't, who's reliable and who isn't, who can be trusted and who's likely to take a payoff to sabotage the job. Eames is a hot property. People either want him on their team or they want to keep him busy so he can’t be on someone else’s.”
"Why?" John asked.
"He's the best forger in the business." Arthur looked up at the silence that greeted this announcement and realized his audience was waiting for an explanation. "He can make anything in a dream seem so real you'd think you were awake. Landscapes, buildings, people. He could imitate your own mother so well your subconscious wouldn't know the difference."
"What's the point of that?" John asked.
"Okay, let me give you a really simple example. Say someone wants to read your case notes — the raw material, not the stuff that actually ends up on your blog. We find an opportunity to put you under with a sedative and some Somnacin, and then you dream that as you're sitting here in your own home writing up the notes, Sherlock walks in and asks you to give him the password to your laptop. You scribble it on a piece of paper and hand it to him. Just a dream, and not even an interesting one, right? You and Sherlock are partners, and you trust him. Even in your dreams, you’re inclined to do what he asks. Except that it’s not Sherlock, it’s Eames, forging him, and doing it so well that your mind accepts it.”
John pursed his lips and shook his head. "I'm sorry, that's impossible,” he finally said. “Sherlock would never ask me for my password. He’d just crack it himself. I would know it wasn’t really him immediately.”
"You'll have to trust me on this, but no, you wouldn't. And once Eames had your password, he’d kick himself out of the dream, shovel all your files onto a USB drive, and be gone long before you woke up. The whole thing would take maybe five minutes topside. If we caught you in a situation where you’d ordinarily zone out for a few minutes, you might never suspect it even happened."
“I’m starting to understand why Mr. Eames might be in such high demand," Sherlock interrupted. “But let’s cover the basics first. When did you last see him? Or, since you say you keep track of him when you aren't working together, when were you last aware of his whereabouts?"
Arthur referred to his notebook. “I last saw him three weeks ago in Buenos Aires. He was headed to Mombasa to check in with Yusuf.”
“And Yusuf is…”
“Our chemist. You didn’t think we could just order up a supply of Somnacin from the military, did you?”
“Hmm. We’ll get back to that.” Sherlock made a note in his own notebook. “Mycroft,” he drawled, “I’m assuming the British government is aware that this technology is being used for corporate espionage, and that you have an excellent reason for not trying to stop it.”
Mycroft gave an elegant shrug. “We’ve tacitly agreed to overlook it,” he said. “How would one prove that one’s thoughts had been stolen? Theoretically, victims could use the evidence of an IV puncture to claim they had been assaulted — but by whom, someone they dreamed about? The legal system is scarcely equipped to prosecute that.”
“Why get involved in this at all, then?” Sherlock asked. “Wait, don’t tell me. You’re afraid Mr. Eames has been snatched by someone whose interests lie more in power than in money. Terrorists? Some fringe political party? The specifics are irrelevant, I suppose. You can’t reclaim him for the British military, but you at least want to keep him out of the hands of anyone whose interests are inimical to the country’s.”
Mycroft’s hands clenched perceptibly on the arms of his chair.
“No need for confirmation,” Sherlock said, smirking. “I know all your tells.”
“Boys,” John sighed.
Arthur’s eyes flicked to John gratefully, then settled on Sherlock again. “According to Yusuf, Eames took delivery of a fresh batch of Somnacin as planned. I spoke to him just after that as he was on his way to Toronto for a simple gig with an extractor named Foluke. When that was done, he was supposed to meet me for another job here in London.” He blew out a sharp breath and continued, “Eames has never missed a rendezvous by more than 30 minutes without letting me know he’d be late. Two hours after he failed to show, I called Foluke. She said Eames had already left by the time the rest of her team woke up.”
“That’s standard procedure?”
Arthur nodded. “A team disperses as soon as the job is done. It wasn’t the kind of job that needed a debriefing, so nobody would have expected him to wait around.” He was riffling the pages of his notebook with his thumb, a tiny leak of nervous energy from his otherwise controlled facade. “By the time I talked to Foluke, Eames had already been off the radar for more than 75 hours.” He slouched into the sofa, tipped his head back, and told the ceiling bleakly, “It’s been almost a week since anyone has seen or heard from him, and I haven’t spotted any activity from any of his aliases, not even the kind of activity we’ve set up to signal trouble. By now, he could be dead.”
“Oh, I rather doubt that,” Sherlock said.
“What?” Arthur snapped upright again, anger and hope warring in his voice. “Why not?”
“You said that you work in a tiny community with complicated interpersonal dynamics. If one of your colleagues had revenge in mind, it would almost certainly be public. Why make someone disappear without a trace if you could turn him into an instructive example to cow the rest of your colleagues?” Sherlock gave the PASIV an emphatic open-handed thump. “Let’s stipulate that you know your partner well enough to be sure he isn’t, in fact, sipping a drink with a little paper umbrella on a tropical beach somewhere. That means he’s been snatched by someone who has a reason worth keeping under wraps. Presumably a reason having something to do with Mr. Eames’s unique skill set. Ergo, you need to look for people who have a persuasive reason not to simply hire him.”