"We have a case," Sherlock said, and he led John underneath the city.
"Consulting the homeless network?" John asked. He shone his torch at their feet.
"Maintaining the homeless network," Sherlock said. He met the eye of a man drinking from a paper bag; the man pointed to the right. "I used to live down here," Sherlock said softly. "When I had money, but wasn't together enough to pay rent, bills, all that tiresome business. It was easier just to live here in my tent and ignore the boring world."
"You had a tent? Well done you," John said.
"Yes, and a sleeping bag, and a reputation for being dangerous. I lived rather well down here. It made the process of everyday life interesting for me."
"Have I mentioned lately that you're a cock?"
"Two weeks, three days."
"Right on schedule, then."
Sherlock smiled. "Mother Rose?" he asked a woman sitting on cardboard. She pointed to the left. "I don't suppose you could consider it a form of mental illness?" he asked John.
"I refuse to feel sympathy for your laziness and self-abuse."
"Draconian," Sherlock said. "Ah. There she is. Mother Rose!"
"Eh!" a woman cried back. "What?"
"Isn't!" She looked ancient. Her gray hair was tied back with a tie-dyed scarf and she wore layer upon layer of cardigan over thick corduroy trousers and work boots. She sat in a tent decorated with twisted tinfoil stars.
"Is! See me," he said. He knelt before her and she reached out and grabbed his hair. It looked painful, but Sherlock just winced and let her maul his head.
"Sherlock! It's you!"
"Of course it's me," Sherlock said. "John, this is Mother Rose. You can call her Mother Rose. She made sure I ate and kept my hair combed."
"A pleasure to meet you," John said. He held out his hand, but Mother Rose batted it away.
"Sherlock," Mother Rose said. She leaned forward. "It's gone."
"I know. You only have eight stars. Did you give it away?"
She shook her head. "Never! Never!"
"Do you know who took it?"
Her face fell. She shook her head. "Who would do such a thing?" she asked.
"I don't know. But I'll find it. First I have to look at the crime scene, all right?"
Mother Rose leapt to her feet and pointed to her tent. There was a glaringly empty space at the top of the tent, now that John knew how to look. "John, torch," Sherlock said.
John shone his torch on the nylon cloth. Sherlock peered at it through his magnifier. "Oil," he said. He leaned in and sniffed. How Sherlock could smell anything in particular through the thick stench, John wasn't sure--John was breathing through his mouth, controlling his reactions through grim training--but Sherlock said, "Bicycle grease. Hmm. And I distinctly smell heroin. That would be the Oko boys."
"Naughty boys!" Mother Rose said.
"Very naughty. When I come back, Mother Rose, I'll have your star or I'll let you know what happened."
"Oh, Sherlock, you're a good boy," Mother Rose said. She sounded like Mrs. Hudson in that moment. She patted Sherlock's arm the same way.
"Come on, John," Sherlock said. He made his way purposefully up the passage. "Thieves," he said. "They dress like bike couriers and snatch purses, shopping, that sort of thing. Enough to eat and buy heroin. The last time I ran afoul of them, they tried to play on my sympathies--we're all poofs together--but--"
"No, I can't see that getting far."
"No. They like to operate in Vauxhall. They like to prey on their own."
"They're going to get stabbed by a drag queen if they keep that up," John said. Sherlock smiled, looking at him.
They reemerged aboveground and stinking. "We'll walk," Sherlock said. "It's not far--"
"And nobody is going to pick us up like this."
"They do if you pay them enough," Sherlock said.
"I think my nose hairs have dissolved."
"Once you live there you get used to it. It took a few years to regain my sense of smell, though."
"Why would anyone steal Mother Rose's stars? I could see stealing her sleeping bag or lamp."
"Mischief. Lack of respect."
"Kids these days," John said.
"Here, under the bridge. That's where they live." Sherlock pointed to a cardboard wall and plastic bag wall erected along the concrete wall. The cardboard shelter and the wall around it were tagged with ornate variations of "OKO" in bright spraypaint.
"Not very subtle," John said.
"They're regularly run in for vandalism. But without paint can in hand, it's hard to prove."
John gave him a two-fingered salute. He hadn't been slapped with the ASBO after all, but he wasn't about to forgive Sherlock for running off and leaving him there. Sherlock ignored the gesture. "They're not here, but... I need to see inside. Stand watch for me in case they come back."
"Who am I looking for?"
"They're on bicycles," Sherlock said as if John were an idiot. He ducked into the shelter.
"Yes, but are they black, white, young, old?" John muttered. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked for wheels.
"They fix five times a day. And I know the dealer," Sherlock said, holding up a scrap of plastic wrap. "Well, I know the supplier, and I know his corners. Now we just have to take a walk."
Which they did, making passers-by cross the streets with their dirt. Sherlock spotted and nodded to a young Asian boy standing beside an off-license. "Mister Sherlock," the boy said as they approached. "Like your perfume." He ducked his nose into his shirt collar.
"The Oko boys have been extremely discourteous to Mother Rose," Sherlock said. "Don't sell to them until they see me."
"Those boys got no respect."
"None. I'll be waiting for them at home."
"You got it." The boy took out his phone and started texting immediately.
Sherlock smiled at John. "Some tea? Shouldn't be long now."
John got a hot tea from a takeaway window. Sherlock took a few sips from the cup in John's hand as they walked back to the shelter.
Then they waited. They both took out their phones after a few minutes; Sherlock checked his email, and John looked at I Can Has Cheezburger? When he giggled, Sherlock groaned and turned his back.
Sherlock looked up first, then straightened up as John heard wheels. "Lads," Sherlock called out.
"Mister Sherlock," one replied. The Oko boys were black, it turned out, and muscular, if too thin. Their stringy muscles stood out on their long limbs as they weaved back and forth on their bikes. "We don't want to start nothing!"
"I'd say you already have. Explain yourselves."
"The man," one said. He wore mostly pink; the one who'd spoken first wore mostly black. They stayed well out of arm's reach.
"The man had a message," the one in black said. "We didn't have no choice in the matter. Have mercy, man."
"You upset Mother Rose," Sherlock said.
"Not on purpose, man!" said the one in pink. "We love the Mother!"
"Yeah! We bought this for her, like an apology." The one in black stopped and opened his backpack, showing Sherlock an iridescent glass star.
"Bought," the one in pink said. "Couldn't steal it, it would break."
Sherlock pursed his lips. "All right. I'll rescind the ban, then. Give me the stars and the message."
The young men sighed. "Praise fucking Jesus, man," the one in black said. Both cycled up to Sherlock.
"This your boyfriend?" the one in pink asked. "He's fit." He wiggled his eyebrows at John.
"Ta," John said. The boys were appealingly clean. Handsome, if they'd had some meat on their bones. And up close, he could see they weren't brothers, which he'd rather feared at first.
Sherlock looked at the paper in his hand. "Go on, then," he said, frowning. The boys took off on their bikes.
"Moriarty?" John asked softly.
"Tender heart, it says. Fountain pen. Of course it's him."
"I'm not sure yet." Sherlock frowned. "Regardless, I need to return to Mother Rose."
They retraced their steps. When Mother Rose saw Sherlock, she scowled until Sherlock knelt before her, and then she sank her hands into his hair and kissed his forehead. When he showed her the glass star, she clapped her hands to her cheeks and didn't breathe for a long moment.
"The Oko boys apologize," Sherlock said.
"Oh, good boys, precious boys! Tell them to come and I'll slap them so hard!" Mother Rose sighed, clasping her hands to her heart. Sherlock took a bit of wire out of his pocket and fastened the star to the tent pole. "Come, Sherlock, come sit with me and tell me about your man. Is he real?" She pointed to John.
Sherlock reclined on his elbow beside her. "Quite real."
"Is he good?"
"Much better than I am."
"Hm," she said, and she sank her hands back into Sherlock's hair. Sherlock inched closer and rested his cheek on her lap. He closed his eyes. "Come," Mother Rose said, beckoning John in.
John sat beside her. She scratched his scalp and ruffled his hair. "I'm glad to meet you, Mother Rose," John said. He looked at Sherlock, content in her lap. Sherlock's mother died when he was seventeen.
"Good boys," Mother Rose said.