'…telling you John, there's absolutely no need to oompf-'
'Sorry, sorry, sorry! Oh god, I'm so sorry.'
It was distinctly unlike Sherlock Holmes not to notice every detail of his surroundings – certainly to the level that was required in order for someone to barge headlong into him – but John supposed that his unusual friend was presently much more focused on the case in hand than he was on minor things like other people on the street.
'You all right?' Leaving Sherlock to get himself up, John quickly stooped to assist the young lady who'd been bowled over. The box she'd been carrying had sent papers flying all over along with her phone, Sherlock's phone and the envelope he'd been gesticulating with.
'Oh, yes, I'm so sorry-' still apologising to the world at large, she hurriedly scooped everything back into the box '-oh, your friend's phone-'
'And the envelope,' Sherlock said. 'Which happens to be of vital importance to a case and considerably more useful than-' here he turned over one of the large cards she'd dropped '-a large cartoon picture of a feline with the word cat written underneath. What on earth is the point of such a thing? Why do people always insist on labelling things with their obvious identities? You see it all the time. Hospital. Ambulance. Oh, thank you, and here I thought it was a fire truck. I mean-'
'There you go.' Leaving the other man to prattle on, John helped the woman back to her feet and accepted both phone and envelope from her. 'Thank you, and don't worry, really, quite all right, no harm done.' He snatched the card out of Sherlock's hand and dropped it into the box with the rest, risking a shot at a charming smile to soften the blow of his associate's rudeness.
Unfortunately she seemed as oblivious to his efforts as she was to Sherlock's ranting, burbling thanks and further apologies before scuttling away up some nearby steps. John sighed and started walking again, dimly aware that his companion was still talking.
'It's a nursery school, Sherlock, that's why the picture of the cat was labelled cat!'
At any rate they got the envelope and its critical contents delivered to Amelia Wyatt without further incident, and John was just about hoping for a quieter afternoon when Sherlock took out his phone in the taxi and said, in an eminently disgruntled tone
'This isn't my phone.'
'This isn't my phone.'
'Oh…is it not? Must have got mixed up with that woman's when she bumped into us and everything fell on the kerb.' John found himself perversely pleased at that – served Sherlock right for not paying attention to other people, as usual. Now he'd have to hope the nice woman rang back and was of the sort of disposition to meet up and exchange…
…except of course Sherlock had already dialled his own number into the other phone. Because of course he had.
'You picked up the wrong phone. Yes. 221B Baker Street. Bring it back. I need it.' He hung up with an exaggerated sigh.
'So, going for the polite request then,' John said dryly. 'I'd almost expected you to accuse her of working for Mycroft and trying to deliberately swap phones to spy on you.'
'Yes, John, but if that was the case I think Mycroft would have had his agent make at least an effort to produce an acceptable simulacrum.'
'It looks the same to me.'
'Perhaps on the outside, John, but there's one vital difference.' Sherlock held the screen up with a weary look. 'My phone doesn't have a picture of a class of five year-olds on it.'
It was early evening when the doorbell rang, and John hastened downstairs to answer it. If nothing else, Sherlock was likely to simply switch phones on the step and then close the door in the poor woman's face, and that wouldn't do at all.
She was cute, he couldn't help noticing, in an offbeat sort of way, and the almost ludicrously outsized duffel coat she was wearing only heightened the effect.
'Hello. I'm so sorry – again – I think I have your friend's phone, and he has mine…?'
'Oh, yes, come in.'
'I would have come sooner but I just finished clearing up at work,' she said as they went upstairs. 'I hope it hasn't been too much of a pain.'
'No worries at all, do have a seat…'
'For god's sake John, just get the phone and get rid of her, she's not a client and she hasn't got a case, she's just got my phone,' Sherlock said from the sofa.
'There's such a thing as politeness, Sherlock, she did come out of her way to bring it back,' John ground out. 'Where's hers, anyway?'
'On the table. I cleaned out the more pointless apps, updated the security settings and deleted all the contacts with no activity for more than eighteen months.'
'Um. Okay.' The woman made the exchange with John and rubbed slowly at the side of her nose as she looked down at the screen.
'I'm sorry, he's always like this.'
'I'd better not have missed any cases,' Sherlock muttered, snatching his own phone back and immediately starting to fiddle with it.
'Cup of tea?' John asked, ignoring the roll of his friend's eyes.
'Oh, that's very nice of you but I should really be off. Sorry again,' she added, backing towards the door with an understandable level of eagerness. Sherlock's eyes flicked up from his phone and narrowed – apparently he'd deigned to give the unfortunate woman some bare fraction of his attention after all.
'Really, no problem.' John walked her back downstairs but couldn't seem to find the opening to ask for her name. Then she was gone, and all he could do was stomp back to the flat.
'Debbie Connors, aged twenty-nine, lives in a studio flat on Enford Street, early years teacher, graduate in childhood studies, works at the Little Elves Montessori Nursery School for far more hours than she gets paid. Single at present but actively looking for a relationship.'
'You took most of that off her phone, didn't you?'
'Only the boring bits.'
That seemed to be that, and John wrote the entire thing off as just another mad chapter of Life With Sherlock. At least until he came round for lunch the following day and found a rather elaborate collage on the wall above the sofa – maps, printed photos, scraps of paper and other such miscellanea – with a prone Sherlock laying beneath, fingers steepled and eyes closed. Of course this wasn't exactly unusual, so John put the kettle on before he went to inspect the wall.
'Yes.' Sherlock's eyes opened. 'At least the public her.'
John squinted down at him.
'Public – what?'
'She's…interesting.' Sherlock sprang to his feet and clambered onto the couch. 'But she isn't interesting. Which means there's something else going on.'
'She's interesting except she isn't,' John echoed, trying to decipher that. 'Nope, no idea. What are you on about?'
'Logic, John! The most basic tenet of deduction! I don't like being bored. She's boring, ordinary, utterly mundane and tedious and yet I find her interesting – interesting enough that I spent the entire night investigating and analysing every part of her mind-numbingly predictable life – which means she can't be what she appears.'
'Uh. Okay.' John tried to mentally realign to his friend's thinking – he was rather out of practice – and wished Mary was within earshot. She'd already proven remarkably good at translating Sherlock into something more closely resembling English.
'She's not one of Mycroft's. Not his style. Far too subtle.' Sherlock was running his hands all over the collage of notes now. 'There must be something…'
'Some hint, some clue, something missed…' Sherlock frowned '…I need to observe her more.'
'I'll just wait outside the school. Or her flat. Maybe both. Depends what I can deduce.'
'Sherlock, for god's sake, she works at a nursery school. You can't just lurk around the gates!'
'Why not? Lots of people do.'
'Not people – mothers. Parents. Picking up their children? Not some lone weirdo in a big coat! You'll just get yourself arrested!'
'Ah.' Sherlock's brows furrowed in irritation. 'I see what you mean. Well, I'll just make sure I'm not spotted, then.'
'It'll be fine. Covert ops.'
'Outside a nursery?'
'I'm not coming with you.'
'Probably best if you don't.'
'I wash my hands of it.'
'See you later, then.'
'Maybe he just fancies her,' was Mary's laughing verdict when John related this to her at home.
'Ah, no. Sherlock doesn't…well, he just doesn't.'
'Don't write it off. Two years alone, traipsing around Europe undercover…maybe he's looking for a little companionship. Female companionship, I mean.'
'He doesn't-' John tried to scrub that mental image from his brain as fast as it appeared '-no. This is Sherlock Holmes. Just no.'